British luxury jeweller Boodles has come a long way since its humble beginnings in Liverpool over 220 years ago.
From one shop in one city, the firm now has nine showrooms in the UK and has embraced the digital age to offer consumers an online experience as well.
Boodles is a unique business in the UK jewellery industry. While there are many British, family-owned jewellers up and down the country,
Boodles is one of the only ones on Bond Street, where its flagship in London is located, and its main target market is British entrepreneurs.
While other high-end jewellers are competing for international sales, Boodles is sticking to what it does best — serving the British.
To do this well in today’s market the team has to spend a lot more time building relationships outside of the store, and making customers feel part of an exclusive ‘club’.
Here, Professional Jeweller sits down with Michael Wainwright at the firm’s Bond Street flagship to hear how the company continues to win sales over 220 years on…
Professional Jeweller: Michael, could you set the scene and give us a brief history of the business?
Michael Wainwright: Well it’s been in my family since about 1860, although my family only bought the business in about 1900, and back then we only had one shop in Liverpool. Liverpool was a very prosperous city, it was like the Shanghai of today, and then my father opened in Chester in 1965, and then Manchester in 1982. And we’ve opened five stores in London since 1987. So we’ve got quite a descent footprint in London now and we have a shop in Dublin as well, which hasn’t always been straight forward, and London was difficult to begin with as well, but it was such a fantastic long-term move. I moved to London in 1987 to open our first shop, we opened in Regent Street, which has changed dramatically since, but it got our business going in the 90s. And then we’ve opened in Harrods, the Savoy Hotel, and The Royal Exchange since. We’ve got high costs in London, trading from our Bond Street showroom for example is very expensive, so you’ve got to sell some bigger things.
PJ: Could you tell us a bit about the journey you are on now and what you’ve been doing to stay profitable?
MW: It’s all about investing in design. 20-30 years ago we bought jewellery in like a lot of the county jewellers, but we’ve now invested heavily in our own designs and everything we sell, apart from Patek Philippe watches, we design and make ourselves. So we have invested heavily in design and heavily in our brand. Our business is still only British essentially though. If you really want to be regarded as a major luxury goods player you’ve probably got to have a slightly international footprint. We’ve realised what we are good at though — and what we are good at is servicing and creating relationships with British entrepreneurs. My brother is based in Liverpool and I am based down here [in London], and our friends think we sell to clients from the Middle East, and Russia, but we don’t. We have several Middle Eastern clients, and a lot of American customers from the Savoy, but our life and blood is British entrepreneurs who have got or sold their own businesses. Masters of their own destiny. And the buzzword now is relationships. This is absolutely crucial.
PJ: Harrods must be quite international for Boodles though?
MW: Yes, Harrods is international. But, there are so many jewellers in Harrods that are not catering to British people whereas we are. Of course our long term aim is to up our international clientele, but we are rather unique in our British following so this is something we really play to as one of our strengths.
PJ: How’s the retail mix geographically? Do you have a similar concept in each of your stores?
MW: No our businesses are quite different from each other. We’ve got nine shops. They’ve all got their own personality in different ways. Yes, essentially what we are doing and what we have in those shops is the same, but we will have far more high value in Harrods than we would have in The Royal Exchange for example. In The Royal Exchange we don’t often sell anything over £40-£50,000. It tends to be younger people popping in. So those businesses our quite different from each other. Funnily enough we sell more high value items in the north of England than we do in the south, for the fact that there is no one holding £100-£500K stock like we do. If you are in Chester or Manchester and you want to spend that sort of money, no one carries that stock other than Boodles. If you want to go out this afternoon in London and spend a quarter of a million pounds on a piece of jewellery you could go to fifty places — the competition is red hot. Of course there is a lot more people wanting to buy those sort of things, but there are a lot more places people can go. So our very highest sales tend to be more based in the north than the south.
PJ: Which goes into your theory that it’s more local entrepreneurs that have made their own money. Some jewellers don’t realise there is money all over the UK…
MW: Yes. Although we have been advised by that the potential for our company is greater in London than it is in the north of England at the moment. There are so many more people here who could shop with us. So if you do get it really right in the south east the sky could be the limit.
PJ: What are the marketing experts telling you that you didn’t already know?
