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Ready for a Change? Try These Alternative Approaches to Jewelry Retail

Looking for different approaches to selling jewelry? These four stores have a few ideas for you.

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IF YOU’RE HAPPY with your store and your business, then do not read this article. That’s right — put this magazine down right now and go back to selling. Still here? Okay-y … but don’t say we didn’t warn you. This month, INSTORE is here to provide you with a simple message: It doesn’t have to be this way.

There are many options for jewelry retailers who want a change from their current business models … and, let’s just say it, their current lives. Bored to tears with selling the same old bread-and-butter jewelry, year after year after year? Then be like Llyn Strong and find a bunch of artists whose work really excites you, and sell it in your own combination jewelry store-art gallery. Buckling under the burden of carrying expensive inventory? Then don’t carry any — and, like Greg Stopke, do all your work in high-end CAD-CAM programs that can generate photo-realistic renderings of any jewelry you can dream up. Weary of the day-in, day-out grind of running your own store? Then ditch it all and become a private jeweler like Kenneth Gordon, flying around the country and selling high-end jewelry to wealthy clients. Exhausted by the process of selling single items to whatever customers trickle through your door? Then aim your sights higher, like Sonny and Bridgette Belew, and try to sell thousands at one time by developing big corporate accounts.

No, these alternative approaches are not for everybody. All required a great idea, lots of hard work, and a burning passion for their chosen path. But if you have these things, and you don’t like where you’re at, anything is possible. Read on, and see exactly what some “Alternative Stores” are doing: 

ALTERNATIVE 1: JEWELSMITH

No Inventory? No Problem, Says California-Based CAD-CAM Designer.

It was 10 years ago that Greg Stopko was introduced to CAD-CAM computer design. It was a career-changing moment — and one that formed the core of his current business, a thriving jewelry store in Tracey, CA that runs literally without inventory. Says Stopko: “I like to say that I am basically selling thin air! The process has me hooked, it is so exciting.”

Stopko had been in the business since he was eight, when “I earned my spurs helping my dad, who managed a Crescent Jewelers.”

He studied business at college with every intention of getting into another business. When his dad contracted terminal lung cancer in the late 1970s, all of that changed. Stopko joined his brother and mother, running the family jewelry store — with his brother, Dean, on the bench and Stopko acting as the manager.

New ideas fuel Stopko’s imagination and, at first, he re-organized the family business into a repair shop. All too soon, the business became so competitive that profits were marginal and Greg got restless.

He first saw GemVision, a CAD-CAM jewelry design program, at the Los Angeles Jewelry Show. He was immediately awed, and had to have it. With a digital camera attached to the computer, which photographed the customers’ work, the program could then illustrate, better than any other pencil and paper could, how a piece could be altered with the addition of a different stone, another band or any other design element.

JewelSmith is still advertised primarily as a repair shop. With an average repair price of $150, the combined take from both stores is $1.2 million. Stopko says one of the biggest benefits of CAD-CAM design is that there is no price competition, as you aren’t selling anything tangible until the process is complete.

The brothers now run GemVision digital Goldsmith 4, a three-dimensional CADCAM program. The computers and the drop-off repair department are at the front of each store. “When people first come in, they see graphics right away that show what we do — repair, replace, or restyle pieces.”

Staff is trained in Stopko’s six-point upselling system. As each piece is photographed digitally, the piece is examined in three-dimensional detail. Are the stones chipped or loose? Is the shank cracked or too thin? It’s a check-off system that finally asks — is there an opportunity here for Stopko, his brother, or another trained technician to show the customer how their piece could be altered? “The success of the business is based on establishing a dialogue about jewelry,” says Stopko.

“The dialogue enables us to incorporate customers’ ideas and questions — ‘Can I redo this? Or add this?’ for instance. The dialogue is important because it gets the customer totally involved and that’s where the magic happens.”

Large overhead television screens are connected to the computers, and give customers inside the store the chance to see the design process unfold. When the computers are not being used to work on new designs, JewelSmith runs a Power Point program which shows before-and-after images of all the models they have created, as well as the actual jewelry that resulted.

As Stopko and his team have become more experienced with GemVision, they continuously refine their operation. Their two stores — one 650 square-feet, the other 700 square-feet — are so clean that you could eat off the floors. Inside the stores, every detail, including scent and sound are considered.

