Glasgow-founded Laings is one of several larger UK jewellers employing an ambitious brick-and-mortar expansion policy in a bid to take an early lead off the starting blocks in the post-pandemic landscape.
The trend shows a determined, industry-wide belief that footfall will return to high streets, and sooner rather than later.
Laings’ particular growth plans, however, include no new stores at this time – though the company does not rule it out in the future. Instead, the retailer is opting to invest £10 million in renovating and expanding its existing showrooms.
The tactic will see Laings opt for quality over quantity in its retail portfolio, currently comprising six stores: one each in Cardiff, Southampton and Edinburgh, and three in its founding city of Glasgow.
The company’s site in the Welsh capital was its last to open, back in the year 2000, but will now be the first to receive an upgrade with work already well underway, PJ is told.
Professional Jeweller’s conversation with Laings retail director, Stuart McDowell, however, begins with a quick recap of the last 18 months. “For 2020 we were in a really strong position and looking forward to celebrating 180 years of trading,” he explains, “but obviously, the pandemic came along.”
It was difficult to know what the right course of action was, McDowell says, because there was no blueprint for dealing with something like this – not in living memory had a crisis like this happened.
“All we knew was we had to react quickly,” the retail director says, detailing the shift to e-commerce in the first lockdown. “And we did. We adapted quickly. That was the biggest challenge for us.
“Then when we reopened, we traded well. People were wanting to get out, wanting to purchase again. It started off quite strong, but then the second lockdown came along.”
Unlike many in the same situation, though, Laings was not discouraged by return of lockdown measures later in 2020. On the contrary, it felt ready this time.
“We learned a lot through the first one,” McDowell explains. “We knew what we were able to do, what we could do well, what we needed to change, and we felt better prepared for it.”
What were these changes? The retail director begins: “We were able to meet with our customers virtually, and offer click-and-collect.”
The major shift, however, was “just beefing up the online team to deal with more customer interaction via the website and online chats”, he adds.
“So the second lockdown for us, we felt like we prevailed quite well out of the second lockdown, because we were more prepared for it,” McDowell summarises, before looking to the future of the company.
“Going forward, everybody is looking to the new normal and what that phrase might mean for us all. For us at Laings, we’re looking further ahead, planning out a roadmap for all our expansion and growth going forward, to really just push the brand forward but also to create development for everybody who’s on board with us at the moment.”
The move would be ambitious at any time given the rise of online shopping, but it comes at (what we hope is) the tail-end of a pandemic that has been a weight around the neck of the retail industry, even when shops have been open.
Laings, however, feels that everyone needs ambition at a time like this, whether in their personal lives or in business, if we are to get back to something like normal life any time soon.
“I think that’s the big thing for everybody, is just looking forward to the future. We all need ambitious plans and things to move towards,” says McDowell.
To this end, Laings’ expansion will not leave its employees behind – they too will have the opportunity to develop their own skill sets. “We have fantastic teams in place, and we really just want to provide development for them so that everybody can move forward in the business and also feel a part of the business.”
As well as giving new tools to its existing staff, the retailer is also looking to expand its workforce by as much as 25% to facilitate the larger stores and sales volumes it anticipates.
The Cardiff store, for example, is not just going to be renovated but is upping its square footage. So considerable will be its growth that McDowell claims it will “become three times its current size”.
If all the stores are to be upsized to such a degree then it is no wonder that Laings requires a 25% boost to its staffing levels, but McDowell says that the new employees will not be confined to the retail side of the business.
“No, it’s not just specific to hiring for retail,” McDowell explains. “We are a growing business in many ways, and that 25% is going to be across the board.”
He gives an example: “We plan to hire up to 20 watchmakers in Glasgow and set up a watchmaking facility in the city as well. And I think that just filters through all locations – we’re not just looking at what’s visible on the shop floor. It’s visibility from behind too.”
What will this visibility mean to Laings and its customers? Primarily, a more experiential journey in-store that will include jewellery designers and watchmakers working in a more customer-facing role, with Laings clients for the first time in its history invited behind the workbench to see how the professionals work and to discuss the customers’ own bespoke commissions.
