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Interview: Darren Williams, Hotel Chocolat's Head of Retail


Darren Williams says that he started volunteering for the Samaritans seven years ago, while working for Costa Coffee, as a way of finding fulfilment outside of the corporate world.

In his current role as Head of Retail at chocolate retailer Hotel Chocolat, it could be said that Williams has found a way in his professional career of combining both his corporate and charitable instincts.

Hotel Chocolat co-founders Angus Thirlwell & Peter Harris have never been afraid to stand apart from the crowd and this approach can clearly be seen in the retailer’s unique corporate responsibility programme Engaged Ethics.

“Engaged Ethics changes people’s lives,” Williams told Retail Gazette.

“We have done some tremendous work in Ghana, from assisting healthcare and funding schools to educating people about how to grow cocoa.”

Established as an alternative to Fair Trade accreditation, Engaged Ethics is not a charitable exercise but rather a kind of mission statement from the chocolatier: A promise that the retailer will try to make the lives of its suppliers and the communities they live in better through self-help programmes and beneficial trading practices.

Hotel Chocolat aims to buy the cocoa beans it uses to make its luxury chocolate at prices between 30 to 40 per cent higher than its rivals; it buys those beans wet rather than processed to ease the farmers’ workload; and it ensures that all of its ingredients can be traced back to where they were grown.

Williams explained: “Being outside of Fair Trade allows us to go over & above some of its basic standards. The way that we buy and pay for our cocoa, and the quality of the products we use alongside the cocoa, are industry leading.”

The company is certainly used to being different; as it operates its own commercial hotel on the Rabot Estate in St Lucia where it grows some of its beans, it insists on referring to its customers as ‘guests’, and it specialises in unique luxury products like its giant chocolate slabs.

And being different seems to be paying off, as it has also been one of the quiet success stories on the British high street over the last couple of years, and in 2011 it reported a pre-tax profit rise of 25 per cent and a 12 per cent jump in revenues.

Its latest innovative idea is a cafe-cum-shop-cum-restaurant called Roast & Conch which opened at the beginning of this year in London’s Covent Garden.

Conch & Roast is a concept store where ‘guests’ can buy hot beverages, savoury dishes, cakes, pastries and breakfast items all made with fresh cocoa which is ground, conched and tempered in front of their eyes.

“We have always been proud to be a British Chocolatier, controlling the process from tree to bar, and this new concept gives guests the opportunity to see that process in a new format.”

“It is a micro way of bringing the tree to bar process into central London and showing guest some of the work we do.”

The format has proved so successful that a second Roast and Conch store will be launched in Copenhagen in June and a further roll-out is being planned, as the business looks to expand its international footprint after establishing a reputation of quality in the UK.

When Williams joined Hotel Chocolat in 2009 it had just opened its 30th store. Last month, that total moved up to 61 with the unveiling of an outlet at the revamped concourse of London’s Kings Cross train station, but the retail boss cautions that it has never been interested in aggressive expansion.

Hotel Chocolat stores have been earning plaudits for design and innovation
Hotel Chocolat stores have been earning plaudits for design and innovation

“We have shied away from talking about a target number of stores because it is not really a focus of ours, but, of course, we have to have a number in mind because there has to be a point where your estate reaches maturity.

“Right now 75 feels enough. We do not want to be ubiquitous because one of the things which has worked for us is being special.”

Exclusivity is central to its offer and that is why, unlike its high street rival Thorntons, it does not wholesale its goods to a variety of different shops, or as Williams puts it, you will never find their products “on offer at your local supermarket or petrol station”.

Department store John Lewis, which Williams calls “iconic” and perfectly in keeping with Hotel Chocolat’s brand values, is the only other retailer which stocks its products and it has no plans to change this approach.

The relative struggles of Thorntons, which has had to significantly reduce its store portfolio due to mounting debts and poor sales, certainly reflects well on Hotel Chocolat’s more contained business model.

“We are not a huge business by any means but we are very pacy and what I think is exciting is that we always have an element of “what are they going to do next” about us.”

Since Williams joined, the retailer has cemented a reputation for high levels of customer service and attractive stores, which he says are strictly monitored internally to enable the group to regularly update and improve its offer.

“I made some deliberate changes when I joined the business, such as calling customers guests, and then we completely evolved our in store service proposition in the autumn of 2011.”

The refurbishment of ten older stores in the retailer’s portfolio last year delivered a considerable increase in the like-for-like sales at these locations, and six more store renovations are planned over the coming months.

Williams believes that too many retailers are taking a cookie cutter approach to in-store design & service, and the result is that savvy shoppers are becoming increasingly choosy about who they give their cash to.

He argues that the era of hundreds of bland identikit big-box stores is over, not least because with so many properties it is difficult keeping them all looking good, and he says that due to the sector Hotel Chocolat operates in its guests want a personal & special shopping experience.

“Chocolate is a desirable thing. Often its something you purchase for yourself as a treat or something you buy for someone else that you care about… It is an emotive and important purchase.”

In keeping with the retailer’s careful and precise approach, Williams says that innovations such as buying online while in-store and the company’s first mobile app are in the pipeline but will not be launched until they have been perfected.

Though trading figures have been healthy for the chocolatier of late, Williams describes the current trading conditions on the high street as the most turbulent he has seen in his 22 years in the industry.

“We are taking nothing for granted, its choppy out there and we have to continue to be special to succeed.”

Williams faces a very different challenge this weekend as he takes on the London Marathon for the very first time to raise money for Spinal Research.

After such long service with the Samaritans, Williams says he is now looking for his next charity to dedicate his time to, whereas, with plenty more to achieve at high flying Hotel Chocolat, it seems unlikely that he will be looking to change jobs any time soon.

Published on Monday 16 April by Editorial Assistant

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