As Stopko describes it, “the computers at the front of the store are my drawing pad. We’re a dog-and-pony show with computer and it has added that wow factor to the work.”

Technology is not the whole story, however, no matter what Stopko initially professes. “I’m passionate about selling. Everything in the world involves selling an intangible. I’m inspired. I never run out of ideas and energy. Creative selling like this fires me up with enthusiasm.”

Creative selling is an emotional experience, the way Stopko explains it. “If you can connect using emotional colorful words, you can tap into a woman’s purchasing side because her emotional level actually gets caught up in the piece, not the price. When you are involving the customer in the creative process itself,” he says, and pauses. “Well, you can’t put a price tag on that.”

JewelSmith holds no sales, and no promotional events. As a matter of principle, they keep everything simple. The emphasis is always kept on the process of creation, not the technology, no matter how advanced it is. “We work on a price book based on David Geller’s Blue Book to Jewelry Repair, creating the environment that romanticizes the repair. Ninety-four percent of my customers are women and I get that emotional response from them.”

Concludes Stopko, “All you need is a passion.” That he’s definitely got. As well as a little technological edge. — SARAH YATES

ALTERNATIVE 2: LLYN STRONG FINE JEWELRY

Impresario’s Winning Strategy is Artists, Artists Everywhere

Llyn Strong’s jewelry store is a distinctive presence on Main Street in Greenville, SC. It occupies the main floor of a century-old building, and looks like a cool little art gallery. But it’s only when you get inside the store that you see what’s really special about it: it’s filled not just with art, but with jewelry, and some items that occupy the ground halfway between.

Strong began on her path to jewelry /art impresario when she studied goldsmithing. Then, 14 years ago, she opened Llyn Strong Fine Jewelry to feature her own work and the work of other contemporary jewelry designers, from across the US and around the world. “We sell only art glass and designer jewelry because they show together well and it’s what I know and love best,” she explains.

Strong herself chooses all of the artists. Some of them she knows from her work in the field as a craftsperson. She also attends all Wendy Rosen Craft Shows, the American Crafts Council show and the designers section of the JCK Global Design Show, from where she finds her European artists. Strong’s emphasis is not on the name of the craftsperson but on the work.

“There are no rules about how I choose the work but it tends to be contemporarily conservative or conservatively contemporary work. When work is too avante garde, it’s too hard to sell.

“The work utilizes a variety of materials, everything from braided horsehair with sterling, to white gold and platinum. We feature Germans like Michael Zobel, who is basically a painter in metal and George Sawyer who does mokumé gane, a Japanese metal technique, like the fusion of domestic steel, with precious metals of different colors fused together. It’s a very labor-intensive process. We no longer handle titanium pieces because they are simply too hard to repair.

“We pride ourselves on offering merchandise not available anywhere else. Anyone who comes to town looking for something unusual, comes to us first.”

Work is priced between $50 and $2,500, with the average sale between $800 to $1,000. (December sales have a higher average sale of about $1,500).

Strong’s 30- by 60-foot store looks like an art showroom — with its high ceilings and custom-built showcases of pale grey laminate trimmed with blond wood. It has plenty of white space between individual pieces, allowing each piece to be individually viewed and considered. “They are all displayed on artfully sandblasted glass brick, putting the focus on the jewelry and the glass not what it is sitting on,” Strong explains.

Customer education is a strong part of Strong’s selling philosophy. Each showcase features a single artist — with a postcard inside the case which profiles them.
“When jewelry is sold and packaged, we pop a miniature profile card inside about the artist,” she explains. “I’ve chosen [to highlight the] personal information, not the technical. This is the information that helps our customers see the artists as people with passions. It is up to our salespeople to inform customers about the technical aspects of any piece.”

Llyn Strong Fine Jewelry handles between 65 and 70 artists at any given time and every year Strong chooses up to 13 and 14 new artists. “I am always looking for new artists to show,” she says.

After artists have shown in her shop for a year, Strong assesses who sells and who doesn’t. The constant influx of new artists helps bring customers in again and again.With her town’s strong push recently to increase tourism, Llyn Strong Fine Jewelry is also beginning to attract more customers from around the region.

The store hosts a couple of trunk shows yearly — featuring either a high-profile solo artist or a small group of artists — for which they do regular mailings. Occasion-ally they get involved in promotions with other cultural groups. Otherwise, they do a limited amount of broadcast advertising on local television and some in regional magazines.

