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America's Coolest Stores

ACS 2011: First Place, Small Cool: Max’s



[componentheading]  Quick facts [/componentheading]

: Ellen Hertz  
Area: 1,900 square feet  
Founded: 2006
Opened Featured Location: 2010
Architects: Charlie Simmons, Charlie & Co. Design; and Nathaniel Shea, Tanek
Lighting Designer: Michael Cohen of Schuler Shook
General Contractor: Watson-Forsberg
Cabinets: Duevel Concepts and Midland Glass Co.
Employees: 3 full-time, 3 part-time
Top Brands: Aaron Henry, Anne Sportun, Dahlia Kanner, Dana David, Pamela Froman, Sarah Graham, Stephanie Albertson, Suzy Landa, Todd Reed, Vicente Agor [/smalltext]

[dropcap cap=E]llen Hertz has never been a closed-door manager. “I want to know what’s going on,” she says. “And I do believe that at the end of the day most business is relationship-based.”[/dropcap]

Her desk is behind a floor-to-ceiling glass wall. Most of the panels are opaque, but a strategic transparent block gives her a window onto the sales floor at Max’s, the Minneapolis-area jewelry store she’s owned since 2006.


She doesn’t want to miss a moment of a dream fulfilled.

Chapter 1

For 15 of the 20 years Hertz worked as a corporate consultant in the high-tech business, she thought intermittently about owning a jewelry store. As she traveled for work, she visited stores and made mental notes, slowly building her own vendor wish list. Finally, in 2005, she turned 45 and decided it was now or never. After a three-month leave of absence for her wedding, she quit her job and launched Max’s, beginning what she calls “Chapter 2.”

“Why jewelry? I’m a junkie. I like to wear it,” she says. “And I didn’t want to work in a situation where I have to write a status report for anyone ever again. I want to answer only to me.”

And, too, jewelry is in her DNA. Max’s was named for her grandfather, a Polish immigrant, who owned jewelry stores in Michigan. She wears a delicate art-deco ring her grandfather made, which she’s had since she was a child.

Through her travels she had learned that there was a whole world of jewelry designers whose work wasn’t represented in Minneapolis. Her business plan was to introduce them to the Twin Cities.


Chapter 2

Hertz sells what she loves — exclusive jewelry, specialty chocolate and a selection of giftware. “People would tell me you can’t put jewelry and chocolate together, and I said why not?”

The chocolate, in particular, eases threshold resistance, since it draws new shoppers to her store all the time who are easily converted to jewelry buyers. But jewelry is at the heart of the concept. “Max’s being called a gift store is a bit like a dagger through my heart,” she says.

Hertz had about a year and a half between opening Max’s and the onset of the recession to build her brand and reputation for quality and customer service. She stayed the course with exclusive inventory, aggressive advertising and confidence in her prices. “People get gun shy when things get tough,” she says. “But of all the times to not play it safe, it’s when times are tough. You have to stay true to who you are.” In the past three years, the business has seen double-digit growth. “I like to believe the worst is behind us,” Hertz says.

New location: Max’s 2.0

Max’s first location — in a pedestrian-friendly, lifestyle shopping center that includes condos, restaurants and boutiques — was promising from the start, but when neighboring restaurants became vacant for a time, walk-in traffic diminished. Then last year, Hertz was asked to move to a larger space across the street by her landlord, who, in turn, was required by lease to pay for the move and buildout.


Since the move, business has been even better, due in part to “the Starbucks effect.” Max’s is now in a high traffic spot very close to Starbucks. Other neighbors include Panera, an olive oil shop, a dog spa and a fitness center.

Hertz learned just how important location is when people who had noticed the first store from across the street at Starbucks told her they were too “lazy” to cross the street — and they were glad she had moved.

Like the contemporary jewelry design she is passionate about, Hertz prefers modern architecture and interior design. But she didn’t want Max’s to feel cold or look too hard-edged. The high-ceilinged space (16 feet and higher) is warmed up with contrasting colors, spaces and textures; and inviting lighting and décor.

