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ACS 2006: First Place, Underwood’s Fine Jewelers

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Underwood’s Fine Jewelers tops 2006 ‘America’s Coolest Stores’ winners

Underwood’s Fine Jewelers

Address: 611 West Dickson Street, Fayetteville, AR 72701
Owners: Bill and Craig Underwood
Phone: (479) 521-2000
URL: www.underwoods.com
Year founded: 1957
Opened featured location: 1966
Architect/Designer: E. Fay Jones
Total Store Area: 7,000 sq ft
Employees: 18
2005 Revenues: N/A
Land cost: $13,500 (circa 1966)
Building cost: $137,500 (circa 1966)
Interior build-out cost: $26,000 (circa 1966)
Design/architectural firms cost: N/A
Current estimated property value: Appraised at $1.45 million
Slogan: “Underwood’s… It’s Where You Buy The Best”

Five Cool Things About Underwood’s Fine Jewelers

1 THE ARCHITECT

True Genius

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Every cool store featured in this feature has a great designer, but one of the greatest of his generation? That’s an honor only Underwood’s can boast. The store was designed by E. Fay Jones, who was once named by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) as one of the country’s “10 most influential living architects.” Jones, who died August 30, 2004, was a friend and apprentice of architectural legend Frank Lloyd Wright. Unlike Wright, Jones had no real desire for fame, preferring to work on small projects. Soaring interior spaces, open expression of structural elements, careful detailing and the use of native materials characterize his style. In 1991, the AIA ranked Jones’ Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, AR, as one of the five best buildings by an American architect in the 20th century. Jones’ influence can be seen in his trademark entrance “lantern” at Underwood’s, as well as in the huge cantilevered roof. “The exterior is unique, inviting, and gives us lots of flexibility in displaying our jewelry,” says Craig Underwood.

“It’s not your typical box store.”

2 INDUSTRY LEADERS

Making the Grade

Thirty years ago, as a member of the AGS Diamond Standards Committee, Bill Underwood witnessed a lawsuit between rival diamond factions. The issue: could one of the companies continue to claim their new diamond cut was the most brilliant in the world? Experts were brought in and tests conducted, but ultimately, the claim could not be conclusively proved or disproved. Underwood thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a simple way to measure light return?” Today, Underwood is only months away from receiving his patent request results on his own invention … the Beauty Grade. Developed with assistance from the University of Arkansas Department of Optical Physics, it will be the first device that will quantifiably measure light return for any size or shape of diamond.

The secret? A tiny laser beam that passes into each portion of the diamond as it spins 360 degrees. A gauge measures the number of light returns, and anything that blocks the light shows up as a diminished reading. The diamond is then graded from 1.00 to 100.00. “Currently, the AGS gives out 11 cut grades,” says Underwood. “This device provides 10,000 possible grades.”

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3 DO-IT-YOURSELF

Most ad agencies make their money on a commission basis — whatever their client spends, they earn up to 15%. Craig Underwood decided he’d rather save the 15% for the store. So, he created his own in-house agency, which buys media, writes ad copy, shoots video of jewelry and even produces television commercials. “I’d put our jewelry footage against anything else out there,” states Underwood.

4 THE COMEBACK

Disaster Averted

In 1960, after three years in business, Bill Underwood had finally accumulated about $15,000 in inventory. He knew it was time to beef up security, so he began installing an alarm system. Everything was in place but the master control box. He came into the store on a Saturday night to take displays out of the windows, and found the store completely empty. Underwood’s had been burgled. “I had insurance, but it was a crushing blow,” says Underwood. “I don’t know how I would have made it.” Luckily, the burglar was caught three days later, along with all the stolen merchandise. The media was all over the story, as it was the biggest burglary ever in Fayetteville. “It turned out to be great publicity for us,” says Underwood. “We were now on the map.”

