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America's Coolest Stores

2014 Big Cool 1: Grogan Jewelers

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STORY BY EILEEN MCCLELLAND | Published in the August 2014 issue

Location: Florence, AL
URL: groganjewelers.com
Founded: 1915
Opened Featured location: 2013
employees: 12
Area: 3,000 square feet
Build-out Cost: $2.5 million
Under current ownership: Since 1985
Top Brands: Ashi, Asher, Andrea Candella, Frederick Goldman, I Reiss, Jewels By Star, Kir Collection, Kirk Kara, Malakan, Mark Schneider, TAG Heuer, True Romance
Online presence: 3,768 Facebook Likes; Alexa Global Rank: 3.55 million

Jay Klos visited Florence, AL, in 1985 to sell diamonds to retailer Walker Graham.

Klos didn’t make a sale that day, but Graham did.

Graham wasn’t in the market for diamonds, but he did, out of the blue, offer to sell Klos his business, Grogan Jewelers.

Initially, Klos, a manufacturers’ rep, shrugged off the notion, but Graham didn’t give up.

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"The day that I came into the store I had never met him before," Klos recalls. "But for some reason, he showed me his financial statement — that day — the day I met him."

Klos knew a good thing when he saw it; he was impressed with how successful the store was, and intrigued by what he thought the business could become.

That was April; he closed on his purchase of Grogan Jewelers by July.

"I was 28, single, I was living in Atlanta, having a great time. My friends were saying I’d lost my freaking mind. But it looked like a good opportunity and the people in Florence were so warm and friendly. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that.

Florence, Alabama, was one of the best-kept secrets in the world. I saw the business potential and I loved it from Day 1. It goes to show how some things are meant to be."

Klos, the son of a jeweler in Jefferson City, MO, didn’t intend to follow in his father’s footsteps at first. As a teenager, sweeping floors and learning engraving, which he found tedious, he thought there had to be something better. His father, on the other hand, always thought he’d be back.

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"My father thought I would take over his business," Klos says. "He hated to lose me, but he was proud of my decision. He helped me buy the store."

 

THE NEW PLACE

About four years ago, running the downtown Florence store as well as a second location in Huntsville, Klos said he had gotten so mired in daily routine that he didn’t see the big picture anymore. Conversations with peers led him to the realization that he needed to build a new store.

But Grogan had been a fixture for nearly a century in downtown Florence, which was still an active place, with shops, restaurants and even an art walk.

On the other hand, Grogan had outgrown its space; there was no room to add the bridal and fashion lines Klos coveted, let alone a full bar and a lounge. Ultimately, he decided to start shopping for real estate.

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"In this business, you have to keep changing, in every way, just to keep up," Klos says.


FUN FACTS

- While Jay Klos was in college in California, he was a contestant on the game show The Dating Game, competing with two other guys to win a date with a bachelorette. "I didn’t win, but it was an experience for sure," he says. It’s a story he likes to share with nervous engagement-ring shoppers.

-"Our store has catered to a few noteworthy clients such as Donald Trump and fashion designer Billy Reid," Klos says. Two-time Grammy award winner John Paul White of the band The Civil Wars is a regular client. His wife, Jenny, wore diamond jewelry to the 2013 Grammy’s at which The Civil Wars won. "You can find these pieces on display in our store," Klos says.

PLAYLIST

Top hits. The music starts out in the parking lot, coming from speakers disguised as rocks!

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Shopping for real estate? Jay Klos recommends checking out two or three locations at a time. "Don’t zero in particularly on one because it may not work out and you need to have a second and third choice in case the deal doesn’t go the way you want it to go. We looked at four other spots that we thought we wanted, tried to negotiate a deal and none of those worked out. Then this location became available, which was the best by far. Don’t get married to one location."

STRONG PROMO

Grogan’s ads typically feature a signature blue-green that’s also seen on the store’s gift-wrap ribbons.

So Klos bought land and knocked down an old restaurant to clear space for a new 8,000-square-foot building, of which 5,500 square feet is the new Grogan Jewelers. The rest he rents out to three compatible businesses, including a boutique and a yogurt shop.

He’s been in the new space a little over a year.

Pausing from his busy day to chat in his expansive second floor office, looking down on the sales floor below, Klos says that his only regret is not building the stand-alone showplace a decade ago.

"We’re up about 30 percent in sales the first year," Klos says. "And it’s really changed people’s perception about who we are. What we did was get out of our box."

