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Beginnings

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Beginning

In the beginning … there was an eager but slightly green jeweler. Five store-owners tell what they learned from the start-up process.

BY EILEEN MCCLELLAND

Published in the January 2014 issue

Lessons from the inception of 5 stores (and what long-established stores can learn from them)

THINK BACK to how it all began. ¶ You made your girlfriend a bracelet out of beads; you began selling turquoise out of the trunk of your car; you set up a booth at a local craft fair. Your first sale was a toe ring, a watch battery, or maybe even a diamond engagement ring.

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However it began — and there are as many stories as there are retailers — you had an idea and you turned it into a business.

David Brown, president of the Edge Retail Academy, says it’s always exciting — at the beginning — to open a retail jewelry store.

“Everyone starts out with this great vision and energy and passion and drive, and they can’t wait to get the keys and open the door because they have this dream lifestyle they’ve envisioned for themselves. And sadly, for many retailers, this dream turns into a nightmare.”

One problem can be that without a clear objective — and this is just as true for long-existing stores — owning your business can begin to feel more like you bought yourself a somewhat thankless job.

To avoid burnout, fatigue and resentment, Brown says, identify not only your objectives but also the strategy and resources you’ll use to get there. Consider where you want to end up and work backward from there.

“I can’t be a $3 million store if I’ve got the resources of a $1 million dollar store or the same level of thinking,” he says.

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Joanna Bradshaw, author of Be a Millionaire Shopkeeper: How Your Independent Shop Can Compete with the Big Guys, says every business needs a mission statement. It describes your purpose, your niche in the marketplace, the focus of your business and its aims. A good business plan, aligned with your mission statement, can keep you on track to reach your objectives, Bradshaw says. View your business plan as a blueprint and a living document, reviewing it often and updating it every year.

Brown warns that flexibility and adaptability need to be built into your business plan for best results these days.

Modern jewelers also will struggle if they are generalists. Instead, Brown says, “decide what to specialize in and be the best at that chosen path that you can be.” Your unique selling proposition is your competitive edge, whether it’s location, specialization, customization or outstanding customer service.

Michael Lebowitz, director of jewelry for White Pine Trading, which offers consultant services, spent 40 years behind the counter in a family retail business. On a day-to-day basis, it can be tough to keep up the excitement. “But an owner or manager is much like a professional coach, both a life coach and a sports coach. It’s up to him or her to train and nurture the staff, to help them understand that what they are putting in their customer’s hand is going to light up someone’s eyes and put a smile on someone’s face.”

Leibowitz says when it comes to the grand opening, retailers must make a great first impression in three key areas — product, presentation and promotion. “It is important to show the world who you are, to show the right merchandise and plan a promotion around that merchandise. In 2014, from a product standpoint, you are what you sell and you have only one chance to make a good first impression.”

Presentation, too, is more important than ever. Pay attention to traffic flow, lighting, color and displays, Leibowitz says. “Lighting has gone so high-tech, and it is now so wonderful to show off diamonds and colored stones. There’s no reason a customer should look into the showcase and not be overwhelmed by glitter.”

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As you read the “beginnings” stories that follow, take a few minutes to look back on your own beginning and ask yourself what you’ve learned from the progression of your business and what you can do today to make sure your business plan is a living document.

And understand, Brown says, that you can have the successful jewelry store of your dreams and a wonderful quality of life at the same time.

TRUE TALES

HARRIS JEWELERS: “We purchased a 300-square foot store in 1998 for $25,000,” says Karen Fitzpatrick of Harris Jewelers in Rio Rancho, NM. “We had a man on our first day come in for a battery and he said that we were robbing the community charging $6 for a battery and he would tell all of his friends never to shop our store. Fifteen years later we own a 9,000-square-foot building, have 11 employees and have won countless community service awards.”

VALENTINE’S JEWELRY: “For a year and a half I sold jewelry out of a blue plastic toolbox,” says Elva Valentine of Valentine’s Jewelry in Dallas, PA. “Then I moved into one room in an antique shop, and I gradually grew and grew, until now I have the whole building. ”

TROY SHOPPE JEWELLERS: “My first store was scary,” says David Blitt of Troy Shoppe Jewellers in Calgary. “Two walls in a small upstairs vintage building. The front door did not even have a lock. Every night we would put the merchandise in a bag and carry it to our car that was a two-block walk through downtown. It scares me to think of the chances we took.”

