It’s been just over a year since Kate Walsh returned to her hometown to take over the UK arm of jewellery giant Pandora — and what a year it has been.
Not only has Walsh had to get to grips with a new market (having spent the last few years as managing director for the brand in Northern Europe), she has also had to navigate the UK division through the company’s forceful transformation programme, Programme NOW, and a major brand overhaul.
So on top of keeping the business afloat and running new initiatives in order to bolster sales and brand awareness in the UK, Walsh has had a lot of demands from global to contend with as well.
While on paper it looks like a lot, Walsh didn’t seem phased by the busyness when Professional Jeweller editor, Stacey Hailes, visited her at the Pandora HQ to find out how her first year in charge has been.
Here, Walsh reveals the triumphs and challenges of the last 12 months, whilst looking ahead to how business can be improved in 2020…
How would you rate your first year in charge of the UK business?
It always takes a little bit longer to get into than you would like. You come in, it’s a brand new job – even though I have been with Pandora for seven years – and you can see a lot of opportunities and things you want to improve, but of course when you start getting into it and you’ve got to steer people and go through that change transformation, it can take a little bit longer than you had planned. But overall I am really pleased with what the team has achieved and rather than rate my year, I would say it’s very much been a team effort. We know it has been an interesting year for retail, let alone Pandora, but I am really happy with the capacity that people have had to embrace change and welcome me back into the UK and be open-minded and try different things. I already feel like we have achieved a lot but I am an ambitious lady and I would always like to do more. I don’t think I can give you a hard rating, but I would say ‘on track’ and happy with what the team has achieved.
Has anything taken you by surprise since being back in the UK?
When I was in Germany I very much kept in touch with what was going on in the UK and I heard all the doom and gloom stories about Brexit and what’s happening, so what took me by surprise was how positive people are still being out there in the stores and how much passion remains. There’s really a can-do attitude and rather than focusing on whether we’ve got as many people through the door as we might have done a few years ago, they are really making the most of what they’ve got. And the stores are still really busy. Again, I had been away for almost three years and I remembered the queues and I was concerned, but we are still one of the busiest stores in any shopping centre you go to. So the brand is still immensely powerful. We have still managed to grow our brand awareness and we’ve got one of the highest levels of brand awareness globally in Pandora and amongst any jewellery company in the UK, and even then we have still managed to grow it. We are still attracting new customers and there are still people we are making aware of Pandora. So all good surprises I guess.
Are there any achievements you are particularly proud of?
Well, again, it is the team. You don’t do it on your own. It has been a busy year, so a few things to mention would be firstly, the brand relaunch. That happened in September and was really exciting because it involved a new-look website and stores. We’ve launched the ‘expression stores’, and we were the first Pandora in the market to have the pilot store and the first official store, so that’s really cool that people see the UK as a market that embraces new opportunities and will really drive that forward. Secondly, I am also really pleased with the results of the engagement survey that we did with our staff. We have seen really good improvements in how people are feeling about working for the brand — particularly in the stores. We’ve got an awful lot more people employed directly by Pandora because of the acquisition programme in 2018, so embedding that culture of engagement all the way through to store levels is really good. We want to be a place where people like to work, we want to maintain and attract the best talent, so I think that is a really good measure of the health of your business. Of course financial KPIs are important, but it’s great that I am hearing that people are enjoying working here. Lastly, just being able to perform in a very tough environment and reduce our amount of promotional activity, that’s a huge achievement as well. We took out both mid-season sales in 2019, so we only did a winter and summer sale. Even though there’s a lot of pressure out there in the retail environment to do more and more sale and discounting activity, we know we have great product that you can’t get anywhere else, we know there’s a lot of desirability there, so it was good to take quite a bold move to actually back out of the discounting. We’ve still done our promotions but we have done less; we reduced the number of days we were on discount or promotion by 50% between 2018 and 2019. I think that takes us in the right direction.
When it comes to staff engagement, have you done anything to boost engagement levels?
Yes. While it has happened naturally because we are less busy than when we were doing all the acquisitions, my personal philosophy is a strong voice of the shop floor. Ask the operator, that’s generally where you find the answers for whatever you are looking for. They are the heroes that are out there day in, day out, with the customers, and we should be listening to them. I am often that voice that says, ‘Ask the stores’ and ‘trial it in the stores’. That is something that I really believe and I think that makes people feel more included and take more ownership of the business.
