While no retailers avoided the turmoil of lock down during the covid quarter, few have endured as much uncertainty since non-essential stores reopened in June as David M Robinson. Liverpool was first into the top tier of restrictions as they tightened in October, then London and Manchester; it was like Professor Chris Whitty was checking off locations of DMR stores as he demanded government action in one city then the next. You would forgive managing director John Robinson for an air of despair but instead he is seeing opportunity as long as he maintains his laser focus on delighting customers with levels of service that are second to none, he tells Rob Corder.

[Please note: this interview took place before lock down in England was announced]

WatchPro: How DMR has adapted to this year’s challenges?

John Robinson: The number one challenge was to ensure the safety of everybody that we care about. That means our colleagues and their families, as well as our clients and friends.
We closed our showrooms as we were instructed to, and as we returned to trading, our priority was to do things at the right pace, to ensure everyone felt as safe as possible, in a trusted, clean environment.

We spent a great deal of time and money on branding our return to work approach and it worked really well for our teams. It was just amazing to see everyone back in, doing what they do best and enjoying being there.

DMR in Liverpool ONE found itself at the centre of the toughest tier 3 restrictions last month.

WatchPro: How trading has evolved since the covid quarter?

John Robinson: Like a lot of other retailers we have moved to a largely “by appointment” system, which has worked well. We had always prided ourselves on the ability for our clients to pop in as they passed, but in order to ensure the safety of colleagues, understandably we have to restrict the number of clients in the showroom.

I must say that all our showroom guards have been a great help to our teams. They are on the front line too and are a vital part of the DMR brand. From a trading point of view, we have been really encouraged by the mood of the last quarter.

WatchPro: It feels weird to speak about positives from the pandemic, but are there any opportunities that have opened up for DMR?

John Robinson: We were well into our digital journey pre-covid and things have simply accelerated since. We now have an in-house digital team!

Our focus is on how we can develop digitally as we learn about its impact on, and relationship to, our bricks and mortar offering. I think it’s a challenge for luxury retail in general. We have the opportunity to show our new clients that we can add real value to their horological journeys by being first rate in-store and caring enough to bring real insight and fun to their time with us.

As a company we have decided to up all our team and individual commissions, to bring in some really fun and innovative rewards, and whist we were sorry to have lost some colleagues to our enhanced voluntary redundancy offer, we have been inundated with CV’s.

We have just completed a two-week training and induction academy for our new starters and the diversity and range of new skills and experiences they bring to the table will only make us stronger.

We have brought in new colleagues who have previously worked in fashion, digital and luxury hospitality. If we are to get through these difficult times, it will be because everyone in the company has risen to the challenge. It really has been a team effort. That’s where our focus lies and our investment in our new Salesforce system is bearing fruit.

WatchPro: Your showrooms in Manchester, London, Liverpool and Altrincham are all in areas that have endured frequently changing measures designed to flatten the covid curve. How have you coped with constantly changing local rules?

John Robinson: We honestly just try and focus on our customers and don’t worry too much about those factors which lie outside of our control. When you are as obsessed about the client’s experience as we are, there isn’t much time to worry about changing local rules. We observe them, of course, and like all businesses, we must be ready to adapt and go again.

WatchPro: How do you feel the global luxury watch industry has responded and reacted from the early days of the pandemic to today?

John Robinson: These are certainly interesting times for all of us aren’t they? I think that despite the challenges of distance, we have reconnected pretty well. I think everyone has had to take a step back and share a collective pause, the opportunity to stop and reflect.

I really believe the brands will make the best decisions for themselves, they think a long way ahead. They are run by intelligent people who are very close to their customers, and by that I mean not only their authorised dealers, but also to the end user. They have access to big chunks of interesting data, so they will be able to tell what people are looking for and why.

What hasn’t changed is that it’s all about a partnership. We have had super support from our partner brands [Rolex, Patek Philippe, Omega, IWC, TAG Heuer, Panerai and Tudor]. It is still the case, that the more successful a brand is, the more likely you are to get an honest conversation with their MD, who generally wants to share the challenge and the heavy lifting. The best leaders want both the bigger picture and the real insight, in equal amounts.

WatchPro: What was business like at Liverpool ONE immediately after reopening? Was it consistent across your stores?

John Robinson: All of the Northern showrooms have been stronger in Q2 than we thought. I’m not sure if it’s simply pent up demand or the fact that people can’t travel or it’s so called “revenge spending”. I guess we will know next year when we are up against a really distorted six months of trading from this year, which we see as famine and then (almost) a feast.
Canary Wharf is a different story.

There is only 15% of the estate back in the office so footfall is still down by up to 70%. We have a great team there though and they have managed to match like-for-like in September and October.

The estate is getting back, but slowly. I don’t think we will see a return to normality there for many years to come. London, in general, feels so quiet to me – it’s genuinely upsetting. Cities are nothing without people.

WatchPro: What did you think of Rolex’s launches on September 1, and what has that done for your business?

John Robinson: It was a shot in the arm for us all. The Submariner is so iconic, it was always going to be fascinating to see it updated — the new dial colour Oyster Perpetuals are an uplift in mood too.

Obviously, like other retailers, we are now trying to balance getting watches onto wrists and keeping the new references available to show our clients.

The Patek Philippe launches have been welcome as well. We’ve actually enjoyed the staggered releases as a contrast to the timescales that Baselworld previously semi-dictated to the industry. Fashion is the same, we will see a shift away from Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter collections. It’s simply unsustainable.

WatchPro: Have there been any surprise hits this year? Has the pandemic altered the way people shop and the types of watches they are buying?

John Robinson: There are no surprises as such, but on a personal note something has been re-affirmed in my mind and it’s only a personal view… I think the luxury watch sector in the UK is full of some really great brands, people and retailers. You have to be brave in retail today. My teams are out there every day and the business is becoming so much more challenging with the complexity of digital, making us all deal with new challenges.

DMR has redirected its expert consultants towards telephone and video calls with customers.

We, as an industry, really care about the customer. We train constantly and we really want to deliver a first-class retail experience. We gift, we entertain, we deliver to homes, we anticipate, we offer real insight — how many retail sectors in the UK can really say that?

We are good at making people feel special and that goodwill is really powerful stuff. You and I have discussed this before Rob. Retailers are no longer simply just that. We now find ourselves in the business of hospitality and entertaining which makes our jobs even more interesting.

We must keep the faith and our belief that world class product and strong, long-term relationships between brands, AD’s and customers cannot be reduced to a couple of clicks and online delivery. If that’s the case, then society and the need to converse, learn and share experiences is over.

WatchPro: What are your expectations for the holiday season and what are your hopes for 2021?

John Robinson: I’m cautiously optimistic, but I’m also aware that any prolonged lockdown would be really disastrous for many people. I hope that we can all get through the next six months safely heading into Spring.

I hope that the Geneva show is a real rebirth of our wonderful industry. It’s a chance to let the world know how special this industry is and how important ‘luxury’ is; not only in economic terms creating jobs and livelihoods, but in our patronage and support for sports, philanthropy, the arts, and without sounding too cliché, for trying to do our part to make the world a better place.

EDITOR’S NOTE: With non essential retailers forced to close in England from November 5 to December 2, David M Robinson is offering appointments with consultants by phone or video conference. The company is also offering in-store appointments again from December 3. Watches from the likes of Omega, IWC, Panerai and TAG Heuer can be bought online at DavidMRobinson.co.uk.

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