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THE BIG INTERVIEW: Wakefields reawakened

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Melanie and Dominic Wakefield.

Horsham is a historic market town of around 50,000 people midway between London and Brighton where the Wakefields dominated the high street in the mid-20th century with family-owned stores ranging from a chocolatier, china shop and café to an outfitter and the biggest jeweller.

The empire has receded over the decades so that just the luxury watch and jewellery store run by brother and sister Dominic and Melanie Wakefield are owned by the family today, but that has concentrated the once sprawling operation into a powerhouse of gold, diamonds and prestige watches from Rolex and Tudor.

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A £1.4 million refurbishment this year has added a new polish and sophistication to the modern day Wakefields jewellers and the culmination of a transition from a mid-market branded jewellery emporium into a focused showroom dedicated to 5-star service for premium brands.

Rob Corder met with Mr Wakefield at the store to see the finished space and learn the business case behind the investment.

WATCHRPRO: It is fantastic to visit and see the refurbishment of your store. What were you setting out to achieve and how has the project gone?

Dominic Wakefield: We have been thinking about it for the past five years, but Rolex pushed it to the forefront of our minds when they wanted to refurbish their existing area. We want to give the brand a bit more space, and they wanted us to change the front of the shop to accommodate a flat window.

It took a bit of time to get the remodelling of the front through planning, but with that and the interior upgrade to the Rolex space, we could then build everything else around it.

Although Rolex was the catalyst for the change, we really wanted to protect the identity of our shop and its art deco look that dates back to the 1930s. My great uncle built the shop front and the interior of the store with the art deco feel, and it had been lost over the years. We wanted to bring it back. We were keen to build something that will last, and that is a difference to previous refits.

Wakefields was under renovation for the first five months of 2021.

Mel [Dominic’s sister and co-managing director] and I have been traveling round the country looking at people’s refits for the past five years and there are elements of every single store we visited that I liked and we have adopted. We sat down with Innovare (www.innovare-design.com) and they adapted our ideas into a working plan.

The purpose was to build something, as my great uncle did, that would last. When you go to stores like Selfridges or even Hamilton & Inches in Edinburgh, these are beautiful old buildings and they have worked to subtly bring in changes over the decades that work in harmony. That is what we have set out to achieve. The fabric of the building and the overall design of the store will last, but we will be able to make subtle changes over the years.

We have had to invest a lot of money to achieve this because I want to use materials that will last and look beautiful. The brass work was £120,000 on its own and worth every penny. We put a lot of brass in, which was then bronzed. It is a really lovely finish. For the fluted glass we used a company down in Brighton called Float Glass Design. We did not want to use laminated woods, so we went with solid walnut, and that has given us something to build upon.

Before and after

The old view of the store as customers entered.
How Wakefields welcomes customers today.

WATCHRPRO: Although the branded area for Rolex is familiar in its look and feel, most of the store is very much like a prestigious family jeweller. How did you get that balance?

Dominic Wakefield: We wanted to incorporate our identity into the shop. Brands like Rolex are brilliant, and draw customers to us but, because we have been in Horsham for 110 years, we feel Wakefields is a strong brand as well. Before, that was not properly reflected in the store.

We had the big Wakefields sign outside, but when you came in all you saw were other brands, and they were not necessarily brands that were strong enough to carry the space we gave them.

Pandora in its day was a big brand and pulled in customers, but we do not have that anymore. Other brands like Thomas Sabo dropped off as well, so we have moved away from all those sorts of brands and concentrated on prestige brands that better represent who we are such as Rolex, Tudor and Fope. Other brands we have incorporated into more of a Wakefields collection.

Before, the store was lined with branded jewellery.
Now Wakefields is the over-arching brand, with its own jewellery collections curated alongside pieces from prestigious marques.

WATCHRPRO: You appear to have achieved two things at the same time: you have reduced the number of brands you are offering, which has brought down the density of product in the shop and at the same time defined the level of luxury you want Wakefields to stand for by focusing on just a handful of luxury brands.

Dominic Wakefield: That is certainly what we are trying to do. We don’t quite have it right yet, but we believe in the concept that less is more. We want less in the windows because they have been overstocked. The watch side is fine, but in the jewellery area we are trying to find a way to draw people into the shop with fewer but more exciting pieces.

