Pragnell has expanded its Stratford-Upon-Avon flagship store by 50% and refurbished the entire property. WatchPro’s Rob Corder visited for a tour with managing director Charlie Pragnell and enjoyed a glide through one of the historic gems of the British jewellery and watch establishment.
Sleepy Stratford-Upon-Avon bursts into life in the summer as tourists from around the world surge into the town to soak up the history of its most famous son William Shakespeare. The centre is certainly picturesque, although not without its share of chain stores, phone shops and souvenir peddlers.
On bustling Wood Street, upmarket jeweller Pragnell is comfortably the most prestigious and eye-catching store. It is also 50% bigger now thanks to the family business acquiring number 7 and adding it to numbers 5 and 6 to create a vast Tudor-era frontage promoting some of the country’s finest jewellery at one end and its most desirable timepieces at the other.
While tourists have been flooding into Stratford-Upon-Avon, Pragnell has been looking outwards. It acquired Tarratt in Leicester in 1996, but waited until last year to change its name to make it another Pragnell. At the end of 2017, it opened its first boutique in London.
The most recent accounts show Pragnell sales rising to over £43 million in the year to May 2018, a sharp increase from turnover of £17 million in 2014.
The extension to its Stratford-Upon-Avon flagship has been a labour of love (and a little hate) for the past 8 years since number 7 was acquired. Working within a building, parts of which date back to the 16th century, was always, quite rightly, going to invite scrutiny from planning officials and historians. Shaping an effective retail space among the oak beams and multi-level floors and ceilings was an additional challenge.
WatchPro visited as the refurbishment was reaching its final stages and the enlarged store was fully re-opened. Entering through number 5 to the left of the store transports us from the bustle of a busy street into a serene oasis of thick carpets, exquisite cabinetry and welcoming furniture.
Some of the most precious jewellery sold anywhere in the country blinks back as we move towards an area dedicated to Patek Philippe, another for Rolex and then a multibrand watch room that uses the whole of the new extension in number 7.
“We have got more space for everything in the showroom, and we have managed to reconfigure some of the spaces to make them a little more intimate and comfortable. We have more furniture, which is all sympathetic to the period of the building. That was one of the conservation requirements for the building,” Pragnell managing director Charlie Pragnell describes as we glide through the space.
Attention has also been given to make the space work for entertaining customers. The watch room, for example, doubles up as a dining room. There is even a new professional kitchen that will prepare haute cuisine for guests who will be served from fine silverware from the Pragnell archive.
The additional space also makes room for two full time watch technicians on site and a small jewellery workshop for basic tasks like polishing and ring re-sizing.
Whenever a respected and highly successful retailer like Pragnell expands, the leading Swiss watchmakers start negotiating for the best in-store positions. Patek Philippe and Rolex, naturally, get first dibs and add up to around half of the space dedicated to watches.
There have been a few changes to the line-up in the multibrand area. A. Lange & Sohne and Audemars Piguet are no longer offered whilie Blancpain and F.P. Journe watches are on sale in the boutique for the first time. Omega, Cartier, Jaeger-LeCoultre, IWC, Panerai, Longines, Reservoir and Breitling complete the roster.
Dropping brands like Audemars Piguet and Lange is not without controversy, particularly as other retailers pay close to the tactics of a respected operator like Pragnell. Both brands are growing their direct to consumer sales, which brings them into competition with retail partners. AP has opened in Harrods and will add a boutique on London’s Sloane Street in July and Bond Street in the autumn. A. Lange & Sohne opened a monobrand boutique in partnership with Wempe on Bond Street at the beginning of this year.
Mr Pragnell is not a fan of collaborating and competing at the same time, favouring the unambiguous commitment by the likes of Rolex and Patek Philippe that work through and support their retail partners. “Plans change from time-to-time, but I do believe that the brands that first started out with a strategy that favours their direct distribution channel are now recognising and acknowledging that in some parts of the world, that is not the most effective way. I believe those watch brands that have not yet recognised this, soon will,” he says.
