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ACS 2008: First Place Big Cool, Lee Read Jewelers

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Lee Read Jewelers

LOCATION: Meridian, ID
URL: www.leeread.com
PRESIDENT: Larry Read
FOUNDED: 1963
OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2000
EMPLOYEES: 29
AREA: 8,000 square feet
ARCHITECT/DESIGN FIRM: Larry and Nelda Read, designers; BRS, architect; Russell Corp., general contractor
BRANDS: Hearts On Fire, Scott Kay, Jeff Cooper, Christopher Designs, Memoire, Tacori, Philip Stein, Tissot, the Lee Read Collection

Walk into Lee Read Jewelers’ luxurious, 8,000-square-foot store in suburban Meridian, ID, today, and it’s natural to assume the Read family always has sold jewelry under optimal conditions — ethereal lighting, coffee bar, diamond consulting rooms, 1,200-gallon coral reef aquarium, all beautifully embraced by custom-made cherry-wood walls.

The embodiment of Larry and Nelda Read’s dream is, appropriately, called the Diamond Dream Store.

But back in 1963, when Larry’s parents, Lee and Maxine Read, opened their first jewelry store in downtown Boise, ID, it was cool only because the heating was both ineffective and unreliable, Lee says.

Cool? It was frosty.

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“In the winter, sometimes in the store you could see your breath,” Lee says.

Lee, an Ohio native, met Maxine in Idaho, where he was stationed during World War II. After the war, they wed, and after learning the craft of watchmaking, Lee borrowed $4,000 from his sister to launch the jewelry store that became a family tradition. The entire store was smaller than the Dream Store’s break room. There was no space or budget for leather chairs or glass-walled offices, let alone an aquarium.

It was a bare-bones operation. Lee says when Maxine first saw it, she burst into tears and asked if he could get his old job as a watchmaker back.

Lee’s granddaughter Sarah Read, director of sales and marketing, says things were so tight in the beginning Lee and Maxine had to sell something every day in order to feed the kids. But Lee did whatever he could to stay open.

“He was the upstart guy and there were jewelers in town who wouldn’t change watch batteries,” Sarah says, “They would say, ‘Go see Read. He does that kind of stuff.’ So he would fix the watch and then sell them a diamond, most likely.”

From the beginning, the Reads understood the value of customer service.

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“My grandpa and dad pierced thousands of pairs of ears, probably 10,000 over 30 years,” Sarah says. “People come in all the time and say, “Your grandpa pierced my ears.’ He would give them a badge of bravery when they got their ears pierced.”

Continuing Lee’s tradition of service, Lee Read Jewelers today donates the proceeds from every watch battery replacement to children’s charities, having raised $100,000 so far.

Service doesn’t stop there. A guest-services department, designed around the idea of a hotel reception desk, is staffed with four employees. “The idea is to be able to process the sale, wrap the package and not have to wait in line,” Larry says. “At Christmas time, guys are in a hurry to get in and out. This makes all the difference in the world.”

The shop, staffed with goldsmiths and designers, must complete all orders within 48 hours. “We do as much business out of our shop as most small jewelers do in general,” Larry says. Usually, an engagement ring is sized while a customer waits.

And a beverage is always offered, usually from the moment a guest steps through the vestibule. Here, too, the details are important, and so, in addition to a full-service coffee bar, a variety of soft drinks is always available. “We’re not going to make them drink a Pepsi if they want a Coke,” Larry explains. “Let’s give them what they want.”

A Destination

The business went through many transformations, but Lee Read Jewelers had a consistent downtown presence from 1963 until 2000, when second-generation owners, Larry and Nelda, decided to close their three successful stores and move everyone out to a new destination store in Meridian, a suburb of Boise now booming with commerce. Eight years ago, though, the megastore was flying solo in a vast open space, accompanied only by a Home Depot. Everyone scoffed, including one store’s staff, which quit en masse rather than move out to Meridian, a mere five miles from the Boise city line.

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Sales consultant Jon Grant, who did move from one of the closed stores to the Dream Store, says he too was skeptical. But when he saw the store for the first time, his doubts began to dissolve.

