As Professional Jeweller touched down in the historic city, Lancaster was glowing with the positive buzz that captured the nation at the beginning of July. Not only was the sun beating down as the UK found itself in the middle of one of the strongest heat waves on record, at the time of visiting, England was well placed to challenge Sweden for a position in the World Cup semi-finals. With so much to smile about, Lancaster’s shopping streets were packed with beaming customers.
When the crowds of shoppers disperse and visitors are able to look at the foundations of the high street, what’s left behind the quaint store fronts is a selection of strong businesses going from strength-to-strength in the city.
One thing that was apparent from the get-go is that Lancaster is an environment where independent business owners can thrive.
For every chain store, there are a couple of family-run boutiques.
For Hannah Lingwood, the owner of jewellery retailer Down to Earth, one of Lancaster’s greatest assets is its array of independently run businesses.
Down to Earth is a jewellery business that may sit on a side street in the shadow of a towering Primark, but it has carved out a reputation in the community for offering a wide variety of pieces from a host of local jewellers and suppliers.
The jeweller, which first opened its doors over 30 years ago, stocks a mighty selection of jewellery from near and far. Under one roof the likes of Kit Heath, Tiangus Jackson and Carrie Elspeth sit side-by-side with a plethora of unbranded jewels from independent jewellery-makers.
While Down to Earth has some cheap and cheerful pieces, that shoppers could easily purchase on impulse, the prices go up to hundreds of pounds.
Lingwood says the quirkiness of Lancaster’s residents has made it possible for independent jewellers and other retailers to make their presence on the high street known.
The store owner says about the city’s consumers: “There’s a huge mix of people from all over the country, it has two universities, so it’s a mixing pot of people and they have a big pool of influences. That’s why you can have interesting independent shops that stock interesting things, because there are people here to buy it.”
With such a broad spectrum of shoppers walking through Down to Earth’s doors, the time has come for the jeweller to expand. Having snapped up the neighbouring property, Lingwood plans to knock through to create one, gloriously spacious retail space.
While most cities host a pick and mix of new, contemporary independents alongside family-run businesses, Lancaster’s jewellery offering presented a unique formula. All the shops PJ visited were family-run affairs, with all bar one, being run by the same family that gave its name to the business.
While the city, which hosts all of its jewellery retailers within walking distance of each other in a city centre, finds itself with quite a high ratio of jewellers, each and every store has carved out a unique offering, and therefore attracted its own variety of clientele.
Each of the stores have stood the test of time, staying open for at least 30 years in all cases, and have remained within families. With such a small city to share, it begs the question of how the independents manage to stay afloat alongside, not only each other, but the branded and multiple jewellery stores that reside on the high street as well.
For Oliver and Hannah Gibson, the husband and wife duo spearheading award-winning fashion jewellery store Silver Tree, the jewellers in Lancaster have cracked the formula. While this is a positive for jewellers already established in the city, this could limit the possibilities for new jewellery retailers looking to fight their way onto the scene.
Hannah Gibson explains: “We’re all very different, worlds apart really. A lot of shops have come and gone very quickly, people have tried but there are already shops doing what there is to be done. There’s nowhere for new comers to arrive and fit in.”
But for David Firth, director of Brown & Newirth stockist Firths Jewellery, it’s not just a case that the existing jewellers cover all product bases, it’s the reputation they bring to the table that boxes out new businesses looking to carve out a space on Lancaster’s jewellery field.
Firth believes the store, which opened its doors in 1953, keeps customers coming back by championing a client-first customer service. Having never spent a penny on advertising or marketing, it is clear to the third-generation owner that positive feedback and word of mouth has given the business incredible staying power in the historic city.
He explains: “It started out with my grandma, then my mother and father got involved, and then about 20 years ago I came in, so now it’s myself and my wife. We now have customers that will come in and spend thousands on a ring, and others that have been coming since my grandma ran the shop and are still paying instalments of a couple of pounds.”
Firths recently served five generations of the same family, something which the director believes fully illustrates how each generation of ownership has forged meaningful bonds with the community that keeps them coming back.
High-end jeweller Banks Lyons was also quick to credit its success to its strong, close-knit team. Sales executive and store manager, Ruby Henderson, tells PJ that being a family-run business has helped the retailer grow as staff are also part of the family.
