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THE BIG INTERVIEW: David M Robinson on why jewellers should sweat the small stuff

John Robinson – Portrait

2019 has been a memorable year for David M Robinson as the luxury jewellery retailer has celebrated its 50th anniversary in style.

Events and new initiatives have been the order the day alongside the opening of an expanded and revamped flagship boutique in Manchester.

The family-run jeweller was certainly able to go into the milestone year with confidence after pulling off the desirable hat-trick of rising sales, accelerating stock rotation and higher profits in its most up-to-date financial year that ended March 31, 2018.

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Here, managing director, John Robinson, takes us through the past, present and future of the firm…

Could you tell us about your personal journey with David M Robinson?
The journey for me began when I was about 10 or 11 years of age. We had a workshop in the basement of Church Alley in Liverpool, and I would head into the workshops with DMR – my Dad – and I would spend time running repairs between the two stores that we had in the city. Customers would need the ring they had bought sizing, so I would fetch it and return it to the workshop. The strict instructions at the time were to never stop and talk to anyone and always go a different way! Then put the kettle on and make the guys on the bench a cuppa. Repeat. Not very glamorous but very good grounding. I would sit alongside the goldsmiths and watch in awe — mesmerised by the flames, the heat and the noise.

Did you always know you wanted to join the family business?
Looking back, probably, but at the time it seemed like a natural progression. I loved working in the stores during the school holidays, it was always fun, and you were always, always learning, but Dad made it very clear that there were no free rides. I’d sit with him at night, he had a bench at home for a while and we’d always discuss the piece and the story behind it. I just loved all that. I still do! I was fortunate enough to then work abroad, in the US in the restaurant business, and then to spend time in Antwerp at Backes & Strauss, working under Vartkess Knadjian (who now owns Backes & Strauss watch brand) — it was an amazing opportunity to learn from the best. I guess after all that my Dad may have felt I had earned the right to try it (working) formally with him. I’m genuinely glad he never encouraged me to work on the bench, I just don’t have the skill, the talent, nor the patience! I could never have matched his natural talent and I’d have had to win three De Beers Diamond International Awards to beat him. Highly unlikely. I remain envious of those who have that artistic talent to create. Oh, and after Antwerp, I went to Manchester Business School for my MBA.

This year David M Robinson opened the doors to a revamped flagship in Manchester.

DMR is celebrating its 50th anniversary, what have been some of the biggest achievements during this time?
I think just getting to the 50th is an achievement. We have done it by continuously sticking to our guns, working with some outstanding people and dedicated colleagues — as well as supportive suppliers. We are lucky enough to trade from some ‘A locations’, but it was never always like that. It’s such a hard business to be in at times, there have been days when we felt like giving up but conversely days when the tears were of laughter and joy. I guess we live for those.

What do you think is David M Robinson’s USP as a jewellery retailer in the UK?
Well, the fact that we design, manufacture and retail our own designs makes us pretty unique. To that extent DMR is a trying to become a brand in itself. It takes time. We have customers who start with a pair of earrings from an exclusive DMR collection and the relationship builds from there. Our collections are genuine stories and we feel that they really resonate with people. I’d imagine too that DMR offering a customer the chance to help shape their own exclusive design and then to see it being crafted in our workshops, is the epitome of luxury these days. Luxury car companies like Aston Martin and Rolls Royce do the same and it leads to a relationship way beyond normal retail. True luxury is not about wearing a ring that a thousand other people wear. Not today. It’s a tough balance for any brand to achieve. Suddenly something is ubiquitous and uncool. Lastly, I’d make the point that at DMR we are lucky to have a diverse team of colleagues from a wide range of backgrounds with a wide range of opinions. We have a very strong feminine influence through the creative side of the business from marketing, through to events and VM, after sales and in the workshops. We do not have to try and second guess what our female customers want both in and from a jewellery brand. I’m there to listen to feedback all the time and I want to be told what we ought to do.

How are you finding the market right now?
The market is tough, but I think it always has been. Competition abounds but we welcome it all. One of the reasons we have grown is because we have great competition. Jewellery and luxury watches have thrived since the crash because I think as people buy fewer, better things, they realise the value in the pieces. Every woman should have a pair of fabulous diamond stud earrings that she can enjoy every day and we need to make sure the ring is worth more than the wedding dress. One day vs heirloom? I think customers will always want the best of something and they will always want genuine experiences. There’s a maxim that you can forget someone’s name, but you’ll never forget how they made you feel. If we remember that then ‘the market’ referred to in the question seems to be about our ability to create emotion, experiences, desire and fun rather than exchange rates and other economic parameters that we cannot influence.