4 THE SERVICE

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Certified Expertise

Underwood’s has its own accredited gem lab — it was the first in the state — and is one of only 12 stores in the country with four certified gemologist appraisers under one roof. Says Craig Underwood: “We have a duty to be the best we can, to answer any question.” The lab is also part of the store’s branding initiative. “To be stamped as an Underwood piece, it has to be at a high, high level of quality. Nineteen out of 20 diamonds we see, we reject,” he says. — Trace Shelton

FIVE QUESTIONS

Craig Underwood, President Underwood’s Fine Jewelry

1 Does Underwood’s always have to be the first, biggest, and best at everything?

It’s very important to be first in every category, but not necessarily the biggest. Just because a diamond is big doesn’t make it desirable or pretty… the same is true in business. Quality, attention to detail, and profitability should take precedence.

2 How has Underwood’s thrived downtown when so many jewelers elsewhere have left for outlying retail centers?

Being close to a college campus (the University of Arkansas) means this area stays rejuvenated. The second reason is the industry itself. People won’t make a long drive for a $100 shirt, but for an important purchase, they’ll make a road trip in search of the best. The more important the purchase, the larger the geographic range.

3 Why is it so important to be so involved in an industry organization like AGS?

Working in AGS gives you great contacts and a chance to talk to the best, most talented people in the field. It’s also a way to give back to the industry. But it doesn’t work if you only take and never give.

4 So you’re feeling pretty cool now, right?

I’m floored! Words can’t describe the excitement and satisfaction. It’s encouraging to be recognized by your peers for your hard work, and it’s very special to have this award.

5 What would you say to other store owners who want to be as cool as you?

Attention to detail is number 1. Constantly innovate. We’re never afraid to try new technology. Although we’re a mature business, we’re always looking for the most cutting-edge gemological skills, education, hardware, inventory control, et cetera.

         HEARSAY

Three things you might catch staff saying at Underwood’s, according to Craig Underwood:

1. “It’s Mean Jean the Selling Machine!” (Craig: “It’s our affectionate name for our longest-tenured employee, Jean Phillips, who has 26 years on staff.”)
2. “Big ‘coons walk late.” (“An old saying about raccoons, but the staff uses it to describe Bill because he tends to make a big sale or two every year right before Christmas to put us over our goal.”)
3. “High fives all around!” (Celebrate!)

JUDGES’ COMMENTS

Les Hiscoe
Shawmut Design

The exterior feels very rich and the store has a nice vertical layering.

I definitely think the gold-leafed vitrine wall is the most striking element.

The layout is a bit too narrow. It seems it would be hard to drive customers to the rear of the store.

Ruth Batson
American Gem Society

At Underwood’s the people are the coolest. You have an award-winning design team, you have knowledgeable credentialed staff for sales and appraisals, and you have the Underwoods themselves.

It is unusual for a retail store to compete and win international jewelry design awards. Now that is cool!

There are a number of in-wall museum cases that are not only attractive but hold items of interest that will not be found anywhere else.  Even if you do not make a purchase you will not forget the special designs and items you find at this store.

Rick Segel
Author/Consultant

The exterior design is the store’s coolest feature because it is so high, unusual, and different.

The interior is not in perfect alignment with the slogan “It’s where you buy the best”.

Ellen Fruchtman
Fruchtman Marketing

I would never believe this store could be in Fayetteville, Arkansas!

The structure (exterior) is one of the coolest I’ve ever seen. And I love the curved interior wall showcasing product.

So many stores make it difficult for customers to browse or sit down and relax. This store welcomes both!

Bruce Brigham
Retail Clarity

This store has a very strong architectural exterior. It is very welcoming.  The fixturing is absolutely beautiful — without taking away from the jewelry. The overall effect of this design is breathtaking and memorable.

I normally do not display so much merchandise behind sales counters.  It is a bit overpowering in terms of merchandise quantity here. That is the one thing I might change here — a bit less merchandise behind the counters.

I love the simplicity of the color scheme … in which there is still a great number of textures and a variety of tones and values.

Gary and Kathy Bigham
Bigham Jewelers

You’ve got to love the rags-to-riches story of this award-winning store!

