5 Minutes With George Hammer, CEO, The Wedding Gallery

The Wedding Gallery describes itself as the "world's first wedding department store - taking the best of bridal boutiques and wedding fairs combining them to harmonise the process of planning a wedding. We caught up with the brains behind the hybrid retail concept: serial entrepreneur George Hammer.

George Hammer The Wedding Gallery

Tell us about The Wedding Gallery.

The Wedding Gallery is the world’s first wedding department store – a curation of over 200 brands from the wedding world and the first place to consolidate buying a dress with every aspect of planning a wedding.

A bride can visit the store in the morning for a dress consultation whilst her groom has a suit fitting. They could then browse venues together in the library, have a food tasting with wine pairing, listen to some bands and DJs in The Hub and check out photographers and videographers in the screening room.

Following that, she could have a hair and make-up trial whilst he sets up the gift list, browses honeymoons or has a wedding ring fitting. It’s one of those businesses where everyone that hears about it says “I can’t believe no one has done this before”.

What gap in the UK retail market does it strive to address?

At one end you have the classic bridal boutique and at the other you have the big wedding fairs. The Wedding Gallery is a hybrid – taking the best of both experiences and combining them to harmonise the process of planning a wedding.

We take the stress out of planning a wedding by putting everything under one roof in a calm and relaxing environment, with a huge variety of choice and safe in the knowledge that everything in store has been hand-picked by leading experts, with no agenda to push a particular brand.

What’s in store for The Wedding Gallery for the rest of 2018?

We launched in the fourth quarter of 2017 so for the first part of this year we’ve been evaluating which parts work best and now have a very good understanding of what our customers like.

In the latter part of this year we’ll be announcing some incredible new brands coming to The Wedding Gallery. I’m particularly excited about the stunning collections of Israeli brand Inbal Dror and Lebanese designer Reem Acra – both huge names in bridal.

How is The Wedding Gallery addressing some of the challenges facing the retail industry as a whole?

The biggest threat to traditional retail is online. We are addressing bricks-and-mortar costs by making The Wedding Gallery an experience rather than just a shop, by having a point of difference and negotiating exclusivity with our brands.

The experience is being tackled by intense staff training – we don’t just want cash and wrap people, we want highly trained professionals in our store who know all there is to know about the brands and the latest trends from around the world. We spend a massive amount of time trying to understand and then honing the customer journey to ensure we are doing exactly what the customer, and future customer, requires.

Our point of difference is that we have everything under one roof but not just everything, the best of everything. And finally, we know that having exclusive arrangements with the top names in bridal not only gives customers a reason to visit us but gives us something to shout about.

What would you say is the biggest risk for the retail sector, given the current climate?

Uncertainty. When people are uncertain they tend to stay away from big purchases, and arguably a wedding is a stream of big purchases. There are economical factors such as interest rates going up and the weak pound but for me, the biggest Brexit risk facing our industry is uncertainty from consumers.

Describe your role and responsibilities as chief executive and founder.

My role is to lay the foundations properly, ensuring they are robust, considered and future proof. When building a house, often the most time consuming and costly element is assessing, testing, analysing and eventually laying the foundations. Without which the house would eventually crumble, regardless of how pretty the brickwork might be.

My responsibilities broadly break down as ensuring we have great product in store, making sure we have brilliant, motivated and highly trained staff and a strong and consistent point of difference to stay ahead of competition. I also ensure everyone knows about us by marketing the business to the right customer.

What got you into retail in the first place?

My first foray into retail was in the 1970s with a fashion brand called Strawberry Studio. Our first concession for Strawberry Studio was Topshop Oxford Circus, a deal I negotiated with Ralph Halpern.

Throughout my career I have always tried to have a foot in retail while also having a foot in wholesale. I was responsible for bringing some big beauty brands to the UK, most notably Aveda, L’Occitane and Joan Collins Beauty, and launched the Sanctuary Spa in Covent Garden as well as make-up brand Ruby & Millie.

One of the ventures I’m most well known for is Urban Retreat, the world’s first “super salon” occupying the entire fifth floor of Harrods and with more staff than any other. We’re now in the construction stage of new flagship location for Urban Retreat and I operate a number of flagship event venues under the business One Events (One Marylebone being the marquee site), a collection of restaurants and a catering business, among others.

How has your previous experience aided your current job?

While I’m always learning and open to new experiences, there aren’t many business challenges I haven’t faced before. Whether it was launching the world’s first “haute parfumerie” at Harrods with Roja Dove, or opening the doors to my first fish and chip shop, each has its own unique set of challenges.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

As businesses grow, it’s tough to retain the family and personal feel in the business. As a small business you know all the staff so well, but it’s a challenge to keep that as you grow. We try very hard to ensure our staff feel part of a club, and to not lose touch with them on a personal level.

Secondly, over the years we’ve built our businesses on having good relationships with our partners – by that I mean suppliers and customers. With times being tough now, the larger companies and suppliers we have, have forgotten the importance of supplier relationships. To them everything is just a P&L and margin discussion. Bricks and mortar retailers can’t compete with online retailers as they have far higher costs, so we must compete through the strength of our relationships.

And the most rewarding?

Having a concept and giving birth to it is thrilling, however delivering returning customers is the most rewarding element.

What advice would you give someone who is considering embarking on a career in retail?

Things always take longer than you expect. Add three years to the business plan.

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