The floor is half stained concrete and half carpeted. The ceiling is half open and dark and half finished and white.

Architect Charlie Simmons designed both versions of Max’s, expanding on the original theme with what he refers to as Max 2.0, which provided 400 more square feet and 4 more feet of width.

“Ellen wanted a blend of modernity — something crisp and simple — but it also had to have an organic theme to it,” Simmons says. “We came up with a concept that is almost museum-like. If you go to any modern art museum nowadays, primarily you’ll see white walls and a darker floor. That provides the backdrop for the art. The eye focuses on the artwork and not the architecture.”

Once agreed on the museum aesthetic, they began to consider shape, form and organic elements, and sprinkle in an accent color — a cool blue that blends well with cool white walls.

Blue makes a particularly organic appearance on a 28-inch-diameter structural column near the front of the store. To make this column pop, Simmons found a digital black-and-white photo of birch trees and used a digital wash to color it blue. He sent the image to a graphics company, which created a giant sticker that he wrapped over a fiberglass drum. The drum encases the column, creating a vertical architectural image of blue birch trees.

“We took that a bit further and more literally and we went and purchased a bunch of birch trees, cut off the branches, sprayed them with 10 coats of fire retardant and integrated them into cabinetry up against the wall,” Simmons says. “It is the literal idea of the concept we had on the column.” To intensify the effect, theatrical light filters on the ceiling cast shadows of tree leaves onto the branches.

For the glass wall that conceals the office, Simmons envisioned a series of geometric boxes. Alternating glass squares — in shades of blue, translucent white, and clear — create an effect that reminds him of a Mondrian painting, appropriate for Hertz, a lover of modern art. When customers enter the store, they walk past a lounge area to the right of the entrance (complete with “bored husband chairs,” a large-screen TV, beverage refrigerator and a toy box) before being drawn further into the store to view the jewelry in the freestanding cases. To create a residential-loft feel and add texture, Simmons used brick veneer as a backdrop.

Max’s move created an opportunity to modernize its lighting, designed to focus on product while creating an engaging atmosphere. Michael Cohen, principal lighting designer for Schuler Shook, says layers, pools and fields of light extend a visual invitation to passersby by offering a luminous glimpse of the entire store from the front window to the back wall — the eye’s final resting point.

“Our criteria and goal was to be low maintenance and low energy but high impact. We chose to light the store almost entirely with dimmable LEDs,” Cohen says. The exceptions were blue glass pendant light fixtures and textured glass globes over the cash wrap, for which halogen quartz lights were used for their visual sparkle.

He combined color temperatures of 3,000 K inside the display cases and 2,700 K on the track lighting to achieve a subtle contrast. The focused track lighting highlights select surfaces and freestanding displays, while the case and niche lighting makes the product pop in relation to the backdrop of the architecture.

Learning to Buy

Hertz’s strengths, nurtured as a former project manager, include delegating responsibility, hiring the right team, negotiating the lease, and managing the business.

The challenge, for her, was learning how to buy.

“There is a lot of pretty jewelry out in the world and you can’t carry it all,” Hertz says. “I’ve gotten smarter about the way I buy, about thinking about merchandising in context with the overall store.”

At first, she wasn’t too interested in buying a designer’s collection; she likes to mix and match. But she learned that the collection helps a customer envision what else can be worn with a piece, even if it’s something they already have. “So I try to buy what I would call reasonably deep into the collection and make a fairly significant commitment.”

Vicente Agor — her very first vendor — says Hertz has quickly made a name for herself among jewelry designers. “Everyone knows Max’s now,” Agor says. “Ellen has become one of those store owners who, in a trade show, all of a sudden word travels fast that ‘she’s coming.’

People know who Ellen is. She buys. She pays. Designers do well in her store. She reorders. She’ll take risks.”