Celeste Sotola
Interior Designer

The outside is as beautiful as the inside.

Its low center-of-gravity benches present jewelry for the perfect view. A generous bench size encourages sharing and kindness and the curved wall with vitrines adds a nice visual staccato to the space.

The interior looks like I’m on a train going to a wonderful adventure. The displays behind the counters are intimate and yet tell a story along the walls. This is a great way to utilize interior surfaces without being redundant. I would spend some time in here looking for just the right gift for myself or someone else.

Kate Peterson
Performance Concepts

I can see how the Underwood family has captured the interest and the fondness of the local community. The public tends to respect a store that is a “part of them” — and it looks like the Underwoods have conveyed that message.

I’m not sure I like the shift from the ultra-contemporary outside to the combination of slightly contemporary and very traditional inside.

I might try to minimize the “alley” effect of having showcases straight down both sides of a narrow space.

Lori Wegman
Wegman Design Group

It’s a compact store so well detailed all the pieces seem to fit together as one.

Execution of the Frank Lloyd Wright theme is accomplished with elegance and beauty.

Shows a real command of detail and appreciation for the expression of natural materials as a thoughtful backdrop to the jewelry.

The product is not overshadowed by the displays which frame them as a work of art in some areas. The store and merchandising work well — seamlessly.

Warm color palate and low ceilings creating a very intimate experience.

SPECIAL FEATURE

Figuring He Knew Cool, Trace Shelton Headed off to the Akansas Hills. He Returned a Wiser Man.

Fayetteville? no, couldn’t Be.

Maybe it was all those hillbilly jokes, but I just couldn’t believe Instore’s “America’s Coolest Store” was going to be found nestled among the backwoods of the Ozark Mountains.

I now stand corrected. And Arkansas, I owe you one big apology.

The moment I drove out of the airport, it became clear that Fayetteville is one of our country’s most beautiful, and best-kept, secrets. The soaring trees and quaint farms that welcome the visitor soon give way to a gorgeous vista — the rolling hills that are northwest Arkansas. Fayetteville is also home to one of the loveliest college campuses I’ve ever seen, the University of Arkansas, and some genuinely friendly locals.

So it was with great anticipation that I arrived at Underwood’s Fine Jewelers, less than a block from campus on lively Dickson Street. The store — and its people — did not disappoint. They proved to me that to build a cool store, you don’t need a big city… just a dogged devotion to quality, a terrific attitude, and a ton of passion for the jewelry business.

Friday, June 30

10 a.m.

One of the most striking jewelry-store exteriors in the world greets me as I approach Underwood’s. With so many retailers moving towards curved shapes and circles in their build-outs, it is refreshing to see such an innovative use of squares and rectangles, layered and intersecting my line of vision in such a way as to force me to stand motionless for a few seconds just to take it all in.

I enter the store to find a long, hallway-like showroom, impeccably kept, with just a few subtle features to draw the eye. A wall of vertical “sawtooth” showcases lines the right side of the entryway, while on the left, shadowboxes are spread along a wall that runs up toward a showroom before curving away from view. An open doorway in that wall allows a peek of the private showing room, and a line of AGS diplomas hanging along the back.

At the entryway to Underwood’s H-shaped showroom stands a fountain made from a solid block of wood. (Craig Underwood will later tell me that his father, Bill, has a soft spot for the soothing nature of fountains, and tries to include one in each of his developments). Above, a sparkling Baccarat chandelier hangs from the ceiling.

While the first half of the showroom includes the bridal and watch areas, accented by a large plasma screen TV displaying video footage of Underwood pieces, the second half includes designer jewelry and a small kids’ area. As I stand admiring a former AGTA Spectrum Award-winning design, Craig Underwood approaches, offering a big smile and a firm handshake.

10:05 a.m.

At 44 years of age, Craig (who looks nowhere near 44) is already president of both Underwood’s and the American Gem Society. He will later confess to being rather high-strung, but this doesn’t show through in his easy, affable manner.