There will be more in our safes and less in the windows, because we want our teams to be presenting the jewellery or watches based on what the customer is hoping to see. They have often done a lot of research online before they come in, so we have put a lot of work into upgrading our online presence as well. This means customer can browse all of our stock before coming in and even create a wish list so that we know what they are looking for when they come in for an appointment.

The customer likes the feeling that we are bringing products from our safes that are not on general display. It makes it more special to them. It is also better for our staff because they are not rushing around the shop finding pieces in the windows or cabinets. It is all carefully stored in one place.

A stunning Art Deco bar is used as a welcome reception where people can have a drink and a chat before being served by the most appropriate consultant.

We took a gamble by installing the bar area but it is part of the customer journey we are trying to create. We were keen to have it at the front of the store because we wanted to make it act like a reception area. When people come in through a locked door and security, which can be intimidating, we want to put them immediately at ease by taking a seat at the bar and getting a drink. The full time barman is trained to serve the customer and also ascertain their needs and at that point we can bring over the right person to help them.

Previously, customers might have come in and stood wondering what to do by the door until somebody came to serve them. They would be picked off by whoever saw them first, and who did not know what the customer was looking for. This might mean the customer being passed from one member of our staff to another, which was not ideal.

Now, after they are relaxed with a drink, they will be guided to the right person for jewellery, watches, a repair or whatever they came in for.

WATCHRPRO: Not only are you selling fewer products at higher prices, it also sounds like you are building more intimate relationships with your clients.

Dominic Wakefield: CRM (customer relationship management) is huge, and is one of the biggest things all retailers should be looking at right now. Everybody I know is looking at some sort of system. I know Watches of Switzerland and Beaverbrooks use Salesforce. We are looking at various different systems. We have a bespoke system at the moment, but we are looking at switching to something off the shelf.

Stock management systems for jewellery like Pursuit, Clarity & Success and Bransom are notoriously difficult to integrate with CRM systems. Even off the shelf solutions like Salesforce, Hubspot or Zoho are difficult to use with the stock management systems we all have. We are trying to come up with a solution, but it is not quite there yet.

The way we speak to customers is so varied now. We use WhatsApp a lot. It is huge for us as a sales tool. I never used to give out my mobile number and kind of wish I hadn’t started. I get messages all day and night and now I have a company iPhone to handle it. We find it a great way to ping pictures over quickly and customers get answers instantly. E-mail is OK, we use Instagram and Facebook, but WhatsApp is by far the quickest and easiest. We use it a lot.

You would be amazed what I sell these days over WhatsApp. Customers have to come into the store eventually, but most of the consultation and selling has been done before they even come in.

It is the same on the supplier side. Most of the people we deal with in Hong Kong for jewellery are so advanced on WhatsApp. You can ask them for a CAD drawing of a diamond ring. They will ping it to me within an hour via WhatsApp and I can forward it to a customer.

We are moving from Bramson to Clarity & Success, and we are ditching PCs in favour of iPads, particularly in the shop. The till will be an iPad.

WATCHRPRO: I can see from the refurbishment that you are no longer standing behind a cabinet serving customers. Other than the bar, you have removed all the barriers between you and the customers.

Dominic Wakefield: The nicest feeling is when I look into the shop remotely on a Saturday when it is busy, and I can see that all the seating areas are being taken, customers have a drink and they are all relaxed and enjoying themselves. We are increasing the dwell time in the shop. That is what I like.

The worst thing in a store — and this used to be the case before the refurbishment — is when everybody is let in and we have four desks taken by customers and everybody else is standing around tapping their feet waiting to be served. We had to rush the customers through to get onto the next person.

The store has eight seated areas for private consultations.

We now have eight seated areas, many of them in private rooms, and four stools at the bar, which is double what we had before. Now we space everybody out around the shop so that nobody feels they are being overlooked or rushed.

WATCHRPRO: You have great photography of the new store, but it does not really give enough of an impression about the size of the space now, and particularly how large the interior is compared to the store front. And that is just the retail space I am talking about. Upstairs you have the workshops and offices. You would never imagine from the front how big the property is.

Dominic Wakefield: The shop is around 200 square metres (2,150 square feet). You can more than double that if you include upstairs and the rest of building. It is probably around 5,000 square feet in total.

