Many members of the Houlden Group collective of watch and jewellery retailers are going through a once-in-a-generation change right now. Jewellers that have been run for decades by the same owners are passing the baton to their children, many of whom have forged successful careers away from their families’ businesses and outside the jewellery industry.
For the past few years, Stuart Laing, Houlden Group chief executive and owner of Laings of Glasgow, has been managing this exact process. Laing’s daughter, Wendy, and her husband Joe Walsh, have been taking ever-greater control over the luxury jeweller, also bringing in expertise picked up far away from the company’s heartland. “Wendy forged her own career at LVMH, before bringing the skills she acquired there back to the family firm, and Joe was an accountant dealing with mergers and acquisitions at a top city firm,” Laing explains.
Ironically, this new blood that is coursing through the veins of centuries-old businesses has not caused as much anguish as traditionalists might have feared. Quite the opposite, Laing told WatchPro in a wide-ranging conversation. Many Houlden members are going back to their roots by promoting the names of their family-owned jewellers as the most important brand in their catchment areas; ahead of the branded watch and jewellery names that have risen to prominence in recent years.
The Laings of Glasgow name, for example, is every bit as powerful to affluent shoppers in the Scottish city as the brands that the store sells.
The same goes for 32 other Houlden members that collectively own 80 stores with a turnover of £250 million, says Laing. “Our strongest brands are the names of our shops,” he asserts.
The strength of these retail brands creates demand in two directions. Consumers want to shop within these prestigious jewellers, and the biggest watch and jewellery houses want to be stocked by them. “In the past year, Laings of Glasgow has added Breitling, Chanel and Zenith to its portfolio,” Laing reveals. “We did some focus group research and were amazed at just how much the Laings brand is known and respected. The same is true for most of Houlden’s members. They are the most important jewellery brands in their locality,” he adds.
It isn’t just watch sales that are booming for Houlden members thanks to their return to family-backed basics. Jewellery sales and profits are rising fast too.
Houlden Group is helping its members capitalise on this with a new initiative designed to simplify the creation of exclusive fine jewellery collections that can be marketed under the name of the family jeweller.
The initiative works with Houlden Group sourcing fine jewellery collections (all gold of at least 14ct) from around the world – mainly Germany, Italy and Hong Kong at the moment – and securing exclusive rights for UK distribution for at least 12 months. These collections can come from prestigious jewellery designers, but they come to the UK as private label items that can be branded as exclusive to Houlden member shops.
Houlden also helps with the promotion of the exclusive collections using an online business-to-business marketing service called En Route. This gives member companies a step-by-step way of creating promotional brochures, merchandise, invitations, posters, business cards and other printed items quickly and professionally.
“This type of sourcing of exclusive collections, and sophisticated marketing support is what Houlden members have always wanted from being part of the group. We have returned to putting the emphasis on our original roots – buying and marketing,” suggests Laing.
“It is vital right now because independent jewellers are facing tougher and tougher competition from the major jeweller chains, which have become better and better in the past two years. Independents are losing business to these multiples, and too many of them are disappearing,” Laing laments.
Competition for independents is also coming from the largest online retailers, which have scale and nationwide power that high street retailers cannot match. As a result – and with pragmatism that has seen many family-owned business survive two world wars – Houlden members have decided to work in partnership with The Watch Gallery, one of the UK’s biggest e-stores, to fulfil click-and-collect orders for customers in their local towns and cities.
The Watch Gallery is the online storefront for DM London, which also manages the watch department of Selfridges in London and Manchester. The website sells 36 high-end watch brands ranging from sub-£500 brands like 88 Rue Du Rhone and Dreyfuss & Co.; up to Vacheron Constantin, Roger Dubuis, IWC and Parmigiani with six-figure price tags.
Customers shopping on The Watch Gallery’s website are invited to browse and buy watches online, but to collect the watches in store at Houlden group retailers around the country.
For example, a shopper might select a Breitling Navitimer costing £5,760 from Watchgallery.com, and select a jeweller in their home town of Blackpool to collect it from. The Watch Gallery would identify Leonard Dews as the nearest store, and direct the customer to collect it from there.
Leonard Dews takes a commission on the sale and, perhaps more importantly, has the chance to forge a positive relationship with the Breitling customer.
The click-and-collect service was piloted over the past year with a number of Houlden-affiliated stores and has since been rolled out to all Houlden Group members.
“The idea came up when David Coleridge [chairman of DM London] and I were speaking about online sales for luxury watches. The Watch Gallery felt it was losing market share to the online stores of the major multiples because it did not have a nationwide network of shops. So we offered to help as a group. Bearing in mind the importance of each member’s watch business, we also don’t want to lose out to online competitors. Working together looked like the perfect solution for both of us,” Laing explains.
“The partnership between The Watch Gallery and Laings meant that customers could click-and-collect from our boutiques in Glasgow, but the idea really comes alive when you include all Houlden members, which means customers can buy online and collect from a store almost anywhere in the UK,” adds Laing.
While Houlden retailers are fiercely protective of the brand strength they have built up in their local communities, Laing believes they are prepared to work with The Watch Gallery online because of the scale of the DM London-owned business. “Houlden jewellers are great businesses and brands in their own right, but they will struggle to compete with an operation the size of The Watch Gallery. For example, it is difficult for Laings of Glasgow to get to the top of a Google search for a luxury watch brand, but The Watch Gallery can,” he explains.
The volume of watches sold via the click-and-collect initiative is relatively small today, Laing admits, but believes sales will pick up in time. “We see this as a three-year project,” he suggests.
The rapidly changing face of retail and the economic downturn of the past five years has battered independent watch and jewellery retailers. The fledgling recovery we are witnessing now should not lull any independent into thinking that the gravy train is about to start rolling again. It is vital, Laing concludes, that they recognise the strength of retail brands that have survived for generations, while leveraging the collective buying strength of being a Houlden member, and using its professional services to improve marketing to the point that it is at least as effective as the major chains.