YOU do not need to look far for signs of decline in town and city centres across the UK, especially as the economy continues to grapple with the fall-out from the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing upheaval in the retail sector.

However, one of Scotland’s oldest jewellers is reinforcing its commitment to the high street.

Family-owned Laings, which can trace its roots back to 1840, is undertaking a capital investment programme expected to cost up to £20 million that will transform its bricks and mortar presence in its home city of Glasgow and other trading locations around the UK.

At its heart is the multi-million-pound restoration of the historic Rowan House on Glasgow’s Buchanan Street, where phase one was recently completed with the opening of a new watch service centre.

Here, highly trained watchmakers and technicians repair, maintain, refurbish and adjust timepieces made by such illustrious brands as Rolex, Patek Philippe, TAG Heuer, Longines and Omega.

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The service centre is one element of a broader plan for the B-listed Rowan House, which Laings will make the focus of its presence in the city centre.

Laings has had offices on the second and third floor of the building for some time, but around two years ago it was announced the company had signed a 15-year lease to occupy all five storeys, following an extensive refurbishment project that is under way now.

A new showroom will be at the heart of the new-look building, which will also feature a hospitality area on the fifth floor in addition to the workshop, where shoppers can observe watchmakers and jeweller ply their trade.

Outside its native Glasgow, the company switched to bigger premises in Southampton in November, moving to a 10,000 square foot unit more than three times the size of its previous premises in the city.

The jeweller’s new store in the Hampshire city will, like its predecessor, have a Rolex area.

In Edinburgh the company will be expanding its presence on George Street next year following the acquisition of two properties next door to its existing outlet. Its base in Cardiff was expanded before Covid struck.

Joe Walsh, who runs the jeweller with wife Wendy Laing, told The Herald Business HQ: “As we came out of Covid, we kind of saw the opportunity on the high street. You saw that the high street was getting decimated, really, but with that there is opportunity.

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“In each of our four cities we look to make sure we are in the right places.”

In Glasgow, Laings had initially considered taking on the former Borders bookshop building on Buchanan Street as a base for its plans, but the layout of the property did not meet its requirements. It then turned its attention to expanding its presence at Rowan House, after fashion retailer Monsoon pulled out of the ground floor retail space.

Walsh noted there are interesting architectural aspects to the Nineteenth-Century building, which at one point was home to the Rowans department store, famous in the 1960s for retailing school uniforms.

The B-listed building incorporates some Charles Rennie Mackintosh designs, including marble and front windows, which will be brought back to life as part of the renovations. Walsh said it is a significant undertaking to lift the building up the standard required.

“It has been unloved for a number of years,” he said. “We have got to get it looking as good as it can be.

“The project has been lengthy. It is kind of a U-shaped building, and the central bit of the U is in a bit of disrepair. It really hasn’t had any money spent on it for years.

“The offices were the first port of call. As you would expect from an old Victorian building, the floors are all over the place. They’ve the Victorian sash windows and because you can’t replace them with double glazing you have to put a single sheet behind it. It needs a full rip and start again, which is what we are doing.”

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Walsh added: “[With] luxury retail nowadays, if you go down to Bond Street [in] London or New York, that’s the kind of level we have got to get ourselves to. We are selling Patek Philippe, Rolex – really high-end pieces. The place has to look spectacular and that really comes across with the finishing. Yes, there will be a lot of marble finishing and wood slats when you go in, but it’s how you also bring that to life with the soft furnishings, the smells, the ambience, everything you have to do.

“A lot of work is going into it.”

Asked why the jeweller had confidence to invest in its bricks and mortar retailing when so much of the high street appears to be struggling, Walsh said: “As a family business that has been here for 180 years, you have seen the peaks and troughs of the economic cycles. There was a big boom as we came out of Covid, which we didn’t expect, and I don’t think many people expected it.

“A lot of money was saved during the Covid period – there were numbers quoting around £300 billion sitting in bank accounts which wasn’t there pre-Covid. People started to spend that and it had a real impact on the business.

“If you look at Rolex and Patek watches, it used to be that you would have a number of watches for sale in the window.

“Now everything is for exhibition only and that was driven on the back of that boom. Partly because of the money that was saved up, but also as the world has gone a lot more, dare I say, [led by] influencers, the bigger brands get stronger, and the smaller brands certainly fall away.

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“So, as Gen X come through the early stages in life, they all want the highly sought after brands and pieces, so the commitment, really, from our partners with the likes of Rolex and Patek gives you that confidence. In the old days you would have stock in the window, now we have order books for two, three, four years, or even longer for sought-after pieces.

“Once you know that you are going to sell what’s coming in, as long as you have that commitment in the partnership and they are not going to move away, and you see commitment for the next five or 10 years, that gives you confidence to make the investment plans.

“To maintain those partnerships, you do have to provide the right environment for them. The top brands in the world want to be in the top locations in the world in the top cities. It is a mixture of things.”

Walsh acknowledged, however, that the Covid boom is now dissipating. He noted Laings retails products across a range of price points and has been seeing sales of “lower-end” watches impacted by the cost of living crisis and the recent rise in interest rates, which has still to work through the mortgage market.

But he added that “as always there are successful people out there”, among whom demand for high-end brands remain strong.

In its most recent accounts, published in December, Laings achieved a 5% rise in turnover to £63.3m in the year to May, but pre-tax profits fell to £3.7m from £5.45m.

The latest rise in turnover built on a 62.2% increase in the prior financial year to May 2022, during which sales recovered strongly with the absence of pandemic-related lockdowns and pre-tax profits nearly doubled to £5.45m from £2.8m.

Returning to Glasgow, Walsh acknowledged that there has been major change across the retail landscape in recent years, with many retailers exiting the so-called Golden Z of Sauchiehall Street, Buchanan Street, and Argyle Street.

And he observed more change is in the offing with the planned demolition of Buchanan Galleries, which owner Land Securities plans to replace with a new mixed-use development spanning homes, offices, hospitality and some retail, and a broadly similar plan for St Enoch Centre.

However, amid that upheaval he has seen opportunity for Laings.

“What that does do is concentrate the retail area on to Buchanan Street,” said Walsh, whose firm also owns a TAG Heuer boutique on the street.

“And you see that particularly from Frasers up to St Vincent Street. There is a real change in the retail environment now, there are a lot more brand boutiques.

“You have got a Nike store, there are a number of watch boutiques that have opened, there is a Nespresso [outlet] and a few others. With the growth of brands, they are looking to do their own representation and do it strong.”