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THE BIG INTERVIEW: How has Houlden been supporting members through the pandemic?

Helen Haddow

Professional Jeweller catches up with Houlden chief executive officer, Helen Haddow, to find out what the buying group has been up to during Covid-19.

Here, Haddow shares the support members have received and what she has planned for the Group in the second half of the year…

What has the lockdown period been like for you and the Houlden team?

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In one word? Interesting! Initially, our first priority was to move quickly to set up a new, efficient working from home system, reduce our cost base and take full advantage of the government’s financial support. We have since been running at almost half-staff capacity, with the team working from home.

Several of the team were already used to working remotely and it didn’t take long before we were functioning well. There were some teething issues, but the team rose to the challenge, showing great resilience.  It was wonderful to see the commitment from those working, as they tackled the responsibilities of the furloughed team.

Key to this period has been the communication across the team – by both those working and those on furlough. We recognised at a very early stage the need for very regular check-ins to share what has been happening amongst working staff and this remains the key focus for the time ahead. At the same time, we have kept furloughed staff in the loop with news and updates, to ensure that they have always felt connected to Houlden and supported throughout a potentially challenging period of isolation.

This approach has proved to be very successful in keeping everyone engaged and motivated, with IT systems such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams providing a fantastic way to achieve this.

 

What has Houlden been doing to support retail members during these unprecedented times?

The number one purpose of Houlden is connection with the membership. This was our main focus throughout the lockdown period, and we have worked hard to connect the members with each other, through establishing zoom meetings and messaging platforms.

We also supported them financially, by reducing the membership fees by 50% for six months to 31 August. We gave free access to new learners on our Jewellers of Excellence platform. This provided an invaluable opportunity for the furloughed staff within the membership to grow their skill base and boost their personal development, thus keeping them engaged with their employer.

During this time, we focused on additional content that was specifically relevant during this pandemic, such as dealing with stress and anxiety, COVID-19 related educational information, and return to work modules.  Feedback clearly demonstrates that this opportunity was taken up by most of the members. An added initiative was to reward and recognise some of the learner’s achievements, by donating to their chosen charity.

Other direct support Houlden facilitated was in sourcing and sharing suppliers of PPE; collating and circulating knowledge from within the membership and our own findings, as well as preparing checklists and supporting templates for reopening stores.

Finally, with retailers being bombarded with external information, we disseminated and shared this and so kept members alert as to what organisations such as the NAJ were offering, COVID alerts and valuable HR and insurance advice. The NAJ, and other trade organisations have provided a wealth of support in this process. Houlden members have been kept well informed, as opposed to drowning in information.

And the feedback from the membership clearly recognises that they have appreciated our efforts.

 

What have you found have been your retailers biggest needs as they return to the high street?

The biggest need has been one of being connected and feeling not alone.

We have helped keep them connected in various ways: with each other to share experiences; with Houlden to share gathered knowledge, and with the industry in general. This connection has been invaluable as the members carve out their own paths to successful re-opening.

 

What would your advice be for jewellers as they navigate post-lockdown trading?

Be prepared to adapt all aspects of your business. Retailing has changed and we need to embrace this. Whether it be through increasing the investment in digital; changing work practices; assessing stock turnover and considering best ways to increase cash generation, and/or thoroughly reviewing your cost base – everything must stack up. It is more important than ever before to listen to your customers and adapt your approach to business to respond to how their behaviour has changed as a result of this pandemic.

This has been an invaluable opportunity for business to reflect on their purpose, their vision and their values.  These should be very clear and communicated with all staff, focusing on this together with a mindset open to accepting change. This will help all businesses navigate post lockdown and beyond.

 

How do you think jewellers can continue to offer a customer experience while abiding by government guidelines?

I don’t believe that this is as much a challenge as initially thought because the consumer is in a different mindset.  They have been through this with us and are ready and willing to accept new practices and customer journeys.

Our members should show their customers that they are adaptable and are doing everything in their power to protect everyone – by not only continuing to demonstrate a strong knowledge base and empathetic understanding of their needs but also showing that they care and are truly listening to their clients.  These actions will I believe help them to communicate to their customers that they are valued.

Customer experience is boosted by the feeling that the retailer cares and values you, and makes you feel special – and this can still be achieved while abiding to the government guidelines.

 

And turning to suppliers, what advice would you have for them as they try to support jewellers whilst facing their own challenges?

I think the suppliers are facing a tougher challenge initially.  Retailers will not necessarily have the cash resources to invest in new lines and they will be focused on making every penny count.

So, like the retailers, suppliers need to get close to their customers – understand what problems they have and work together to come to a solution. It’s not about selling into a retailer – it’s all about supporting that sell out.  I think they need to listen, empathise and work together with their retail partners, recognising that some creative and progressive thinking may be required.

Therefore, patience and resilience are needed – hopefully many will have been thinking about how they can do business differently – more efficiently than before. My advice is that they should be progressive and think of new ways of being a true partner in business.  As we are all in this together, together we will thrive!

 

How do you think the trade as a whole can best weather the storm?

I would love to see a strong communal marketing message put out for all jewellers to get behind. One that promotes the value of owning a piece of jewellery that will last forever, one that captures memories. Memories of holidays fade and can put inches on your waist – expensive handbags go out of fashion – but a beautiful piece of fine jewellery can be easily cleaned, remodelled and passed on.

Let’s focus on working together and be creative with initiatives that promote the jewellery industry to the consumer.

 

What’s Houlden got planned for the second half of the year?

Our focus continues to be on connection.  We are looking for ways to bring our members together in a valuable forum that harnesses the benefits of face to face networking.  We are also researching how we can support the suppliers in connecting with the members.  With our summer meeting cancelled, together with other prominent trade events, it is imperative that other solutions are found. Our supplier partners have been supportive to the members during this time, it is now our turn to be supportive of them.

Secondly, we will stay focused on the Houlden Advantage.   We are always assessing ways that this can be enhanced, and we need to make it even more beneficial than ever before.  Therefore, we are building on our value proposition, which includes progression of the Training platform.

Our final goal is to drive efficiencies through a digital transformation of the Houlden operations.

We have yet to fully reopen our offices and will only do so once we have the go ahead from the Scottish Government. We are ready to come out of lockdown, stronger and better than before with our focus clearly on the underlying purpose of Houlden to Support, Inspire and Connect with our membership.

 

 

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The author Stacey Hailes

Editor, Professional Jeweller

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