“The decisions that brands make with their strategies inevitably affect our choices when it comes to working out which we want to work with. The brands that do not favour their direct distribution channel seem to be the most successful across the industry. So QED,” he adds.
Authorised dealers are also struggling to profit from stocking watches that are being sold on the secondary market at significant discounts. Demand for AP’s Royal Oak is so strong that the watches trade online at above recommended retail prices, but secondary market prices for AP Milenary and Royal Oak Offshore models are softer.
A. Lange & Sohne prices on the secondary market are commonly below the prices an authorised dealer must offer. A 2019 rose gold Lange 1 with a retail price of £29,450 at authorised dealers can be bought online at Watchfinder today for just £23,750.
Interestingly, both A. Lange & Sohne and Watchfinder are owned by Richemont, which is working hard to eradicate imbalances in supply and demand that drive discounting on the secondary/grey market.
Given the transparency of prices on secondary market websites and the instant availability of models from across the world, authorised dealers can find themselves pouring money into supporting brands only to endure customers browsing in their stores then shopping online for watches that they know are being discounted.
Price is only one consideration for a retailer like Pragnell. More important is providing the very best experience at all its stores for its well-healed customers so that they keep coming back over years, decades and generations.
“In London our goal is to provide the best possible customer service at the very highest level. We felt that was best-done on a destination street in Mayfair as oppose to one with high footfall in the West End of London. A small, intimate shop, which Mount Street is, lends itself to first class service,” Mr Pragnell suggests.
“The jewellery that we offer along with Patek Philippe and Rolex is of the highest calibre, and London remains a very strong market for high ticket items. So the choices we made for Mayfair are not the same as we are making for outside London. They are just the best way for us to present the services of a high end family jeweller in that market.”
“The same DNA exists here in Stratford-Upon-Avon and in Leicestershire,” Mr Pragnell continues.
“In Leicestershire, it is slightly more led by craftsmanship and expertise because that is where we have our fully Rolex- and Swatch -accredited watch and jewellery workshops housing four goldsmiths and two watchmakers. That adds up to a lot of knowledge, craftsmanship and skill.”
Watch brands recognise and reward the investment that retailers put into their store environments and provision of first class service, and it can help them secure the most desirable stock. Not that Mr Pragnell believes he has the clout to jump the queue when it comes to allocations for the Rolex and Patek Philippe models that are so exquisitely unattainable right now.
He could sell every Daytona, Submariner, GMT, Nautilus or Aquanaut 10 times over, a situation he sees no sign of easing. “The feeling I have is that demand globally and locally is increasing. That has been the trend since I have been in the trade and I do not see it changing,” he predicts.
When it comes to allocations, “As we improve our offering in terms of customer service, the store environment, the expertise and qualifications of our staff, and our stock, the brands appreciate that we are doing our very best. There is a fairness that applies,” he adds.
Trading in pre-owned watches is one way to satisfy customer demand for the scarcest models, but Pragnell is limiting its activity in that area. “We are in pre-owned, but only organically because we accept part-exchanges for some watches. We do not go out to the market sourcing second hand watches. Through part-exchanges, we have enough variety coming in from across our three locations to have a decent stock to sell,” Mr Pragnell describes.
2019 has been a choppy year for retail, even those at the top of the jewellery and watch market, but there are some tailwinds specific to Pragnell that have kept tills ringing over the past 12 months. “We have had a good year. We had a number of beneficial factors last year. One being the first full year of trading from Mount Street. We were also fortunate enough to have won the Queen’s Award for Enterprise, which has helped in a number of ways. And our shop in Leicestershire is now trading under the Pragnell name, which means it benefits more from the group’s marketing budget and it has access to more exclusive stock across jewellery and watches. Here in Stratford, we have been developing the premises, and that seems to attract customers. My father used to say that if you are worried about people not coming into your shop, just change a light bulb in the window and they will soon turn up. We have changed a lot of light bulbs and that has attracted helpful curiosity,” Mr Pragnell smiles.