CONTEMPORARY CONCEPTS: “When I opened my store, it was a few days before I had a sale,” says Janne Etz of Contemporary Concepts in Cocoa, FL, “and that first sale was a $6 toe ring. The lady pulled out her checkbook and started writing the check. When she asked how to make it out, I told her my name rather than my business so I could go cash it. I wanted to put the first dollar in a frame on the wall. She insisted on giving me an extra dollar in cash. That dollar is still in a frame 21 years later!”

WHAT TO CONSIDER FROM THE BEGINNING
(AND REMINDERS TO THOSE ALREADY IN BUSINESS)

 

1Consider what you want your end business to look like and work back from that.

2Take advantage of industry education and learning from others. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel.

3Be ambitious. A lot of people go into it very cautiously. They buy themselves a job instead of creating a business with a vision. At the end of the day, ask yourself why are you doing this?

4Find a great financial planner and CPA.

5Before you look at vendors, define what you want your business to look like. Do you want a bridal store? A bead store? Then partner with vendors that can really help you with your business success.

6Launch your inventory effectively. Most people go to shows, buy product, bring it back to the store and put it on a shelf. Train your staff about it. You can’t sell a secret. Let people know you have it.

7Know what you are good at and recognize your own shortcomings. Then create a team of people who are good at what you are lacking. It’s only a weakness if you don’t recognize it.

8Create a culture that people want to work in. This will help ensure that your customers have the best experience in the world.

9Understand the science of retail: Know your stock turn and key performance indicators to understand the health of your business. It’s like knowing your blood pressure when it comes to knowing your own health.

10Lead the business, set the vision and the direction, keep it on track.

11Join a group of peers in the jewelry industry as well as a local group representing a variety of local businesses.

12Know where you are financially. Don’t wait for your accountant. You need to know by the first week in January whether you’re on track or off track.

By David Brown of the Edge Retail Academy

Revolution Jewelry Works
Location: Colorado Springs, CO / Owner: Jennifer Farnes / Founded: 2013 Employees: 1 / Unique Selling Proposition: Custom cut gemstones

Jennifer Farnes, a rock hound since she was a kid, took a first anniversary trip to Montana with her husband, Jeremy, in 2003, and came home lugging 10 pounds of quartz crystal. Although Jeremy had talked about buying Jennifer a diamond pendant, she suggested they have one of the rocks cut instead.

That’s how she met a stonecutter who offered her an apprenticeship, Eventually, she decided to pursue stone-cutting full time. Fast forward to May 2013 — 10 years into her profession as a master faceter — and Farnes was in the process of purchasing an established jewelry store. Two weeks before the closing was scheduled, the owners backed out of the deal.

“I was sitting on our bed, just bawling my eyes out and my husband thinks somebody has died. He said it just wasn’t meant to be, that something will come along. We went to sleep and the next morning, he said, ‘This was meant to happen because you need to open your own place.’ It had never dawned on me that that was an option. As it turned out, the type of setup I wanted would be half the cost, and it meant that instead of buying someone else’s vision I could create my own.”

Working with the bank, the Small Business Administration and local contractors she knew through a networking group, she was able to build out the space and open in November.

She made the build-out a social media event, letting customers vote online about the color-scheme and layout, and updating followers daily on how the construction progressed with photos.

“It has made our existing customers feel even closer to us, and we have attracted many new out-of-state people via their friends sharing our posts,” she says.

She is focusing on custom design, repairs and ordering basics from the Stuller catalog as needed, as well as inviting American jewelry artists to showcase their work on memo. So far, 10 designers have signed on, based on her references in the industry as a stonecutter.

“The first day was amazing,” she says. “A couple of repairs turned into a $1,300 sale.” Traffic and sales continued to pick up throughout November and a grand opening party drew more than 100 people.

The 1,274 square foot store — with an additional 400 square foot loft — was designed with an industrial look and an open floor plan. Farnes envisioned a fusion of wood and metal, for a look both luxurious and industrial. A wrap-around half wall with a window allows views of stones being cut.