MW: We have been told that we should play to our strengths; as a family-owned business we really pride ourselves on the strength of our relationship building. Our sales staff and directors form very genuine bonds with clients — some are even godparents to each other’s children. Nearly everyone in the UK has heard of Boodles, but we really want to try and familiarise people with what we are about as a brand. We can do that by building and enhancing relationships, through events and entertaining — and of course through our online presence.
PJ: Have you mastered the art of Instagram?
MW: Not personally. I have got an Instagram account now but I am 61 and I am not particularly adept.
PJ: Do you have people who are?
MW: Yes we definitely do but it’s an area we are trying to grow and invest much more money in. Instagram’s success depends so much on the content you share on it, so we are focussing on creating really engaging content that interests and excites our audiences. We want to grow our following organically, and we have some really fantastic, and loyal, followers on Instagram. We aren’t an international brand, so it’s impossible to compare our platform with those of our Bond Street neighbours — but we definitely realise how important it is for us as a company. Of course print is still really important, but you are likely to reach a wider audience if you engage in social properly.
PJ: One of your main marketing tools must be your location in London — but does it work for you? If you are talking about more of a domestic market, is Bond Street where you need to be?
MW: There’s a lot of domestic people in this street — a huge number. We have more overseas customers in Harrods and Sloane Street, and we do have overseas customers – I wouldn’t want you to think we don’t – but of our jewellery sales they are probably 5% nationally, which would be about 10-15% in London. Watch sales in London are more skewed to overseas. But there’s a lot of people in this street looking to spend £3-5K on a piece of jewellery, which is our more entry level.
PJ: Who do you benchmark yourself against?
MW: I don’t think there are many similar businesses to us in the UK. Of course we have a look at all of our competitors’ results, but it is very difficult to find someone that has a comparable brand to us. We are passionate about jewellery. We are passionate about design, and we are passionate about our relationships with our clients. All our shops do a different job. I mean this is a flagship, our private entertaining spaces are beautiful and can be used for lots of things, and then we’ve got a shop in the Savoy hotel which is a small shop, but we’ve got a cracking good team there and it is a very profitable little business. Harrods is great, but of course it is expensive to be in Harrods.
PJ: How has business changed in the last couple of years?
MW: We do a lot more events than we used to, and it’s got a lot more time consuming for us as directors. I mean in the last three or four weeks we probably had nine black-tie dinners with 80 to 150 people each night in London, Manchester and Chester. It’s quite time consuming, but the relationships with these customers is crucial. We don’t sell them jewellery so much, our staff do that, but they like to have a relationship with the owners of the business. They like to see the people behind the business. This is something we have that our competitors don’t have, we are not a big faceless, corporate brand — we want people to feel they can get to know us as a family, whilst they discover the brand.
PJ: What’s a normal starting point for that customer relationship? Is it always bridal?
MW: Not always. I mean bridal is getting more and more commoditised and it’s disappointing because you think with these families who have been customers for generations that their children are going to carry on being Boodles customers, but that’s not always the case. So really engagement rings are not as important as they were. We try and get people with their first purchase with what we call our ‘Icon’ ranges, which are Boodles designer ranges that you can’t buy anywhere else. We’ve got a collection called Raindance, which is in the V&A Museum, and that is an absolutely amazing range for us, and that recruits customers. They might buy a Raindance ring for £9,000 and then who knows. So, it depends. It doesn’t just depend on how much they like jewellery, it depends on who they meet here as well. You create a relationship with the sales person. You might ask them to an event, they might like the day out, they might meet nice people and like the whole thing — you know we sponsor tennis and the horse racing, so we do lots of things with our customers.
PJ: Do these people consider themselves to be part of the Boodles community?
MW: Absolutely. More and more so. You’ve hit the nail right on the head. They almost call it a Boodles club. A lot of our clients actually create real friendships with our other clients at our events, they look forward to seeing each other at the Boodles Tennis every year, or at one of our Christmas shows. It creates a lovely atmosphere.
PJ: Retailers have said 2018 was a tougher year than 2017 in general. What was the last 12 months like for you?