The old store might have had 3,000 cars pass by in a day. The new location boasts a daily traffic count of 15,000. Some shoppers drive 60 miles to visit the adjacent mall and the new Publix grocery store. Florence’s very first Starbucks opened a block away this year.

Klos’ vision came to fruition: He retained a loyal customer base while adding a new, younger clientele interested in bridal.

"That’s what we thought we’d see and that’s what has come true," he says. "Location, location, location is the No. 1 thing that I learned building this store. Just because you are successful at a particular location, you better be thinking where you are going to go next if you slow down or if things change in your town. It’s imperative that you don’t get comfortable with who you are and where you are, ever."

Initially, Klos increased his advertising to make sure everyone knew about the move. But the location itself was so visible that soon he was able to scale back. "We were in their face, right on the corner. So we scaled back and that helped the bottom line. We are doing all the social media, heavy radio for engagement customers, some newspaper, email blasts but no billboard or TV at this time."

GIVE ‘EM WHAT THEY WANT

Thinking out of the box, Klos thought about what shoppers want and need and not about what a typical jewelry store looks like. "Because in a lot of ways a typical jewelry store is very stuffy," he says. "We wanted something that makes them want to come back."

R. Cherri Pitts of Studio C Architectures & Interiors in Birmingham, AL, says that Klos referred to his vision of the store as "Colorado style," a description she interpreted as a chic, casual space with natural materials. On the exterior she used limestone, wood slabs, a rain screen and metal awnings.

The interior reflects that elegantly casual vibe as well. Upon entry, the vertical scale of the open, two-story space creates an instant wow factor.

A focal point is the huge stone fireplace in the sitting area, yet the area itself is scaled perfectly to be functional and not overwhelming. It’s accented with a rawhide rug and white leather chairs.
Hand-scraped hardwood floors flow throughout the store.

A beaded, steel curtain hangs from the ceiling of the engagement area, surrounding and calling attention to the 12-foot-long try-on table, the centerpiece of the sunken room. Deep blue, floor-to-ceiling curtains create a richly dramatic backdrop.

There’s a fireplace on the second floor, too, in the conference room. Floor-to-ceiling windows on both sides of the conference room fireplace offer a view of the sales floor from above.

Customers can watch what’s going on in the shop through a specially designed window.

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Pitts based her drawings on Klos’ vision of the experiences people would have in his store.

One such experience is the ability to try on rings.

Most of the cases in the engagement ring room are completely open, stocked largely with prototypes made of silver and cubic zirconia, so that it’s easy for shoppers to try on one ring after another. Klos knew the feature was important, but he didn’t realize just how naturally women would gravitate toward the ring display.

"At first, I thought customers would say, ‘Can I touch it? Can I try it on?’ But they never say that. They just start playing!"

Klos broke with tradition on other details as well, choosing cases 7 to 8 inches taller than standard, so clients don’t need to stoop to see the jewelry. He wanted the cases to be clean-lined, functional and attractive, without having them steal the show or bust the budget.

"I didn’t want to lose focus from the jewelry."

For the in-case displays, Klos and his design team worked with Alex Velvet to incorporate rich earth tones into the main cases and a rainbow of brighter colors in the engagement ring center to complement the tumbled marble counter and cases.

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The June 2013 grand opening was the talk of the town for months.

About 150 invited guests walked the red carpet, posed for photos in front of a Hollywood-style backdrop and sipped champagne. They watched aerial acrobats hang from the ceiling Cirque du Soleil-style. A singer dolled up as Marilyn Monroe sang Diamonds

Are a Girl’s Best Friend, and a chauffeur shuttled out-of-town guests in a 1965 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud.

Klos also received the Alabama Retail Association’s Gold Retailer of the Year Award. Winning factors included the open-case display concept, the CRM program he developed and old-fashioned customer service.

"We have learned not to fear change because we see it as an opportunity to embrace," Klos says.

1. IT’S ALMOST A SECOND HOME. Klos’ new second floor office is five times bigger than the office in his old, downtown location. It also has a shower in his en suite bathroom. It’s a time-saver: "I go and run or work out down the street, come back here, change, shower and I’m ready for work."

2. IT’S GOT STYLE. When customers purchase an engagement or anniversary ring, they are chauffeured to deliver the ring in a white, vintage Rolls Royce.

3. IT HAS A PATIO. Grogan was designed with a spacious outdoor courtyard that has been outfitted with a tent for special occasions such as wine tastings, art shows and the store’s grand opening.