“We have got the strongest team that we have had for years and that makes such a difference. Everybody works together and you know it. That is what you get and expect to get from a family-run jewellery retailer.”
While each of the stores visited flies the flag for family-run business and reaps the rewards that come with a longstanding family-owned store, they definitely buck certain stereotypes that have become common within the industry. For example, it was refreshing to see how ready each of the proprietors were to welcome change, embrace new technology and cast their minds to the future.
One of the stores truly embracing new technology is Banks Lyon. The retailer, which stocks the likes of Chopard, Messika and Georg Jensen, has built up an impressive client database, that it not only monitors, but reacts to in order to develop and grow its business.
Having realised that the majority of its database are men, the high-end jeweller whipped up a plan to engage with its female customers and invite more into its conversation. As Professional Jeweller arrived at the store for its whistle-stop tour, Banks Lyon was gearing up for its Ladies Day event designed to reach out and interact with the local community. This is just one example of how it utilises technology to bolster business.
For Banks Lyon, events play an important role in engaging customers.
Henderson explains: “We sponsor the lady jockeys race every year at Cartmel, for which we design and make a bespoke pendant for the winning jockey.”
“It’s a great way for us to entertain clients, whilst being able to get our name out to an audience who travel far and wide for these type of events. Our summer events are a huge part of our lives between May and August.”
It’s not just Banks Lyon welcoming technology with open arms. Fashion jewellery retailer Silver Tree, which stocks Swarovski, Vivienne Westwood, ChloBo and Thomas Sabo, has moved with the times and been unafraid to make changes to the business, which Oliver took over from his parents.
Hannah Gibson explains: “We are always looking for new ways that our customers would want to shop. With our new refurbishment we’re thinking about having the till be not so existent and just having iPads. But we have always made a conscious decision since half way through the noughties to go online and make that a window for our shop.”
But in the city that, at first glance, appears to have everything, there is also a fair set of challenges.
As with any cosy and compact city, travel and parking can present an issue for shoppers coming from beyond the Lancaster boarders. To throw a further spanner in the works, the city, which is cradled by the River Lune, has two bridges into the centre but is having to cope with just one in service.
With the bridge closed off, Lancaster has been using a one way traffic system, which jewellers say has affected their business. Lingwood reveals: “Our big complaint at the moment is the traffic because there’s a one way system, and the one that goes away has been closed for six months. It is a bit of a nightmare, but I know it has affected people.
“I think it has affected some businesses more than others, but we haven’t seen a massive difference because we do have loyal customers that come from as far away as Kendal to come and see us.”
The county-sake city is also home to a host of historic landmarks, including the castle, Priory Church and Roman bath houses. Despite the strong tourism offering, the jewellers were hesitant to say that Lancaster benefits from tourist trade. The jewellers tell PJ that, while the city borders several of the UK’s most sought after staycation destinations, including the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District, the council is not doing enough to promote what Lancaster has to offer.
As well as lack of support from the council and essential development works, the city also has to contend with the elements of nature. Like many that are far-flung from the capital, weather has the potential to draw retail to a halt.
As luck would have it, during Professional Jeweller’s visit, the sun was fiercely beating down and the high street was rammed. But it wasn’t hard to imagine how the situation could quickly change. Not only does Lancaster have some extreme weather, it is also a sloping city centre, which can impact local businesses. For example, when heavy rain hit the city in November last year retailers found themselves at the mercy of uncontrollable flooding.
However, while independent jeweller Cunninghams was one of the misfortunate retailers buried under two feet of water, it didn’t stop the team rolling up its sleeves and getting back to work. By splitting the shop down the middle the business was able to remain open while repair works were taking place on the other side of the store.
As you enter the shop you would never know that, not only was it flooded to knee height, the classic feature that gives Cunninghams it family-run feel, is the same furniture from before the flooding. Keen to maintain its image, rather than taking the opportunity to recreate its appearance, the jeweller sent off its water damaged furniture for repairs in a bid to protect its cosy atmosphere.
It may have its challenges, but the jewellers of Lancaster do seem to have perfectly cracked the code to retail. Each admits that there’s nothing wrong with healthy competition and that they all spur each other on.