“It’s really modern, with kind of a different twist,” she says. “It’s what I had in my head all along. If I had bought the other store, I would have been buying someone else’s dream. This is an opportunity to make my dream come to life.”

Although she started with one employee, metalsmith Pedro Llanas, she was immediately so busy she’s thinking of adding staff already.

She continues to take on work for jewelers, including custom cuts.

“Jewelers all over the country send me stones for repair. I wouldn’t be at the place I am now if it weren’t for the support of all those jewelers. I can’t give that up.”

WHAT I’VE LEARNED
JENNIFER FARNES

If your first attempt fails, don’t give up on your dream.

If you hit a roadblock, try sleeping on it. Inspiration might come in the morning.

Dare to think big.

Generate excitement for a new store — or a remodel — through social media by inviting input into the store’s color scheme and layout.

NINE-EIGHTEEN
Location: Dallas, TX / Owners: Kim Burgan and Darin Kunz/ Founded: 2011 / Employees: 3 full-time; 2 interns Unique Selling Proposition: Exclusivity

Siblings through marriage, Darin Kunz and Kim Burgan began working together in a jewelry store when they were just kids. Their parents met and fell in love while working in a Dallas jewelry store, and wed on Sept. 18, 1976.

In 2011, Kunz and Burgan opened Nine-Eighteen, a fast-rising Dallas jewelry boutique named for that important day in their shared history. It seems inevitable, looking back.

“It’s in our bones,” Burgan says. “This is the industry we grew up in. We were 10 or 11 and in the store, doing the grunt work, wrapping gifts, cleaning cases, serving drinks. And we did that all through college.”

After that, they both detoured into the corporate world. But when Burgan and her husband adopted three children a few years ago, she wanted to travel less. “If I was going to work that hard I wanted to work for me, not someone else. Darin said, ‘Have you thought about the jewelry business?’”

Kunz had been working with his dad in a wholesale jewelry business, while continuing to meet with private retail clients. “We wanted to go back to the basics,” Burgan says. “We wanted more of a retail experience, but not traditional retail.”

Nine-Eighteen operates primarily by appointment and offers a number of designer lines as well as traditional best-selling basics, such as diamond studs and hoops.

“Clients like exclusivity, so while we wanted to lean more retail we didn’t want to lose the private shopping experience,” Burgan says. “We brought a lot of what our mom and dad taught us back into the business. Their business was very social, they did a lot of events and partner tie-ins.”

So they host happy hours for small groups, trunk shows and even art shows in their 1,000-square-foot space.

They self-funded their business and had a head start as new store owners since the family already had strong vendor relationships.

“What my dad didn’t have and what we cultivated was the fashion designer set of relationships,” Burgan says. “We have chosen to do business only with people that we truly like, that we have a connection with, at least on the supplier side of the business.” The business has taken off, doubling its growth each year and going head to head with Dallas’ eight-figure independents in consumer media popularity contests.

“Trust is crucial,” Burgan says. “Our business has been predominantly word-of-mouth referrals. We are starting to do paid advertising and print marketing. But our engagement rates on social media and email marketing are through the roof.” They’ve come full circle and the jewelry bug is likely to infect the next generation.

Burgan’s oldest daughter, Cassie, is 12 and she’s already doing her share of case cleaning and gift-wrapping, i.e. grunt work. “She asks me all the time, ‘Can I come down and work?’” Kim says. “She’s cheap labor.”

WHAT I’VE LEARNED
KIM BURGAN

Be patient. “It’s a slow road. You have got to understand that. It’s not going to happen overnight and I need to keep reminding myself of that.”

Offer stellar service. “A lot of it we learned from our parents. Things they taught us when we were 12 years old, the way you treat customers, the way you treat vendors.”

Word of mouth and engaging social media can create trust and propel a business to succeed.

J LANDA (FORMERLY J SILVER)
Location: Houston, TX / Owner:Jay Landa/ Founded: 1999 Renovated and reimagined: 2013 / Employees: 3 full-time; 3 part-time Unique Selling Proposition: Designer Collections

 

Jay Landa studied government and English in college. But it was an internship at the Gap, of all places, that led to his unexpected career twist. After he graduated, Landa was recruited by Donna Karan, and almost against his will, he says, he shifted his focus to fashion.

