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THE BIG INTERVIEW: Signet UK MD Neil Old on how the pandemic was a catalyst for change for the business

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Neil Old does not think that his lack of experience in the jewellery sector was a disadvantage when he joined retail giant Signet as UK managing director in 2019.

“I’m 25 years a retailer,” he explains to Professional Jeweller of his pre-jewellery career, “working across a number of great retail businesses.

“You join any business, there’s always a learning curve. But as a retailer, you come in and the key is you listen, you learn.”

And that’s what he did. He continues, “Coming from outside the industry, though, is as much of an opportunity as anything because you don’t have any preconceived ideas; you don’t come in with a toolkit you’re going to immediately deploy.”

After starting at Signet near the end of 2019, Old would be forgiven for ruing the poor timing – who knew that within a few months he’d have to navigate a global pandemic, whilst still learning the ropes at his new job?

Ever the optimist, though, the MD is just thankful that he had roughly six months of Covid-free experience at the company under his belt by the time lockdown came around.

He says: “I had the opportunity to speak to customers before lockdown, before the pandemic, and I’m grateful that I had those six months to speak to our supply partners, colleagues and store customers.”

As well as the customers, his new colleagues – for whom Old has nothing but praise – made the process easier too.

He says: “I had a great team. The team at Signet – so many of the senior executives have been there for a number of years, and, of course, you can learn from their experience. We had a very straightforward open dialogue from the outset. That helped. And, I’ve got to say, Virginia Drosos, the group CEO, she’s genuinely an inspirational leader. She’s been fantastic, a huge support to me.”

When the pandemic did hit in March, Old had to content with an entirely different kind of learning process, alongside everyone else in the industry. Again, he is positive and feels that things could have panned out a lot worse for the company.

I can’t wait to get colleagues and managers back into the stores. That’s where they want to be.”

In the months leading up to the pandemic, serendipitously, Signet had defined its new three-year plan for the UK side of the business – what it calls internally its ‘Path to Brilliance’.

Old describes it as “a really, really tight plan, a blueprint for what we wanted to achieve that covers all aspects of the business and which was contributed to by all the leaders in the UK business and supported by the US.”

The plan covers everything from Signet’s in-store experience – changes to which it has unfortunately had little chance to implement in the past 12 months – to customer insight, digital and e-commerce, staff training and everything in between.

“Increasingly we’ve been able to make good progress in these categories across the last 12 months,” says Old. “We went into lockdown knowing what we needed to achieve.”

He marvels at the fortuitous timing of the plan’s conception, adding: “Now, exactly how we were going to get there changed overnight, but we knew, for example, that we had to up our game digitally. And we knew the areas we needed to look at now.”

In fact, there was one specific area that Signet and every other retail business needed to focus on come March of last year.

“You go into lockdown, and you go from being a business where the lion’s share – the vast, vast share of your business – is through bricks-and-mortar, to overnight becoming a purely online retailer.”

How much of Signet’s UK revenue, through its retailers H Samuel and Ernest Jones, was coming from physical stores exactly?

“More than three quarters of our business was coming from the stores,” Old admits. The Path to Brilliance plan had not accounted for that not inconsiderable revenue stream suddenly drying up out of nowhere.

Fortunately, though, it had at the very least set out a strategy for the growth of Signet’s online sales.

Admittedly, the plan had been for gradual growth in a world without a pandemic, but its ready-made business proposal still gave the company a head start over other retailers looking to adapt to e-commerce as quickly as possible.

These were stores that we’d already looked at and were considering their role in the business going forward.”

“Having had that three-year plan and understanding where we needed to improve, we already knew what we needed to do digitally,” Old says. “Now, because we didn’t know that lockdown was coming when we made the plan, we had initially given ourselves some time to complete it. Clearly we had to accelerate that a lot quicker.”

The speed of the adaptation, however, left the managing director stunned. “You can often believe that large, well established businesses with lots of staff and ingrained processes and systems struggle to change.

“But actually, the coronavirus pandemic was a real focal point for change; the business changed so quickly and the teams adapted so fast.

“Things were spun up out of nowhere, everything from new processes, policies, new systems. Had that not happened, you could have easily believed that big businesses take a long time to change, but that was dispelled. That belief was dispelled almost overnight.

“Businesses can change – they can change incredibly quickly. In the past you would create a burning platform to bring about change. This genuinely was a burning platform. And we had to change quickly.”

Store closures
Despite this positivitiy, the year wasn’t without its challenges for Signet. While the online business soared, the company had to make some difficult decisions regarding its bricks-and-mortar sites before the UK emerged from its first national lockdown.

