THE BIG INTERVIEW: Find out how Links of London plans to bolster business in 2019

Links of London has been working tirelessly behind the scenes this year to put a new strategy in place for 2019.

The first glimpse of the brand repositioning itself in the market can be seen in the December campaign, with everything set to fully come to life next year with a new global chief executive officer at the helm, alongside the FF Group’s boss for the UK & Ireland, Martin Byrne, who will soon take on a new position within the company.

Alongside major shifts in leadership and strategy, Links of London continues to innovate, with a million pound investment in digital and new ideas being trialled in store putting the brand in a strong position to withstand high street hardships.

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With so much going on, we decided to catch up with Martin Byrne to hear more…

PJ: How has business been for Links of London this year?
MB: Despite an overall challenging environment, trade has been relatively consistent – with our online channels and the full-price business being the best in terms of performance – and actually we are in line with our plan. We feel we are doing ok, but we need to do much better.

PJ: What’s been your main focus over the last 12 months?
MB: There’s been a lot going on. We’ve been working on a new strategy and a new positioning for Links of London, which is about making the brand stronger, more relevant, and more creative, and actually focusing more than we have done before on millennials. The first expression you see of that is really in the upcoming Christmas campaign, which we launch this month. Although you can start to see some of it coming through in our current Ovals campaign, especially on social media. We also have an incoming global chief executive officer for Links of London that will be announced soon. We can’t mention the name yet, but she will be joining pre-Christmas. So the plan is there will be a new global CEO coming in, who’s been working on developing this new strategy and new positioning, and I am going to be the new chief operating officer globally. I am doing more work on the business internationally, when up until now my main focus has been on the UK, and while it will continue to be on the UK and the UK business will report directly to me, we are going to be doing more international work as well.

We’ve been working on a new strategy and positioning for Links of London, which is about making the brand stronger, more relevant, and more creative, and focusing more on millennials.”

PJ: Are you able to tell us a bit more about the strategy you have been working on?
MB: We are going to roll it out to the whole business at the beginning of next year, but Christmas shows the direction. The new Links positioning is about a stronger creative direction; a broader product scope; pushing the price points upwards more – still keeping with our core but having more high price point products; a clearer target customer – so it’s centred around self-buying and gifting millennials, we are not turning our back on any of our core customers, but even none millennials like me like to feel younger and feel part of the most important consumer movement; and then a more holistic approach to customer experience and digital.

PJ: Are there any particular areas of the business you have been trying to grow this year?
MB: Online. The web business has been doing reasonably well for us. We can see with our retail partners that the web business is doing well for them as well, and we’ve been supporting them as much as we can through providing creative assets, partnering on marketing initiatives and so on. So we’ve been working a lot on that this year.

PJ: Links of London has been investing a lot in digital and omnichannel in recent years, how much have you invested and what have you been doing?
MB: In 2017 we invested over £1m on technology, and that was put into the new web platform, and we planned a new ERP and new til POS systems to go live this year. We are actually now planning to go live in Q1 of next year. So the investment overall is more than one and half million and that cuts across the web platform last year and all of the securement and planning work to roll out the new ERP and POS in Q1 of 2019. They are systems that act as the backbone, but they will allow us to implement a lot more omnichannel and flexible customer-facing innovations, and you need that backbone in place to be able to do that. So the next phase for 2019 is a website redesign, a user experience redesign, CRM developments and other functionalities as well.

PJ: What challenges have you faced when investing in omnichannel retail?
MB: I guess when you’ve got multiple projects running at the same time it is about being realistic about how much you can do, and given that all of these projects are interrelated and have dependencies, you need not only to have really strong project management, but you need an oversight of the whole program of projects, and I think we realised that we basically needed to invest more in managing the programme in a more structured way, which we did, and we brought in a transformation director who’s got a business and a technical background and oversees the management of all these projects.

The first glimpse of Links of London’s new brand direction can be seen in the Ovals campaign.

PJ: Do you have any more digital initiatives up your sleeves?
MB: We’ve been doing a lot of customer relationship management — so focusing on new customer acquisition, a bit of data capture, and a stronger focus on customer engagement via lifestyle journeys and enhanced content. We have already introduced a new recommendation engine on our site to give customers a lot more choice when interacting, and then looking ahead, the things we are reviewing now – because we are deep into business planning for next year – are a lot of CRM related things. To name a few, we’ve got an AI power tool for personalised incentive recommendation; a personalisation tool for product recommendations on the site; and a smart insight tool. We are also building a better attribution model for our digital marketing. Even though digital marketing is a lot more trackable than print or out-of-home marketing it is still difficult to attribute the sales if someone doesn’t click through directly. So we are building better models to understand the return on investment from digital marketing. So we’ve got a lot better at that and we’ve been investing in the digital team in order to do that.