4. IT HAS TEAM SPIRIT. The whole team rallies together to throw a themed birthday party for each staff member — a "hoedown" for Klos, for example — that captures the spirit, heritage or special interests of the individual. When it’s not their birthday though, co-workers show no mercy; staff members are likely to fall victim to a practical joke!

5. IT OFFERS AUTONOMY. "I give my people a lot of rope," Klos says. "They either hang themselves with it, or they take it and go. They know that we do whatever it takes to make a customer happy, and they can make any decision, big or small, to make that happen. It gives them ownership in the company when they are allowed to do that. People won’t be creative if they are micromanaged."


WHAT THE JUDGES SAY

David Brown: This is indeed an innovative store committed to "change or die" philosophies and a fun team culture that should see them stay ahead of the game.

Danny Clark: Grogan’s has clearly built a defined experience for the customers.
Andrea Hill: I love the open jewelry area where customers can explore the jewelry without a salesperson. In fact, every possible detail of customer comfort — from the leather chairs and sports TV in the men’s lounge to the playful use of lights and music throughout — seems to have been considered in the redesign of the store.
Heather Hanst: Grogan Jewelers sets a high bar. The story of their grand opening in 2013 with a red carpet and live acrobats takes the cake!

Bob Phibbs: I loved the open oval counter and guys area. I especially enjoyed the pray for rain ad — very clever. Sounds like they are doing many, many things right. Kudos!

Natalie Bos: No detail was overlooked with Grogan’s build, everywhere from the parking lot to the bathrooms were included in the design process. That attention to detail is a good indicator of the superior level of service one can expect from the staff at Grogan’s. One of my favorite facts is that the staff throws themed parties for an employee’s birthday, how cool is that?

 

ONLINE Q&A with Jay Klos

One newspaper: USA Today
One website: The Weather Channel … gotta know if there’s time for golf later.
One gadget: iPhone
One plane ticket: Cape Town South Africa. Safari baby.
Most significant mentor and why: My dad. Taught me that everyone matters and hard work pays off.
Favorite business book: "Good to Great"
Favorite book: "A Place to Feel God" by Conrad Pitts
Best advice ever given: Stop sweating the small stuff and get on with living.
Best advice ever received: Get your head out of your _ _ _ and start kicking butt. Thank you, Richard Kessler
Advice for a new store owner: Make sure you understand cash flow.
Pitfalls to watch out for: Over-buying.
If I’d understood women, then life would have been a whole lot easier.
Favorite architect/designer/artist: Cherri Pitts
I drive a Range Rover. If I could choose any car, it would be a Range Rover.
What superpower would you like to have? Being able to see through anything …. Think about it.
What’s your sign? Aries
What’s the best customer service you’ve ever experienced? I sent back a pair of pants to Nordstrom for credit; the only problem was I didn’t buy them there. They carried them to the place I purchased them from, got a credit receipt and mailed it back to me.
Tell me about your perfect day. Wake up, run and work out, swim, hit the slopes for some skiing, Jacuzzi with a good cocktail, nap, wine and a great dinner, all with my girlfriend, daughter and friends.
What have the last few years taught you? Appreciate what you have.
How do you stay current? INSTORE magazine and other publications, shows and talking with other jewelers through CBG Buying group and Preferred Jewelers International.
What’s the toughest thing you’ve ever had to do professionally? Quit a job that was very good to me to purchase Grogan Jewelers.
If your store were on fire, what’s the one thing you’d save? Pictures on my desk.
If money were no object, I’d put in a fountain that had chocolate in it (dark chocolate of course) in my store.
When I meet people, the first thing I notice about them is their smile.
If I were a precious stone, I would be Paraiba because I’m rare.
Favorite flick — extra points if it involves jewelry! "To Catch a Thief" with Carey Grant … now the points please
Favorite place to shop: Lowes, what can I say, I’m a guy
Favorite lunch: BLT with avocado
Favorite website: groganjewelers.com, of course
Favorite job at work that doesn’t involve customers: Motivating my team
If I weren’t a jeweler, I’d be in commercial development.
Current life goal: Show love to everyone I meet
Favorite gemstone: Paraiba
I am most frustrated when small things eat up my time.
I am happiest when I’m with people I love.
Weekend activity: boating, golfing, working out, eating and maybe a little drinking….
Favorite artist: Michelangelo.
Thing I worry about that I know I shouldn’t: Being able to sustain growth.

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America's Coolest Stores

Grace-Themed Jewelry Gallery Reaches Out To Santa Fe

Creative decor stops shoppers in their tracks.