“Driving up to this place the first time, I admit I thought it was scary,” Grant says. “But when I walked in — I can’t say I was a true believer immediately — but the store made me feel comfortable right away. A store this size could be so intimidating if it wasn’t done the right way. This store is large but it’s cozy at the same time.”

One of the first visitors to the store was a passing trucker, Lee recalls, who told the Reads, “I just wanted to see who had the guts to build something like this in the middle of a pasture.”
But the dream Larry and Nelda shared of a destination store proved prescient.

Tens of thousands of people could see the huge diamond sign and Hearts on Fire Duratrans from the highway every day, they knew the Lee Read name, and ever-present radio advertising pointed them in the right direction. Overall, business tripled the first year of the relocation.

“Larry gets all the credit for the new store,” Lee says. “It is a work of art. A lot of hard work and effort went into it and it’s paid off. I thought it was a crazy idea, but I always supported him 100 percent, and this is the best decision he could have made. I’m very proud that my name is on that sign.”

Lee, 83 and a widower, retired about 15 years ago and renounced suits and ties, but he drops by often (usually wearing a cowboy hat and turquoise bolo tie) to visit, along with his Shih Tzu, Sparky, the only dog with store privileges. He also drops in at Christmas time to play the organ and see old friends.

Lately, owners Larry and Nelda have eased out of the daily operations as well to pursue hobbies such as sailing, leaving daughter Sarah and operations manager Chuck Lawrence at the helm. Larry is involved in the business on a consultant basis, but Sarah says most of his hands-on work lately has involved maintaining the Lee Read Public Aquarium, the biggest live-reef tank in Boise, which is a focal point of the store and a stop on the elementary-school, field-trip circuit. When the previous tank cracked and the fish and coral had to be housed temporarily in makeshift ponds in what used to be Lawrence’s office, the staff was amazed by how many children came into the store, looking bereft.

“Where’s Nemo?” they cried.

Sales Philosophy

Larry Reed says the Dream Store was conceived as a direct answer to the challenge of the Internet. “We saw that personal service was just going away,” Larry says. “Here, we are giving the service and we are not going to go away.”

Larry, past president of Continental Buying Group, says he has made every effort both to put Boise on the map in the jewelry world and to learn from other markets. “I feel like I have a sense of what the typical jeweler does. We’re not isolated. And we face the same kind of competition found in other markets. We have Costco, we have exceptionally savvy Internet users here. So when people say, ‘I can’t do that in my market,’ I think they just can’t see it in their mind.”

At the core of their service and sales philosophy is respect for customers and insistence on quality merchandise.

“Our golden rule is we never say anything behind our guests’ backs that we wouldn’t say to their faces,” Larry explains. “I find it intensely distasteful when jewelers make fun of their customers, who are spending money with them. They are treating their guests as a transaction. People who support our store should not be pressured and techniqued into buying something they don’t want.”

Sarah says sales are usually accomplished by asking customers thoughtful questions that turn up useful information, such as, how did the couple meet and what is important to them?

“Jewelry is not like oxygen or food,” Sarah says. “They are buying it because they are in love with someone who makes them feel like a million dollars. Jewelers are notorious for taking the fun out of it.”

The Reads have had to “deprogram” new sales associates who have been hardwired for the hard close.

Chistopher McCall admits he is one of the sales consultants who fell in that category.

“Larry’s philosophy was foreign to me,” McCall says. “Larry said, ‘Just tell them the truth. You really don’t want to pressure people.’ I knew every close in the book, but people don’t want to be manipulated. The moral standards are what keep me around here.”

Quick repairs, a quantity of loose diamonds on hand, and working four, 10-hour days contribute to his contentment.

Jon Grant, who has worked at Lee Read for nine years, says it took him a while to adjust to the reality of having satisfied, rather than disgruntled customers. “At other places I worked, sooner or later, because of the poor quality of the goods, you’d have people come back and complain,” Grant says. “I used to want to hide when I saw people come back into the store. I was gun shy. Now I’m never afraid to see people coming back in the door.”

He also prefers the low-key selling style.

“I have found it so much easier to sell when I don’t have to pressure close. Now, when customers say they are going to think about it and come back, they really do. Once, before I came here, I actually had to attend a seminar called ‘sales through intimidation.’ It sounds like the mob. It was just embarrassing.”

