Big Interview: Peter Jones

Since he purchased Jessops' assets five years ago for less than £2 million, Peter Jones has been working to transform the retailer. The Retail Gazette spoke to the Dragons' Den star to find out why Jessops is succeeding where so many are struggling.

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(credit PA Images)

“A reed before the wind lives on, while mighty oaks do fall.”

The Oak and the Reed, a fable written thousands of years ago, tells the story of two trees in a storm. One is a great oak which battles the wind, stands firm and breaks. The other, a reed, bends and moves with the wind and eventually survives the storm.

In a year in which the phrase “retail headwinds” became almost as cliched as Aesop’s classic fable, a near-perfect iteration of The Oak and the Reed played out on the high street.

HMV, faced with a staggering shift away from physical music and film sales towards streaming and digital services, collapsed at the end of December for the second time in six years.

Days earlier, camera specialist retailer Jessops, faced with a staggering shift away from the sale of cameras as smartphones become more advanced, celebrated the opening of its latest flagship store on Oxford Street in London.

“If I go to a Debenhams or a John Lewis, what level of experience do the people in store specifically have in relation to the brand or product?”

“I say change or die, and actually that isn’t as easy as it sounds, there are a lot of retailers out there who I have a lot of empathy for because they can’t change,” Peter Jones, the business mogul and Dragons’ Den star who bought Jessops out of administration in 2013, told the Retail Gazette.

“To be able to change, especially if you’re a large player, takes a huge amount of money and investment.”

Since he purchased Jessops’ assets five years ago for less than £2 million, Jones, alongside chief executive Neil Old, has been working to rebuild the retailer.

Instead of attempting to return it to its former glory, Jessops’ focus has been shifted both in terms of its target audience and its products, ensuring its offering remains relevant in the current retail climate as well as in years to come.

Rather than try to fight against the smartphone revolution, Jones launched a transformation project last year, repositioning every smartphone user as a potential customer.

“I’ve got five kids and if it wasn’t for Jessops my kids would just keep their photos in their iCloud,” he said.

“We’re embracing that now and it’s a good reason for people to come in for 20 minutes and come out with a photo album, or a mug or whatever you want.”

The new store concept, which has been introduced to dozens of Jessops’ 60-store estate over the last six months including its new Oxford Street flagship, invites shoppers to come and explore the photos on their phone, offering a range of options to transform them into something physical.

“If you look at Jessops everybody thought we were always going to sell cameras and we were never going to be able to embrace the new smartphone technology, that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Jones told Retail Gazette.

“If you look at our store today, everyone has smart phones, everyone out there with a smartphone is a potential Jessops customer.

“You will be able to come into Jessops in six months time, and you will be able to buy the latest top line smartphones which have amazing camera tech.”

Finding the potential in the modern retail market is one thing, but without a solid understanding of the inherent potential in your own business, it means nothing.

While many potential investors snuffed Jessops when it collapsed, cautious of ploughing money into a business which the market was supposedly turning against, Jones saw its unique potential.

“I can’t think of any retailers that have real specialists in store,” he said.

“If I go to a Debenhams or a John Lewis, what level of experience do the people in store specifically have in relation to the brand or product?”

Jessops remains a specialist camera shop, and where you find specialisms you find enthusiasts. According to Jones, there’s little more valuable to a retailer than a workforce who are passionate about the business.

“Actually, the big thing that (Jessops) had, and I always embraced, was the people,” he said.

“You’ve got real passionate amateur photographers working in our stores, that’s quite big.

“In our surveys across our whole group of nearly 1000 people, the reason for them getting up in the morning and going to work is because they’re feeding their own passion, and that makes a big difference.

“We’re lucky enough to have a retail business where at the very heart of the business is its people, and their passion happens to be the very thing that we’re selling.”

It’s arguable that Jessops’ reputation as the UK’s go-to specialist camera retailer for nearly 100 years is probably what has allowed it to remain on the high street for generations.

“There’s a reason why the word change is so similar in letters to the word challenge, nobody likes change.”

Like the reed in Aesop’s fable, it must now bend along with the changing retail landscape in order to survive throughout the next generation, just as it has adopted countless new camera technologies throughout its history.

Any retailers planning to weather the retail storm by standing firm and hoping to simply outsell new trends and technologies, are destined to break like the oak.

“There’s a reason why the word change is so similar in letters to the word challenge, nobody likes change,” Jones said.

“There is a lot of doom and gloom, but actually I go the opposite way and say there will be growth on the high street.

“The reason I’m predicting growth is that I have just been watching and seeing what’s happening, we’re starting to see more and more coffee bars, more and more restaurants. That tells me people ultimately don’t want to be locked up in their house 24/7 in front of a screen, they want to have a life.

“To have a life you have to go outside your door. The high street has an opportunity to come alive, it’s going to be about community.”

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Peter has always been my favourite Dragon & I wish him all the best of luck!

    As for Jessops plans on getting people into stores to print merchandise – the problem (for them) is that we can already do all of that from the comfort of our homes – there are online services, apps for doing all this and they offer a much wider selection and cheaper prices. So in long term, I don’t think that’s a direction to bet on, online sales will take over anyways…

    • Your average consumer will not bother ‘doing it from their own home’ because what you described is laborious enough to put even me off, and I am pretty tech savvy so people like my mum or dad will definitely not bother. The convenience and ease they are offering is enticing and will work long term. You say you can print an album to high quality or on a mug at home? No one has the required resources for this Andrew.

  2. They should move into printing photos into framed prints for hanging on walls. Its hard to get photos, surrounds and frames coordinated. Framers charge £100plus. Bring an integrated solution please.

  3. Service with a smile is dead. Service with passion…, everybody is doing it.
    Service by passionate individuals with an invested interest in the continued growth of the business is truly special.

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