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Wear Your GRACE, Santa Fe, NM

OWNER: Hillary Fitzpatrick Randolph; FOUNDED: 2015; URL: wearyourgrace.com; BUILDOUT COST: $39,650; EMPLOYEES: 5, full and part-time; AREA: 650 square feet; TOP BRANDS: Owner’s GRACE pieces and Etkie (contemporary hand-loomed bracelets crafted by Native American artisans)


ONE DEFINITION OF “GRACE” is simple elegance. Another is refined movement. The word is also associated with the bestowal of blessings.

Artist and designer Hillary Randolph takes a creative approach to exploring the nuanced meanings of “grace” as the theme for her brand and her Santa Fe store, wear your GRACE. She also established “Share Your Grace,” a multifaceted program that benefits Santa Fe’s community, including its nonprofit organizations.

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Choosing grace as her theme triggers interesting conversations and builds meaningful rapport with clients, she says, who share what grace means in their own lives.

Randolph designed her Santa Fe store based on her aesthetic sense of what grace looks and feels like — warm and inviting with a dash of elegant simplicity. She opened her gallery in 2015 in a 250-year-old adobe building on Palace Avenue in the heart of Santa Fe, just off the historic plaza. Her jewelry emphasizes graceful flowing movement. Much of the work is developed upstairs in the design studio.

Her approach to interior design is hands on.

A unique orb light fixture is an eye-catching element near the entrance. Randolph created it from a grapevine she found in Round Top, TX, that had been steamed, coiled, shaped into an openwork globe and re-dried. She took it home, painted the bottom of it with gold leaf and hung from it 100-year-old faceted crystal drops from France. The table below is also painted with gold leaf so it appears as if the crystals are dripping gold. It complements the interior design, with its gold-on-white palette and a trompe l’oeil tangerine curtain painted by a local artist across the back wall. The curtain painting creates a sense of flowing movement and acts as a backdrop for casually luxurious décor.

“The best decisions I have ever made came from feelings, instincts and hunches, rather than spreadsheets, schematics and trend forecasts. I’ve learned to make business decisions according to how I want my life to feel. The unique look of the gallery came from the feeling I get from certain colors, combinations and materials. I want my guests to feel as inspired by the store’s ambience as I do.”

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“I hear people talk about the experience they have when they walk in,” she says. “The product is an offshoot of the experience.”

Randolph’s approach to sales is to honor each customer’s personal sense of style, wardrobe and lifestyle in general. “It’s our passion to truly connect with women from all walks of life, listening to their stories and encouraging self-expression through their jewelry,” she says. “So we connect, we listen and we always have fun.”

Although shopping in Santa Fe is a favorite pastime of tourists, more and more of Randolph’s regular clients live in town. So marketing is increasingly local as well, with in-store events and email campaigns. This year she plans to feature the “faces of Grace” in her marketing and discover what “grace” means to her clients to make her social-media marketing more interactive.

Another goal is to spend less time on paperwork upstairs in her office and more time downstairs in the gallery, being the ambassador of her brand.

Randolph’s career started in Palm Beach in luxury goods followed by a move to New York, where she worked with Ralph Lauren in his flagship Madison Avenue store. Other luxury brand retailers recruited her to develop their wholesale brands and open brick-and-mortar stores across the United States.

In 1999, she visited her mother in Santa Fe and never left.

“I never thought I would stay, and then I saw the moon rise over the ski basin and it was the biggest moon I’d ever seen in my life,” she recalls. “There was a certain connection with people from all over the country that I found here. I had conversations with them here that I would never have if I were sitting next to them at a dinner table in New York. There is a certain veil that is removed here, an authentic connection that feeds me.”

She launched her jewelry-design career in 1999 with Somers, a line based on the sculptures of her creative partner that was sold in galleries and jewelry stores around the country. Later, the idea for Grace took shape.

“Even today,” she says, “there are things I’m still discovering. A new hike, people, artists. It’s not boring here. There’s always something to feed you.”

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She has found the business climate friendly, as well. Santa Fe, she discovered is the No. 1 spot in the U.S. per capita for women-owned businesses.

She finds inspiration for design in Santa Fe, as well. “I design in my head so when I’m on that hike the best design pops into my head,” she says, “If I’m just sitting there with the stones it doesn’t work as well.”

Randolph believes in being an active part of her community by creating a business model that gives back. She is a founding member of Santa Fe’s 100 Women Who Care, a group that meets quarterly to learn about and donate to a charity that the group selects.