Lee Read Jewelers gives suppliers awards every year for delivering quality merchandise, and Larry Read invested $14,000 in a piece of equipment that will unequivocally tell him the diamond he is about to sell a customer is not a synthetic.

“I’ve been called a fanatic by other jewelers, for doing that,” Read says. “But do you really want to take a chance that even one customer will wind up with a synthetic?”

Lee Read’s trust factor is enhanced because customers can watch their jewelry being cleaned or repaired through a window or on a TV monitor.

“Most people don’t even watch, but they are happy to have the opportunity and they instantly relax when I tell them about it,” Grant says.

The Concept

The Lee Read aesthetic experience begins in the vestibule, filled with plants, mirrors and fountains.

Although admirers say the atmosphere draws on the principles of feng shui, Larry says the store design was more pragmatic than that, and influenced primarily by peers in the jewelry business, particularly Woody Justice, and by Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy.

Past the vestibule is an area so spacious it brings to mind Meridian’s prairie past.

“If someone brushes up against you, you will definitely move on,” Larry says. “And we wanted to leave a lot of space around the entrance. The idea is to give people a chance not to be bombarded by merchandise.”

The view is wide open, too, showing off the graceful curves of the cherry cabinets, echoed by the circular cloud lighting above.

“We spent a little bit more on the steel that holds up the ceiling, so we wouldn’t have to use any columns,” Larry says. “You come in here and you have a view of 8,000 square feet. Even most of the offices have windows looking out onto the show floor.”

The design was a group project. Customers selected the cherry wood cases and paneled walls. Goldsmiths helped design the shop. An employee suggested the aquarium.

Live orchids catch the eye of guests who may not be drawn to the fish or to the flat-screen TV in the men’s area. A glass-walled kids’ room is decorated with a hand-painted mural.

Hearts on Fire and the Scott Kay displays are grouped to the left of the entrance. But a design corner featuring Jeff Cooper, Tacori and Christopher Designs is tucked away toward the back of the store. Read admits that location wasn’t an easy sell for the designers. But it works.

“Most suppliers want to be inside the front door, directly to the right,” Read says. “But that’s a busy area. I ask them, ‘Do you want shoppers to be interrupted and bothered while they make the decision?’ This isn’t self-serve. We bring people back here, to our design corner, and we show them what we have. Little, out-of-the-way places are more effective because they are quiet and not in the middle of traffic.”

Nelda says she wanted the store to be as welcoming as her home.

“And you don’t see signage in someone’s home,” Nelda says.

At first, there were no signs at all, now there are a few, including signage for Hearts On Fire, Scott Kay and the Lee Read collection of favorite, hand-picked suppliers.

The Reads have kept up with maintenance of the 8-year-old store, but few big changes have had to be made. The service counter window for the shop was expanded, a flat-screen TV replaced the bulkier variety, and the carpeting was replaced recently.

“At Christmas time the parking lot was full of trucks and the store was full of guys with mud on their shoes,” Larry says. “People ask me, ‘Doesn’t it bother you if people come in here with muddy shoes and you have to replace the carpet?’ I say, If we have enough traffic that I have to replace the carpet every year, that’s a good thing!”

FIVE COOL THINGS ABOUT LEE READ

A Destination Location

1Lee Read Jewelers became the pioneers of Meridian, ID, a suburb of Boise, when the store closed three successful locations in town to move to what president Larry Read calls the Diamond Dream Store. When it opened in 2000 it was in a hay field, but today, the ultimate destination store is surrounded by high-traffic commercial development. Crowning the exterior are three 165-square-foot Duratrans promoting  Hearts on Fire. They look like beacons in the night  to tens of thousands of commuters driving by on adjacent Interstate 84.

The Lee Read Public Aquarium

2This isn’t just any fish tank. The 1,200-gallon, living reef aquarium is Larry Read’s pride and joy. He set it up himself, feeds the inhabitants when he’s around, and has passed on his knowledge of its maintenance to Chuck Lawrence, director of store operations and now aquarium apprentice as well. “I’m Fish Boy,” Lawrence says, modestly. “Larry is Aqua Man.” For thousands of Boise first-graders on field trips, the Lee Read Public Aquarium is often their first glimpse of a marine environment.