He begins by taking me on a tour of the store. It turns out that when Bill Underwood, who carries the title company chairman, built the store in 1966, Underwood’s only occupied the first half of the space. The other portion was rented out to another retailer, and the entire second floor served as office space for other tenants. Today, Underwood’s takes up the entire first floor of the building, most of the second, and will fill more space once an extension to the building is complete.

Both Craig and Bill credit the store’s success to its reputation for an unswerving commitment to quality. As a reflection of this commitment, Craig points out the five microscopes placed around the store. “Everything we sell at Underwood’s must pass the microscope test,” he says. “Most customers have never seen jewelry through a microscope, as many jewelry stores just use a loupe, if anything.” A microscope offers customers the chance to see the item in stereovision, using both eyes instead of just one, giving them a better sense of depth and feel. It also offers the benefit of controlled lighting.

“Most jewelry is not made to be scrutinized under a microscope,” says Craig. “Thin prongs and poor workmanship are much easier to detect. Here, we use heavy prongs, durable and well-mounted.

It’s riskier and more difficult for the jeweler, but worth it for the customer.”

After touring the showroom, we move to the back of the store — and enter a warren of cluttered, tightly-packed office space. Craig shows me upstairs, where the jewelers’ shop features a laser welder, a fully accredited gem lab, and the nation’s first certified master bench jeweler, Tom Weishaar. Weishaar speaks at Jewelers of America events several times a year, and has written columns for Professional Jeweler magazine. “Everything and everyone up here has to be top of the line,” explains Craig, “since the majority of our sales are custom work. We do everything from start to finish in-house, with the exception of platinum casting.”

While upstairs, I get to see the store’s video-editing suite, where Craig produces all the store’s television ads and annual video catalog. Additionally, Underwood’s has a room dedicated to shooting jewelry footage for these ads. It can be a time-consuming process; shooting one piece of jewelry can take upwards of 30 minutes. “Hundreds and hundreds of hours of labor have gone into shooting this footage,” says Craig, pointing to a wall bookcase stacked with videotapes from top to bottom.

As we turn from the video-editing station, an older man rises to shake my hand — Bill Underwood, the company’s founder. Far from sitting back and reaping the rewards of his long service, Bill is busily working on a new custom design at the GemVision CAD terminal. With a Southwestern drawl and quick smile, Bill tells us he’ll catch up with us later.

With just a few minutes to spare before an upcoming photo shoot for Instore, Craig shows me back downstairs, where Underwood’s latest venture is taking shape — a 1,000 square-foot office space addition at the back of the store. The expansion will include offices for both Bill and Craig, as well as a mail-processing area and main secretarial and support office. An elevator will be installed to connect all three floors (the basement serves as a storage area). “They’re putting the doors on now, and it should be finished by the time your August issue hits mailboxes,” says Craig.

10:37 a.m.

The professional photographer is ready in the showroom to shoot the entire Underwood’s staff, so we make our way back to the front. While setting up for the shot, Bill, smiling and chatting, walks over to straighten the apron of a young bench jeweler. The unforced rapport between the store’s employees and its owners is obvious.

At this moment, an elderly couple from Fort Smith, a town 50 miles away, walks into the showroom. Craig and Bill wring their hands nervously behind their backs as there’s no one available to help customers as everyone is in this shot. “Trace, would you mind striking up a conversation with these folks while we take this photo?” Craig asks.

Curious to speak with an Underwood’s customer, I comply. (I figure it’s the least I can do, since store business has been interrupted on behalf of this Instore feature.)

It turns out that the couple has never been inside Underwood’s before. They saw Underwood’s recent TV ad, which encourages people to come in and buy a diamond not only on special occasions, but also “just because.” So, they’re here “just because”… to buy an Underwood’s diamond.

10:54 a.m.

In the time it takes to learn this, the staff has finished their photo shoot and the salesperson returns. I take a brief break to down a soft drink while the photographer moves his equipment to the private showing room. I peek around the corner to see Bill in full conversation with the Fort Smith couple, showing them a diamond ring through the nearest microscope. I feel confident it will pass the test. Sure enough, Bill later tells me the sale was closed, and the two lovebirds are coming back later to pick up the ring once it’s sized.

