Fresh Start in
the Windy City
Venerable jewelry business blazes new trails
with fresh Michigan Avenue location and open floor plan
STORY BY ERINN HUTKIN
Marshall Pierce & Company’s new home is perched at the northern edge of Chicago’s busy Michigan Avenue, where tourists and taxis, businesspeople and buses converge in a constant parade of commercial potential.
“Foot” traffic is a mix of locals on lunch breaks, dog walkers, out-of-town shoppers, horses pulling carriages, and once even a llama, who paused to drink from a dog bowl kept outside the store’s door. Just down the street, the iconic John Hancock Building rises like a bayonet into the skyline. All around, its neighbors are refined — Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Tiffany and Tod’s.
“I think we ended up with the best retail corner in the city,” says company president Jerry Bern. “It’s the epicenter of luxury in Chicago.”
Marshall Pierce & Co.
OWNERS: Jerry Bern Jr. (PICTURED) and Evan Bern
OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2015
AREA: 5,000 square feet
TOP WATCH BRANDS: A. Lange & Söhne, Cartier, IWC, Panerai, Vacheron Constantin, Jaeger LeCoultre, Baume & Mercier
ONLINE PRESENCE: 5 Stars on Yelp; 2,588 Likes on Facebook
And while it’s the new kid on the block and the only family-owned and operated retailer on the strip, the 88-year-old Marshall Pierce has no shortage of luxury: Visitors get an immediate glimpse of the Cartier room with velvety red carpeting and dark wood walls when walking in.
After decades in a different part of downtown with zero visibility, the store moved in November 2015. Since then, they’ve added staff while increasing both sales and traffic. In its new home, managers and staff have continued long-time business practices that worked so well in the old location — namely, building relationships and offering top-quality customer service.
But, in its new, high-end storefront, a modern aesthetic prevails. An open layout allows sales clerks to roam freely instead of being separated from shoppers by glass cases — a pointer taken from the nearby Apple store. Associates tote iPads to avoid lines at cash registers and can complete sales with a tap.
“The whole site is geared toward making the client feel at home,” Bern explains. “The idea in moving here was to make it open, inviting and interactive.”
Before the Michigan Avenue move, the store and its surroundings were completely different.
Jewelry and watches have been the Bern family business for five generations, with American retail roots going back to 1896, when Jerry’s grandfather immigrated from Sweden and opened a watch shop in downtown Chicago’s Union Station. At the time, railroad conductors were required by law to have their timepieces regularly serviced. The shop eventually expanded to a half-dozen Midwest locations — all in train stations.
But by the 1960s, Bern’s father realized the pocket-watch business wasn’t long for the world, and so he purchased Marshall Pierce and Company, which operated in the city’s wholesale jewelry district.
For decades, the store sat tucked away on the sixth floor of a century-old office building — and became its oldest tenant. Foot traffic didn’t exist, and Bern credits word of mouth with keeping them in business.
As years passed, Bern said the store became a dinosaur of sorts — the last branded jeweler in Chicago’s downtown Loop. The model of the upstairs jeweler simply didn’t exist anymore — to survive, the store had to evolve.
Not only would a move give the store more visibility, but it would also boost the exclusive watch brands it offered.
“There was no way to grow the business in the environment we were in,” Bern says. “We had to change locations.”
In 2005, Marshall Pierce opened a 1,300-square-foot, street-level store farther south than the current site, but closed after roughly seven years in anticipation of a larger location. But finding the right real estate was easier said than done. The search took years, leading up and down Michigan Avenue for a space everyone — including store suppliers — agreed upon. In fact, Bern and his son — vice president Evan Bern — looked at the place where the store now stands a year before committing. They kept looking, and came back again, bringing their journey full-circle.
All those years running a store from high above the ground gave father and son plenty of perspective on how to run a business. Referrals drove sales, making it essential to know customers and offer good service.
That philosophy carried to the new store. While the Berns admit there was a learning curve that came with not knowing every customer — and with acclimating to a true retail environment — being welcoming was the goal.
The Marshall Pierce staff aims to be approachable and friendly, whether clients want to spend a few hundred dollars or a few thousand. When changing locations, the store doubled its staff, adding younger associates to the mix with fresh new ideas.
When customers step onto the white marble-floor, browse pieces on silver busts or sip champagne while inspecting engagement rings, the idea is offering a quality experience. “You walk in and see a normal person, not a robot,” Evan Bern says. “You get that Michigan Avenue experience like you would at Tiffany or Cartier.”
In addition to adding staff, the move allowed the store to add five new watch brands, more jewelry lines and upgrades.
Its marketing also evolved. The location makes the store ideal for events — there were three opening parties, a launch event for a watch collection and private events. They began partnering with retailers nearby by sponsoring a downtown business association mixer. The store now advertises with publications delivered to concierges at neighboring luxury hotels.
What’s more, the new space helped boost the store in cyberspace. It’s easier to get people in the door, so social media marketing increased.
But perhaps its smartest strategy of all was picking a location on North Michigan Avenue. The younger Bern can cite estimates predicting Chicago will see 55 million annual visitors by 2020. In recent years, the city added the NFL Draft, the restaurant industry’s James Beard Awards, the America’s Cup sailing event — this, in addition to everyday convention-goers, tourists and local traffic. And there, in the middle of it all, is the new Marshall Pierce and Company, version 2.0.
“We feel we got in a great position at a great time,” he says.
Five Cool Things About Marshall Pierce & Co.
1. Long legacy. The store has been family owned and operated since 1928. The current owner and operator, the Bern family, purchased Marshall Pierce & Company from the Pierce family in 1968.
2. Dogs welcome. Clients from the neighborhood and beyond can bring their pups — one of the drawers in the store is filled with dog treats for four-legged visitors. The store once even created a diamond collar for a canine client.
3. Independent pedgree. In November 2015, Marshall Pierce & Company became one of just a handful of independently owned and operated businesses on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile retail district, which is marked mainly by high-end national retailers.
4. Timepiece trove. The store has been featured on the watch blog Hodinkee with links to the Marshall Pierce website.
5. Strong name. The store is named after Marshall Pierce — who no longer owns or runs the company. When the Bern family purchased the business, they made the decision to retain the original name because it had built such a strong following.
PHOTO GALLERY (16 IMAGES)
Five Questions With Jerry and Evan Bern
What's the most important thing you've learned after so many years in business?
Jerry Bern: "Always give the customer a little more in every situation."
What's been the store's best seller since moving to the new location on Michigan Avenue?
Jerry Bern: "Basic diamond pieces, classics such as diamond earrings, bracelets and rings. Panerai for timepieces."
What sort of marketing and advertising has worked best for you in the new location?
Evan Bern: "(Being mentioned in watch blog Hodinkee) by far was our biggest boost in the marketing realm. It increased our social media followers, and brought a lot of attention to our watch brands -- and the store in general. Also, we have really ramped up our social media/Instagram posts with higher-quality photos, and have done more ads on Instagram and Facebook."
How would you sum up the first year in your store's new location?
Evan Bern: "There is always a learning curve adjusting to a new area of the city and a new space, but overall, when we look back on 2016, it is exciting to see how far we have come. We loved getting to know new clients and adjusting to our new office and enlarged staff. It takes a village, and we couldn't be more proud to have our team here at Marshall Pierce behind us."
Do you have anything new or interesting planned for 2017?
Evan Bern: "We are trying to think outside the box to get people excited about fine jewelry and watches, both with events and advertisements. So stay tuned and follow us @MPierceChicago."
This article originally appeared in the March 2017 edition of INSTORE.