2012 is a milestone for Prestons as the retailer opens the first Rolex boutique outside London and rebrands its Wilmslow store. WatchPro’s Rachael Taylor meets the team in leeds the day before the opening of a Rolex retail first.
Karl Massey started out in the watch business selling Timex, but as he stands proprietorially on the threshold of the first UK standalone Rolex boutique outside London that feels like a far cry from the calibre of business he is running now.
Rolex at Prestons is certainly a first and while there are cities that would perhaps have been a more obvious choice for the luxury brand’s first foray outside the capital city, such Edinburgh or nearby Manchester, Massey says that Leeds was the only location for him.
“I’ve walked around Leeds for the past year, looking in shop windows, counting people, looking for empty shops and it’s always busy, there are no empty shops,” he says. “It is a thriving, dynamic city and there is no other city in the UK that I’d rather be in with Rolex at Prestons.”
The idea for the store came not from Geneva, but from Massey himself who took the proposal to the luxury watch brand. Massey has been working closely with Rolex as an official stockist for 22 years and says that it is above and beyond the best supplier that he deals with.
The construction work on the store has been vast. Massey was quick to snap up a property on the city’s Commercial Street, bang in the middle of a cluster of jewellers that includes Beaverbrooks and Goldsmiths, but what he got was a dilapidated ex-Vodaphone shop.
Massey turned to his in-house team of shopfitters – which is now getting ready to expand its business horizons outside of Prestons under a seperate company – to see what wonders they could work. What they have created out of the shell of that retail unit is a three-storey, light and airy space with VIP area and the first bar and library in a Rolex shop in the world. “We always have a bar,” laughs Massey, whose two other stores in Bolton and Wilmslow have long been reaping the benefit of champagne sales.
Massey and his team had a definite vision for what they wanted the store interior to look like, but working with such a regimented brand as Rolex it was always going to be a challenge to get some outside-the-box ideas approved. To ensure the brand understood why they felt the changes were necessary Massey made the trip over to Geneva to meet with Rolex’s head of design, who – despite a few non-negotiable features – was happy to collaborate and sign off on a Rolex store that would be like no other.
The challenge of transforming Vodaphone into Rolex has been a gargantuan effort for the team, which has spent five months razing the building back to bricks and then building it up to an incredibly high spec that includes features such as a 1 tonne entirely glass staircase and a mezzanine that will serve as bench space for a full-time watchmaker to handle repairs and alterations.
The total investment in store fit and stock has been £2 million and so Massey is hoping that it will be a success in the town, although he admits he has absolutely no clue as to what the store will be turning over. “When we put our forecasts to Rolex they said that they were lower than expected,” says Massey. “But we really don’t know whether we’ll be selling three Rolexes a week or 10.”
The trade in Rolex is booming at Massey’s other two stores with sales hitting 35 Rolex timepieces across the two stores in the month before the Rolex boutique opened in Leeds, and Massey reveals that it is the best-performing watch brand at his business in terms of both value and volume.
In fact, business in general is booming at Prestons. “We are having our best ever year, we’re smashing last year,” says Massey. “Last week we sold 20 diamond rings at £100,000.”
Massey believes that it is the combination of opening stores in offbeat locations that benefit from low rents and then building the shops up as destination retail locations so that they don’t have to rely on passing trade. While creating a destination store takes a lot of marketing budget, Massey says that the company can offset this by the relatively low rents and once a customer is through the door listening to the live pianist and enjoying a glass of champagne at the Best Man’s Bar, for example, the trip is perceived as well worth the effort.
Rolex at Prestons is, by contrast, in a fairly high footfall area, being located on a main shopping drag surrounded by other jewellers and, while Massey admits that the rent is higher than at his other two stores despite the floorspace equating to about a 10th of that at Prestons of Bolton at 88.5sqm, it is not as extortionate as that of units in shopping centres, such as the nearby Trafford Centre that hosts and Omega boutique as well as jewellers Beaverbrooks, Goldsmiths, F Hinds and Fraser Hart, among others.
To run such a prestigious store – and a high-profile first for the Swiss brand as well as for the company – a great store manager is essential. When the confirmation came through that the unit on Commercial Street was secured Massey set about researching managers already in the market and one name kept popping up – Andrew Duffy.
But Duffy had other plans. After 30 years in the jewellery and watch retail business that had led to him opening several stores, including the Watches of Switzerland shop that now lies next door to Rolex at Prestons, he was ready for a career break and was taking time out to enjoy more leisurely activities.
“Last February I took some time out, it was a massive flier and people said it was one of the craziest things I’ve ever done, but it had just been so full on,” explains Duffy. “Then I got a phone call within the first week to say keep your phone on. I had a feeling it would be somebody about Rolex as I knew Berry’s had just lost them.”
A few weeks later the fated phone call arrived and Massey asked Duffy to meet him for a coffee, and not long after that his “very cathartic” but short-lived sabbatical was over and he was in the shop working at Prestons of Bolton, getting to grips with the Prestons business in the nine months preceding to the Rolex launch.
Massey is still in the process of recruiting staff for the store but has already built up a sales staff of three people he has taken on from outside of the Prestons business, and is also on the hunt for a qualified Rolex watchmaker, which he says is a tough search, although he believes this will become easier when people see the shop open. “People need to see this store,” he enthuses. “They need to see that it is not just Prestons, that it is a boutique, a beautiful place to buy a beautiful watch.”
Like Massey, Duffy is confident of the prospects for Rolex at Prestons but stumped as to the exact nature of the success. The only other stockist of Rolex in Leeds is a Goldsmiths store that lies just opposite Rolex at Prestons. Rolex UK brand director Jonathan Flowers, who works with the branch, says that there are no plans to stop the outlet from stocking the brand. And it would seem that Goldsmiths is giving Prestons a head start as at the time of the opening of the boutique – which was both on time and on budget – as that branch of the multiple retailer had shut down for six-week refurb.
Flowers believes that the team at Prestons have a “very good” opportunity with the new store and that it was down to the strength of the business that the company already had with Rolex that led it to approve Massey’s request to open the boutique. “We felt that this was a proposal that we couldn’t turn down,” confirms Flowers.
Leeds has “a need for luxury goods”, according to Flowers, who cites the recent opening of a Ferrari garage in the city as a beacon of its wealth, so the location was another attractive element of Massey’s proposal.
When asked if Rolex is planning to build a network of such stores throughout the UK Flowers answers that “it is not our intention to do that”, but adds that it will be “interesting to see how this one works”.
And it would seem that the effects of the store have been pretty instantaneous. At 11:45am on the morning WatchPro visited the store – a day before its official opening on Saturday, June 2 – the first customer had already crossed the threshold and a deal was being struck, assisted by Flowers himself. Duffy says that the gentleman who climbed through the chaos of finishing touches was a local businessman who already owns a premium Rolex and was planning to add to his collection after just receiving a bonus at work.
A post-visit catch-up with Massey shortly before WatchPro went to press confirms that the store has “got off to a flyer”. While Massey claims he might not be opening new stores any time soon, as he’s “spent all the money”, it seems that a Rolex store in Leeds might just prove to be the perfect one to invest in.