What’s the biggest challenges Pandora will face in the UK & Ireland this year?
A lot of them are similar to other retail businesses. Since smartphones and data, customers are more clued up than ever before and very often they have done their research and they know what they are looking for, so it’s a challenge to make sure your store teams have the amount of product knowledge and know-how that they can still add value to what the customer already knows. So having that level of product knowledge and delivering a consistent experience between our stores each and every time is a challenge. Unfortunately I still get the occasional complaint and I like the fact that they will sometimes come through to me, but I am also disappointed that they felt so strongly or we have not been able to resolve the complaint before it has escalated and that’s just the human factor, but more consistency and a consistently good experience is needed. You’ve really got to give people a reason to visit store, so the product knowledge has absolutely got to be there alongside having a luxury experience at one of our stores at a very affordable price. That’s what we are built on and we really need to not lose sight of that. And I think as with any business we have still got some work to do when it comes to that. And of course, there is the obvious fact that we have some franchise stores and we have some owned and operated stores, so just making sure that we all work together to deliver that consistent brand experience. We can also be better with our communication but at the same time not over communicating and taking store managers away from the shop floor. That’s something that has come up when I have been out doing my visits. There’s sometimes admin or work we are asking managers to do that either we have not explained the value and importance of why — or, if we are not using it and it is not adding value we are taking the store teams away from the customer and getting them to do needless admin tasks. So I want to understand how we can take away the noise from the stores. I think that will help free up their head space to think about how they can create a better experience rather than, ‘how can I please the people in the office?’
You launched new-look stores in the UK last year, how have they been received?
We’ve done a lot of market research and the qualitative feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Customers have really enjoyed the fact that it has got quite a welcoming feel. It’s a bit less white, a bit less clinical perhaps, so there’s more warmth in the stores. They really like the focus on the new collections that we’ve displayed at the front of the store. We’ve got things displayed by collection, not just categories like our existing stores, so you can see the matching items a bit more easily. There’s also more space to browse and we have definitely seen dwell time increase, which is really good. What we really need to do now is debrief on our busiest time of year. Christmas will really be the test for me, so I am looking forward to some more feedback. We had fine-tuned the ways of selling and the operational practices in our existing format, and the new stores can look great and be inspiring for customers, but making it really operationally efficient has got to be the next step. So it is still a working progress. We’ve got another one opening soon in Bath, so it is definitely something we will carry on learning with but there has been some positive feedback, which is really good.
Is there anything you already know will need to change in the expression stores?
We’ve got the charm bar at the back, which is a great focal point but I just want to make sure as the charm experts that we have enough charm representation throughout the store. So I think it is that balance of collection and category. Fortunately it is quite a quick one to change. It is about making sure we have the right navigation for the customer because some people want to shop by collection and some people want to shop by product category — so we need to try and get it right for both customer types.
How have customers responded to the brand overhaul?
One of the things that we have had a lot of customers commenting on is our windows — they have been amazing and really impactful. We’ve had customers taking photos and asking who designed them. So there has been a visual change which has been really good. We’ve also had really good feedback on the marketing. It’s been very anecdotal but you just know you are on to a winner with the AW collection when we launched the O pendant, which has been really successful for us. That was featured in our TV campaign and people came in asking to get the necklace from that TV campaign. We have spent more on marketing but I think it was worthwhile because it is a crowded, competitive marketplace out there. The overall brand launch – and particularly the look of our site –has been really positive, but I am sure we will continue to evolve it. We have a new chief marketing officer and she is going to be a real asset. She has an amazing experience and we are really excited about her appointment. We had a lot of engagement from the stores around the launch too. We did an event on ‘your loves’, whether that’s people, passions or places, and the store staff wore badges that said for example, ‘Kate loves…’ and then they could write on it with their marker pen, and that was a really nice engagement piece. The brand launch was about making Pandora part of customer stories and I think that’s what the brands of tomorrow really need to engage with — bringing the customers into the brand, making it an inclusive brand, and I think the Pandora brand relaunch took us in the right direction.