On 10 June, just five days before non-essential retail was permitted to reopen, Signet announced that 82 of its UK stores would not be reopening their doors the following Monday. The number represented a 17% share of the company’s total footprint, split almost equally across H Samuel and Ernest Jones, with more closing before the year was through.

While most people assumed that the worst of the pandemic was over as restrictions began to ease last summer, Signet was cutting costs with more than a year of Covid restrictions to come.

So with employee head count and building rent reduced overnight, was the decision an exercise in cost-versus-profit?

“A little of that,” says Old, adding, “look, we had a lot of stores. Shopping patterns were already changing. We had seen more business start to move online. I’ve always been clear that when we come out the other side of this thing there will be a different balance between physical and online retail.”

The online growth was not the only factor, however. Old explains: “Even in physical retail, over time, the centres of gravity within shopping centres will change. Very often we might have had two, three, sometimes even four stores in some towns and cities.

“It’s not a question of exiting the town or city, but quite often a new centre will open, or a new leisure complex will open, and where and how people shop will change in a local catchment. You’ve got to be alert to that,” he adds.

The decision was not just an online-versus-offline battle, but also based on a close look at which stores were performing well in each locality. The leases on all 82 stores were expiring imminently too, the MD confirms.

Unsurprisingly, it was also part of the company’s three-year Path to Brilliance plan. Old continues: “These were stores that we’d already looked at [pre-pandemic], and were considering their role in the business going forward. Like I said, in the last 12 months, we knew the business had to change and had to change quickly. And this was one of the areas we were already looking at.”

The MD also believes that while the move has saved the company costs, it has not meant any significant loss of business.

So dedicated was Signet to making sure that no customer was left behind by the closures, it made sure to contact clients in affected areas to let them know where they could find another H Samuel or Ernest Jones nearby.

“So the majority of the business transferred within the group anyway,” Old believes. “It’s just a much more efficient way to run the business.”

Closing upwards of 80 stores is never going to be an enjoyable process for a managing director, nor for anyone in a company, especially those who perhaps undeservedly find themselves on the redundancy list. Surprisingly, though, this is one area where Old is particularly proud of how the company dealt with the closures.

“Where we could we obviously retained our staff,” he says. “Where we were able to we redeployed staff into other stores and, of course, a number of our staff moved into working in our virtual teams as well. I was pleased we were able to do that where we could.”

Does this signal a new age, then, for the big chain retailers? Regardless of sector, will we see the old tactic of footprint-grabbing large retailers dropped in favour of a newer approach? Old believes so.

“I certainly don’t see it as some kind of space race,” he explains. “In today’s environment, with people feeling comfortable shopping digitally, there’ll be products that customers will buy online – we’ve all lived online for the last 12 months.

“But,” Old adds, “customers are also prepared to make a trip to a store where they know they’re going to get a great experience. You’ve got to give people a reason to come to the store. For me it is much more about providing a great experience in the stores that you do have, rather than necessarily just a numbers game about how many stores you can acquire.”

Reopening
Speaking of the stores, how will they look when retail is permitted to reopen on April 12 in England and Wales? Is Signet looking to reopen all stores at the earliest opportunity, or will it take a more measured approach?

Old answers that question immediately: “Yes, as soon as we’re able to, we’ll get back open again. We’re all straining at the leash to get the stores back open now,” he adds. “And I can’t wait to get colleagues and managers and everyone back into the stores. That’s where they want to be.

“We’re going through a training programme now getting everyone ready to get back in-store. It will be a great day when we can get all of the stores back open, welcome our customers back in, and get our colleagues and managers back where they most want to be.”

The company is hoping for the best but planning for the worst when it looks ahead to the weeks immediately after reopening.

Old says that business recovered with remarkable speed last summer after the 15 June reopening, but is concerned that things may be slightly different this time around.

“The difference is this time,” he says, “pubs and restaurants don’t fully open until May, and then large gatherings like weddings aren’t available until June, so it won’t be quite the same pattern of trade that we saw last year where everything came back online very quickly.”

The managing director still has hope for a strong start out of the gates, however: “Now, maybe the pattern will be slightly different, but we’re incredibly confident.

“We’ve got stores in the Isle of Man and down in the Channel Islands that we’ve been able to trade with thanks to the local authorities allowing it. Those stores have traded very well. So we’re confident that when we’re able to open customers will come back as they did before. I’d say we’re expecting to see business recover very quickly.

“Beyond that, there’s a lot of exciting things in the pipeline for Signet.” Exactly what, Old refuses to divulge, but he promises huge news from the company in late spring or early summer. Until then, for retailers and customers alike, reopening will provide excitement enough.

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