11:20 a.m.

After the photographer finishes the individual shots, Bill pulls me aside to show me his “baby” — the new, patent-pending Beauty Grade machine. He believes the device, which uses laser light to measure the light return of any size or shape of diamond, will revolutionize the industry. He gets no argument from me. Bill is still unsure whether he will market the Beauty Grade commercially, or sell the technology to diamond cutters, enabling them to better replicate the highest possible cut grades.

Meanwhile, Craig returns from the back of the store with photos of another soon-to-be-realized project: Underwood Plaza. Breaking ground next door in September, it will be the largest building on Dickson street at nine-stories tall. A 15-18 month buildout is expected. Craig and Bill plan to lease the first floor to retailers, with some space reserved for restaurants, complete with outdoor eating areas. “The look will be similar to the Underwood’s store building, but more urban,” says Craig.

12:31 p.m.

We phone in our orders at Penguin Ed’s Barbeque (they have phones at each booth in the restaurant), and I settle down to listen to Bill’s tale of Underwood’s beginnings, which are as humble as they come. Bill grew up working in his dad’s service station back in “Dust Bowl, Oklahoma”. They were dirt-poor. “It was real Grapes of Wrath stuff,” he claims.

Seeking to make his way in the world, Bill set off for Southwestern Oklahoma State University. He wound up going to the college’s watchmaking school — one of the best in the country. The three-year program taught him not just how to repair watches, but how to make them. He left with a degree as a certified master horologist.

Bill then spent four years in the Navy during the Korean War. During that time, he took gemology classes by correspondence. When he got out of the service, he realized that watchmaking was a dying art. He came to Fayetteville in search of a business degree, and fell in love with the area.

The regional jewelry store chain that Bill was working for decided to close its Fayetteville location, and offered to sell the store to Bill. The only money he had was $1,000 borrowed from his parents. “I approached banks and told them I was a certified master horologist,” he says. “They’d never heard of such a thing. They probably thought I wanted to start a whorehouse.” Regardless, they refused to loan him any money.

But, he bought the store anyway — on December 28, the worst possible time to buy a jewelry store. “I was inept and very naïve,” Bill admits.

The G.I. Bill kept him alive, as he’d go to class in the mornings and work the afternoons. The store did jewelry repairs and sold animals and trophies. “We had no gold, no watches, no diamonds,” marvels Bill. The business turned over just $25,000 the first year, and no profit.

But in three years, Bill had his business degree. And over the next 46 years, he would see Underwood’s grow slowly but surely. “I never compromised on quality, even in the beginning,” he states.

He became involved in the AGS, something he’d wanted to do since visiting AGS stores up and down the Northeastern seaboard during his time in the Navy. His stature in the industry grew. And the store really took off once Craig came on board in 1987.

Over the years, the store became known as a destination for bridal jewelry. Peter Fonda once purchased a custom wedding band (“I don’t know if the marriage lasted, but I’m sure the wedding band did,” says Bill). Raymond Floyd, the pro golfer, shopped stores in Florida and New York before settling on Underwood’s for a custom ring and one of the largest diamonds in the store’s inventory for his wife Maria on their 10th anniversary. She flew into Fayetteville with her daughter on a private jet to pick it up.

Perhaps the most unusual occurrence happened when a young couple came in to look at diamond engagement rings. They were seated in the private showing room, and the woman became so overwhelmed at the idea of receiving such a ring that she fainted. “She just fell over,” says Bill, who was working with the couple at the time. “We laid her down on a chair and she was okay. I tell people she’s the only woman who ever swooned over an Underwood diamond so visibly!”

It’s quite a story, and quite a meal (the barbeque sandwich is fantastic). “Shall we take Trace up to see The Cliffs?” Bill asks Craig cryptically.

“Lead on,” I say, ready for more adventures.

1:40 p.m.