What’s your focus for 2020?
Customer experience. Making sure that we are a customer-centric business and we try to put ourselves in the shoes of the customer with every single decision that we make. For example, does what I am doing here in the office make it easier for the stores? So that kind of decluttering, freeing people’s time up to really look after the customer. Also really finding a way to make sure we are embedding the product knowledge. Retail training is going to be really, really important for us. We also need to decide what we want to do with the expression stores — that could be something that is a real priority, depending if we want to put our foot on the gas or whether we will do a staged release. There’s a few things that will be decided soon but if we keep the customer at the centre we can’t go far wrong. We’ve had great new product launches, like Harry Potter, which has been super, super popular, and that’s another focus – we have a lot of new drops over the course of the year but we have some really amazing classic/ iconic core product – some of it has been around for a while – and I think we need to make sure we are constantly showcasing our existing classic product and giving that a stronger identity as well as the newness. That will come into visual merchandising, the training and the marketing. Also our ring category, we are the charm expert but I think we have more opportunities with rings this year. They are still stacking and styling and that’s when we come into our own. So there’s some real opportunities on the product side but not just the newness. We also expect a lot of our teams so making sure we engage them but not exhaust them is something I think we also need to watch this year. We also have some opportunities of different ways of training, so that’s on our sales director’s to-do list.
Are there any future projects or plans you can mention?
Generally, marketing. We will be having our new CMO come in and look at how we make sure we are competitive in a very digital environment here in the UK. That’s where our customers are looking and shopping, even more online and on e-comm than many of the other markets, so I think having an array of digital content, making sure we can personalise that marketing content, and also, through our CRM programme, making sure we are getting the right message to the right person at the right time, and making that more relevant for the customer. There are actually internal projects that are working on these key pillars that we know are really important for our future growth. Customer relations and customer after care is really important. Black Friday has really impacted the shape of the retail business. We heard so much about it in the press over here, but it still caught us a little bit by surprise. Our e-comm site was much busier than we anticipated, which is in some ways a good thing to happen but it meant we were slow at responding to customer enquiries because we were quite inundated, which is always annoying, even if you just disappoint one customer, so I think customer care and customer relations, that’s another key project that is fine most of the year but when it comes to Christmas we’ve got to be able to adapt to what happens.
Will you be expanding your retail footprint this year?
We’ve got a lot of stores to be honest, we are really, really well covered. That doesn’t mean to say if a new shopping centre opens we won’t look at it, we constantly look for new opportunities and there are some relocations happening as well. That’s important to us – micro locations – because when shopping centres develop that can really change the flow of the footfall. So Bath is going to be a relocation for us, Covent Garden was a relocation for us because Long Acre had got really quiet, so we are always working on that. So never say never but we’ve got a good amount of stores to be accessible to everyone who wants to shop with Pandora. If you look at the likes of Swarovski and Thomas Sabo, we’ve got so many more stores.
Is Pandora still slowing down its acquisition programme in the UK market?
We’ve not got any particular strategy, honestly it is a dialogue with our partners and every case is different. Partners have different personal goals, they are in different situations then they may have been five years ago, so it’s not necessarily a ‘one size fits all’ approach. It is not as if in 2018 we went out and said we are on the acquisition trail, we have obviously carried on working with our franchise partners, but every situation needs to be assessed on its own merit. Of course it is a partnership and as the name suggests, we try to deliver value as a franchise — whether it comes to the marketing we are spending or the visual merchandising and adding value to really getting people through the doors of all of our stores because to the customer it doesn’t matter and neither do we because sell out is sell out and that is what we are measured on, but that also comes with the fact that we expect a lot from our franchise partners as well. We need a particular mind-set — they also need to be flexible, willing to look after the customer regardless of what channel they shopped in. So of course, whenever the contract is ending we will definitely look at a full valuation of how the partnership is working. It has got to be a supportive two-way street — putting the customer at the heart. It can also just be about taking out some of the complexity of our business where we have maybe got a one-off partner that’s amongst other Pandora operated stores where we know we could leverage the store teams and stock that we have. So I think any network decision starts with what’s best for the end consumer and then takes into account the partnership on a case-by-case basis.