WATCHRPRO: We are meeting in July, and there is still building work going on in the non-retail parts of the building. You must have been working all the way through the pandemic.

Dominic Wakefield: We only started this year. The first lock down (Q2 2020) we were closed but did not start work. The second lock down was when we started the work. We closed the store on Christmas Eve until May 26. So all of the work to bring the shop to the state you see now has been done in five months.

WATCHRPRO: What’s left to do?

Dominic Wakefield: We are putting in a full service Rolex workshop. We know that Rolex watchmakers are really hard to come by, so we are going to create the best possible space so that we attract the right people. I want it to be a fantastic space because I want to give customers the chance to come up and see their watches being worked on.

Rolex is keen for the network to take up some of the slack from its own service centre. Demand, as you know, has been off the charts for the past five years, which means there are about to be a lot of watches from five years’ ago that are going to be coming in to be serviced. They are already at capacity at Kings Hill [Rolex’s own UK service centre]. The rest of the network is at capacity. They need to keep lead times down to below something like 12 weeks, so the only way to do that is to increase the number of watchmakers in the network. They are expecting the number of watches to come in for servicing to double or even treble, which will be almost impossible to handle.

It isn’t just Rolex. It is the same for Patek Philippe and others. That means we are all chasing hard to find watchmakers. There are not enough people entering the industry and doing the training, which is surprising because they can earn up to £60,000 per year. Kids should be encouraged to look at watchmaking as a great career choice for technically minded people.

WATCHRPRO: It surprises me, if there is a shortage of watchmakers in this country, that we do not look to bring people in from abroad. Is it not possible to get visas?

Dominic Wakefield: I would love to bring somebody in from abroad. I have a fantastic jeweller from Poland with a brilliant work ethic and skills. It would be great to sponsor somebody else from Poland to come in as a watchmaker. I have also heard that watchmakers are not valued nearly as highly in France as they are here, so that could be a place to look.

WATCHRPRO: Are you prepared to say how much you will have invested by the time everything is complete downstairs and upstairs?

Dominic Wakefield: We think it will be around £1.4 million. A lot of money. We also bought a building that we previously leased. That cost of that is on top. The store itself probably cost a million.

We have held off a complete renovation like this for so long, just spending a few hundred grand here and there over the years. I think we are going to get better value doing it this way.

Work was continuing upstairs from the showroom where an authorised Rolex Service Centre, other workshop space and offices will be located. Everything will be designed to a standard that will allow customers to access the whole building.

WATCHRPRO: How does it feel investing that sort of money, giving a third of your ground floor to Rolex right at the front of the store, and then you cannot get any stock from them?

Rolex at Wakefields.

Dominic Wakefield: Rolex has been really good to us and supported us with a few additional watches. When you embark on a project like this, they reward you and support you. I could not live without Rolex. I would not have been able to do any of it without Rolex. The brand brings in customers. It is a good partnership.

WATCHRPRO: I have been told by a number of retailers that the surest way to secure better allocation of watches is to invest in bigger and better Rolex stores.

Dominic Wakefield: There is an element of that, but it is also based on performance and bringing in the right sort of customers. The only way to do that is to offer the right experience and environment. That is what we are doing here.

The feel of downstairs is less like a shop and more like a 5-star hotel. That is what Mel and I wanted to achieve. We are happy for people to just come in and sit at the bar. I have seen people meet at the bar as strangers and spend an hour talking about watches with each other. That, for me, is what we want. We don’t care if they buy anything. We want people to feel they are getting a 5-star London experience in their home town.

WATCHRPRO: How important is it to get the mix of sales between fine jewellery, where the margins are best, with watches where the margins may be lower but they attract so many customers into the store?

Dominic Wakefield: It is important. Most of our team can work both sides but we do have watch specialists. Jewellery is really important, not least because that is our heritage. Mel and I are both gemmologists. We want to create high value bespoke pieces designed with and for our clients and also beautifully designed branded jewellery from the likes of Brown & Newirth, Fope, Shaun Leane and Hans D Krieger. These are the brands that align with our positioning now. Gone are the days when we were chasing every brand.

We weren’t really into watches until we had Rolex. We only had Tissot, Longines and a few other commercial brands. When we got into Rolex in 2012, it was a massive change for us.