“We will be bringing those behind-the-scenes experiences to the customer. I think it’s time they see the whole process”
“We will be bringing those behind-the-scenes experiences to the customer,” says McDowell. “I think it’s time they see the whole process, and it just goes hand-in-hand with the services we already offer, such as when we’re designing a ring for a customer, which we love to do.
“It will be great to facilitate them meeting the designer, meeting the jewellers who are going to work on the product as well. Placing the designers within the stores is incredibly important to that, to feeding that customer journey. Now the customer will know the person who’s working on the piece of jewellery for them. Now they get to feel the whole experience.”
As well as bespoke jewellery design, the above will also extend to resizing and repair jobs too.
When Professional Jeweller enquires as to whether Laings will be adding any strings to its bow in this regard, McDowell explains: “Service-wise, we will continue to develop that more than anything. I think it’s seen as a lesser aspect of jewellery retail, but we know that servicing is a very important part of the customer journey, whether that be ring sizing or anything else.”
What the new, behind-the-workbench layout of Laings will facilitate, though, is bringing these services to the forefront, making them more visible to customers.
“It’s just about highlighting what we’re doing as a retail business, but also as a manufacturer and repair business,” McDowell continues. “Service-wise we will continue with the services we offer, but just make a better, customer-focused journey throughout those services.”
As excited as Laings is about the potential to entice more customers through its doors with this new feature, McDowell seems to be equally enthused by the impact the move will have on Laings’ staff and the wider industry.
“For me,” he says, “it is about giving a different experience to customers, giving them something that they deserve, but I also think it’s about developing people, not just ourselves.”
By bringing in new jewellery designers, watchmakers and other professionals across the business, Laings believes it is “safeguarding the future of the artisans that are involved in watchmaking and in jewellery-making”.
“And obviously we will continue with training and we will send people to Antwerp for training at the gemological institute there as well. Our focus through the pandemic has been on training and creating a training package to back up the recruitment process as well.”
The Cardiff showroom is acting as guinea pig for Laings’ big renovation experiment, with work on the store ongoing. “Yeah, everything’s underway at the moment,” confirms McDowell. “Everything is going to plan.”
When PJ asks why Cardiff is first to receive the refurbishment and upsizing treatment, he says: “I love Cardiff. It’s beautiful. I didn’t appreciate it until I came into the business, but the development that the city has put in with the Bay and all the rest of it, it’s really come on leaps and bounds. We see great potential in Cardiff.”
Laings is also looking to stock a number brands not available across the rest of the city, or even anywhere else in Wales.
“But,” McDowell reminds PJ, “it’s not just investment in Cardiff. We are investing through all the showrooms – £10 million across the whole group. Cardiff is just the first step of that.”
With such a focus on brick-and-mortar in Laings’ plans, it begs the question of whether it is leaving e-commerce behind – a mistake that could prove costly given the trend for online sales in recent times.
“It was a priority before Covid came along,” McDowell confirms, “and we currently have a lot of recruitment and web development we’re doing around the e-commerce site.”
Laings is keen to emphasise, though, that e-commerce is not and never will be the full story when it comes to jewellery retail. There will always be products Laings will offer in-store that will not appear on the website, McDowell reveals.
“So while we will continue to prioritise our e-commerce business,” the retail director says, “it is not the be-all and end-all. The whole goal for us is getting people in front of the product so they can sit down, try it on and get a feel for it. But then that is not to the neglect of the web team.
“Many customer journeys start from an inquiry through the website and then end up in-store. So we know that development within the e-commerce team needs to continue, but we’re not forgetting about the stores during that.”
Reflecting on the physical retail experience and the reason for Laings’ continued investment in it, McDowell wraps up: “It’s a sort of pastime, isn’t it? It’s an escapism, almost like getting out for a meal.
“I do think that people will return to the high street and in greater numbers than ever. We as a business experience everything from a birth through to a wedding, and we are on a journey with customers through that, a point of contact for them.
“So customers like coming into the shop, like building those relationships with the teams, and we try to become a part of the family.”
Want to hear PJ’s unedited conversation with McDowell in full? Listen to the PJ Podcast with host Sam Lewis below: