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ACS 2008: First Place Small Cool, Zachary’s Jewelers

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Zachar’s Jewelers

LOCATION: Annapolis, MD
URL: www.zacharysjewelers.com
OWNER: Steve Samaras
FOUNDED: 1992
OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2005 (2007 remodel)
EMPLOYEES: 9 full-time, 2 part-time
AREA: 4,000 square feet
ARCHITECT/DESIGN FIRM: Aleksey and Karolina Belinskey with Formatum Inc.

Over the course of a decades-long  journey, Steve Samaras of Zachary’s Jewelers met pain and disaster with friendship,  skill and ingenuity that would do his Greek ancestors proud — and that have made him a local legend.

Downtown Annapolis, MD, is packed. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, families and couples bustle up and down the sidewalks, which are lined with boutique retailers — many local, a few chain stores — upscale souvenir shops, and an inordinate number of ice cream parlors. The crowd is a mix of older folks, whose T-shirts and shorts can’t conceal the signs of a comfortable income, and younger adults, whose quietly dignified carriage suggests an affiliation with the U.S. Naval Academy, which sits next to the shopping zone.

In the middle of it all is Zachary’s Jewelry, right on the corner of Main Street, nearly impossible for anyone not to walk by.

It wasn’t always this way, though, and it could have turned out very differently. Because while perseverance, brains and a love for his people, his work and his community have played a huge role in owner and president Steve Samaras’ success, he was also helped along by a bit of bad luck. Really bad luck.

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An Annapolis native, Samaras entered the jewelry industry in the late 1970s when he started working for his cousin, who set up an operation to buy gold and silver for resale. It later expanded into a retail storefront in town. The businessmen had big dreams — they hoped to “establish a little bit of 47th Street” in Annapolis, Samaras says — but by the late ’80s, the venture was losing money.

The Greek-American Samaras ran sales and purchasing for his cousin, and had gone to gemological school to better understand his product. The production manager was a man his age from Belize named Errol Daly. When it became clear they were going to be out of a job, Samaras approached his co-worker and friend. “This is the only thing we know,” he told Daly. “Let’s try and move on.”

Small-business ownership wasn’t entirely new to Samaras — his parents had run a liquor store for years. He also had a set of close friends and mentors, including his attorney and an Israeli diamond dealer, to whom he turned routinely for advice. “My father had a saying, one of many: ‘Success has a million fathers, and failure is an orphan,’” he says.

He sold his home, took $20,000 in equity and, at almost 40 years old, moved in with his parents. Daly came to work for him, in the downtown building that had housed the old operation, and didn’t take a paycheck for two years. “We went through the first winter without heat,” Samaras says. He convinced about a quarter of his vendors from his cousin’s business to stick with him, and to give him what he needed for a solid inventory mostly on memo: “We were probably showing a quarter of a million dollars or more in product, and we owned $20,000.”

And he and Daly worked around the clock. “There wasn’t an hour in the day that we wouldn’t open for someone,” he says. His sister, Evangeline Ross, now the store’s sales and marketing manager, adds that it wasn’t just about staying busy in the store.

“Steve never refuses an invitation,” she says. “He’s like the mayor in this town. He’s too modest to say that, but I can toot his horn. I used to tease him about how he would always triple- or even quadruple-book himself. I’d say, ‘How can you enjoy yourself?’ But he does, and he makes everyone he touches feel like they are the most important person in the world.”

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And Zachary’s grew. The heat came on. Daly started drawing a paycheck. The store added new lines.

Then disaster struck.

The Setbacks

In truth, it struck twice. In November 2005, Samaras, Ross and the rest of their extended family took a long weekend trip, a regular tradition. Near the end of the vacation, the men went off to play golf while the women headed to town to shop. Samaras and Ross’ father left with the women. But he “looked kind of dejected,” Ross says, and a few minutes and one cell-phone call later, the ladies returned and put him in a golf cart to spend the day with the guys. Their father had never learned to play — “I always wanted to teach him, but he’d say, ‘I’m not old enough to learn to play golf,’”

Samaras says — but he smoked cigars, drank beer and kept score.

That night, Samaras dropped his dad off at home. “He hugged me and said, ‘The one regret I have is that I never learned to play golf, because I could have spent more time with you.’” The next morning, Samaras got a call: His father had died.

A week later, the family was back together again, having dinner at a restaurant after the memorial services. Samaras’ phone rang. His store was on fire.

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The building was destroyed, along with 30 to 40 percent of the inventory. It would have been fair — reasonable, even — to expect Samaras to take some time off to decompress at that point. He shakes his head. “I cried every night when my father died — I was all cried out,” he says. Instead of going to ground, he called a meeting with his employees the next morning.

