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Wempe, Bond Street, London
Where consumer sovereignty reigns
I am not an overtly political soul.
During my lifetime, I have heard the promises made by those wearing brightly coloured rosettes, on their lapels, as election day approaches. However, I’ve grown well-versed in hearing the subsequent excuses when the comfy chairs in their ivory towers elicit forgetfulness and detachment from the electorate for another four or five years.
As a middle-aged man, I have grown cynical and now believe the very compunction displayed by some to enter the world of politics should preclude them from office.
There are some political figures in history who are worthy of note: Lincoln, Gandhi, Mandela and Adam Smith. To some, my inclusion of the Scot from Kirkcaldy may seem strange. However, Smith is one of my heroes for his notable ideas such as “the division of labour”, his promotion of the the free market and a “laissez faire” approach to regulation, conceived before anyone ever mentioned “soft-touch”.
Yet, most of all, I fully embrace the concept that the “customer is king” or to quote William Harold Hutt, “consumer sovereignty”.
I personally believe that competition drives service just as much as price.
Let me demonstrate my point.
Like many, I have telephoned call centres and after pressing numerous combinations of buttons, listening to mind numbing muzak, I am reminded by an automaton that “my call is important and please stay on the line”. After twenty minutes has elapsed I have a eureka moment and discover a “real-person” on the other end of the phone. I have a simple enquiry about my bank statement and this is revealed after I have shared characters two and three of my password and divulged my inner leg measurements. However, I am now a sales prospect and I have to excuse myself from numerous offers of loans, credit cards or mortgages. It is no wonder it takes eons to obtain the small quantity of information I require.
There is a lack of competition in this sector, I seldom feel served and I doubt anything would improve from moving to another service provider. I have done this in the past for minimal gain.
Thankfully, competition does exist in the watch and jewellery retail trade. I see varying degrees of service. Some businesses will survive, thrive and prosper by proactively blending service in the best retail environment. Sadly, some will fail due to a detachment from customer needs and an intransigence to embrace change.
I have always collected wristwatches and have toured many retailers around the UK hungrily seeking my next would-be purchase. There is a perception that the public will always gravitate to the cheapest provider. However, I do not agree. Whilst some will want the lowest possible price, others, myself included, will seek service.
High service levels and discounted prices are mutually exclusive. A client cannot be served properly if the margin has been eroded to virtually nothing. Moreover, I believe discounting does not sit happily with the notion of luxury.
The whole concept of luxury is that it is special, an occasional treat. If we ate birthday cake everyday, it would no longer feel like an indulgence. Luxury is the occasional purchase where the buying process is part of the joy; a process where the consumer is cosseted in a robe of care and assisted with their purchase.
This preamble leads me to the door of Wempe. I have visited the German retailer in Hamburg, Frankfurt and London before I ever wrote about wristwatches. They remain one of my preferred destination retailers.
The rationale for my praise is the presentation of timepieces, the diversity of models available and the attentive service proffered.
I do not have, nor ever intend to have, a fiscal relationship with the retailer, but still feel compelled to bestow praise where it is due.
I often visit the Bond Street premises of the revered retailer to admire examples of haute horology in this most palatial retailing environ. It was here on a previous visit that I met the charismatic Lynn Schroeder of Wempe, London. An interview beckoned.
Interview with Lynn Schroeder
Angus Davies (AD): What is your background? How did you get into the watch and jewellery trade?
Lynn Schroeder (LS): I have worked seventeen years in the trade. I started in Hamburg, where our head office is located. I am half German and half Scottish. I did my apprenticeship in Germany.
In Germany you do a dual method of apprenticeship, attending school and learning on the job.
I was very grateful that Wempe saw my potential and they took me on after my apprenticeship and I have loved it ever since.
I always wanted to serve customers. I also have a background working in the hotel industry and it has always been a pleasure to make people happy. I thought, working for a jewellers, what could be better than that? For 99.98% of the time, I am making people happy (she smiles broadly).
I like to serve people, meet them at eye-level and show them all the advantages of the products we offer. It is really a very enjoyable profession.
In 1999, I visited England, the London branch had just opened. I came here (to London) for two weeks, fell in love with the city, but, sadly I had to move back to Germany for private reasons. Shortly after, I had the opportunity to go to New York and I worked there. However, I knew I could give more to the company and made it known to Mr & Mrs Wempe, that I wanted to climb the promotional ladder within the company.
I moved to Frankfurt to become an Assistant Manager. Thereafter, my dream job became available. I was asked if I wanted to apply for the Manager’s position of Wempe London. I genuinely mean this, if I ever had the pick of any of our stores, I would always have chosen London.
I had to apply for the position. I was never sure if Mr and Mrs Wempe had me on the radar for the role. However, I made sure I was on the radar.
I was very lucky that they had enough confidence to choose me because the London store at that time was already very important. To give a young lady of 30 the position was a huge opportunity and I was grateful they allowed me to go for it. I was very grateful for that.
In 2005, we were across the street in a smaller showroom, 60 square metres. I had to find my feet in the UK. Coming from New York, I expected the market to be more developed. In New York the customers were more knowledgable about mechanical timepieces, but in the UK this was not the case at the time.
I saw a huge opportunity here and I said to Mr & Mrs Wempe we can do more, but we need a bigger space. We can educate the customer, we can bring lots of the concepts here.
We moved in 2007 to these premises which was then, 440 square metres. It was a huge project they handed to me. It was a very nerve wracking time, but we did it. We had the opportunity to work with Rolex, something I always wanted to do as well as other wonderful brands.