The new luxury showroom is drawing customers into Horsham from London to the north and Brighton to the south.

WATCHRPRO: What you are describing is making Wakefields a destination jeweller. Do your customers come from further afield now?

Dominic Wakefield: They do, everywhere from London to Brighton these days. Particularly with Rolex inquiries, we try not to overlap with anybody else’s territory, and we are less likely to develop long term relationships with somebody who just lands here from Devon for a Rolex and we are unlikely to ever see again. We mostly see customers from Surry, Sussex and Kent.

WATCHRPRO: The Rolex drought shows no signs of easing and I know from many retailers I speak to that it is becoming a massive challenge keeping even the most loyal customers happy because they want the same watches everybody else wants. How do you handle that issue?

Dominic Wakefield: We just amalgamated all our waiting list to one big spreadsheet. We used to have a different list for every watch, which was a complete pain to manage. I have 1,500 people on that merged list, just for Rolex. It is incredible. Every time you get a delivery of watches, I allocate them to customers and there is almost nothing left for the window. For a single store like we are, we would want stock of around 120 watches. Right now I am at around 45 to 50.

The grey market perpetuates the problem. People look at the prices and you get another flood of phone calls. Take the Oyster Perpetual. The 41mm, particularly with the turquoise or green dial, is trading at £13,000 for a £4,700 watch. That means you suddenly get a flood of inquiries and that is demand we do not need. We have enough genuine customers so the people that just want to flip watches for a profit are a problem.

WATCHRPRO: On the positive side, even casual watch customers are starting to realise that they cannot just walk in one day to any Rolex dealer and walk out with a steel Submariner. They know they need to cultivate deep and long lasting relationships with their local jewellers in order to be considered for these unicorn watches. That must be good for a business like yours with a balance between watches and fine jewellery.

Dominic Wakefield: Even to our loyalist customers, I have to say that they cannot expect more than one steel sports watch or something like an Oyster Perpetual in a year. It is not fair to sell watches that everybody wants to the same people over and over. Even if they are serious collectors, I have found they are happy with that arrangement.

I hate to have to sell like this, but if people phone up asking for a hard to get watch, I have to work out whether they have a purchase history with us before they can be considered for it. That is a shock to a lot of people because they might only buy a watch like that once in their lifetime and don’t think there will be a problem when the time comes. If you are not in the watch world, you do not understand why it is so hard to buy a £5,000 to £7,000 watch that you want. That is a lot of money to spend.

That said, we have helped people with no purchase history because they are genuinely lovely people that want that watch on their wrist for the rest of their lives. Those are the people we want to get these watches, particularly if they are local.

WATCHRPRO: Now that the store refurbishment is finished, what are your priorities moving forward?

Dominic Wakefield: We still have the workshops and offices to complete, and along with that we are looking to bring in some great people. There are a few people leaving us this year, and we want to use that opportunity to hire fantastic staff that are used to working at the new level of luxury we are offering.

Along with that, we are always finessing the line-up of brands. We love working with Rolex and Tudor. The watches sell themselves, but also the people behind them are so fantastic. They are not a faceless group that we work with at a personal level.

Swatch Group is huge. I hear from my Longines rep, who is lovely, but I have never heard from anybody else in Longines over the 30 years we have sold it. I find that incredible. They expect us to buy everything, but they have never invested any time in us as their agent. They are all moving into selling direct. Omega stores are opening up all over the place. They are pushing for more space from their retailers and I am a bit fed up with that. I have seen retailers give away their identity to these brands. That is not a direction we want to go.

We are going from three watch brands to two [dropping Longines], along with pre-owned. As you know pre-owned is huge. It is like the number three brand in a store like ours after Rolex and Tudor. The only issue is you cannot get enough of the right product in pre-owned either and the margins are not that great. I never buy steel professional watches. I don’t see the point in spending £15,000 to make £500. I would rather invest that money in something else.

WATCHRPRO: This is one of the first conversations with a retailer in the past 18 months when it has not been all about the pandemic. It sounds like trading remained strong for you, even through the first lock down, and the second lock down coincided with the refurbishment.

Dominic Wakefield: We have been very lucky that it all worked out quite well for us despite what was going on.

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