The Cliffs, it turns out, are the nicest apartment complex and town homes in northwest Arkansas. There are 750 apartments in all, covering 110 acres. The entire development, located just five minutes from downtown, was developed by the Underwoods… and there are still 50 acres left.

“All the streets are named after gemstones,” says Craig as we pass Tourmaline Way and Citrine Link. The complex features a 2,500 square-foot workout facility, two pools, tanning beds, a masseuse that gives free massages to tenants — and oh yeah, drop-dead gorgeous views from its hillside perch.

Bill purchased most of the land from a local farmer as an investment, with Craig buying 30 adjoining acres later on. The investment has paid off in spades, as the complex was fully rented out almost even before it opened.

“Not sure yet what we’re going to do with the last bit of acreage,” says Bill. The space still left offers the best views of all, as it sits right at the top of the hill. “Might turn it into luxury homes,” he says, “or maybe even more apartments.” Between the Underwood’s store, The Cliffs, and Underwood Plaza, it seems that despite their humble origins, the Underwoods now have the Midas touch.

2:35 p.m.

Over the next few hours, I interview Craig, Bill, and manager Cindy Beil. One aspect of the business that intrigues me is the fact that Craig and Bill are both so involved in every facet of the company, from the front of the store to the back. All this in addition to the building development next door, the apartment /townhouse complex, and AGS committee work. How do they have the time — and energy — to be so involved? And how well do they work together?

“Wearing so many hats is what makes it so much fun,” replies Craig. “It never gets old. Dad and I get to build on the foundation that he laid down. Now we’re hitting two different generations of customers.”

Clear differences mark son from father, and not just in height (Craig is noticeably taller). Bill is laid back, where Craig is more intense. “Maybe it’s because Dad’s been through the battles, and knows it’s not worth getting worked up,” says Craig. “I seize things and focus on them.”

That said, the two work together smoothly. “I’ve never heard them argue,” says Beil, who’s been with the store for 15 years. “They have lots of respect for each other. They debate, but always in a friendly manner. It makes for a pleasant work environment.”

One project the two work on each year is the annual video catalog. Craig develops the concept, Bill writes the script, and then Craig produces it. “We may bounce a script back and forth eight, 10, or 12 times before we finally settle on it,” says Craig.

The bottom line, he says, is that they bring different strengths to the table. “Dad is still heavily involved in design work, while I handle vendors, advertising, and the sales floor,” says Craig. “Meanwhile, Cindy is a walking encyclopedia. She knows everything in stock, and who sold what to whom.”

5:00 p.m.

As I get ready to take my leave, Bill regales me with stories from the past 50 years in business. In one, a man asked Bill to make his wife a pin shaped as a turkey vulture. It’s not a bird most people consider attractive, but the couple had a special place in their hearts for it. The man said he’d even given the bird a name. As Bill handed over the piece, he said, “I hope your wife, Frances, likes it.”

The man responded with chagrin: “Francis isn’t my wife … he’s the vulture!”

Another customer asked to have a machine-gun bullet from World War II turned into a necklace centerpiece. Yet another requested his kidney stone be turned into jewelry for his wife.

In the end, says Bill, the thing he hears most often from customers is, “I came here because I wanted to deal with someone I could trust.”

“People don’t generally know as much about jewelry as other things they buy,” says Bill, “and they don’t want to overpay or be embarrassed. We make sure that doesn’t happen.”

He adds: “We never say ‘trust us’ in our ads, because it’s not something you ask for. It’s something that’s given freely after you’ve proven you can be depended on.”

After everything I’ve seen and heard on this day, it makes perfect sense. Underwood’s in Fayetteville? It’s no longer a mystery to me. I now understand it’s a place where residents know they’ll find the friendliest service, the best-quality merchandise, and people who will stand behind their jewelry and tell God’s honest truth no matter what.

Oh, and they just happen to work in a store designed for the ages.

Now that’s cool.

STORE IMAGES

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This story is from the August 2006 edition of INSTORE!

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