Then we also implemented a watch service on a small basis, which we knew we wanted to grow, but you can only do one thing at a time. Also, you have to find the right calibre of staff who are willing to understand the Wempe mission.
Things became increasingly successful.
In 2009, the upper floor became available and we expanded again, another 220 square metres. There is no street in the world quite like Bond Street, with so many luxury brands condensed onto one small street and I convinced Mr & Mrs Wempe this was a wise move to make.
I always knew I wanted to expand the watch service area and in 2011 we completed a new, larger facility.
AD: Recruiting staff for the watch service area must be very difficult. The skills are very scarce.
LS: It is very difficult around the world. There are different watchmakers. There are watchmakers who want to be in the back, quiet, do their work with their headphones on. But then there are some watchmakers who like to explain and they like to educate and help people understand how things work. It was a very hard thing to do. It took me about three years of patience to get to where I wanted to be.
AD: As an outsider looking in at your business, service is your USP (Unique Selling Proposition). Some people heavily discount product but I don’t think this is always the best thing for the customer.
LS: I don’t think discounting works with luxury and people do this when they have nothing else to offer. The majority of customers value service above price. For some, they may see discounting as a sport, but they are the minority.
We do not want to do a quick sale. The sale is the start of the relationship, it is not the end. We want to see people again, we want to be responsible, that is why we put the service in the middle of the shop.
We have developed a beautiful system we call “after sales service”. When we sell a watch, we ask the customer if they do not mind if we send them a reminder when the watch needs an annual water resistance test. If the customer brings their watch to us, they receive the water resistance test, free of charge. Sometimes we may refurbish a bracelet or overhaul a complicated piece, again at no cost. This is how we choose to enhance service levels.
By offering this added value we help to maintain and preserve the value of the purchase.
AD: I think that is interesting. Some people forget if you buy a Ferrari, the service costs are commensurate with the price. A mechanical watch needs servicing on a regular basis and the greater complexity, the more involved the servicing requirement is. Regular servicing helps preserve the value of the watch.
AD: You have some wonderful brands here. There is a strong German bias. I am a big fan of German watches, I am wearing a Lange today.
AD: I like that you have a vast array of brands from a very accessible price point to the finest examples of haute horology. For example I note you have NOMOS Glashütte, which I think is a fantastic product at that price level. At the other end of the scale, you have Glashütte Original and one of my favourites A. Lange & Söhne, a brand which is very close to my heart. Does the German bias come from the Wempe family? Do they insist that you have German brands in the shop?
LS: That could be one point. In Germany we are the largest retailer and Mr & Mrs Wempe do feel a responsibility to present German watch brands.
It is also because it is part of our German watchmaking history. Glashütte is our Geneva and not everyone knows that Germany has a watchmaking history. We like to tell the story.
Mr Wempe also has said that the mainstream watch brands are becoming increasingly expensive and he felt that a young gentleman who perhaps has finished his apprenticeship should be able to find something at Wempe. Wempe is there for everyone not just for affluent clientele. Everyone should experience Wempe service.
AD: I know your own branded watches are very good.
LS: That was how it all started. We wanted to offer high quality watches, attractively priced. Furthermore, that is how we got into NOMOS, very nice, simple, conservative watches. We always want to support watch brands who want to be watch brands not fashion brands.
Lange & Söhne and Glashütte Original are very different again, but these for us our matches made in heaven. How could we not support these brands?
AD: The watches come from Saxony, but Pforzheim has a rich tradition of jewellery. Do you sell German jewellery?
LS: Yes, we do, but we only sell Wempe jewellery.
After many years looking at jewellery from various brands, Mrs Wempe felt it lacked the quality and the desired tactility. She was not happy having her name associated with these type of products, hence she was instrumental in launching Wempe jewellery. This was primarily because she felt some jewellery only had a superficial quality.
Wempe has its own atelier near Stuttgart, which Mrs Wempe opened 11 years ago and shortly after the company ceased selling branded jewellery.
AD: When you talk about jewellery, it reminds me a little of watches. When you look inside a Jaeger-LeCoultre timepiece, which you sell, it is not just the finissage you can see, but when you remove a bridge, you will see flawless snailing hidden from view. I love this, because it shows the integrity and quality of the watch. That is what I like.
LS: Oh yes, and that is why we decided to make our own jewellery. In addition, we had a historical base in Glashütte. Mr Wempe was not happy with the increasing prices of some watches, hence he offered his own timepieces. He was keen to offer value combined with timelessly elegant watches and avoid merely fashionable watches.
AD: I am smiling at that. Oscar Wilde once remarked, “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable we have to revisit every six months”. If you look at the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso it is 81 years old and the design still looks right or the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak designed by Gerald Genta, it is an icon which will transcend changing fashions and will look right in fifty years.
LS: We do not see ourselves as a retailer any more but rather a brand. Wempe is selling a whole experience, providing knowledge and backing it up with service. We have a very loyal staff, people know you by name, it is a very nice atmosphere.
Wempe in London, like other Wempe stores, dazzles with its elevated service levels and incredible stock holding.
Service is at the centre of the Wempe paradigm and it is tangible whenever you chat to any of the staff in store. However, it comes from the Wempe family and in this instance, their UK based advocate, Lynn Schroeder.
I regret failing to ask Lynn Schroeder if her Scottish roots originate from Kirkcaldy. However, in Ms Schroeder, Adam Smith would have found a kindred spirit who pursued customer satisfaction with a religious zeal.