In 2011, Kunz and Burgan opened Nine-Eighteen, a fast-rising Dallas jewelry boutique named for that important day in their shared history. It seems inevitable, looking back.

Later, he moved to Houston and began buying and selling silver jewelry and then designing his own. Something clicked. “It began a crazy journey,” Landa recalls. “I would show at festivals, private homes, out of the trunk of my car. I traveled all over, and my vision was to open a storefront.”

His search led him to Houston’s Rice Village, a heavily trafficked and casually upscale conglomeration of strip malls, apartments and restaurants that lends itself to window shopping. “The gift has always been the location for me,” he says. “I didn’t have to advertise so much, because people are always walking by.”

But his first encounter with a landlord there was more than a little intimidating to a fledgling, 20-something entrepreneur without a business plan. The property company insisted he needed extensive financial proof that he could make a go of it — proof he didn’t have and felt sure he didn’t need at the time.

He looked into another, older shopping center a couple blocks away, whose landlord turned out to have an old-school approach. “The owner said, ‘If you want this space, it’s yours.’ All I needed was the first month’s rent.”

He wanted it; the store became J Silver.

As he grew into his business, he began understanding his market by listening to clients, vendors and designers. “I had been catering to all kinds of people at festivals, but I found an interesting demographic here. I thought, ‘This is the market I want to cater to,’ and I need good pieces, classic looks and a variety of price points to do that.”

His mom, who is a retail entrepreneur as well, has been an important mentor.

“My mom’s advice has always been to stay grounded and make good sound decisions and enjoy the moment. I tend to be very intense and overly ambitious sometimes.”

As his business became more successful, designer Chan Luu, who sells some of her pieces exclusively at his store, became a mentor, too.

“She pushed me to see outside my realm of consciousness, to consider global markets,” Landa says. “I began to see how attainable the world is, how exciting other cultures are. Travel has definitely helped, and social media.”

One outgrowth of that change in perspective was Landa’s pursuit of e-commerce, which accounts for perhaps 10 percent of his business now, but which he would like to see grow to at least 50 percent.

“I have to treat e-commerce as I would a storefront to take it seriously. Being in an international city, people from all over the world come to the store so it’s important to keep the website current, relevant and structured.”

In addition to his own and Chan Luu’s jewelry, Landa carries extensive lines from Alexis Bittar, Uno de 50 and Dian Malouf. “I don’t do anything halfway,” he says.

At age 40, Landa seeks more financial advice than he did in the beginning, looking to the future and an exit strategy. “The idea is that in 10 years, I may sell my brand — or not — but I want to know what my options are.”

WHAT I’VE LEARNED
JAY LANDA

Surround yourself with young minds; those are the innovators. Landa recently hired two recent college graduates who live and breathe social media.

Reach out to the local media to garner as much free publicity as possible. Landa recently hosted a bloggers’ night out at the store, for example.

Believe in the product. When selecting a new line for his store, Landa takes a personal approach. “I have to like their designs, it has to flow in the store, price point is important and I have to like how they conduct business. Integrity is very important to me. The designers I work with are friends of mine, people who have a personal relationship with me.”

When you find the right product, go all the way. Landa carries full lines from designers he represents.

Find a work-life balance. “That’s the most difficult part for me,” Landa admits. “I definitely take some vacation. I try to make myself completely disconnect. I’m closed on Sundays; I made a very conscious decision to do that.”

AMES SILVERSMITHING
Location: Ames, IA / Owner: Gary Youngberg/ Founded: 1976 Employees: 9 / Unique Selling Proposition: Custom Design

When Gary Youngberg was in college, he didn’t have the money to buy his girlfriend, Karen, a piece of jewelry. So he improvised, stringing together some cord and beads to make a necklace. (“Hey, it was the ’70s,” he says, in defense of his materials.) His girlfriend was thrilled — as were her friends, who all wanted one, too.

“I bought more cord and beads, produced more pieces and ended up selling them to girls in the surrounding dorms.” He also received requests for rings, pendants and earrings, so he checked a few books out of the library, bought some raw materials and transformed his dorm room desk into a rudimentary jeweler’s bench. “And yes, I did have a torch in my dorm room!” he says.