Share your GRACE also holds invitation-only sales events throughout the year, during which a portion of net proceeds benefit non-profit organizations while boosting Randolph’s philanthropic profile in the community.

Randolph is certain she’s where she’s supposed to be — both literally and figuratively.

“I am living proof that if you choose to make decisions from your heart and persevere, you will never look back,” she says. “Creating GRACE has given me more connection, has inspired other women to embrace their entrepreneurial spirit and has led to deeper relationships with my clients all due to my own personal decision to choose GRACE as this next chapter of my life.”

PHOTO GALLERY (21 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Wear Your GRACE

1. Practical magic. Randolph is focusing on gemstones and custom-creating talismans using labradorite and rose quartz. They’re marketed as being an essential element of everyday protection. “Being in Santa Fe with all of our ‘woo woo,’ people love it,” Randolph says. The jewelry line that I am creating is the core things we need as women to feel safe, protected, guided, grounded, but it’s also an individual connection.”

2. The canine experience. Just outside the store’s entrance is the most popular “Dog Bar” in town, complete with treats tucked inside a mailbox over a trompe l’oeil of splashing water from a faux-spigot. Four-legged friends may quench their thirst in cool H2O. Pet owners peek in with an amused smile as they view candy colored leather dog leashes and collars engraved with “Walk with GRACE. Sales help support animal rescue groups.

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3. Versatility behind the scenes. The second floor is the atelier, where the jewelry is designed and made from cast components. “I have used the space for open houses, gallery night on Fridays, and featured a painter here with her larger work upstairs,” Randolph says. “So it is a working studio, but also a social space. Or I’ll have a client come up and we’ll collaborate to remake something. Just minutes after a design is completed upstairs, it can be displayed on the floor.”

4. Guest stars. Randolph loves collaborating with artists she’s met on her travels, so she regularly features jewelry by guest designers and hosts events promoting other artwork she loves.

5. Coco’s Bangles. The wear your GRACE collection includes best-selling Coco’s Bangles, designed by Hillary’s teenage daughter, Coco. Coco donates a portion of the proceeds of sales to the Heart & Soul Animal Sanctuary outside Santa Fe.

JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • Sofia Kaman: I love seeing a business that embraces fun, whimsy and a sense of happiness in all that they do. The dog bar is a brilliant touch!
  • Jimmy DeGroot: I love the concept and the business model.
  • Lyn Falk: Great website. Clever and sophisticated. Unique name and use of the name in marketing. Interior and exterior are well done — distinct, savvy, artsy with touches of whimsy. Unique displays pushed the envelope in terms of a typical retail experience. More like a gallery. Hillary appears to exude charm!
  • Tiffany Stevens: This is a beautiful store! The exterior encapsulates the rich history of Santa Fe while the interior is modern and unique.
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America's Coolest Stores

Cool Store Design for Albany Store Based on Consumer Research

Vice-president Gregg Kelly considered aspects from the scent of flowers used outside to handicapped signage.

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Northeastern Fine Jewelry, Albany, NY

OWNER: Raymond Bleser; FOUNDED: 1980; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 1998; ARCHITECT: C2 Design Group; LAST RENOVATED: 2017;BUILDOUT COST: $1.3 million; NO. of LOCATIONS: 3; EMPLOYEES: 14;AREA: 5,000 square feet; TOP BRANDS: Cartier, Tacori, Simon G, IWC, Forevermark


WHEN GREGG KELLY told customers he was planning to redo the Albany, NY, location of Northeastern Fine Jewelry, they inevitably asked him, “Why are you spending money on a store that still looks beautiful?”

But Kelly, vice president and son-in-law of owner Raymond Bleser, understands the importance of updating a store’s look and making it as functionally modern and approachable as possible. He invested untold hours studying store design, traffic flow and consumer behavior before embarking on the major remodel he undertook in 2017, which went far beyond a touch up or a new coat of paint.

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In fact, the store was gutted, all while it remained open, with the support of its two sister stores in Schenectady and Glens Falls, NY.

What’s new? A 1,000-square foot addition, the floor plan, the cases, a glass façade, a patio and landscaping. Even the parking lot is new.

“We try to redo the stores every 10 years, and some stuff was falling apart,” Kelly says. “When a customer visits a few times a year, we want to re-engage them and give them a new environment, a new experience.”

The company realized a 15 percent increase in business the first full year following the renovation.

In preparation, Kelly painstakingly considered every detail and collected sources of inspiration from around the world, making it a priority to visit stores when he travels.

