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The Drapers Interview: John Marquis

John Marquis, store director of Jersey landmark De Gruchy, is overseeing the historic department store’s fashion revamp.

The imposing 19th-century facade of department store De Gruchy dominates King Street, the high street of Jersey’s only town, St Helier. Trading for more than 200 years since 1810, three years before Debenhams set up shop and a whole 99 years before Selfridges threw open its doors, today the store and its 220 staff remain central to retail life on an island where the number of inhabitants is just under 100,000.

Purchased by Ulster Stores, a family-owned independent retail group based in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, in 2006, De Gruchy is undergoing a period of investment and it is with this in mind that Drapers flew to Jersey to interview store director John Marquis.

The store has intricate iron entrance gates and a beautiful glass atrium running spine-like through the centre of store - designed to allow the 19th-century’s horse-drawn carts to parade through and drop off ladies for a spot of shopping, and then pick them up again and take them out the other side. Offsetting the original features on the ground floor is a modern, light and airy menswear department. However, upstairs it’s a different story - the first floor womenswear department looks tired and dated, and in desperate need of a revamp.

Marquis joined de Gruchy in 2011, bringing over 30 years of store and area management experience at businesses such as Habitat, Topshop and House of Fraser. Since taking up his post at De Gruchy he has been working alongside Ulster Stores managing director Neville Moore to overhaul the look and feel of the store with a gradual refurbishment programme, which began by ditching the high turnover but low profit yielding electrical and TV area to create the largest card and stationery offer on the Channel Islands.

Next on the agenda is the fashion offer, which represents around 62% of turnover. “Setting the scene for the next five years has really been what I’ve been working on since coming here. We’re into year one of that process now, looking at the masterplan and layout of the store and working with [architects] James and Smith Associates with a view to getting our space and direction of the store in the way we feel it should go for the local market,” Marquis tells me as we take a seat in his office, where portraits of the store’s husband and wife founders Abraham and Marie de Gruchy peer down at us.

He says there are five major projects the business would like to undertake, starting with an overhaul of the first floor women’s fashion department set to cost between £75,000 and £100,000. “We’ve already bought new brands for spring 14, scouring far and wide to get the right fashion edit for De Gruchy, and that will be the next area to undertake refurbishment.”

To freshen up its spring 14 offer, De Gruchy’s buying team visited womenswear trade show Scoop in London, where they picked up Linen Laundry and Filippa K, and Copenhagen Fashion Week, where they bought into AJ 117 Project. MiH Jeans will also be introduced, the Kookaï offer expanded, and a Gant womenswear section opened in a bid to mirror the brand’s successful showing in the menswear department. “We’re trying to create a fashion edit that is not currently available in the local market,” says Marquis.

The menswear department on the ground floor will retain its current look and layout, though new brands such as Stone Island and Hackett will be added for spring 14 to join a line-up that includes Polo Ralph Lauren, Paul Smith and Hugo Boss. Marquis says that while womenswear represents a larger split of sales at 65% versus 35%, the menswear department has experienced a 10% sales rise this autumn so far compared with last year and that he sees it as a “huge growth area”.

“Then really I think it is how we focus and develop our fashion accessory business, which at the moment in terms of its layout and adjacencies is quite split and quite diverse. It’s not what you would normally expect under a department store remit,” he says.

Similarly, Marquis wants to overhaul the footwear offer, which at present is limited to Dune, the Shoe Studio’s portfolio [Ugg, Steve Madden, Roberto Vianni] and LK Bennett, by creating a dedicated department and introducing new brands. “Our shoe offer is currently [displayed throughout the store], which doesn’t make any sense at all. So we’re looking to create a cohesive shoe offer and shoe hall.”

He adds that De Gruchy will also be rebranding as part of its five-year plan, with a new fascia, logo and carrier bags: “The brand itself has possibly lost a little bit of direction over the years. So the senior management team
is really looking to strengthen it alongside the development of the De Gruchy website.” Sales from the transactional site, www.degruchys.com, are below 5% of total turnover.

That online strategy will focus on the domestic Jersey customer, to encourage them to shop with De Gruchy rather than with overseas competition. “It will become more important. The Jersey customer sits at home with a glass of wine at 10pm, just like a UK consumer, and decides where to shop. They must have De Gruchy as part of that choice.”

Of course, all of this development will help De Gruchy compete with long-standing rival Voisins, which was established in 1837 and sits just a stone’s throw away on King Street. Surely the competition between two department stores serving a relatively small island population must be intense? “It is competitive but you also have to recognise that there is no Debenhams, no John Lewis and no House of Fraser. So within the market context there is enough business here for both department stores to live alongside each other,” he replies, diplomatically.

He says the differentiating factor is De Gruchy’s “bullseye” target customer of 40 to 45 years old, which he claims is older than the consumers shopping at Voisins. And he’s right - Voisins definitely has a younger feel.

Marquis declines to reveal De Gruchy’s turnover and profit, but does say it managed a small profit for the year to January 31, 2012. Parent Ulster Stores, which also owns department stores Moores of Coleraine and The White House in Portrush, Northern Ireland, as well as Clare’s of Llandudno in Wales, saw its turnover fall from £12.4m in 2011 to £12.2m in 2012, a drop of 2%, while profits increased from £16,915 to £22,461 in the same period.

Despite the challenging climate, Marquis is confident De Gruchy’s overhaul will pay off, and says that while spring trading was tough, autumn is looking more positive. “For me to come to an independent store on Jersey on an island this size, it had to offer me something, and that was the challenge and the opportunity of helping to take the business forward. With 200 years of history, what does the next 10, 15, 20 years look like and how can I help establish that? The good news is we’ve got a committed team of people both here and in Ulster Stores who all want to make a success of De Gruchy.”

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