Those risks pay off. Customers have told Hertz that they don’t need a wish list because they would be happy with anything they received as a gift from Max’s.

“Our jewelry selection appeals to the customer who is confident enough in her personal style that she appreciates something unique; she doesn’t feel that she has to wear what everyone else is wearing, or what the fashion magazines are telling her that she has to wear, in order to look great,” Hertz says.

As Hertz has reached her fifth year, people keep telling her she’s made it now, that the five-year mark signals success. But she’s taking nothing for granted.

“I’m most surprised by just how true the saying is that you can’t predict what’s going to happen in retail,” Hertz says. “You can’t even predict what your good days are going to be. It could be a Monday. It could be a Saturday.”

[componentheading]Store Highlights[/componentheading]

[contentheading]Inventory Is Unique[/contentheading]

Hertz believes local artists already are well represented in the Twin Cities. Ninety percent of the designers she works with are exclusive to Max’s in her market. None is local.

“I was hell-bent on buying things that were different and unique. Customers tell me all the time they have never seen any jewelry like this,” Hertz says.

Her commitment to designers includes dedicated website pages with product images and artist statements, blog posts announcing the arrival of new work, recognition of their work in print ads, and trunk shows that are supported through direct mail and e-mail.

Shoppers are less impulsive post-recession, but they are more interested in finding the perfect, well-made piece they can wear every day and will treasure for years. That desire translates to a healthy average jewelry sale of $500. “We have sold more gold than you ever could have convinced me we could have,” Hertz says.

[contentheading]Trunk Shows Are An Experience[/contentheading]

Hertz hosts 10 trunk shows — weekend-long parties with champagne and chocolate — every year. “There’s a mystique to meeting the designer,” she says.

Jewelry designer Vicente Agor of San Francisco, with whom Hertz placed her very first order, has done trunk shows in mid-December every year since Max’s opened. It’s well worth the trip. “I am there in the dead of winter and it just works,” he says. “Ellen advertises, markets the show, talks it up and sure enough, people come in. It’s freezing outside, and she’ll say, ‘Hey, we’ve got hot chocolate and by the way, we sell this fine European chocolate that you’re drinking.’ They’ll say, ‘I’ll take that big gold bracelet and three bags of that hot chocolate.’”

There’s a sense of genuine hospitality. “It’s what makes them thrive and not just survive in an industry like this,” Agor says.

And there’s knowledge to back up all the charm. Each member of Hertz’s staff, brand new or veteran, always is well versed on the designer’s story and can accurately relate it to customers, Agor says.

[contentheading]They Advertise Like Crazy[/contentheading]

Even before Max’s opened, Hertz was consulting with a graphic artist to begin fashioning a consistent brand image. And she advertises aggressively via radio and print, including local newspapers.

“I will go to my grave saying, if you don’t advertise they are not coming,” Hertz says. “You have to be top of mind for somebody. Great stores constantly remind people why they should come to you. People are coming in all the time with a crumpled little ad they’ve been carrying around for a year and they’ll ask me, do you still have this?” Hertz says.

She says it’s about investing in the business. “Some would say we advertise to a crazy extent,” she says. “But if you want to play with the big boys, you’ve got to act like the big boys.”

[contentheading]Max’s Has Heart[/contentheading]

Commitment to local and national charitable initiatives is part of what defines Max’s personality in the community. In December 2010, Hertz teamed with LifeSource and the University of Minnesota to help build awareness about organ and tissue donation during a trunk show with designer Vicente Agor. Agor is the recipient of a double transplant and shared his thoughts about how this experience changed his life during an artist reception. Twenty percent of the proceeds from the sale of his jewelry was donated to LifeSource and the University of Minnesota Transplant Assistance Fund.

[contentheading] The Staff Is Comfortable[/contentheading]

Hertz wants the environment to be relaxed and cooperative, a condition that can’t co-exist with a commissioned sales staff, she believes.