Coming to her business as an experienced jewelry designer, Strong had to learn the business part of the operations the hard way — on the floor, making mistakes.When experience taught her that handling people was not her forté, Strong hired a manager. She now has four full-time sales personnel, including the manager, as well as four part-time staff. Strong hires only Fine Arts graduates for sales — and, in addition, provides an extensive training process for all personnel, which includes information about various jewelry-making techniques and stones, both precious and semi-precious. Most of them, including the manager with whom she has worked for the past two years, have prior sales experience.

“Whenever we get new work in, we make sure everyone is up to speed on details of the work and how they were created, including the techniques involved. It’s part of the responsibility of each sales person to keep up. We subscribe to most important craft and jewelry magazines like American Style and the Lapidary Journal to help them keep up with new trends.”

Customers seem to enjoy seeing artists at work on the premises and Llyn Strong herself is frequently on the bench. She also has another jeweler on staff who makes some of the custom designs.

Born in Charleston and growing up in Greenville, a city she describes as “increasingly cosmopolitan”, Strong says “I am finally in the right place at the right time.” — SARAH YATES

ALTERNATIVE 3: KENNETH GORDON

Private Jeweler Built Business Serving Wealthy Customers

At the time, he didn’t know of anyone else who was doing what he was doing — serving as a private jeweler to individual clients. “But now that I’ve been in it for years I know others out there who are doing the same thing,” Gordon says.

Gordon says the opportunity for private jewelers has opened — and is getting larger — due to the large turnover in the jewelry retail industry. “It’s frustrating for people when they have to deal with different salespeople every time they enter a jewelry store. Finding a good jeweler who you trust and feel comfortable doing business with isn’t much different from working with a good accountant, lawyer or family doctor.”

While Gordon’s main target is wealthy clients ranging in age from 35 to 55, he never turns away clients, especially if they’re a referral. Typically his clients are extremely busy professionals, jet-setters and socialites who want quality jewelry and personalized service, and are willing to pay for it. On average, Gordon’s customers purchase $4,600 per visit — with some customers spending $100,000 to $200,000 a year. He won’t give specifics, but Gordon says, “I make a good margin on each sale.”

Dealing with such high-end clients does require some serious spending on Gordon’s part. To help his networking efforts, the jeweler belongs to exclusive sports and social clubs that are known to throw black-tie events, “where people wear their best jewelry, which is always a talking point for me,” Gordon says.

To keep his client base growing requires dedicated relationship-building on Gordon’s part. Good clients usually have family members and friends who turn into additional clients. And Gordon isn’t shy about asking for referrals. “I always ask for referrals,” he says. “It’s probably the one thing I’m very aggressive about, that and calling new clients.” When a referral pans out Gordon will forward a gift along — e.g. a fine table clock or a gift certificate to an upscale restaurant.

For a private jeweler, knowing the likes, dislikes, important dates, and habits of your clients is critical. Gordon learns everything he can about his clients, and writes down everything he learns. He has detailed files on every client and is diligent about follow-ups. “The key to this business is knowing important dates such as birthdays and anniversaries,” Gordon says. “Timing is everything.”
Gordon recalls a recent pleasure trip in Cincinnati where casual praise of a woman’s jewelry turned into a discussion. Instantly, a new customer was born — as well as a potentially lucrative new client-cluster. “When people talk with me about jewelry, they can tell I’ve been in the business a long time and know what I’m talking about,” Gordon says. “This woman from Cincinnati will most likely recommend me based on my good service and soon I’ll have another group of clients there. That’s how I build my business.”

Communications are important as well. The jeweler sends out periodic brochures every year, and his clients receive an annual letter before Thanksgiving Day summarizing the year’s events. Small, thoughtful touches are also part of Gordon’s charm — with handwritten letters sent during overseas buying trips or his ability to find “just the right gift” for “just the right client”. (He sometimes even buys jewelry on spec for his clients — “they trust my judgement”.) To attract new clients, Gordon advertises in upper-end lifestyle and fashion reads such as Town & Country and In Style.

As Gordon is based in Atlanta, most of his clients are from the Southeast. But he does have substantial numbers of customers in other regions. Whenever he travels, he tries to group as many client visits as possible into the trip. He characterizes his yearly business travel as “moderate to busy.”

