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A Personal Problem With a Customer Erupts Into Conflict Inside the Store

The store owner couldn’t help herself … but she may face consequences.

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PLEASANT BAY WAS a small town … a very small town. The southernmost bedroom community of a major city in the Northeast, it seemed that everyone in town knew everyone. Town residents had always been fiercely loyal to their own, as well — shopping locally and supporting Pleasant Bay businesses, even though many of them worked in the city. Many of the tourists who flocked to the community in the summer months were “regulars” — beachfront and cottage owners who came back year after year. Even they treated the town as their own, and the merchants in town were considered their trusted friends.

ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal is a fictional scenario designed to read like real-life business events. The businesses and people mentioned in this story should not be confused with actual jewelry businesses and people.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected]

Scott and Sara Chapman loved that about their hometown. Since opening Seaside Diamonds on Main Street in Pleasant Bay over 30 years ago, they had worked hard to take care of their clients and to continually earn the trust of the people who relied on them for their special occasion memories. Sara often thought that knowing just about everyone in town made the job easy. Her customers were also her neighbors, social and community acquaintances, business associates and friends. At this stage in her career, she was delighted to be selling engagement rings to the kids of her friends and the friends of her kids.

Now, as Sara and Scott sat at their kitchen table with their attorney discussing a particularly dicey customer issue, they both agreed that for the first time that either could remember, the overlap between their friends and customers was not always such a good thing. Relying on their attorney’s confidentiality, they laid out the story…

Peter Hannman, their former neighbor, was well known in town. He was a hedge fund manager, former high school and college football player, and coach of the town’s Pop Warner team. He and his wife, Nicole, had three wonderful boys, two of whom were studying at a prestigious Ivy League college. He and Nicole seemed to have the ideal relationship. Sara had sold countless pieces to the Hannmans over the years.

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In the summer of 2019, Peter, Scott and several of their friends signed up for a boot camp fitness class at a new gym that had opened up in town. The class was run by a certified fitness instructor who had just moved to the area. Actually, she was the wife of a local guy who had moved to the Midwest for college some years ago, and who recently moved back home with her and their kids.

By early October, though no one talked about it, it was clear to the guys that Peter’s interest in their instructor was moving beyond her facility in the gym. When the facility was shut down in April of 2020, Peter organized a weekly Zoom workout for the group and paid his favorite instructor to head it up. When the gym re-opened in September, things seemed to pick up right where they left off.

At the end of February, Peter announced to Nicole that he’d fallen in love with his soulmate — and that he was leaving her to start his new life. He moved to an apartment near his office in the city, and his girlfriend moved with him, leaving her husband and kids behind. What Nicole didn’t know was that in the year before, Peter had transferred just about all of their savings to a separate account in another town. What he hadn’t transferred, he’d spent freely — just as he always had. Among his purchases was a pair of 2-carat diamond stud earrings and a very expensive watch, both of which he had told Scott he was buying on behalf of a co-worker at his city office — something he had done occasionally over the years.

In late April, Nicole brought her wedding ring into the store to sell. She couldn’t wait for a consignment sale as she needed the money to pay her lawyer, so she reluctantly accepted what Sara offered her for a cash buy. Two weeks later, Peter, while in town visiting his son, came into the store to buy a Mother’s Day gift for his new love.

Sara couldn’t believe he actually had the nerve to come into the store. Everyone there — Sara and Scott, all of their employees, other customers — knew what he had done. She was seething. In Sara’s view, this man had destroyed two families — and here he was, acting like nothing was wrong. As she watched Peter talk with Scott, something just snapped. Before she even realized what she was doing, Sara was out at the showcase, staring Peter down. She began by calmly and coolly asking him to leave the store. He looked at Scott and said that he was there to make a purchase and that there was no reason for him to leave. At that point, while Scott (and the two other customers in the store) looked on in shock, Sara launched into a loud tirade, dressing him down for what she called his “Covid-fatigue, middle aged fantasy” with a woman his son’s age — for destroying her friend, for ruining two marriages, disrupting the lives of five kids — all while he was acting the part of the upstanding community guy, the coach and leader — a supposed mentor to young men.