Her staff has a range of backgrounds, but all share a passion for design or the creative process.

Hertz offers flexible schedules, jewelry at cost and a standing invitation to raid the chocolate. She also enrolls her staff in GIA distance learning programs.

“I expect them to be able to talk to the customer about the artist, if the customer is interested,” she says. “Of course, some customers couldn’t care less. They just want to find a pair of earrings they can wear with a black dress.”

She and her staff have debated what to wear over the years to ensure their own comfort while putting their casually dressed clientele at ease. They’ve settled on this rule of thumb: “Jeans are OK. Flip-flops are not.”

[componentheading]  Exterior [/componentheading]

{igallery id=”1099″ cid=”301″ pid=”4″ type=”classic” children=”1″ showmenu=”1″ tags=”” limit=”50″}

[componentheading]  Interior [/componentheading]

{igallery id=”1827″ cid=”302″ pid=”4″ type=”classic” children=”1″ showmenu=”1″ tags=”” limit=”50″}

[componentheading]   Marketing [/componentheading]

{igallery id=”9598″ cid=”303″ pid=”4″ type=”classic” children=”1″ showmenu=”1″ tags=”” limit=”50″}

[componentheading] What the judges say [/componentheading]

Suzy Landa: Wearable candy, eye candy and real candy all under the same roof! What could be cooler than that? Max’s commitment to stand apart from the retail crowd is evident in every choice, from the architecturally slick store interior to the graphically bold printed materials and website, to the designers and artists and chocolatiers the store represents.

Terry Chandler: In an industry known, sometimes, to be mired in tradition and lacking in the ability to innovate, Max’s proves there is hope. From the signage on the storefront to the merchandise mix and the stunningly edgy and creative interior design, Max’s creates an environment that says this is definitely not your father’s jewelry store!

Don Muller:I liked every single thing about this store! Great product mix! Nicely presented! Great website! Great story! Great marketing. Enjoy this honor and be sure to share it with your customers!

Ruth Mellergaard: I love this store — it is original, contemporary and aspirational but not intimidating. The awning on the front clearly tells customers what merchandise to expect inside. The website tells the story and makes customers want to visit the store. The marketing does a similar job.

George Whalin: It would be quite unusual for one factor to make a store cool and Max’s exemplifies a really cool store. The combination of jewelry, home décor and chocolates wonderfully captures customer attention and dollars. When the right merchandise is beautifully displayed in a great looking store coupled with frequent trunk shows, you have a winning combination.

[componentheading]  Try This [/componentheading]

[h3]Floral Displays[/h3]

Arts & Flowers, a local florist, does a window display occasionally, especially for the holidays. At other times, though, Hertz does it herself, routinely visiting a local floral supply distributor in search of inspiration and seasonal display props for the front window, such as faux sunflowers for summer.

[h3]Affordability Curve[/h3]

Display more affordable jewelry near the front of the store to enhance shoppers’ comfort level.

[componentheading]  Fun Facts [/componentheading]

[h3]Hear Say[/h3]

“Beautiful, thoughtful selection of pieces. My husband and I found our wedding bands here. They are the only place within hundreds of miles that carry one of my favorite designers. The service was excellent. It is a small shop, but you will likely find more pieces here than at one of the larger jewelry stores, which are filled with standard designs.” – Kat, Reviewer

[h3]Max’s Chocolate Factory[/h3]

Max’s has sold more than 23,000 units (individual pieces, bars, boxes and gift baskets) of chocolate since 2006.

[h3]Play List[/h3]

Frank Sinatra, The Mills Brothers, James Morrison, Beethoven, Miles Davis, Prince

“It’s a mix of jazz and classical, modern and oldies. Being from Michigan, I’m a huge Motown fan.” — Ellen Hertz

[span class=note]This story originally appeared in the August 2011 edition of INSTORE. [/span]

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