What are some new things you have introduced to stand out against competitors and win over new business during what many describe as difficult times in retail?
To stand out, sometimes you just have to be brilliant at the basics and operate well. In retail you can think you are up against the world’s best jewellery salesperson as almost a ‘default mode’ when in fact, for some prospective customers, simply a smile, a returned phone call, or a listening and caring sales ambassador is enough to bring two parties together. We live on and cherish ‘DMR exceptional service stories’ in our business and they abound. In the earlier days, we never had the luxury of the best locations or the choice of stock we now have, so you learn to adapt and play to your strengths. For us that strength is our teams. I think you must be yourself and be comfortable in your own skin.

Sometimes we can stand out because there are special things we can do for our clients far and wide. If they are Formula One fans, we can get them to Silverstone or Monaco, if it’s tennis, then its Wimbledon. For some it’s just the idea of great tickets to a concert or a meal at a top restaurant or often a night in an exclusive hotel. We host some amazing events for customers to attend in the UK and abroad. We have hosted over 30 events this year alone. We know we can go the extra mile and we know we can do more, more often. We are always conscious that our customers are giving up their time, so we really operate this area professionally — it’s luxury concierge level service.

We are always the underdog, the new kid on the block and luckily not everyone is rooting for Goliath. But we also have a fundamental belief that culture beats strategy.

To this extent, our colleagues in DMR are supported every inch of the way. We offer free private health care, the chance to develop skills and knowledge through an abundance of courses and our bonus structure means everyone shares in our success. Last year our average bonus (over excellent basic salaries) was 22% and some colleagues make over 40% of their basics as a bonus. They are exceptional people and I believe that across the UK, the personnel employed in luxury retail today are some of the very best in the world. Fifteen years ago, the high standards that exist today did not abound. We should celebrate the efforts and endeavours of luxury retail. At DMR, we are a solid team, we enjoy each other’s company and of course goldsmiths, watchmakers and everyone else share in the success of DMR.

The revamped showroom features expanded branded areas, more jewellery and VIP sections.

What does today’s DMR customer expect from their shopping experience with you?
That we care, that we are friendly, professional and fun to spend time with in or out of the showroom. Most importantly they know they can trust us. The designs are our own, although we often get copied. I think they also know that we will accommodate their requests; some customers like to view collections together in luxury environments, some in their home, some on the golf course. We sweat the small stuff. If a customer is heading out to black tie event and their jewellery needs some TLC, then we will collect and return. If a company CEO needs a gift to present to a loyal employee, we have it delivered to their office. Going the extra mile in all aspects of our work. That is what’s important to them. On that point, I think today’s luxury customer wants to know that their jeweller or any company that they deal with plays their fair part in giving back to their communities and we certainly do. We are founder patrons of the ‘OnSide Youth Zones’ in Manchester. As well as this, we are supporters of the Tate Galleries, National Museums Liverpool and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, because art and culture are so important to any city. Conversely, we support the charitable foundations of footballers like James Milner and Steven Gerrard and even the England netball team, as well as The Princes’ Trust. As jewellers we must be of the community and for the community. At grass roots level our support of the ‘Educate Awards’ is our way of paying respect to the teachers and educators of the North West — after all without an inspiring art teacher, DMR may never have found his way to the bench. We must never forget where we have come from. We have also recently launched the inaugural DMR Jewellery Design awards for North West schools, in celebration of our 50th anniversary. What a great way to celebrate creativity and support the education of the next generation.

How important is online to the business and how have you strengthened your omni-channel offer to enhance the DMR shopping experience?
Online is vital for us. 75% of all luxury journeys begin online and we have a new website arriving imminently. It has taken a long time to get right. In reality, we sell very little online directly, and we think it will stay that way. For us, DMR’s website is the first step on the ladder for our relationship with clients. Our focus isn’t on e-commerce, but instead introducing our clients to our brand and our products. Acquiring the digital skill set is a real learning curve for us currently. We need to learn that competency quickly. Luxury remains a last bastion of face to face very personal relationships. Sometimes I find it hard to explain why a diamond is graded as, say VVS, to a customer so how we’d do it online I do not know! Customers will order a piece from one of our collections online but there are limits to how much people will spend. We do a little click and collect, and we are increasingly seeing customers in their homes, physically showing them something they may have seen online. Online has been wonderful for our industry because it allows customers to browse and research at will. We have had offers from fashion websites to take our collections, but we are comfortable in our own skin at the moment.

Watches have become increasingly more important to a jewellery retailers offer — how do you balance the demand from big watch brands with making sure jewellery doesn’t lose its sparkle in store?
We only have a select few watch brand partners and we really enjoy the partnerships because it has to be a genuine partnership these days. I think we actually learn a lot from the watch brands and we have embraced the learnings whenever we can. There’s a lot of loyalty and trust in the relationship. The best brands aren’t interested in selling more in the short term, but they are really focused on making sure their brand will be stronger in ten or twenty years’ time. Their training is now second to none and the day-to-day management is so focused and professional — we try to apply the same rigour to the way we manage our ranges. The watch brands want the good independent jewellers to succeed and they help whenever possible. A couple celebrating a 25th wedding anniversary might select a stunning line bracelet and a Patek Philippe to mark the occasion and we are happy to help with both. The word ‘balance’ is key. Our new Manchester showroom, whilst it has a stunning Rolex Espace, is very much a jewellery showroom and the physical space we have afforded our DMR collections is indicative of the balance we are trying to achieve.