Gordon’s inventory is high-end, consisting of 18k gold and platinum jewelry in primarily classic styles from name designers like Kurt Wayne, Gumuchian Fils, Simon G, Kirk Kara, Kwiat and Old World Chain.

Although pleased with his freedom, and his current business, Gordon hasn’t reached his ultimate goal yet. When he started as a private jeweler he dreamed of having an average sale of $1,000 — now, he’s done that and much more. His new dream target? “To have a select group of clients that spend $10,000 on the average,” Gordon says. “Fewer clients who spend more means less time working. That’s where I’d like to be in the foreseeable future.” — PAUL HOLEWA

ALTERNATIVE 4: SIGNATURE JEWELERS

Corporate Jewelry Accounts Add Fuel to Company’s Rapid Growth

If good business is where you find it, then jewelers Sonny and Bridgette Belew of Signature Jewelers made a significant discovery at Cracker Barrel. No, it wasn’t the chef’s surprise or the lunch-times salad bar. Instead, the couple has been filling up with corporate jewelry work ordered by the restaurant chain’s headquarters.

Lebanon, Tennessee isn’t much different from any other city throughout the country — with local businesses and municipalities of all sizes, full of potential customers and worthwhile corporate accounts. Getting Cracker Barrel’s business was an arduous and sometimes frustrating three-year battle for the Belews, but the couple learned that corporate accounts are easier to secure than most jewelers might think — whether it is a local business, or even the local police force.

The couple’s start in corporate accounts began with a small request from a local small business owner to put his company’s logo on a piece of jewelry to be given to an employee. Throughout the early 1990s, similar work that trickled in was outsourced at a time when the couple began developing their wholesale jewelry repair business — as well as doing custom jewelry production of their Sphere Rings, which have an interchangeable gemstone feature. Eventually these combined successes justified a significant move.

In 1996, the Belews moved from a mom-and-pop-sized shop to a super-store across the street. It was a simple move in terms of distance, but a complex one in matters of expanding the couple’s business plan to position themselves as full-service jewelers outfitted with the latest CAD/CAM jewelry making technology. By the late 1990s, the couple’s corporate accounts began to grow in tandem with their wholesale jeweler repair accounts and custom jewelry work. Today Signature Jewelers boasts of over 40 corporate accounts and hundreds of wholesale jewelry repair contracts, which collectively makes up 15 percent of their business.

Cracker Barrel, which would become Signature Jewelers’ top corporate account, was first contacted through the company’s headquarters, based in Lebanon. “The company has 350,000 employees, 5,000 of which work at the company’s headquarters,” says Sonny. “Lapel pins are worn every day by management-level people on up to their top level executives. Given job turnovers, position changes and retirements, this translates into a business of producing 15,000 to 20,000 new lapel pins a year.”

It took years of negotiating, but the Belews finally got the chance to prove their ability to Cracker Barrel with a modestly-sized order of bronze lapel pins. Satisfied with the initial run, the company returned with an order of 10,000 lapel pins.

In the six years the Belews have been working with Cracker Barrel, the couple have manufactured an array of gifts for the company — ranging from plaques and awards to engraving high-end name-brand watches and the occasional custom jewelry order. Although satisfied that their persistence has paid off, there is still bigger game to hunt: Signature has yet to secure the lucrative Christmas-gift portion of the restaurant chain’s business.

But just give them time. “Cracker Barrel is a very traditional company, and like all traditional companies they have a seasonal gift giveaway program,” says Sonny. “Not all companies think of jewelry as an employee gift. Give an employee a country ham and it’s gone when they eat it. But give them a piece of jewelry and it can last a lifetime. We’re currently working on some [jewelry gift giveaway] ideas with them.”

Another lucrative corporate account for Signature is with the town’s local police department. Again, what is now a booming business for Signature Jewelers began with a simple, single request from a policeman to create a gold charm version of his badge.

Of course a store’s main spokespeople is its staff. But employees must have the presence of mind to engage customers in the store or on the street to help foster these lucrative programs. “A jeweler has to have a good team to sell this [corporate jewelry],” says Bridgette. “And we’re fortunate to have such a team with four jewelers and an incredible sales staff.” — PAUL HOLEWA

Over the years, INSTORE has won 80 international journalism awards for its publication and website. Contact INSTORE's editors at [email protected].

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