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He also reads the Robb Report and other national luxury magazines to stay on top of retail trends. He took a class with neuroscientist Robert Cooper, a New York Times bestselling author and business strategist specializing in consumer behavior. Kelly was particularly interested in what gives people the ability to make good, conscious decisions based on the retail environment itself. “Once you have their attention, it comes down to the associate who guides the decision to purchase.”

To get their attention, Kelly wanted the store to have an open floor plan and optimal traffic flow while balancing the individual requirements of a variety of international shop-in-shop brands with less of a choppy look.

Michael Roman of the C2 Design Group says the overall challenge was to take Kelly’s concept and bring it to life within an existing building.

The sense of openness was achieved by repositioning the entry and shifting it over, which also affected the exterior of the building. The goal inside was to improve traffic flow, so shoppers could feel comfortable, meandering freely without encountering any obstacles. “It’s the experience that’s going to bring you back,” Roman says. The shop-in-shops are tied together with materials and lighting, while accommodating each vendor’s own design criteria.

The glass facade offers a transparency that puts shoppers at ease as they approach. Especially at night, the window reveals the character of the store within, Roman says. And the casual patio setting in front offers a decompression zone between parking lot and shopping experience, easing threshold resistance.

Finishes are sleekly upscale and timeless, rather than trendy.

Kelly also told Roman he wanted a store that looked like it had leaped off the pages of a luxury magazine. Accordingly, finishes are sleekly upscale, but timeless rather than trendy. Decor includes shades of gray and imported European leathers. LED lighting is new, green and efficient. Roman describes the materials used in the interior as the bow on the design package — timeless, clean and relatively simple, designed to complement the design without overshadowing it or being too understated.

Kelly put himself in the shoppers’ shoes when it came to details.

“We changed a lot of different things as we went and I always kept the consumer in mind. Even things like how they experience walking through the parking lot, the pitch of the sidewalk, and the feel they get when they step out of their car,” says Kelly.

“We researched for hours how to get the right thing — from handicapped signs that weren’t run of the mill, to the garbage can, to the outside rugs, to the extension of the awning over the front door to give them enough space for their umbrella, so they’re not getting wet when they get into the store. I studied the music, the rocks we used outside and the flowers we put into the planters to make sure the scent is appealing.”

While all of this was going on, by far the ultimate challenge was that the full-service jewelry store remained open, to the extent that it could, one section at a time, while chaos was kept at bay.

“The biggest challenge was to make our employees comfortable, as well as our customers,” Kelly says. “We sectioned off parts of the building so we didn’t lose too much consistency. Every part was gutted. We did all right, too, and our customers were great to us. They still shopped and stayed loyal. We were able to move things from store to store and still fulfill their needs.”

Ray Bleser, who founded the company, was happy to leave the renovation project to Kelly.

Originally, Bleser had studied to be a pharmacist, planning to follow in his father’s footsteps, but after just one day in that professional role, he knew it wasn’t for him. Instead, he decided to pursue his hobby of collecting and selling rare coins and gold.

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Northeastern Coin Gallery opened in 1980 and quickly expanded in scope, becoming Northeastern Fine Jewelry by 1985. In a twist of fate, the company’s flagship location in Schenectady, NY, occupies the building that once housed the drugstore where Bleser’s father worked.

Bleser has given his son-in-law his seal of approval. “He’s stationed in Schenectady, and every time he comes in, he says this is the nicest store from here to New York City,” Kelly says. “It’s a real modern look that’s attractive to all age groups. You get a New York City feel combined with a hometown experience, and I think that’s hard to accomplish.”

PHOTO GALLERY (12 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Northeastern Fine Jewelry

1. The Diamond District edge. Northeastern Fine Jewelry has an office in the Diamond District of New York. “We’ve never been one to just order stuff and ship it in. We like to look at things ourselves and have the first pick of diamonds. We’re picky when it comes to buying. And it gives us a nice edge to pick out what we want and pass those savings on to the consumer based on our buying ability,” says Kelly.

2. Training is top of mind. The company sends staff for training provided by its top brands and invests thousands of dollars a year into additional education. The expectation of expertise extends beyond sales to custom design and the repair shop. There’s also a watchmaker on staff.

3. A respect for jewelry history. They plan for an estate sale every year. “We try to keep our roots and the things that made us who we are today. They’re fun, too, because you get to look at things that are older and helped develop the jewelry industry for what it is today,” says Kelly. “And it’s fun to sell one-of-a-kind, rare things and tell the story of how it became what it is.”

