The managing director of Voisins can draw on almost half a century of department store experience as he implements his vision for the Jersey independent’s future.
David Elliott, managing director of independent department store Voisins in Jersey, jokes that he has got to know the names of all the air hostesses on Aer Lingus over the past couple years.
Over that time, Elliott, who made his name as merchandise and then retail operations director of Selfridges when it was part of Sears, has had three different jobs on three different islands.
In 2008, he found himself travelling between Dublin, Wimbledon and Jersey for work, with his family home in Amersham, Buckinghamshire.
As fashion director at Dublin department store Arnotts, brand director at indie department store Elys of Wimbledon in south London and then-consultant to Voisins, it was a whirlwind time, but one Elliott relished. “I was talking to some of the brands about all three stores and there were no competition issues,” he says. “It worked quite well in that respect, but the travel was hard.”
However, Elliott is not one to shy away from a challenge. After 46 years working in the department store sector, beginning in 1963 as a management trainee at Debenhams, he has a wealth of experience. His latest project is the revitalisation of Voisins, the family-owned department store business in St Helier, Jersey, which was founded in 1837 and is now run by the youthful Gerald Voisin, who holds the position of chairman.
In August last year, Voisin, who gave up his role in Jersey’s government to focus on his department store, asked Elliott to become its managing director. At the time the store was lagging behind rival de Gruchy, owned by Ulster Stores, which sits a few hundred metres down the road from Voisins on King Street.
Voisins may be more than a hop, skip and a plane ride away from Elliott’s time at Selfridges, which he calls the “most wonderfully exciting time” of his career and where he was responsible for introducing a contemporary brand mix and the iconic yellow bag, but the principles remain the same. “When I started my career, the department store model had category departments – a dress department, a dress fabric department, a wig department, a haberdashery,” says Elliott.
“Whereas now things are more categorised into brands. People buy into brands because they know which brands they feel comfortable with and which brands fit [them]. Customers are more promiscuous than they used to be but brand loyalty is still very evident.”
In September, Voisins unveiled a new-look womenswear department as part of a joint venture with Jersey-based Collections Group via its indie mini chain Axle Woman. Elliott and Axle Woman managing director Richard Clews have together introduced brands including Nicole Farhi, Joseph, MaxMara, Armani Jeans, Diesel and 7 For All Mankind to the store. It makes Voisins the only place on the island to stock the brands, after Clews closed his two womenswear standalone stores.
Voisins has also opened a 1,380 sq ft shop-in-shop called The World of Tommy Hilfiger and refurbished its lingerie department to include shopfits from the likes of Calvin Klein and
Princesse Tam Tam.
It all forms part of a £1.5m revamp of Voisins’ store in St Helier, the tax haven and tourist destination famous for its cows, cream and potatoes. However, there is much more- to Jersey than retirement homes and wealthy tax exiles, says Elliott, who points to a recent influx of multiple retailers on the island tapping into a young market.
New Look recently opened in a former Woolworths site and the island now has two Marks & Spencer stores.
“Jersey is much larger and younger than people realise,” says Elliott. “There are nearly 100,000 people here. Jersey doesn’t perhaps move as quickly as
elsewhere but that’s not a criticism.”
However, he adds that the recession has impacted Jersey like everywhere else. Voisins notched up almost £19m in sales in the year to January 31, an 8% increase on the previous year, but the disruption to the store caused by the revamp and recessionary factors have impacted sales by 6% in the year to date.
Elliott says the store had an “amazing response” following the launch of the new womenswear area. Ralph Lauren, Ted Baker, Boss Orange, Paul Smith,
C by Chloé, Nicole Farhi and MaxMara have “in the initial few weeks done particularly well,” says Elliott.
“Bringing all the brands in via Axle is quite a unique thing,” he says. “When I came here I wanted to bring in a lot of the brands I knew at Selfridges. I quickly discovered many of them were in Axle Woman and it was pointless trying to bring them here too. We have 26 brands now which are exclusive to us. Richard has brought a great team with him.”
Having worked in both multiple and indie department stores, Elliott says the similarities outweigh any differences. “You’ve got to refresh constantly. We’ve already seen consolidation in the sector,” says Elliott. “But I think there is a definite place for indies, and many are run by great entrepreneurial retailers.
“You get that sense of variety in indies. You walk into an indie department store and you don’t have a preconception of what you’re going to see or what to expect, and that’s exciting.”
So has the indie department store model got longevity? “Definitely. Look at this place, it’s been around since 1837. You can’t rest on your laurels, you have to keep changing and exciting and surprising the customer.”
He adds: “What I try to do is not just what I’ve done before. I look at what’s going on around me. You have to keep moving, watching and innovating.”
How do you adapt your strategy when you are working in a multiple or indie department store?
My basic philosophy has always stayed the same. I’m a great believer in getting the right brands and adjacencies. It goes back to what John Hoerner [former Burton Group chief executive] told me: “Think of end use.” I try to think of what a customer would want. You’ve got to make it easy for them.
What has been your most challenging moment?
Selfridges is the job I am most proud of. When I went there, Calvin Klein was only in Harvey Nichols and when we got Calvin Klein to agree to supply Selfridges, that was the start. Brands are like dominoes; once you get one, they all want to sit together. Getting the first is the hardest but it all follows. I absolutely loved my time at Selfridges. It’s my favourite shop.
What are the best and worst things about working in Jersey?
I enjoy the whole environment here. I love the fact I can walk to work along the seafront. It’s not stress-free, but it is more chilled out than somewhere like London. People here are so polite and patient. A lot of people in Jersey don’t realise how lucky they are.
Who is the person you most admire in retail?
Tim Daniels, my first managing director at Selfridges. He was one of the most modest men I have ever worked for and he was never given the credit he should have had for what he did at Selfridges. He had the vision and put the team together. He was one of the best team players I have ever worked for.
2008 Managing director, Voisins
2002 Various consultancies and non-executive directorships
1999 Chief executive, Bentalls
1996 Retail operations director, Selfridges
1988 Merchandise director, Selfridges
1986 Regional director, Debenhams
1983 Store director, Debenhams
1963 Management training, then store manager at various stores, Debenhams