DMR staff spend time getting to know clients and delivering a five-star customer service.

What are you doing within jewellery manufacturing to ensure you are ahead of the curve?
We have a talented team of goldsmiths and stone setters. Of the team, the split is 50/50 between male and female and they all give each other a run for their money in different ways. There is a lot of freedom for our goldsmiths, and I think they enjoy being in front of the customers as well. We have the latest CAD technology and great workshop spaces meaning there is a real variety in our work. Setting a 3ct oval today, renovating a Van Cleef piece the next, texturing wedding rings one minute, to pave setting a bespoke piece the next. Above all this though, is the belief we have at DMR, that since the business was built around a workshop, it should always be at the heart of what we do and always reflect its genesis. There are some amazingly talented goldsmiths and silversmiths out there in the UK, there are polishers and setters whose focus astounds me. They are a custodian of a traditional skill set which we need to preserve. I do get upset for them when I see companies claiming to manufacture all they sell in their own workshops when clearly that isn’t true.

You’ve also refurbed the Manchester store, what was the main goal and vision for this particular location?
To create finally the showroom we have dreamt of having since opening there in 1979! In Manchester, St Ann’s Square, is a special place. The opening of the Trafford Centre really hit us hard. We’ve been through good times and bad there. The bad was the IRA bomb which destroyed the windows and then we endured several nasty robberies, we suffered when, between 2008 and 2014, all the shops nearby seemed to be vacant. A poignant moment was the time after the MEN Arena bombing in 2017 when the square was filled with flowers, my team there made hundreds of cups of tea for our customers, the public and foreign film crews alike. But Manchester is back! Now finally, with 5,000 sq ft of space over two floors, two great workshops, a stunning Rolex Espace and a private lounge downstairs for our customers to relax in and enjoy, we are almost there! Our customers love it and the feedback has been wonderful to hear. Jewellery sales have increased sharply and our VM is spot on. One unusual by-product of the new showroom was being inundated with CV’s. We didn’t expect that.

What plans do you have for the business over the next 12 months and beyond?
To improve every element of our business. We make a lot of mistakes and sometimes miss opportunities that we are not clever enough to exploit. We will continue to invest in our people and our designs and a run of amazing, fun events for our clients. We want to have more fun too. To get the few people in our company who haven’t experienced and enjoyed Baselworld over to the show or perhaps to Vicenza. We may not have the diamonds like the ones you see in Graff nor the money to spend on branding like Tiffany, but we are working towards it! I’d like to get more and more of my team out of the showrooms to look at what is going on in luxury — be that in Paris, Dubai or Asia. To more art exhibitions, or to experience the very best in hospitality and food and beverage.

We need to up our game digitally and we have a big project on the go currently in introducing the Salesforce service. We have some real talent and potential in DMR and to realise it, we may need our people to spend some time with other world class (but non-jewellery) companies to get there — but we believe in them.
2020 will also provide us with an opportunity to develop the bridal aspect of our business. Bridal jewellery is very often the start of a client’s journey with DMR, so customer experience is vital in this area. Developing on our work over the last year as well, we will continue with a drive to position our workshops at the forefront of our business again, taking advantage of the re-emerging trend that is being seen for bespoke jewellery and remodelling services. This is where it all began for DMR and that must remain the case 50 years later.

What would you like the David M Robinson legacy to be?
That we were an entirely trustworthy, professional, innovative and creative jewellery designer, manufacturer and retailer who made our customers smile and who had a wonderfully engaged and cared for a group of colleagues who, in turn, genuinely cared for their clients and who were always willing to give back to the community they drew from and wanted to help others.

In your opinion, what’s the key to survival in today’s ever-changing, and increasingly challenging, retail climate?
I think that if you have really engaged colleagues, great designs and skilled goldsmiths, a belief in people, kindness and creativity, a desire to be part of a fabulous tradition of jewellery makers and cool suppliers who care, then you are half way there.

Add to the mix great visual merchandising and an inspiring events team who have the ability to host and delight, creative websites, enjoyable training, meaningful meetings and passionate marketing, the ability to learn from mistakes and to often laugh at yourself – plus, vitally, a ton of resilience – you may just have half a chance of growing. That’s a tough question though.

Tags : david m robinsonJewelleryJohn RobinsonRetail
Stacey Hailes

The author Stacey Hailes

Editor, Professional Jeweller

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