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4. Making marketing a priority. “Traditionally, the jewelry industry markets for six weeks leading up to the holidays; we work hard to have a consistent approach to educating the consumer,” Kelly says. “We’re marketing 12 months out of the year.” Marketing is about 30 to 35 percent digital, and the website recently became set up for e-commerce.

5. Promotional savvy. In 2017, Northeastern sponsored a contest to win the opportunity to propose in a live commercial aired during halftime of the Super Bowl on FOX. The winner was featured in People Magazine, the Daily Mail in the UK and the New York Times. They also sponsored a half court shot during a Siena College basketball game; the contestant made the shot and walked away with $25,000, leading to intensive coverage from ESPN.

TRY THIS

When updating your store’s appearance, consider function as well as form and put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Imagine you are the consumer approaching the building. What is the experience like? Is there shelter from rain? Are curbs accessible? Is there space for seating? Can they tell what kind of a store they will be entering? Have you provided a decompression zone between street and store?

 

JUDGES’ COMMENTS

  • Geoffrey Brown: “Very strong positive word-of-mouth going on here. The more personable and authentic you are, the more you stay top-of-mind.”
    Laura Davis: “The exterior is beautiful and the interior is very nice.”
  • David Lampert: “Nice looking store. Clever promotion with the Super Bowl.”
  • Katherine Bodoh: “I like the modern exterior with the large windows and natural light. The interior layout looks beautiful and very upscale.”
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America's Coolest Stores

Chicago Retailer Harks Back to History While Pushing Boundaries in Design, Art and Events

Designer pushes boundaries of fine jewelry, art and events to create an exceptional shopping experience.

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Adornment + Theory, Chicago, IL

OWNER: Viviana Langhoff; FOUNDED: 2017; URL: www.adornmentandtheory.com; EMPLOYEES: 4; AREA: 750 square feet


WHEN VIVIANA LANGHOFF PLANNED a pop-up tattoo event to celebrate her first year as an entrepreneur, it seemed like the kind of thing her artistic, creative core customer would enjoy.

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It usually takes a year to get an appointment with Kelsey Moore, the tattoo artist Langhoff recruited. The two even collaborated on designing gem and art deco-inspired tattoos to personalize the experience. So while Moore was virtually guaranteed to draw a crowd to the Logan Square gallery, Langhoff was still amazed when the line stretched for two blocks and some people camped out the night before, as if Apple had launched a new iPhone or Black Friday deals were about to be unveiled.

Langhoff is adept at putting jewelry in context, so she also seized the opportunity to explore the history of body adornment, which can be traced back to the invention of tattoos. A fun event combined with storytelling was destined for success.

See video below.

Langhoff’s interest in the historical roots of adornment also inspired the name of her business.

“I wanted to select a name that sheds light on the history of jewelry, which is ‘adornment,’ as well as the ‘theory’ portion that is the practice that artists have in studios. From the beginning of civilization, we find that cultures made currency and jewelry and adornment. I want to highlight the history and continuation of that into contemporary studios all around the world. We draw on aesthetics from many different artists: feminine, edgy, approachable and most important, wearable.”

Langhoff’s retail experience appeals to the independent, confident woman who loves beautiful design, knows what she likes and delights in artist-made pieces. Langhoff encourages her customers to let creativity dress them. “People are limited sometimes by what they think they can and can’t wear and what magazines tell you you should wear. Really, ultimately, If you love it, wear it.”

A graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, she studied fine art and design and then worked for a variety of jewelers, some specializing in fine jewelry and others specializing in art jewelry, before creating a niche for herself that pulls inspiration from both. Her studio showcases one-of-a-kind work that pushes accessory design into wearable art. “We are passionate about representing emerging artists and brands who are crafting the future of functional art and design,” she says. She also custom designs and makes by hand wedding and engagement rings in precious materials.

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Her gallery is in the Logan Square neighborhood in northwest Chicago, about six miles from downtown. The neighborhood’s diverse, artistic population of young professionals and families is attracted to bike-friendly park-like boulevards and an ethos that includes green construction and preservation of historic buildings. Other draws are Michelin-starred restaurants, music venues, breweries, craft cocktail bars, a farmer’s market and art galleries.

The business is very experiential. She’s hosted “make your own silver ring” workshops and invited gemstone miners into her store. She mixes it up with lectures.

“I select and curate events that highlight the theory portion of jewelry,” she says. “And I love history. Once a week on Instagram I use points of jewelry history from ancient Egypt to the crown jewels.”