As he taught himself how to fabricate silver jewelry set with turquoise, jasper and agate, he began to lose interest in his classes. He started showing his wares at area art fairs and soon realized his hobby had some financial potential. “So, on a whim and with a strong desire to do something I liked, my girlfriend — who became my wife about a year later — and I decided to open Ames Silversmithing in downtown Ames.” He used $1,500 he had saved from selling his jewelry.

He was 19 years old.

“By the time that we opened on Aug. 1, 1976, I didn’t even have enough money to buy stamps. Fortunately, I was a waiter at a sorority so I had food on the table, but it was slow going at first. I’d hand out fliers in my bell-bottom jeans and tell people I was the new store in town. I’d work in my little 12-by-12-foot shop from 6 in the morning until 9 at night, my workbench and one display case sharing the same area. Eventually, a few people started showing up.”

As the business grew, both Gary and Karen received diamond training through the GIA, and Gary began working in gold, platinum and gemstones.

They were able to rent more space a year later, but Youngberg says it took about 10 years and subsequent expansions to feel that they had “made it.”

“Today, with nine employees, including my wife, two sons and two daughters-in-law, I can say not a day goes by that I don’t think about how I started and what a lucky man I am. Now if I can just get those five grandkids to follow.”

Having sons Kyle and Kirk join them in the business has been a graceful melding of the young and old, he says. “They value our business sense and we value what they brought to the store, and continue to bring to the store as far as technology goes. We’re still behind, but we are way more forward than if the boys weren’t in the business.

“I love what I do so much and I probably never will retire. In another 40 years the boys will come in the morning and Dad will be lying dead in the front of the store at age 92. That would be a hell of a way to go out.”

WHAT I’VE LEARNED

GARY YOUNGBERG

Admit your mistakes. “If you try to cover it up, it gets worse and worse. I’ve made my mistakes and I regret every one, but I have addressed them head on. That’s the way we want to treat our customers.”

Do what you love.

Don’t overextend yourself. “The creation of our store has been an ongoing process and we’ve done what we’ve been able to do because we were conservative, and we made capital investments when necessary when we got to a growth phase. Some people want to keep expanding. No doubt I could have made more money, but I’m not greedy. You shouldn’t let the store run you. You should run the store.”

Be committed. “Those of us who have been successful understand you are working your ass off and not just 9 to 5. Hard work can reap great dividends.”

J Roberts Fine Jewelry
Location: Jacksonville, FL / Owner: Bobby Wallo/ Founded: 2008 / Employees: 5 Unique Selling Proposition: Stuller’s CounterSketch Studio

Bobby Wallo worked in construction for 20 years before a glimpse into jewelry led to a radical career shift.

“I was working on a project with someone in the jewelry business, and I found myself becoming more interested in the industry and then eventually became enamored with it — all the gems and jewelry — and then I became infatuated with it.

“Also, as I got older I decided that I didn’t want to climb ladders the rest of my life. I found this was something I could do forever, so I decided to open my own store.”

Wallo opened his first store in 2008, the worst possible timing, he admits, in light of the Great Recession. He survived by being competitive and providing exceptional service, he says.

When his lease ran out five years later, he was forced to move, rebrand himself and start all over again in September 2013. In moving closer to downtown Jacksonville, Wallo says, “There’s a lot more happening near the inner city, more restaurants and a more energetic nightlife, and you can tell from those who visit the store that the people who live and work in the downtown area are more fashion-driven than the more family-oriented atmosphere in the suburbs.”

The new store is named for Wallo (Robert) and the J is for Joe Espinosa, the designer and bench jeweler who owns a portion of the business. Rich Gammiere, Wallo’s business partner for more than 30 years, continues to run the construction business and is also an investor in the jewelry store.

Wallo’s main focus is bridal. He and Espinosa recently became certified in Stuller’s CounterSketch Studio software, which Wallo believes will help his new business take off by offering customers easy input into designing their own rings. It will set him apart in his market with a unique selling proposition.

Besides, he says, being able to build something in front of someone’s eyes is kind of cool.