Respect For the Guest

3One of Lee Read Jewelers’ guiding principles, respect, is based on never saying anything behind the customer’s back that you wouldn’t consider saying to his face. This attitude extends to all aspects of service and sales. Sales consultants are taught to exchange their hard-selling ways for a real relationship with the customer, who, by the way, is always referred to as “a guest,” and always offered a beverage.

The Design

4From its decompression chamber of a zen vestibule to its gracefully curving, circular cases and cloud lighting overhead, Lee Read Jewelers is the epitome of comfortable elegance.  The ceiling was reinforced to make columns unnecessary, creating a wide-open view of 8,000 square feet. The design was a collaborative effort between the Lee Read family, staff and even guests, who voted on the type of wood — cherry — used in the cases and walls.

The Shop

5Lee Read’s 1,500-square-foot shop has exterior windows that provide natural light, and windows on the show floor to allow customers to watch the goldsmiths and designers work. Customers are always reassured by the transparency when they are waiting for or dropping off precious items to be repaired. The ability to offer immediate onsite repair is an important competitive advantage. The longest a repair will ever take is 48 hours.

COOL FACTS

• The 287 light bulbs in the ceiling are replaced every year to ensure ultimate brightness.

• Company founder Lee Read, now retired, estimates he and his son pierced 10,000 pairs of ears over his 30-year career.

• The staff of Lee Read Jewelers spends at least an hour each day caring for the 1,200 gallon, live-reef, saltwater aquarium, which was installed not by an aquarium company, but by Larry Read, the company president.

• In 2005, the first year they carried the line, Lee Read won Hearts on Fire’s Rookie of the Year award. The following year the store won its Worldwide Retailer of the Year award.

          TRUE TALE

When a Lee Read customer gave his wife a greeting card he had gotten free in the store with a jewelry purchase, it was the first card she had received from him in 20 years. The jewelry wasn’t as big a surprise to his wife as the card was. One look at that and she thought he had done something terribly, terribly wrong. — Nelda Read

          TRY THIS

• Offer free, full-size greeting cards with any purchase. “The cards are a big hit,” Nelda Read says. “Men go to a destination store and they want to be done shopping.”

• Create a photo collage of engaged couples to display in diamond consulting rooms.

• Cultivate orchids for ambience.

• Give suppliers your own annual awards for delivering problem-free and best-selling merchandise. Larry Read prepares a detailed report card for each vendor and presents his awards in Las Vegas.

          HEARSAY

Things Heard Around the Store

“I call myself the fish boy. Larry is Aqua Man.”
— CHUCK LAWRENCE,
Director of Store Operations & Apprentice Aquarium Keeper

WHAT THE JUDGES SAY

Caroline Stanley
Marketing Consultant

By itself the fish tank isn’t all that remarkable, but what they have done with the local kids and the aquarium is. More than 2,500 local kids have been to the store to see the aquarium. Think about that. In a time where retailers don’t make the first contact with customers through class rings, as was once the case, this is a genius way to start a relationship long before any of the students start shopping on the Web (where today’s first contact often occurs). Voila, a direct relationship has begun. Genius!

Ann Arnold
Manufacturing Expert

The store has a great sense of welcoming from the moment you enter. The overall spaciousness helps make the store inviting; the customer would not be totally overwhelmed with lots of gizmos and gadgets. Instead it allows for them to focus in on what they want — jewelry.

James West
Jewelers’ Guild Developer

They’ve very effectively used a large space to create a destination that invites the customer to spend more time inside, creating a greater overall experience.

Kris Kargel
Branding Expert

This is a beautiful interior. However, they could do more to bring the romance and excitement out into the parking lot. Creating larger landscaped areas with the right trees, shrubs and flowers could break up the layout, build excitement and extend the decompression zone out of the door.

Angus Goble
Architect

A very interesting store with great entrepreneurial flair and a smart business model. The super-sized branding, powerful billboards and advertising provide instant recognition. I love the gung-ho spirit of this store.

James E. Dion
Retail Consultant

I’m impressed with Larry Read’s boldness, courage and vision to open such a magnificent store in the face of such opposition. It’s large but has an open, comfortable environment that’s inviting and exciting. Lee Read proves that a larger store doesn’t mean sacrificing intimacy.

STORE IMAGES

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This story is from the August 2008 edition of INSTORE

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