MW: Up until May it wasn’t looking great, but then we had this amazing week in June at the Boodles Tennis where we had 700 customers through the week and that covered a lot of lost ground. Sept and Oct weren’t too exciting but it got better in the last three or four weeks I would say, and we actually had one of our best Christmases yet. We had quite a slow start to the year, but it is really gathered momentum. We made an amazing necklace for our 220th anniversary which we are hoping to sell over the coming weeks. It’s set with Ashoka cut diamonds, which are unique to Boodles, cut especially for us in New York. It’s also has pink diamonds — we use pinks a lot because pink is our colour. The Argyll mine is due to be closed in 2021, which produces something like three quarters of the world’s pinks, and pinks are just selling really well and our customers are beginning to understand that. I mean yes, you’ve got to like them but they are extremely valuable, and what you got for your money two years ago now you have to pay twice that and I can’t see them not going up more.
PJ: You might need to start manufacturing pink diamonds…
MW: Yes, well the whole manufacturing debate is difficult. I think the industry has been very clever with the marketing of man-made diamonds. They are being marketed at a very low price, which has rather taken away from the glamour of the man-made diamond business. Of course we have to be realistic, and maybe it will be a worry in years to come, but it’s certainly not an issue yet. We don’t have people coming into our shops saying they can buy a man-made stone for a quarter of the price.
PJ: Would you ever stock lab-grown stones?
MW: No. It is completely against our brand integrity. Everything we do is authentic. I don’t think a man-made stone is authentic. Who knows though — if you interview me in ten years’ time it might be very different. We might have to. But right now, no.
PJ: So what’s new? What are your plans for the next year or so?
MW: We are producing an amazing range. We produce a range of what we call ‘Wonderland Jewels’ every two years, which are very focussed on design, rather than being overtly commercial, and we are producing a range of about 28 single pieces of jewellery – not suites – that will be launched in May 2019. These will sell for £50K to half a million pounds. We are going to have a lovely exhibition for the pieces because it really shows the design credential that we have. There are not many jewellers in the country that could produce something like this. So we’ve got that to look forward to. It isn’t necessarily a commercial exercise, but it shows the world what we’re capable of doing. It’s storytelling. And that’s what it is all about. Other than that we produce one or two Icon ranges a year, and I can see us going into Ashoka diamonds even more — they are an absolute winner. They are totally unique to Boodles in the UK.
PJ: What’s the plan in terms of physical retail?
MW: Well we have our directors meeting at the start of this year and we are at a slight crossroads — not knowing whether we want to grow our business any more, and if we do, do we want to do it in the UK or overseas? Those are questions we have to answer. We’ve tried a couple of things, we opened a small thing in Hong Kong that didn’t work as well as we had hoped, and we opened the Grosvenor House hotel because we had a successful experience in the Savoy but it wasn’t quite right for us, but we are not adverse to taking a bit of risk and we quite like doing new things.
PJ: Sounds like your marketing expert could help unlock new opportunities…
MW: It’s just getting the key to unlocking it. Is it content? Is it advertising? Is it more sponsorship? Is it getting our jewellery on the red carpet? If you just sit here and do nothing else it is not going to change.
PJ: So steady as you go for the next couple of years?
MW: Well, who knows? What you can do is invest more in high value jewellery. We probably have in our stock 10-12 things for over half a million, and you could try and sell more things for one million or two. I mean we have sold them. They are difficult to sell but it is really important to try and sell pieces of this calibre. Of course, we want to be careful not to risk alienating our core market as well and our average sale is £10K, not £50K, so we don’t want to send a message out to our £5-8K customers that we are only interested in selling things with 6-8 figures in them.
PJ: Is stock holding a great asset?
MW: Yes but we would rather sell it than have it sitting around.
PJ: Do you have anything else to add about business at Boodles and/or future plans?
MW: Sponsorship is hugely important to us. Marketing is very important in general. And of course, it’s all about our people. I think our staff are more important than anything. We’ve got staff who have been with us a really long time and they appear to like working for us, we have a really high staff retention rate. They are part of the extended family as well. I think the staff is more important than the jewellery and marketing. Staff is the most important thing.
PJ: What staff turnover do you have at Boodles?
MW: We have 110 staff. I think we replaced eight of them last year. But we hardly ever loose anyone we don’t want to loose.