Working from home in Bedford, I would often take a call from an Australian friend, John Casteldine, challenging me to a game of squash, which I always willingly accepted. We were quite well matched at squash and at the end of one match he spoke about his work for the first time. He had an amazing and simple business.
He imported a million rings each year from China and Thailand, he sold them through UK department and chain stores. There were perhaps twenty styles that came in five colours and five sizes – one particularly popular at the time was the ‘Lady Di’. He landed them for under a pound sterling. They had zirconium faceted stones, clasp-mounted (not pasted likedress rings), and a good coating of Hamilton gold-plating made to look like the real thing.
He had a particular approach to the business that he had learned worked by experience. He had no interest in his product being stocked by these retailers, their jewellery sales were consistently low-level all-year-round and that would not have built any volume for him.
Instead he would allow them his services for a maximum fortnight’s stint, at most two or three times each year. He had his own fixturing that displayed some sixty rings each under a very crisp, colour-fast lamp. The rings were locked into the display but could be released from behind by a sales assistant when a customer wanted to try one or more.
He would sit four or five of these fixtures on a simple trestle table covered with a red cloth. He pointed out that this made it clear that this was something out of the ordinary, a short-term special deal, and it was this that attracted the customers. He usually had a boom-box trotting out his sales message to further underline the transitory nature of the arrangement. The retailers saw that it worked. They urged longer stints, but he instinctively felt that this would merely lead to a decline in sales and refused.
He had harboured the belief that these rings would do well with duty-free operators and there was an international opportunity too. He challenged me to set that operation up, so I did. I got them in to Heathrow and Gatwick retailers where we boosted the end-price a tad – because we could. There was a real selling feature here, because they looked like the real thing at a time when women didn’t want to risk taking their real jewellery on holiday.
But there was a background issue that became apparent to me later. The rings were not good in the sea, the salt water attacked the gold plating. So did hairspray if someone applying it held their hair in place while wearing one of our rings. We trained these facts in to the duty-free staff suggesting they should stress these issues to buyers.
I gained particular success with the INNO stores (now Galeria Inno, the last word short for its original name A l’Innovation) in Belgium. I went to train and install our kit into their dozen stores and found it quite different. In the UK we sold them at £9.99 each, with good margins for us and the retailer. INNO said that a Belgian consumer would not accept a product that was this inexpensive, they would doubt its quality. So, they decided to price them at the equivalent of £35 each – and incredibly they still flew off the fixtures!
By the time I was setting up the Antwerp store I was aware that John, in the UK, was now promoting ‘Buy one and get one free’ for £9.99. So imagine the horror as I listened to three British doctors at a conference in the city, competitively chivvying each other on to buy rings for their wives and daughters. Between them they bought six at £35 each, I learned they were from Liverpool and I knew that they could have done three BOGOF deals in Debenhams Liverpool for £29.97 instead of the £210.00 they spent here in Antwerp.
Notably, I took a stand at the Duty Free Shopper event in Cannes and signed a deal with OK Bazaar department stores in South Africa. Trading there was still awkward, foreign exchange was heavily monitored at this time. I had agreed with them the selection they should take. But unbeknown to me John had changed the product mix that he shipped. I found this out when they got caught up in customs for incorrect paperwork, John’s response was ‘the Yarpees have to take what we give them’; I deleted the expletives that accompanied this. Yarpee is an Australian’s term for South Africans, based they use ‘Yar’ for yes.
I also got them stocked in French and Dutch department stores. But John hid a personal problem quite well. He was a recovering alcoholic and would have bad days which meant his temperament and decision-making would wander. He had married a Venezuelan woman with whom he had routine vitriolic arguments. Fortunately, other events were keeping me busy, so I could fade away from his business.