Voice On The Highstreet

John Henn of T.A. Henn & Son, Wolverhampton

Could you please give us a brief introduction to T A Henn and its history?

T A Henn is a sixth generation jeweller in the centre of Wolverhampton. Founded in 1847 to make clocks, it moved to its current location around 1890, and started selling jewellery soon afterwards when diamonds first started to travel north of London after the Kimberley diamond mine opened in South Africa. I am the latest generation to run the company and I joined in 1980, taking over from my father in 1998.

The store recently celebrated its 165th anniversary with a £160,000 facelift. Can you tell us the reasons behind the revamp and the benefits it will bring?

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The store has been a traditionally laid out destination shop in the city, which up until the advent of beads and the demise of nine carat gold jewellery, had been routinely ‘tidied up’ but never fundamentally changed. The new layout was started in October 2012 with the second phase due to start in late May this year. The main change will be in the customer experience within the store. Many more secure internal displays will be included in the final phase, enabling the store to differentiate between the ever-changing branded jewellery ranges we are now carrying, and the fine jewellery sales we intend to strengthen. The seated areas will be accessible without feeling intimidating and the ‘portable’ tills will mean a sale can be concluded in the same place as it was made.

In addition to the six-figure refurbishment, T A Henn will soon reveal a new website. In your opinion, how important is it for retailers to have an online presence?

If anyone feels they can continue without an e-commerce site they are braver than me. We have invested in a new full time member of staff, because you simply cannot do this yourself unless you have the time and the inclination. This is a very specialised area, which we have wasted money on in the past due to ignorance, resulting in us having no site for two years. There is a great deal of preparation required, and most people who say they can create a site for almost nothing don’t deliver anything for rather more than you expected. I’m confident we will never look back when it is up and running.

Which products are selling well at present?

Not surprisingly, we sell beads well, and other branded jewellery lines. We have been introduced to a large number of new clients through these products and are experimenting with other brands to compensate when some start to fade.
Keeping our new client interested is a challenge for us all, however we would also like to sell them better quality and higher value goods too, as they begin to trust us. We do seem to be finally selling engagement rings again, at margins that make my long-retired father wince. After 2008 for a couple of years we hardly sold any at all; in essence our number one product line was taken away from us by other retail models. So it is with some relief that, with a new offering, sales have begun to return.

What is the biggest change you have noticed since joining the industry?

When I joined my father in 1980 to have a stock turn of 1.5 was utopia! Now we have brands that turn 8 to 10 times a year. This requires skill in the buying department, which we never had before. We may have noticed when something sold quickly, so would pick up the phone and re-order it, but most of the time it was out of the window for weeks before it was replaced. Stock management is a much more important part of the business than we independents realise. Giving the staff the right stock makes their lives easier converting it into sales.

What, in your opinion, is the biggest problem facing retailers today?

The realisation of what is round the corner: change is much more urgent than most of us realise. We are losing manufacturers and retailers in our everyday lives because they were not able to adjust to the idiosyncrasies of their customers’ buying habits, or the products they are demanding. The days of just doing enough every month to pay the fixed costs are long gone; we all need to establish who our customers are, and offer them neat, imaginative products in priced displays, and a method to purchase that suits, be it in-store, or online.

What do you enjoy most about working in the jewellery industry?

In the grand scheme of things T A Henn and Son Limited is just another small business in a sea of others, but to me it is a real statement of who we are and what we believe in. Wherever possible we are choosing to have products made in the UK and Europe – a number of the new rings are made less than 20 miles away. Through the NAG we are members of the RJC (Responsible Jewellery Council), and I’m very keen to enhance the company’s ethical credentials – it is long overdue that we all started to take note of the impact our trade has on the world and it is up to us to leave it cleaner than we found it for the next generation.

Besides your work, you are an active fundraiser. Could you tell us about some of your previous charitable activities and the details of any upcoming benevolent efforts?

In 2010 we attempted to climb Mont Blanc and ski from the summit, but failed to make it, falling short by some 400 vertical metres exhausted after 11 hours climbing without food, which had unexpectedly frozen in our pockets. We returned in 2012 and made the summit better prepared via a different route and with different food. The climb raised around £10,000 for the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity. As we all know, Simon Cupitt died in January aged 43, after 17 months fighting motor neurone disease. I think we raised awareness of this terrible killer while he was alive and met some tremendous, positive people within our industry.

A motorcycle ride down the country from John o’Groats to Land’s End, which we did with Simon, and some trade events raised a significant amount of money in excess of £20,000 for his family and the Motor Neurone Disease Association. On behalf of them I’d like to thank all of you who helped to keep him at home until the end. No benevolent efforts planned at the moment – you really have to believe in what you’re doing it for, and with that comes some satisfaction that you have made a difference. But not taking life for granted is more valuable than all the money in the world.

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