John Adams, managing director of Norfolk-based department store chain Jarrold, reflects on the importance of valuing local relationships and investing in physical retail whilst embracing an omnichannel future.

Jarrold is an independent retailer, most well known for our flagship department store in Norwich. We celebrated our 250th anniversary rather inauspiciously in 2020 just as we were coming out of the first Covid lockdown.

One of the most important changes to come out of that tough period was our ability to adapt quickly, to be innovative and agile and challenge things that had become business practice, which was not easy when you’re 250 years old.

This included embracing omnichannel behaviours, particularly as we have seen the exponential growth of our online business during Covid continue as our physical stores reopened. Growing our online inventory across all categories means that we now have about 90% of our merchandise online and importantly, improvements to our processes have enabled us to have new seasonal product available online even before it hits the sales floor, which was not the case pre-pandemic. It has also required us to ensure that our marketing and communications are fully channel agnostic.

Our approach to buying – in particular to fashion – has changed and. From how we buy, to how we merchandise, how we manage sell-throughs in store and online, and how we manage our inventory levels. We have applied many more analytical processes to our approach that complement rather than conflict with our flair and curation. Moving to more in season ordering has enabled us to keep inventory levels at 30%-40% below pre-pandemic levels, whilst ensuring there is more in-season newness in the store, resulting in increased sales and margin.

The way in which we merchandise in store has also changed, moving away from traditional branded areas, to creating ‘lifestyle’ zones that each have a subtly different look and feel, bringing more creativity into the merchandising with the use of one-off pieces of furniture and lighting, more accessorising and cross merchandising with jewellery, accessories, beauty and books.

After many years of deliberation, we launched a loyalty scheme just before the pandemic. The Jarrold Privilege Club, which has more than 120,000 members, now provides the basis for our marketing communication. Unlike many traditional loyalty schemes our club is not points based, but focuses more on perks and treats such as the birthday 20% off voucher and invitations to exclusive customer events. The scheme also pledges charity donations linked to customers’ shopping frequency.

Since Covid, and particularly now in more challenging times, we are placing far more focus and effort on maximising these important relationships and building CRM systems to target frequency and value as well as recruitment and retention.

One of the biggest challenges facing physical department stores is how to remain compelling and relevant in today’s world. Jarrold’s strategy has been to have an ongoing investment cycle in the business, which has enabled us to invest significantly in the in-store experience. The latest manifestation of which is our newly expanded deli food hall which opened in September. This includes a walk-in cheese room, two wine bars and an enlarged deli and fresh offer, including tie-ups with local celebrity chefs and dozens of artisan producers. This takes the total number of eateries in Jarrold to seven, including a champagne and oyster bar, and a wood-fired pizza restaurant.

Hospitality is a growing and important part of our mix. Added to this is a packed calendar of experiences, from book launches to wine tasting and beauty events. It’s all about giving people reasons to visit, surprising them with outstanding experiences and service which complements the fabulous, curated merchandise and visual merchandising.

Thinking like a 250-year-old start-up certainly takes some effort, but by being bold and confident, I’m certain that Jarrold and other leading independent department stores in the UK have a bright future.