PJ: What digital innovations have worked really well for Links of London so far?
MB: Being consistent across the channels in terms of the campaign messaging. That’s really key, and we’ve got a lot to do to improve that, but it is now a focus. I think we used to look at the stores, the web, and wholesale business separately, but now we just call it the full-price business, and that’s the stores and web combined. We no longer separate the business in terms of how we talk and think about it. In the past we would have done an online exclusive promotion, but now that’s quite rare. It has to be consistent across the channels, so that’s the approach we are trying to take. And then on the site itself, next year we are working with a new conversion rate optimisation partner to help us drive conversion on the website. We are looking at heat mapping tools so we can better understand. There’s a lot of data available in terms of which pages customers visit when they are on our website, but in terms of analysing how they browse, there’s heat mapping technology that we can be looking at that can really take that to the next level. In terms of ratings and reviews, we are looking at potential partners to get more immediate feedback and more continual feedback on the experience of Links of London. But the big huge project is the website redesign. Obviously it’s got to be mobile first. Obviously the user experience has got to be massively improved, and it’s got to have much more personalisation. So that’s a big, big project for us.

Even though digital marketing is a lot more trackable, it is still difficult to attribute the sales if someone doesn’t click through directly, so we are building better models to understand the return on investment.”

PJ: When do you hope the new website will launch?
MB: It will be Q3 next year.

PJ: On the physical retail front, how are you finding business on the high street?
MB: Again, the trade has been really consistent. Footfall has picked up a bit in the last couple of months. I think it’s a tough market overall but our stores are broadly in good locations. We have relocated a couple of stores this year, so stayed in the city but moved to another location —or even another part of the mall. We’ve been trying to make sure we are in the right positions where we are, so we relocated our Cambridge and Glasgow boutiques.

PJ: Have you been doing anything different for the physical retail side of the business this year?
MB: Yes, in the Cambridge store, which reopens imminently, we have tried to focus on personalisation within that store. There’s more digital in the store, but we’ve also been trying to focus on play, so getting customers to touch things and pick things up. We had a big personalisation and engraving campaign over the summer, which did really well, and we have invested in more engraving machines. More stores now have same day, very quick turnaround, engraving, and that’s performing really well for us. So it has forced us to up our game in terms of engraving proposition. But what we found was, obviously we wanted to incorporate more digital into store, but interaction is also important, whether or not it is digital. So in the Cambridge store we’ve got a wall where you can put together – in the fonts that we engrave in – some words and play with them, and it provides good, physical, retail theatre, but it is also very Instagrammable. And we are laying out charms differently in that store as well. So historically charms have sat in a tank where the customer looks down at the glass, but here we’ve got a wall where we are showing them in a different way. So it’s got different elements that don’t exist in any of our stores because we are using this store to trial new things.

The brand is playing with new ideas in store to create an engaging customer experience.

PJ: What do you think is the key to surviving today’s more difficult high street?
MB: It is definitely customer service and customer experience because those are the two things that are very difficult to replicate everywhere else — that is the human experience in the stores. So I think it is about showing your best, having great windows, and giving every customer the best possible service. That’s really what our focus is on.

PJ: What do you do to try and drive people into store when there is a dip in footfall?
MB: Obviously all the marketing that we do is aimed at driving footfall. For our Christmas campaign we have invested more in the windows than we have in any previous campaign. Rather than doing out-of-home advertising on the tube, we are treating our stores as a billboard and saying ‘let’s do the advertising there where there is an immediate opportunity for people to come’. So we are working with an artist on a very bespoke window scheme for Christmas and we have picked out a couple of stores which we are calling ‘uber flagships’ and they are going to get a very special treatment.

PJ: What will you be working on from now until Christmas?
MB: We had our annual conference just a couple of weeks ago and it’s all about execution really. All the other stuff I said about strategy, positioning, it is obviously key, but Christmas trade is a huge part of the jewellery industry year and Links is a gifting business, so it is all about execution.

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