After five years, the glamour hasn’t worn off.

“It’s a fun experience to be a part of,” he says.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED
BOBBY WALLO

Stand behind everything you do and say. We guarantee the ring for life.

If a customer ever loses a stone we take care of it. We don’t charge for a service plan. Everything is inclusive.

It’s not for the fainthearted. You really have to be dedicated to work a lot of hours. You’D better like dealing with people.

You’ve got to want to do it — to have it in your blood — to do it with sincerity and a smile. If your heart’s not in it, your gut’s not in it, then don’t get into it.

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Best of The Best

Borsheims Shareholders Weekend Demands All Hands on Deck

Hospitality crucial, no matter the size of your trunk show.

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PLANNING A TRUNK show this fall? What if your trunk show involved 100 vendors, as many as 35,000 customers and 25,000 catered meatballs?

Borsheims in Omaha, NE, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, meets that challenge annually with an all-hands-on-deck approach when it opens its doors each May to all of the company’s shareholders who want to come.

The jewelry store plays host to a cocktail party on Friday night and a shareholder shopping day on Sunday. Both events spill into the mall, which is closed to the public, and into the parking lot. “We really look at this from a hospitality approach,” says Adrienne Fay, director of marketing and business sales. “We want to thank the shareholders for their loyalty and patronage.”

This year there were 100 jewelry, watch and gift vendors, some of whom brought in products for their trunk shows that wouldn’t be seen anywhere else in the U.S., Fay says. “You’ve never seen jewelry cases as packed as they are during Berkshire weekend. We call it our Christmas in May. We do a transaction every 11 seconds during the weekend.”

STAFFING

For weeks leading up to the event, job descriptions blur as every employee plays a role from helping with catering to managing vendors. They hire additional staff for the weekend, ask corporate staff to work the sales floor and bring in runners and cashiers.

“The last thing we would want to have is someone standing around and no one able to help them,” says Jaci Stuifbergen, who guides Borsheims’ experiential marketing. “Everyone involved is a representative of Borsheims, from those setting up a large tent to those providing food and beverages. We want every caterer to represent Borsheims well and have the same customer-focused mindset that we do the whole time they are here.”

ENTERTAINMENT

Even though it’s a private event, shareholders are under no obligation to buy jewelry. So creating the right customer experience is vital in this, as in any, event situation. “Whether it’s a regular trunk show or during this event, the thing we want to provide is a really great experience,” Stuifbergen says. “We know they could buy this jewelry from other stores or on the Internet, but what we have to offer are customer service and knowledgeable staff. Complimentary alcohol never hurts!” she says.

It might be the only chance to convert shoppers. “It’s such a destination store that for a lot of people, this is the only time in the year, or maybe in a decade, that they come here,” Stuifbergen says. They set up two bars and two buffet lines in the parking lot under the biggest tent they can rent. Sunday’s party often features Bershire Hathaway CEO and Chairman Warren Buffett playing bridge or table tennis with Bill Gates, Microsoft founder. There’s also a live band and a magician. On Friday night, the caterer serves more than 25,000 meatballs.

BRAND IDENTITY

The shareholders, who are Warren Buffett groupies, want to buy anything that’s affiliated with him, from pearl strands with his signature on the clasp and diamonds with his signature laser-inscribed inside to affordable gift products stamped with his face or the company logo. Last year, they used a custom etching machine to inscribe personal messages inside the diamonds while customers waited.

DEBRIEFING

Almost immediately after the event, everyone in the company is asked for input and feedback, which is compiled into a seven or eight page document and carefully analyzed. Feedback has led to changes like improved security and gift bags for vendors as a token of appreciation.

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America's Coolest Stores

New York’s Yaf Sparkle Excels at Hospitality

Creating an experience comes naturally.

