Oxford is an interesting place to visit, and as such, welcomes a wealth of tourists almost all year round.
As one of the world’s most famous university cities, people from all around the world descend on Oxford to see the golden-stone colleges clustered around medieval streets.
Oxford University is just one of many draws though, with visitors also being lured in by the city’s renowned museums, picturesque walks, and famed affiliation with Alice in Wonderland (Alice was based on a real girl from Oxford) and Harry Potter (the Great Hall at Christ Church was used as inspiration for the Hogwarts dining hall in the live-action films).
Steeped with history, it is little wonder Oxford has no problem with footfall. But are these visitors, and indeed the local people, spending money with retailers when they pop into the city?
Considering the rich history that surrounds the city, not many independent retailers have been able to thrive on Oxford high street for a number of reasons.
As such, when it comes to jewellers in Oxford, the multiples seem to outnumber the independents — although the handful of family jewellery businesses that do remain in the city are doing a fantastic job at booming even during difficult trading conditions.
While retail across the nation has been hard, with consumer confidence at an all-time low and high streets suffering from a dip in footfall since the UK voted to leave the European Union, Oxford itself has also been in a time of transition as it awaited the opening of a much needed shopping centre to put the city back on the map as a destination place to go shopping.
Now, although not completely finished, the Westgate Shopping Centre has opened its doors, and jewellery retailers are confident it will help turn business around.
Westgate Shopping Centre
Work on a transformed Westgate shopping centre began in early 2015, with doors finally opening to the public on October 24 2017 after a £440m facelift.
Covering 800,000 sq ft, the new shopping centre brings together over 125 stores and restaurants, alongside a cinema and modern roof top terrace, which provides views of the city.
National jewellery retailer Goldsmiths was the first jeweller to open in Westgate Oxford, with Carat* London and Ernest Jones joining the line-up soon after.
Other stores inside the shopping centre include a mixture of ‘everyday’ national chains such as New Look, Next and H&M, alongside more luxury designer boutiques including Guess, Reiss and Ted Baker. Anchoring the Westgate Centre together is a John Lewis flagship, which has been used by the department store to launch its latest take on a 21st century customer experience.
Described as a “forward-thinking” shopping centre, offering shoppers a unique customer experience, Westgate fills the void of a much-needed destination shopping area in the city.
While Oxford excels in many areas, the retail landscape has not been first class over the years, causing many to shop in nearby cities such as Milton Keynes and even London. However, now retailers feel positive that Westgate will pull shoppers back into Oxford again, with the city’s latest footfall figures reflecting change is already afoot.
So far in 2018, footfall has been up year on year, with February (the last month before visiting) recording a 23.2% increase. Furthermore, independent jewellers on the high street told Professional Jeweller that footfall has increased, even in areas not directly outside the shopping precinct.
“It’s [Westgate Shopping Centre] definitely a good thing, and well, well overdue,” shares Max Coppock, director of family-run independent jeweller Payne & Son, adding: “Oxford has been crying out for a decent shopping centre for years.”
Independent jewellery retailer John Gowing, located inside the Covered Market, agrees, saying the city has already seen an uplift in footfall.
“It [Westgate] will be much better for business because for more than three years now we haven’t had a shopping centre or a multistorey car park in the city centre, and people have been drifting away from Oxford,” explains owner of the namesake store, John Gowing.
He continues: “In the long term Westgate will be really good. It will bring people back to Oxford as a shopping destination. People have been drifting off to places like Milton Keynes and High Wycombe. They’ve been going to shopping centres but there’s no real attraction in the town, whereas in Oxford there is a lovely city to see. We’ve got the museums and the university. We’ve got lots of appeal, so I am hoping, although it might take one to two years for people to get back into the habit of coming to Oxford, Westgate will be good for us.”
The Retail Landscape
Oxford city centre has an interesting retail landscape. Like its iconic university, main shopping hubs are sprinkled around the city, but everything is within a short walking distance.
The city high street holds the majority of Oxford’s independent retailers, including jewellery stores Payne & Son and Reginald Davis. It also used to be home to Pia Jewellery, but this boutique shut down alongside the rest of the jeweller’s retail locations earlier this year.
Directly off the high street is the historic Covered Market, which opened in November 1774 and today hosts a variety of independents, together with some well-known food and retail outlets such as Cards Galore and Ben’s Cookies. Jewellery wise, John Gowing is located in the heart of the market, stocking brands such as Clogau and Tissot, while other traders sell contemporary jewels alongside other fashion accessories.
Further down the high street in Queen’s Street (the road off the high street leading to Westgate Shopping Centre), Swarovski has a sparkling concept store, and Beaverbrooks has a large boutique, which overlooks the main Westgate entrance. Cornmarket Street is also a main retail hub, and home to Pandora and Clarendon Shopping Centre, while other side roads provide a perfect space for independent boutiques to trade.
Despite once being home to many independent retailers, restaurants and cafes, small retailers have been struggling to survive on Oxford high street, with many units remaining empty at the time of Professional Jeweller visiting.
Retailers say this is largely due to high rents driving company’s out of the city centre.
As well-known and loved independents have left the high street, those remaining have been struggling with poor-quality stores or “yet another” gift shop taking their place, and bringing the overall look and feel of the high street down.
Max Coppock of Payne & Son comments: “The main problem is the independent units around this end of the city are just being filled with rubbish. But, footfall is up and a lot of returning customers who have been avoiding Oxford over the last ten years have been given an excuse to come back.” Payne & Son was founded in 1790, and after eight generations the independent jeweller is still run by members of the same family.
