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Bringing a 200-year-old department store into the 21st century

de gruchy 070916 0083

Jersey’s landmark department store de Gruchy reopened earlier this month following a £15m investment and extensive 18-month refurbishment.

degruchy neville and john

degruchy neville and john

Ulster stores owner Neville Moore and store manager John Marquis

Owned by Irish family business Ulster Stores, de Gruchy has stood on the high street of Jersey’s only town, St Helier, since 1801. Drapers speaks to owner Neville Moore and store director John Marquis about why department stores must innovate to survive, why there is still a place for independents on the high street and the benefits of operating in Jersey.

What is Ulster Stores?

Neville Moore: The business was started by my grandfather in 1925 and was taken on by my grandmother after he died. I got involved in the business during the 1980s and we now operate four independent department stores; Moores of Coleraine and the White House, both on the north coast of Northern Ireland, Clares of Llandudno in Wales, and de Gruchy in St Helier.

Talk us through the changes that have been made at the store

NM: We went through a beauty parade of different designers, but eventually went with Caulder Moore, whose designs I’ve always admired. Its advice was to strip the building back to its original features. The customer flow through the store was confusing, and customers told us they had a frustrating journey through the store, with poor signage. We’ve reconfigured the layout of the store to make it logical and easy to navigate and installed two new escalators to help drive footfall upstairs. One of the big changes was shifting the business to focus on fashion. We’ve stopped selling furniture and big homeware, which is partly a recognition that in order to be successful we have to be targeted at what we do. Furniture hasn’t disappeared from department stores, but large homeware doesn’t sit readily in town department stores. It felt better to focus on fashion. The store also offers nine new services, including a nail bar, men’s grooming, blowdry bar and pedicures.

ladies fashion mint down

ladies fashion mint down

John Marquis: Womenswear has been moved from the ground floor to the first floor, a floor that had been underperforming for a time because of the mix of brands. It had previously been home to some brands that have disappeared from the high street recently and now we’re making the space work effectively for us with brands such as Mint Velvet, Karen Millen, Coast and Oasis. It was a calculated risk moving fashion brands from the ground to the first floor. We could have lost a lot of business, but trade has actually increased. We’ve created interest so, despite the disruption, the holdings and the noise during the refurbishment over the past 18 months, people have stuck with us.

We’ve also taken menswear in house [it was previously run as a concession] and most of our brand partners, including Tommy Hilfiger and Hugo Boss, have invested in new shop fits.

Why has offering services become so important for department stores?

NM: People have to have a reason to visit us rather than our competitors or staying at home to shop online. It’s about an experience going forward. It’s about services and lifestyle rather than just merchandise and product. We hope customers will be able to come in and comfortably spend a few hours here, having a coffee or a glass of prosecco and getting their nails done.

JM: Customers can get the plain product on the internet, but you can only get the experience in store and that’s where we will be successful. Services bring life to a business.

Why did you choose Jersey for one of your sites?

NM: Technology has made it much easier to run a business remotely and when the opportunity of running de Gruchy came along in 2006, I felt we had to take it. A number of our other stores are by the coast, where you get normal trade and then a summer trade with tourists. That’s something we’re very used to dealing with and it works very well for us. Jersey also had the added interest of offshore finance. In the UK, there a lot of out-of-town developments and that’s not likely to happen in Jersey. It’s a unique high street, which was attractive to us. And finally, Ulster stores is a third-generation family business and we like heritage, so a 200-year-old building was another draw.

Where did you look for inspiration when designing the new store?

NM: Some of our inspiration came from the London department stores. We want to bring that level of experience to Jersey. The consistency of John Lewis was something we wanted to bring to our customers. We liked the quirky style of Liberty, and Selfridges are doing some very dynamic things around activity and theatre in store. With the new store, we’ve tried to include elements of all of them, while still keeping the heart and spirit of de Gruchy.

Who is the target customer?

NM: Our key customer is a woman aged around 40, but we can easily appeal to customers aged twenty years on either side of that number. As a department store, you’re always a broad church and there’s no doubt that older people are thinking younger. Even my mother, who is 84, won’t look at the brands she was buying 18 or 20 years ago because she says they’re too old.

shavata wide

shavata wide

Why are independents and independent department stores in particular so important for retail?

JM: Indies can be very nimble and react quickly, without layers and layers of management. We’re a small team and can make decisions quickly. We can give something a try.

NM: Retail would be a much less rich place without independents and I passionately believe there is a place for us on the high street and, increasingly, online. Diversity is healthy and I don’t think anyone wants an identical high street wherever you go.

What are some of the challenges of running an independent department store?

JM: We need to secure and work with brands who have a global reach. Why would de Gruchy on Jersey be special to a brand like, say, Boss? They can pick and choose whichever stores they want to go in to, so we have to be able to offer a genuine partnership so we have a successful business and they have a successful business. Sometimes, brands don’t recognise the opportunity.

NM: When brands are focussed on larger retailers, sometimes their priorities can lie elsewhere. We are very good brand custodian and we take that very seriously.

What are some of the benefits of operating on Jersey?

NM: There’s a lot of office developments going on in Jersey, which gives retailers confidence to invest in the local market. There are very low vacancy rates on the high street in St Helier and even the BHS store was sold to Sport’s Direct founder Mike Ashley (for new Flannels store) at a premium price, which tells me there was some competitive interest. Jersey does its own thing and has its own economy and people still like the experience of shopping on the local high street.

Tourism used to be a massive part of Jersey and I think that tourism is coming back to the island. In a world that’s all of a sudden a little bit more aware of security, a short hop here is starting to look more attractive.

Why do you have planned for de Gruchy in the future?

JM: We can’t think that what we’ve done this year will work in two years’ or even 12 months’ time. We have to keep customers engaged. I think brands such as Whistles and Sandwich would be a good fit for us and those are relationships we’ll be looking to develop.

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