After Professional Jeweller’s drive up to Wakefield on one of this year’s first, cold, autumnal mornings, it was parking that provided the first problem and, unbeknown to us, it was a theme that turned out to be quite a common one during our two-day visit.
Once parked, PJ managed to venture into the town and take in what the city has to offer. Having not visited before, our editorial assistant was keen to explore the surroundings and find out exactly what Wakefield was all about.
Being instantly drawn to the cathedral in the centre of town, PJ found itself in what seemed to be the more traditional part of the city, surrounded by countless independent retail outlets — a perfect place to start for us to gain a real insight into how business works in the West Yorkshire city.
Walking around, it soon became clear that Wakefield is split in two halves — the more traditional, quiet, quaint part of the city near the cathedral, and Trinity Walk, the contemporary shopping centre which has visibly attracted the larger retailers and branded chains away from the likes of Kirkgate, Marygate and Cross Square.
Trinity Walk is clearly having an impact on the city, in some ways good and, given the vast number of empty shop windows in The Ridings Shopping Centre, some ways bad.
This was echoed when PJ met with Shaun Harvey, owner of the independently-run Harveys Jewellers, located in Cross Square.
On the effect Trinity Walk Shopping Centre has had on the city, he told us: “It’s good and I have considered moving down there but I look at all that and think, do I really want to pay £250k a year for a glass palace? The answer is no. As well as that, my customers aren’t going to go down there, the majority of my customers don’t shop in Topshop, so I’m happy where we are.”
He adds: “We are so happy at the moment we are actually negotiating with the landlords to try and get next door and push it through just to give us a bit more room.”
Harveys Jewellers has been a mainstay in Wakefield for the past 32 years. Founded by Shaun Harvey, who was fresh from Bradford Art College and raring to go, he recruited Mark and Craig who now work on the bench with him; his wife, who looks after the majority of sales and admin involved with running the business; and his son, Adam, who also works on the bench.
The workbench located behind the till in store is, according to Harvey, the company’s USP and is what keeps customers coming back to him in Wakefield rather than being lost to other cities.
He comments: “If a customer comes in there is four of us that can deal with it and generally, the customer will want to deal with whoever is going to make it. We therefore, unless it’s holiday time, have a rule that means if you take in a job from the counter then you do the job. This ensures that the customer is dealing with the same person throughout the whole process and the customer is more comfortable with that. If they’ve got any questions they can pick the phone up and speak directly with the person doing that job and that works because we get a lot of people coming from outside the area too.”
Despite remaining positive about the jewellery scene in the city, Harveys has suffered at the hands of its geographical location, being a small city dwarfed by the like of Leeds and Sheffield that are situated to the North and South of it.
Part of this problem brings us back to the one Professional Jeweller faced at the start of its trip —parking.
When asked if he has felt the impact of the retail success in Leeds and Sheffield, Harvey responds: “Yes, we have done in the past because of the parking situation, like everybody in the city will go on about I’m sure. We’ve found a lot of people now, which is awfully depressing for the city, say they only come into town to see us. They’ll park for two hours, come in here and get something sorted and that’s it. So we’ve become a destination store and although that is a good thing for us, you want that customer to spend a bit more in the town rather than in other cities.”
Another jeweller in the city, who predicts the situation is only going to worsen, is Neil Dodgson, owner of Neil Stuart Jewellers, who thinks the independent retail industry in Wakefield has only got a few years left.
Dodgson explains: “I give it five years max. Don’t get me wrong I think the likes of Harveys will continue to do well but a lot of others are finding it tough and I think it will stay that way. Fortunately for me, I’m at a stage in my career where I don’t have to worry so much about the future so I think I’ll probably start wrapping things up in about 18 months. I’ll take a sabbatical next March for a month or so and will see where things are.”
He adds: “I’ll still be around for my loyal customers if they want any work doing of course, but at this stage, with the way things are going, it isn’t sustainable for me to be down here.”
Looking across to the other side of town, the next stop on PJ’s Wakefield visit was the Trinity Walk Shopping Centre but before that, in order to compare and contrast the two, our editorial assistant went to take a look at The Ridings; the shopping centre at the other side of the city.
Struck by many of the empty shops in The Ridings, PJ spoke with F. Hinds which is situated in the busier part the centre, on the middle level between Primark and Marks & Spencer.