John Payne opened a silversmiths and jewellers in Wallingford in 1790, with other shops later opening in Abingdon, Banbury, and Tunbridge Wells, all run by various members of the Payne family. George Payne inherited the Abindon store in 1974, but 14 years later he decided to move to Oxford and take the business with him. Payne & Son started trading on the city’s high street in January 1889, and has remained in the same location ever since.
From the beginning Payne & Son always excelled in silverware, and despite later jewellery becoming a stronger focus, its vast range of British-made silver pieces still gives the independent a competitive edge in the city.
“Although we do slightly more jewellery, silver is still a big part of our business,” shares Coppock, adding: “There are few shops stocking silver, so it’s a good offer to have. We stock unique, nicely made, predominantly – where we can – British pieces.”
“We are not brand orientated. Being independent we can stock what we like. It’s a very traditional and classic city, so people like timeless jewellery, but some of our flamboyant pieces sell too,” shares the store’s director.
Further down the high street Reginald Davis, which is now run by the fourth and fifth generation of the founding family, also stocks silverware, alongside fine jewellery and antique pieces, while Rowell of Oxford – tucked away just off the high street in Turl Street – is one of the city’s longest standing jewellers.
Opening its doors in 1797, Rowell of Oxford has a rich history with the city and its locals, and today offers the city’s shoppers diamond and gemstone adorned designs, many of which are exclusively commissioned for the store, alongside Murano glass jewellery and gents pieces crafted in steel and silver.
Right by Rowell of Oxford in Covered Market, John Gowing is one of the few independent jewellers stocking brands, although Payne & Son does sell pieces a select few such as Kit Heath.
John Gowing Jewellers has been trading inside Oxford’s Covered Market for over 47 years, and while it does stock brands including Clogau and Ti Sento, it prides itself on offering an unrivalled customer service complete with a dedicated repair service.
The founder of the business, John Gowing senior, was a master watchmaker and trained his son John, the current owner, in the watchmaker’s art. John furthered his traditional watchmaking knowledge at the famous CFH school in Lausanne, Switzerland, and then went on to study gemmology at Sir John Cass College in London.
“Being a watchmaker by profession I can assess people’s watches and know what we are looking at,” shares owner, John Gowing, adding: “And we do a lot of small repairs on the premises.”
Discussing how business has been in the renowned market, Gowing says it’s been tough since Brexit and the city’s recent weather conditions hasn’t helped — a sentiment echoed by other independents in Oxford.
“Since the Brexit vote people’s confidence has been a bit rocked and they aren’t buying with any great passion or joy. So hopefully that will come back. The weather at the moment hasn’t helped either. It’s been so cold for so long, but I think with Westgate, people will come back to Oxford as a shopping destination,” says Gowing.
While Oxford only has a small selection of independent jewellers, each one is working hard to capture sales in the city, and many boast of a longstanding workforce who have the knowledge and reputation to build a relationship with each and every person who walks through the doors.
Multiple wise, only Goldsmiths, Ernest Jones and Carat* London have joined the Westgate shopping centre line-up.
While Ernest Jones and Goldsmiths have previously traded in Oxford, closing stores on the high street to move into the transformed shopping centre, for Carat* London this marks the brand’s first venture in the city.
Although sporting a small unit, the store looks striking near the main entrance with eye-catching model images boldly placed around modern, yet elegant, displays.
“We try to make all of our shops a little bit different from each other,” shares Carat* London creative director, Heidi Thompson. She continues: “It [the Oxford boutique] is a jewel box shop showcasing our signature chrome finishing and marble furniture. We’ve also featured many images from the brand’s 15-year history on the walls.”
Thompson adds: “Because we create five to six new collections a year, we can offer newness in fashion fine jewellery on a constant basis.”
Though stocked in independent jewellery retailers and department stores up and down the country, Oxford is Carat* London’s first and only standalone store outside of London.
Discussing the decision to open a store in Oxford, chief executive officer, Scott Thompson, shares: “We are mainly a London-based brand and we felt that Oxford was an interesting opportunity to test the brand in a regional town.”
He adds on the location: “They had just finished the plans for Westgate Centre and we loved the concept. Westgate is a totally different type of shopping mall as it’s completely open air. It has a great retail offering, in terms of boutiques and restaurants, and given England’s weather, it is semi-covered unlike the high street.”
National jeweller Goldsmiths was ready for business on the day Westgate opened to the public, and, following a significant £1.4m investment, welcomed Oxford shoppers to a contemporary showroom on the upper ground floor opposite John Lewis.
The investment included branded areas from Rolex, Omega, Breitling and IWC, as well as luxury jewellery from Mappin & Webb and Jenny Packham, exclusive to Goldsmiths. Within the branded areas, customers are now able to explore a variety of jewellery collections and consult the team who are on hand to provide one-on-one, expert customer advice — something which Goldsmiths prides itself on.
In addition, nine jobs were created as a result of the new store with the recruits joining the Goldsmiths Oxford team headed up by showroom manager David Rodger-Sharp.
Craig Bolton, Goldsmiths executive director, says: “Oxford is a city steeped in history and culture and we are very excited to have a showroom at one of the most highly anticipated new retail and leisure destinations in the country. We are continually striving for the best in-store experience and we are very confident that our customers will be delighted with the new store.”
Upon visiting the city and its esteemed jewellers, the overwhelming feeling from all – whether in or out the centre – is that Westgate is only a positive addition to Oxford.
The city already had ample appeal, but now it’s giving people a reason to come to Oxford not just to see the sights but to do some serious shopping as well.
Once there, shoppers have a wide variety of jewellers to choose from, and can have fun exploring multiples in the brand new open air retail space, and independents on the high street and inside the renowned Covered Market.