British Pawnbrokers Thrive, Thanks To Groundwork

By Charlene Komar Storey

These are sunny days for British pawnbrokers. Publicly held chains are reporting record-setting profits, an impressive number of new outlets are opening in enviable locations and the media are showering them with positive publicity.

Certainly, a combination of today’s general economic climate and the high price of gold helped pawnbrokers in the United Kingdom reach these heights. But when opportunity knocked, British pawnbrokers were ready to open the door to modernized stores, innovative ideas and solid governmental relations.

In fact, they’ve been working for nearly 30 years to become more widely accepted. “We’ve been growing since about 1980, working to create awareness,” says Des Milligan, executive director of the National Pawnbrokers Association of the U.K.

Not coincidentally, that’s when the last recession hit Great Britain. That financial crisis made pawnbrokers aware that they could grow their businesses exponentially if they became more appealing to the public. They’ve made their stores larger, brighter and better lit, have improved staff training and moved to better locations.

That put them in an ideal position when the current downturn hit. British pawnbrokers, like their American counterparts, benefited from a spate of positive publicity in newspapers and online. Reporters expressed amazement that pawnshops had changed since Charles Dickens’ day, and readers began to wonder if it might be not-so-awful to pawn an item in exchange for much-needed cash.

“There are a number of people who would never have gone to a pawnbroker who now do,” Milligan says.

“We’ve gotten a lot of good press,” says Neil Surgenor, head of ancillary products for The Money Shop, which is part of U.S.-based DFG. The Money Shop both pawnbrokes and offers check cashing and short-term loans. (Most companies either take that approach or combine retail jewelry stores and pawnbroking; in addition, many jewelers whose sales are down in the recession are adding pawnbroking, Milligan says.)

As a result of the publicity, people are now aware of the 270-plus-store chain who weren’t before, and the company is ready to take advantage of that fact.

“Our stores are very bright, very welcoming, and our staff makes it so simple for them,” Surgenor says.

Glittering Market

Also like their American counterparts, British pawnbrokers have enjoyed an influx of customers wanted to take advantage of skyrocketing gold prices. “The amount of gold flooding in has been extraordinary,” Milligan says.

John Nichols, chief executive officer of H&T Pawnbrokers, says that right now, gold is doing more to drive profits than the recession — and bringing in more potential patrons.

“It’s driving different customers into the store,” Nichols says. He adds that buying gold doesn’t detract from pawnbroking. “Research says it isn’t the same customer.”

H&T has been buying gold for the last two-and-a-half years, far longer than most British pawnbrokers, so it has had a head start in the lucrative market. It also offers an Internet-based service by mail.

Nichols, like Surgenor, also touts his operation’s modern look. “Our design is about right now,” Nichols says. The company is reported to spend as much as £100,000 ($165,000) to open a new store. “It looks like a regular retail store,” Nichols adds. “Its openness attracts people.”

Similar to U.S.

Those people aren’t very different in the U.K. than in the U.S.  “The typical customer is not affected that much by the credit crunch, because he has been denied credit for years — so that continues,” Milligan says.

What’s new is that members of the middle class are now turning to pawnbrokers as other options vanish. “Banks today are much more choosey about who they loan to,” Milligan says.

He adds that this recession is slightly different than the one some 30 years ago. “There’s a lot more unemployment.”

There are also a lot more people suffering from salary cut-backs. The 1980 recession led to most British businesses “delayering” — cutting excess layers of middle-management. “Companies run leanly these days,” Milligan says. They don’t really want to lay people off, because they don’t want to have lost talented employees when things get better.

So they often give employees a choice: see a certain proportion of their number let go, or have everyone take off a month at 30 percent of pay, or just undergo a 10 percent pay cut, or something similar. “That puts real pressure on the family budget,” Milligan says.

Operators of small businesses are also afflicted. “Banks look at your books over the last three years. It’s easier to go to a pawnbroker and get a loan based purely on what assets you can pledge,” Milligan says. And a pawnbroker is an ideal solution to short-term cash flow problems, since U.K. banks charge penalties for paying off loans early.

“There are companies in the U.K. that are still going that would have closed without pawnbrokers,” Milligan says.

Pawnbrokers are working to reach these belt-tightening consumers and businessmen, whether they’re jobless or just struggling to cope with less cash coming in. Companies are fielding more television ads, for one thing; that’s become more practical as chains have become larger.

Adding Outlets

And chains are continuing to expand. H&T now has 108 stores, and plans to open 10 more before the end of the year. It expects to double its outlets in four to five years.

Surgenor says The Money Shop will finish 2009 with 300 stores, and add 50 more in 2010.

Albemarle & Bond, with a total of 114 outlets, has been digesting its July 2007 acquisition of the Herbert Brown retail jewelry/pawnbroking chain, making only a couple of acquisitions and adding one new store last year. But executives have said it will be adding more outlets.

The opportunities are undeniable. The toll the recession is taking on many retailers has meant that more desirable store locations are available for pawnbrokers, and that landlords are happier to see them move in. A record 15 percent of British stores will be empty by the end of this year, according to Experian Plc. The researcher says about 1,600 British retailers may fold this year. That means a lot of opportunities for pawnbrokers to open what the British call “High Street” stores — ones located on main shopping streets — for a lot less than it would have cost a year ago.

With all this expansion, pawnbrokers will be forced to differentiate themselves to retain customers. The general answer to how they’ll do that is thorough their service.

“People say we have fantastic service,” says Surgenor. “Once they’ve made a pledge, 80 percent will pledge again.”

“We make sure service is exemplary,” Nichols says, adding that they mystery-shop and perform other checks.

Most claim they’re not worried about over-saturation, saying that while there are more pawnbrokers, the pie is also bigger.

“There are about 1,100 pawnbrokers in the U.K.,” says Stewart Smith, chairman of Ramsdens Financial Ltd., a 41-store chain. “We believe there could easily be 2,200.”

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