First, he assured them that they were taken care of — insurance would cover their wages for the next year. Next, he explained that they could take that time to recoup and rebuild or, if they were up for it, get things up and running for the holiday season that was already upon them, including the client-appreciation party scheduled for six days later.

The staff was unanimous: They wanted to be back in business within the week.

They made a list of more than 200 action items and had all but a dozen addressed by day’s end. Samaras’ landlord offered to clear out of his souvenir shop on the corner down the street so that Zachary’s could move into the 4,000-square-foot space. He, Ross, Daly and the other employees worked around the clock, with help from customers. (“My husband was going to shoot me, because I was pregnant,” Ross says.) By the middle of the next week, they had close to $5 million in inventory, thanks to help from their vendors. And the party was a smash hit, with some 400 guests in attendance.

“It was really a community-spirited event. You literally could not walk in here,” Samaras says. The corner space was a winner, too — even after missing a week of business, Zachary’s holiday season was double its previous best, thanks to local goodwill and the new, far more visible location.

“Someone at the party said to me, ‘You are the richest man I know.’ And I had to laugh, because I had nothing,” Samaras says. “But he said, ‘You have more friends than anyone else I know.’ “

“I’ve said to people it’s nothing I would ever want to go through again, but I am so grateful for having gone through it once. It shows you so much. It’s like hearing your eulogy when you’re not dead.”

A Resurrection

The new space offered opportunity. Before Samaras’ landlord had used it to sell souvenirs, it had been a Banana Republic, so it already offered a warm, inviting-but-upscale ambience perfectly suited for Annapolis’ casually wealthy clientele. A $1 million renovation, paid for in cash and completed in November 2007 stepped things up a notch.

“We wanted it to feel like Annapolis; we wanted it to look like it belongs here,” Samaras says. The obvious source of inspiration was the water a few hundred yards away, and the ships floating on it. At the advice of Harvey Rovinsky, owner of Bernie Robbins Fine Jewelers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, he tapped designer Aleksey Belinskey, who’d done work for the high-end Borgata hotel in Atlantic City, to handle the new look.

Belinskey brought the theme to life, in subtle fashion. Teak flooring and showcases, appointed with brass, evoke a classic Trumpy yacht — especially in the case of the ship-shaped island of cases jutting out from just in front of Samaras’ office, the “helm.” Muted blue carpet underneath the cases stands in for the sea, while a spacious lounge area sits on a wide swath of sand-toned carpet. One wall sports a sailboat mosaic and the Zachary’s logo. (“Everyone walks in and comments on that,” Samaras says. “I didn’t know what to think of it at first, but I’m glad we did it.”)

A less obvious choice was even bolder: The architect wanted to close off a second set of double doors, due to security concerns, but Samaras overruled him, leaving two entrances into the store along the route the bulk of shoppers travel. “That’s probably the best thing we did,” he says. “People will look in and pass by, but given the second opportunity, they’ll walk in that door.”

And then, of course, most important of all are the people. “This is the most amazing team I’ve ever seen in the store,” Ross says. Daly, the general manager (and a family member, as far as Samaras is concerned), “is always happy,” she says. “Nothing is ever a problem.” His favorite part of the job is problem customers — seriously — because he loves turning them into happy customers.

“There’s no magic, there’s no mystery to this thing,” he says, with a musical accent. ‘How can we make you happy?’ It’s as simple as that.”

Ross “is the one who grew the company,” her brother says. Her partner in marketing is 24-year-old Keith Villones, a former advertising employee who’s behind Zachary’s latest successful ventures into reaching customers through online video site Youtube and social network Facebook. Graduate gemologist Robyn Singh does while-you-wait appraisals, something no other jeweler in the community offers. Moroccan-born Hind Walker met her husband in Annapolis and returned with him to the city after a stint in Manhattan as a buyer for Aaron Basha. Erica Christian “can tell you the name of everyone who walks in the door,” Ross says. And when he’s not taking charge of while-you-wait repairs on Wednesdays and Fridays, Doug Mixer leads a local congregation as a Baptist minister.

The Metamorphosis

Zachary’s has come a long way, and so has Steve Samaras. At one point while we’re talking, he mentions dealing with an irate customer and says something in passing about how “the old Steve” would have handled it. I ask what he means.

“The metamorphosis began when I was sitting in the showroom in the old store, with no heat and very little jewelry,” he says. Living with his parents, and receiving their support and that of the girlfriend who would eventually marry him, he reassessed. And it’s made him all the more able to enjoy everything he has now.

“You really appreciate what it is you’re doing, and what you’ve begun,” he says. “You think you’re on your way, and then all of a sudden it’s gone — and my dad wasn’t there to help me.” He pauses, shrugs, and smiles. “But there was never a shred of doubt that we would make it.” He gestures at the store around him. “I’ve got a lot of things to be thankful for, I’ll tell you that.

