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America's Coolest Stores

America’s Coolest Stores 2012: Big Cool 5 Lee Michaels Fine Jewelry

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FROM THE GILDED SAFE and vintage reproductions in the Estate Room to flat screen TVs and iPhone and iPad apps, Lee Michael Berg, owner of Lee Michaels Fine Jewelry in Baton Rouge, holds hands with the past while reaching the other hand to the future. “We’re in the celebration business,” his son Scott said. And the Bergs invite customers, family members and employees to join the party.

Lee Berg, in business with sons Scott, Ryan and Chad, says providing customers an “extraordinary experience” has energized the firm from day one. The company specializes in fine gems, timepieces and giftware.

It all began in 1978, when the first Baton Rouge store opened. Noted for individualized customer attention and concentration to fine detail, the Lee Michaels commitment to quality is evident in the choice of merchandise. The Rolex corner, for example, is the first in Louisiana and one of the first in the U.S.

The store itself is a study in classic, timeless appeal. A white Turkish marble façade greets guests, and the main showroom has 12-foot ceilings with waterfall glass on most showcases. Lines are curved; cherry paneling is warm; chandeliers are oven-formed glass panels painted on the reverse side, backlit with images viewed through the glass. Six flat-screen high-definition televisions with Blu-ray players showcase the work of designers and are inset into the cherry panels, combining technology with welcoming grace.

But it’s the soul of Lee Michaels that has kept customers returning, an attitude that begins with the employees. “We live by the motto that our employees are more important than our customers,” Lee says. “We feel that, if we take care of our employees, they will take care of our customers.” Associates have a stake, a say, in how the business is run. “We don’t rule with an iron fist,” Scott says. “They are our extended family.”

The company has set specific core values to which Scott attributes his success. These include guarding the integrity of the company through ethical business practices while providing superior value in merchandising and service; recognizing the value of contributions by employees and associates; protecting the company’s long-term financial stability through sound money management; and demonstrating good corporate citizenship through community and philanthropic service.

The Bergs sit on boards of organizations such as the United Way, Junior Achievement, the Red Cross Museum, the New Orleans Ballet Association, Jewelers of America, and Jewelers for Children. “We have a long history of giving back,” Lee says.

Scott adds, “Everyone is involved in some way in the community. It’s not just in name — we roll up our sleeves and help.”

Key personnel at Lee Michaels say they “make events extraordinary” by inviting designers to make personal appearances in the store. “Customers want an experience they can’t get anywhere else, and we offer that by bringing the designer to them,” says Amy Graham, advertising manager. In years past, they’ve hosted David Yurman, John Hardy, Ivanka Trump and Konstantino. “We are excited for one this fall with Ippolita,” she says. “It just makes what would have been an ordinary trunk show extraordinary.”

The Bergs say they’re in the business of making memories and marking milestones, assisting customers as they select visual representations of life’s high points. Scott says it’s especially meaningful when, for instance, he has the opportunity to help a young man chose a ring — a young man whose parents bought their rings from his father. “Now I’m helping the son or daughter of that couple … we’re part of their family.” “Our trademark slogan is, ‘Every box has a story,’” Lee says. “What that means to us is every box — whether celebrating an anniversary, Christmas, the birth of a baby —celebrates a change in someone’s life, and we’re honored to help commemorate it.”

The company is moving forward. In the fall of 2011, Lee Michaels implemented iPads in every store, and there’s a Lee Michaels Diamond Buying Guide app that consumers can download. Although technology-savvy younger customers enjoy this feature, it spans the generations. “I was working with a father-son combination, showing rings, and I brought out the app,” Scott recalls. “Father and son were both blown away. The son downloaded the app for his own iPad, and the father felt like he was having a true educational, 21st-century experience.”

Graham says, “We wanted to create a tool that could be used for the associates to help them find an easier way to explain to customers about diamonds’ cut, clarity … it can be hard to talk about those things without a visual. Having the app provides a much more interactive experience. The customer can see the difference and can in turn download the images at home or take it with them to do competitive shopping.” “It gives us an advantage,” Lee says. “It makes us different, makes us relevant, and certainly makes us progressive.”

 

QUICK FACTS
 

Location: Metairie, LA
URL: lmfj.com
Owners: Lee Berg, Scott Berg, Ryan Berg, Chad Berg
Founded: 1978
Opened featured location: 2011
Area: 5,000 square feet
Total number of locations: 8
Employees: 11 full-time, 4 part-time
Top 10 brands: Rolex, Patek Philippe, Omega, TAG Heuer, David Yurman, John Hardy, Ippolita, Roberto Coin, Mikimoto, Marco Bicego.
Tagline: Every box has a story
ONLINE PRESENCE:
Alexa Traffic Rank: 953,697
Facebook: 1,881 Likes

 

 
   
   
   
     
   
   
 

Soft rock and soft R&B reflect the luxury environment.

 
     

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FIVE COOL THINGS

1. ESTATE ROOM The store has an Estate Room with antique reproduction jewelry cases filled with one-of-a-kind pieces dating back to the mid-century Victorian period. There’s also a circa 1906 gilded safe, rescued from the country’s largest antique sale in Massachusetts.

2. BUTTERFLY BOXES There are butterfly boxes on the walls made of real butterflies raised in the tropics and imported from Puerto Rico. Lee Berg said they bring rich color into the store, and fiber optic lights “make them pop.”

3. HOMAGE TO NEW ORLEANS An homage to local culture and design, the Ulla Darni chandeliers’ ironwork reflect the mid-19th century ironwork still seen in New Orleans today. Pontalba sterling silver cuffs, carried exclusively by Lee Michaels, feature a design inspired by galleries found on the Pontalba Apartments at Jackson Square in the 1800s.

4. PRESIDENT’S CIRCLE Managers at Lee Michaels recognize employees as the company’s greatest asset and work to promote an entrepreneurial environment with programs such as the President’s Circle. This initiative, which recognizes non-management sales associates, awards lapel pins and special business cards to those who meet sales goals. They and a guest are also invited to the President’s Circle Trip and Award Dinner held each year in varied destinations across the country.

5. DIRECT IMPORTER The company is a direct importer of gold, pearls and gems. The Bergs have personal relationships with many of these craftsmen; the owner of Continental Jewelry in Hong Kong, for instance, hosted Scott as an apprentice, allowing him the experience of working in his Hong Kong factory. In turn, the Bergs employed his daughter in the Baton Rouge store.

WHAT THE JUDGES SAY

Jim Rosenheim: They have taken a mall location and given it a very simple but very elegant method of showcasing their brands. The use of the vintage-like glass and wrought iron references to old New Orleans speaks to the roots of the company and establishes some true personality. I also loved the packaging and thought that anyone receiving a package wrapped in their style would be truly excited.

Andy Malis: As a marketer, I applaud Lee Michaels for their consistency. Their brand is communicated in their stores, in advertising and online — and all aspects are in sync. This takes discipline and very few achieve it.

Harry Friedman: This is a refined, elegant, and polished store. I love the chairs and the comfort level that can be achieved in such a traditional high-end store. You can be assured of getting the best well-known brands.

Pam Levine: Lee Michaels appears to be doing everything right.

Lori Wegman: The store is extremely well thought out and put together in support of the brand message of fine design and exquisite workmanship. While being more traditional, it really impressed me with its timelessness, broad appeal and branding. The iconic red box and glass chandeliers really stand out.

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