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Peter, obviously embarrassed and very angry, handed the ring he was looking at back to Scott and turned to leave. As he did, he made it clear to Scott and Sara and everyone else who could hear that they had not heard the last of the incident.

The Big Questions

  • What kind of trouble is Sara in at this point?
  • Can her business be in legal trouble because of her behavior?
  • In a small town where your customers are friends and neighbors, does a business owner have the right to refuse to do business with people whom she finds morally offensive? What about being forced to choose sides between customers who are also friends in a divorce situation?
  • Is there a way to keep your business out of it when your customers are your friends?
Ellie T.
Chicago, IL

An unfortunate situation indeed. Each client and their purchases should be treated with the utmost confidentiality. There is no excuse for Sara’s unprofessional behavior. If either Peter or Nicole choose not to do business with the jeweler because their ex continues to shop there, that is their prerogative, but it is in the best interest of the jeweler and the community to stay above the fray. On a personal note, why take sides? The truth is always somewhere in the middle. You can be friends with one spouse and be simply polite to the other and serve both of their jewelry needs professionally.

Drue S.
Jewelers, Albany, NY

It is never our place as store owners to judge another’s actions or life choices. It’s important always to be discreet and never impose our views on a client’s personal life. You will not make any friends by imposing your opinion or advice. My philosophy is, never judge a person by his/her cover and never get involved in their personal life.
One time, years ago, we sent out a thank-you note to a client for a one-of-a-kind gold and lapis set we had sold him. When he got home, his wife was furious because she was not the recipient of the gift. He called me and went down one side and up the next. I told him I would make another set at no charge by the end of that week. She was then thrilled with the gift and we had a client for life! I also told him to be honest with me from then on, which he was and appreciated my discretion.

Ralph H.
Connersville, IN

OK, the guy may be a reprobate, but right now, in your store, he’s a customer. Deal with him as such, fairly, and make a sale. You just used your store to publicly insult a citizen (may have deserved it, but not in public). Since you berated him in public, he may have a cause of action against you if he ends up suffering any loss (business, reputation) as a result of your attack. You may have put your business at unnecessary risk because of your emotional outburst. Being “morally right” doesn’t always win the day. He deserved it, but here you are, paying for your lawyer’s kids’ college education!

Stacey H.
Lincolnwood, IL

Sara’s completely unprofessional behavior was also completely understandable. Legally, for a slander suit, he would have to be able to prove that the slander was 1) untrue (which it wasn’t) and 2) cost him money. (No case there, in my non-lawyer opinion.)

That said, Sara could have gotten the point across by standing with arms crossed and giving him a solid dirty look. What other people do in their personal life is not fair game for a retail store owner. Peter did not come to the store looking for approval; he came looking for a ring. Sara should have stayed out of it, but there is also the possibility that taking a stand could make other women in the community proud and happy that someone stood up for their interests and beliefs.

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Stan G.
Charlotte, NC

Sarah was out of line both personally and professionally. Legally speaking, I doubt there will be any ramifications, but on a professional level, word will get out that she stuck her nose where it didn’t belong and the “jeweler/client trust” will be forever compromised.

Jo G.
Oconomowoc, WI

Wise words I was taught when I was young: “If you don’t have something nice to say, say nothing at all.” Just because you have an opinion about someone does not make it true, and your truth may not be theirs. Is her store in trouble, maybe. Is she in trouble, maybe, and with good cause. Her husband was treating a person in their store with respect, and she should have stayed out of it if she couldn’t handle her emotions.

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If you’re the owner or top manager of a U.S. jewelry store, you’re invited to join the INSTORE Brain Squad. By taking one five-minute quiz a month, you can get a free t-shirt, be featured prominently in this magazine, and make your voice heard on key issues affecting the jewelry industry. Good deal, right? Sign up here.

Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected].

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