FIVE COOL THINGS ABOUT ZACHARY’S

The Location

1Foot traffic into the store tripled when Zachary’s moved from a building up the street, crammed between other shops, down to the corner of Main Street facing the harbor, says Evangeline Ross. The Maryland Chamber of Commerce ranked the corner among the top 10 in the state.

The Food

2Think your little coffee stand is pretty nifty, huh? Can your customers get an iced cappuccino? What about the proverbial free lunch? Zachary’s stocks a wide assortment of refreshments and lays out a healthy spread of sandwiches and more on Saturdays.

The Promotions

3Zachary’s offers while-you-wait repairs every Wednesday and Friday. They send movie tickets for a “date night” for clients’ first anniversaries, and partnered with a boutique in town to send gifts for new babies. At Christmas time, they put gifts under the store tree for customers’ children. “We get kids bringing their parents in — they know,” Steve Samaras says.

The Tech

4To promote a “Write the best love letter” Valentine’s Day contest, marketing whiz Keith Villones put a video of Samaras up on Youtube; it garnered more than 1,000 hits over the next week. To reach midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy next door with a class ring promotion, Villones scrapped the store’s costly direct-mail strategy and contacted them en masse through Facebook. Then they featured the young sailors’ photos and stories on a blog.

The Schedule

5Customer contact is a huge part of the strategy at Zachary’s, but a while back, it became tough for employees to keep up with writing thank-yous and the like. Then one staffer suggested that everyone get an allotted time for those duties, instead of fitting them in around other work. “You can get a lot more done in one to three hours of uninterrupted time than if you’re trying to cover the floor, too,” Samaras says.

COOL FACTS

• Production manager Doug Mixer is also a Baptist minister. “It’s great,” he says. “I get to sell people a ring and then marry them, too.”

• Employee Keith Villones holds the world championship title in his weight class in Filipino stick fighting. Yes, he’s the best in the world. He’s defending his title this summer.

• Confusion often ensues when customers see buyer Hind Walker’s first name — it rhymes with “wind” (the noun, not the verb).

         TRY THIS

“Host of the Day.” If you were ever a waiter or bartender, as Samaras and Ross were, you’ll appreciate this one: Schedule a different member of your floor staff as the store’s official host every day. “You’re like the owner of the store that day,” says Zachary’s buyer Hind Walker. “People like that.” The host makes first contact with customers, offers refreshments and filters the clients to the appropriate person. More important, he or she comes up with a staff challenge for the day, like “Find out one quirky thing about every customer you talk to” or “See how many pieces you can get each client to try on.” Winners earn points, and points add up to earn prizes doled out by Ross, who says she comes up with some of the incentives but that she appreciates it when employees let her know what they want, too.

         TRUE TALE

General manager Errol Daly has charm to spare, and he uses it. Once, another employee was trying to sell a woman a ring, but the woman’s friend — who was in a bad mood and seemed a little envious — was interfering with the sale. Daly swept in and separated the unhappy customer from her companion in such a way that she didn’t even realize it was happening. “It was just like a dance, the way he did it,” Evangeline Ross says.

         HEARSAY

Heard Around the Store

“You know how there’s dead silence when someone asks a question no one wants to answer? That’s when I bring this out.”  DOUG MIXER, showing off his toy cricket, which chirps like a real insect

WHAT THE JUDGES SAY

Bill and Sharon Blair
Assocation and Jewelry Show Heads

Zachary’s was the most consistent of the stores, from the design of the store to the way the owners chose to present themselves through individuality and marketing.

Kate Peterson
Management Consultant

Steve Samaras could give everyone a valuable lesson in marshalling courage and resources and in overcoming adversity! The new store is a monument to the value of fortitude, commitment and will!

Brad Huisken
Sales Trainer

Zachary’s has a very cool interior and exterior, designed around a nautical theme in keeping with the surrounding area.

Renee Singer
Jewelry Wholesaler

Other stores would benefit from learning how Zachary’s becomes involved in their customers’ lives way beyond the sale. Zachary’s creates customers for life, something more stores should do.

Amanda Gizzi
Trend Watcher

What is really cool about Zachary’s is more than its appearance. It is its business model. They are dedicated to their community. They work hard to be an extended home for their employees as well as the people in their community. They want their customers to feel comfortable shopping, spending money, browsing or simply stopping by.

James Porte
Marketing Expert

The store employs innovative marketing strategies and has aggressively partnered with other businesses that have the same commitment to quality and value. Zachary’s has also embraced the Internet with its virtual marketing efforts.

Terry Chandler
Jewelry Educator

A sleek presentation that has strong architectural weight speaks immediately to the seriousness and intensity of the operation. The ship-like feel and fittings make the very point intended.

STORE IMAGES

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This story is from the August 2008 edition of INSTORE

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