Tuesday, 01 January 1991

UK: The redemption of the pawnbroker. (2 of 2)

UK: The redemption of the pawnbroker. (2 of 2) - This social conscience is very touching (and quite believable in men like Murphy and Fish), but surely if it were all true, pawnbrokers would enjoy a better reputation. The legislation for their trade is v

This social conscience is very touching (and quite believable in men like Murphy and Fish), but surely if it were all true, pawnbrokers would enjoy a better reputation. The legislation for their trade is very strict. Since the early 1980s pawnbroking has fallen under consumer credit law. If a pledge is not redeemed, for example (and 90% are redeemed in time), the broker has to write to the customer giving 21 days' notice of his intention to sell. Even once sold, the broker can only retain outstanding interest and costs - the rest, if any, goes back to the customer.

It is not, therefore, a lack of rules but a lack of enforcement which plagues the trade. Murphy reckons that even today the cowboys and crooks outnumber the goodies. But he is not disheartened and remains convinced that the image of pawnbroking can be changed with proper marketing - just like turf accountants cleaned up their image by moving onto the high street as betting shops.

Murphy is clearly in love with his trade. In time honoured fashion, he came to it through the jewellery business. After starting out at EA Barker (a highly respected upmarket pawnbroker), he spent 10 years with Harvey and Thompson, the last two as managing director. There he claims to have pioneered the idea of divorcing pawnbroking from jewellery retailing. Traditionally the two have always gone together - a front shop for selling and a back shop for taking pledges.

Separating the two has distinct advantages: because of the high retail margins on jewellery (commonly 400 to 600%), pawnbrokers will only lend 10 to 25% of the shop price of jewellery - most disappointing to a good many customers and rather embarrassing if a similar item is in the shop window at five times the pledge. "People think jewellery is an investment, but it isn't, any more than a piece of clothing or a car battery," says Murphy. "The only purpose of a piece of jewellery is for one woman to wear it to make another woman jealous," he declares with a finality that defies contradiction.

Brown at TM Sutton has similar views. "The biggest con in the jewellery trade is valuation. If you want to know the real value, come to a pawnbroker. I have to put my money where my mouth is every day of the week."

Today Harvey and Thompson, founded in 1897, is the largest pawnbroking chain in the country and the only one with a stock market quote. It has 29 branches, about half of which have no retailing, and has shown healthy growth in recent years. Murphy parted company with H and T in 1982, due to "personal differences" with the new chairman, Rupert Galliers Pratt, and the two men have not been on speaking terms.

In the subsequent years Murphy and his wife, Jean, have built up Albemarle and Bond into the second largest chain in the country, with 13 branches - all pawnbrokers, with just two retail operations. Sitting in his modest Bristol headquarters, Murphy pulls out a stash of "before and after" photos to show the pawn shops which he converted. One features a dingy corridor and back alley with a couple of outside toilets. "Isn't it awful," he laments. "You'd feel dirty if you had to go somewhere like that." Now his shops feature bold signs and bright interiors with wide counters and glass screens. As in a bank or building society, you are as likely to be served by a woman as a man (a definite break with pawnbroking tradition).

After eight years, A and B hopes to post its first group profits in the next financial year. Although pawnbroking sounds like a licence to print money, it takes years to get established, especially now that pawnbroking is so unfamiliar. Once a business is underway, however, the problems are not what you would expect. Stolen goods, for example, are barely an issue. There are ways of telling a dishonest punter, and in any case, most criminals know where to sell their booty without having to put them in hock. Much bigger problems are staff dishonesty (if one item is missing the whole stock has to be checked) and lost tickets (customers need an affidavit to redeem their goods).

Marital quarrels are another occupational hazard: wife discovers that husband has pawned her jewellery to take his girlfriend on a dirty weekend - the scenarios are endless and sufficiently troublesome that TM Sutton, for example, refuses to take women's jewellery from men and vice versa.

Burglary is, of course, the ultimate disaster. "If you're a jeweller and you get burgled, you've lost your stock. If you're a pawnbroker you've lost a business," says Murphy. Not only would confidence plummet but, more tangibly, regular customers would have lost the items which they used to pledge.

Such dramatic events aside, image is still the perennial bane of the trade. While Harvey and Thompson and Albemarle and Bond are struggling for acceptability, others are resigned to the problem. London Pledge Company, despite its youth and entrepreneurial spirit, gives pride of place on the deep red walls of its Islington pledge office to a painting of the stereotypical pawnbroker - a bearded old man with a mean look and a weeping woman in the background.

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