F.Hinds’ store manager in Wakefield, Beth White, shares with us: “The Ridings centre can be quite an unpredictable location for trade — week days can be much busier than the weekends. There are quite a few empty units on all levels so footfall through the centre can be very low as shoppers tend to favour the newer Trinity Walk.”
White also thought that the business in Wakefield suffered from both the car parking problem and from being a small city not far away from the giants of Leeds and Sheffield.
She adds: “High parking charges in the centre and surrounding areas put off some shoppers and as with most towns and cities in the area, Wakefield has issues with anti-social behaviour, unemployment and empty units as businesses cease to trade or relocate to out of town business parks and large centres. Investment is lacking in the area and many of the big retailers do not have a presence here. As a result shoppers are swayed towards places such as Meadowhall.”
Despite some of the disadvantages the 113-strong portfolio retailer sees in The Ridings, White was keen to stress the positives of operating in Wakefield too.
“In Wakefield we do see a large number of repeat customers and there is a lovely sense of community here,” White tells PJ. “Many of the staff members are from the local area and have built strong relationships with our customers. Our sales are more relaxed as a result of this and we are able to offer a truly personal service which I believe sets us apart from the local competition.”
Away from The Ridings and up to Trinity Walk, it was clear to see where the majority of Wakefield’s shoppers go. The centre was a lot busier in comparison with the other side of town and was full of popular branded retailers like Topshop, Next and JD.
The jewellery industry was also strongly represented with H. Samuel, Pandora and Luxe by Hugh Rice populating the new modern shopping outlet which opened in 2011.
Keen to find out more about what it was like to work in this part of town, and gain further insight into what it was like to operate a national chain out of Wakefield, Professional Jeweller touched base with the store manager of Luxe, Michaela Quance.
Originally from Hull and formerly an employee at Pandora in Leeds, Quance moved to take the job in Wakefield last year as she was keen to help get the Luxe brand up and running.
Luxe is a subsidiary of Hugh Rice Jewellers and apart from Wakefield, has only one other store which is located in Beverley, a small market town just outside of Hull. Speaking about the challenges of getting the store started in Wakefield, Quance shares: “With it being a kind of new brand that not a lot of people this side of Yorkshire are familiar with it has been a bit of a challenge but it is something we have been working on in terms of trying to get the people of Wakefield to know who we are what we’re about. The people of Wakefield are quite loyal I suppose, so it has just been us trying to get our name out there and letting people know we are a family business.”
On how trade in the city differs from elsewhere, she says: “Being in a shopping centre we get a completely different kind of customer to our Beverley store. With Beverley being a small town it is quite a destination shop whereas in Wakefield we get quite a lot of browsers and people that are new to the city from places like Doncaster, Barnsley and all the way from kind of south Leeds.”
Where other retailers in the city felt they suffered because of geographical location, Quance didn’t feel it was an issue for Luxe at this moment in time.
“Trinity Walk is becoming a really good destination, I think there is only one empty unit at the minute and the centre is working really hard to try and fill it,” she reveals, adding: “It’s never going to be like a Meadowhall, but Wakefield are trying to make it a destination shopping place that offers everything. The team that run the centre are a really good and laid back kind of team, they’ll do anything if they can.”
Overall, despite pulling custom away from the town around the cathedral, Trinity Walk does seem to be mostly a positive for the city and has gone some way in solving the issues with parking.
When asked if parking was a problem for Luxe, Quance answers: “No, we don’t actually notice the problem with parking really. There’s a big car park in Trinity Walk and we find that a lot of our customers park in the Sainsbury’s car park because they do a deal where you spend X amount and you can park your car there.”
Looking ahead, Luxe is hoping to utilise the Christmas period to really push the brand in Wakefield and is considering opening a ‘gents area’ to make it easier for men to pop in and buy gifts, without being overwhelmed by the mass of products on offer.
Luxe also exclusively revealed that it is planning on opening a new store in St Stephen’s in Hull next year.
Hugh Rice is also located in the shopping centre but, despite the obvious connections, the Luxe store will be a standalone boutique in order to help push it as an individual brand.
On the whole, the jewellery scene in Wakefield differs from store to store and from brand to brand meaning both independents and the larger businesses are battling to stay relevant in a city which is seeing a decline in custom due to its geographical location.
However despite the negatives surrounding the city, PJ is confident the jewellers that want to continue to prosper will adapt to the imminent changes around the corner and continue to provide the people of the small West Yorkshire city with the jewellery services they need.