For Valentine’s Day, she recruited neighboring businesses to join her in a collaborative approach with the theme of “bazaar love.” She organized the bazaar and featured a pop-up shop of luxury lingerie and chocolates. She suggested to neighboring card-shop owners that they host an event for kids to make their own cards. She connected the eye-care professionals next door with a photographer and encouraged them to host a kissing booth.

“Each store offered a fun and enticing event,” she says. “It wasn’t just jewelry focused; all of the businesses pulled together and people came out. I was shocked because the weather was terrible.”

For the holidays, she hosted a Great Gatsby-themed Christmas party.

During the sustainable fair-trade conference in Chicago, she invited a group of international miners to bring rough-cut gemstones to the gallery so her clients could make their own selections. Then she sent the gems out to lapidary artists to cut them.

A summer workshop called Diamonds 101 introduced customers to diamond basics — color, cut, how to use a loupe and what to look for when shopping. Other workshops included metal etching (creating a pair of etched earrings in copper) and jewelry illustration.

Langhoff has no formal training in event planning or marketing, but it seems to come naturally to her; both she and her staff of four find events fun and energizing.

She even created her own interior design. “I drew inspiration from contemporary art galleries, Hollywood Regency as well as Moorish design with our floors,” she says. “I wanted to create a jewel box that was contemporary and glamorous while simultaneously being warm and inviting. I think we achieved that.”

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About half of Langhoff’s business is bridal-related, and much of that is custom, but most of her clients prefer alternative stones to traditional diamond jewelry. Most of the bridal work is custom, but she also showcases rings made by several other fine jewelry artists. “So if someone wants gray diamonds and an earthy look, I have several artists who have styles that have that, who are distinctly different from other artists and from myself. I’m not very big on mimicking another artist’s aesthetic.”

E-commerce to this point has been limited, but Langhoff credits her website and social media for driving business into the store. “I still count those visits and sales as website sales. I think our website is really important even as a landing pad for people to get a taste and flavor of what our brand is about.”

Everything she sells is handmade and everything has a story. “People are looking for a personal touch,” she says. “They want to know if it’s handmade, they want to know about the designer, the story, the fair-trade component, where the stones are coming from. They like knowing the details.”

PHOTO GALLERY (16 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Adornment + Theory

1. DESIGN OVER DRINKS. “Our Jewelry Bar is a space where individuals or couples can pull up a bar stool as I serve them drinks and discuss creating the piece of their dreams,” Langhoff says. “Once drinks are served, we review A+T’s full service menu and walk them through the highly personalized design process. The goal is for them to walk away with an heirloom piece that they will wear for a lifetime. I take the client/designer relationship very seriously and want each one to feel welcomed and delighted in.”
2. ART EVENTS. Beyond jewelry events, Langhoff hosts bi-monthly fine art openings in the store. “We’ve showcased everything from conceptually driven contemporary art jewelry (in conjunction with SOFA Expo), as well as fine art photography and paintings,” she says.
3. SOFT SCENT. Customers always comment about how lovely “our little jewel box smells,” she says. The in-store scent is created from candles and the notes are typically flowery, clean and beachy. It’s all intended, she says, to evoke a romantic, relaxed, beautiful and approachable space.
4. A SWEET IDEA. “We teamed up with a chocolatier to create a custom-branded ‘chocolate jewel box’ for our Valentine’s season,” Langhoff says.
5. MONTHLY WORKSHOPS. “Our monthly workshops are fun-filled afternoons where attendees learn hands-on techniques that help them create and appreciate the art of metalsmithing and other accessory-based techniques. We’ve hosted workshops on ‘How to Make a Silver Ring’, ‘Shibori Dying: Make Your Own Scarf’, as well as ‘How to Read Diamonds’. These workshops have helped cultivate community and further the customer experience. Not to mention, everyone has a great time. I love hearing the store filled with laughter,” Langhoff says.

JUDGES’ COMMENTS

  • Jimmy Degroot: If we’re looking at location as the primary form of marketing, then Viviana is spot on. It’s so refreshing to see a space as well-appointed and thought-out as this. Beautiful.
  • Sofia Kaman: Love the interior design and concept. Very polished!
  • Tiffany Stevens: I’m obsessed! Smart and beautiful choices on every level.

 

Try This: Offer a Workshop

Offer your customers an unexpected hands-on experience. Why not try a “make your own silver ring” workshop, if you have the facilities for it?

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