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Yaf Sparkle, New York

OWNERS: Yaf Boye-Flaegel and Torsten Flaegel; URL:yafsparkle.com ; FOUNDED: 2012; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2017; EMPLOYEES: 4 ; AREA: 1,400 square feet total; 720 square foot showroom TOP BRANDS: Vieri, Elements Studio NYC, Lyon Fine Jewelry, John Varvatos, Sarah Michiko; ONLINE PRESENCE: 8,600 Facebook likes, 4,515 Instagram followers, 161 Trip Advisor Reviews with a 5.0 rating. Yaf Sparkle is No. 6 of 1,001 shopping experiences in New York City on Trip Advisor; BUILDOUT COST: $85,000


ON A SULTRY JULY afternoon, an out-of-town customer, who had reluctantly left Yaf Sparkle without buying anything, returned soon after. She couldn’t shake the feeling she had to buy that pair of earrings that caught her eye.

Even after sealing the deal, she was reluctant to leave. Her husband, resigned, was ready to sink into a chair in an air-conditioned reprieve from the muggy air outside. As his wife succumbed to a number of add-on purchases, he told store owner Yaf Boye-Flaegel that she had mastered the art of the ABCs.

ABC? Yaf inquired.

“Always be closing,” he said.

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But Yaf said she had never heard that expression. For her, closing is about a lighthearted musical laugh and a playful “Hey, where are you going?” That’s what she might say if customers don’t seem certain whether they’re ready to leave or buy a second or a third piece of jewelry. Temptation is everywhere within reach, like low-hanging fruit. Add-ons abound in the form of stackable rings and layered pendants. She floats from one customer to another, jangling a pile of Julie Voss-designed bangles on her wrist with enthusiasm. She sells those gold-plated brass items as quickly as if they really are pieces of fruit.

Yaf says it’s the hospitality she learned from her parents in her native Senegal that helps her so effortlessly create such a welcoming atmosphere. Working in other people’s jewelry stores before she had her own, she observed that her friends weren’t comfortable stopping by even to say hello, let alone to hang out. Now that she’s created her own environment with a Caribbean-music soundtrack that makes swaying to the beat impossible to avoid and a playful approach to mixing and matching layers and stacks of jewelry, everyone who happens by wants to stay a while.

Sometimes a regular will dash in just to pull out one of Yaf’s “Goddess” cards from a stack to read an inspirational message guaranteed to improve their day. Or they might stop by for a hand-painted card, handmade candle or a New York postcard. There’s something for everyone. More than anything, though, they have become hooked on the positive, pervasive energy Yaf exudes.

Yaf and her husband, Torsten Flaegel, a native of Hamburg, Germany, are adept at inventing ways to enchant everyone in their orbit.

Torsten, long fascinated by the quality of light on the street, worked with Yaf on an event for the Manhattanhenge, also known as Manhattan Solstice, a time during which the setting or rising sun is aligned with the east-west streets of the main street grid in New York City. The sunsets and sunrises each align twice a year, on dates evenly spaced around the summer and winter solstices. For Yaf Sparkle’s Manhattanhenge event, there was music, a tarot card reader and a feeling that magic was in the air.

The ranking fluctuates, but customers have voted Yaf Sparkle as the third-best shopping experience in all of New York City on tripadvisor.com. At most, though, only a third of Yaf Sparkle shoppers are tourists. The majority are New Yorkers. “Online sales are growing and online is what brings people into the store,” Yaf says. “We’re not on a main street, but we have lots of content online.”

Affordable pieces displayed casually in the center of the store encourage shoppers to try something on.

They see their store as a walk-in jewelry closet and encourage customers to bring in a special-occasion outfit to be accessorized. Yaf constantly develops her own collections, presents the work of new local and international designers and changes the displays every other week to stay fresh.

“We have this internal competition of who can surprise our customer with the coolest new jewelry outfit that they didn’t consider wearing a day ago,” Torsten says. “There’s no being shy in our store; adorning oneself is fun and that’s what we are experts in. All in all, it is about being happy. Sharing a laugh is what keeps us in mind, and there’s nothing easier than that once you understand that every customer is first and foremost a potential friend.”

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The space itself, they say, was a raw diamond when they found it, veritably buried in layers of concrete. The little laundry that had occupied the space before them had cemented its machines into the ground, and the new landlord had no idea what lay behind the cement smeared on walls and floors. Months after they started digging, they realized that the old brick walls were in good condition. Even the ceiling was made of bricks with original ironwork between the arches. Once they got down to the bones, they pulled wires through the walls for showcases and laid out a beautiful wood floor. All of the wooden furniture is made from reclaimed wood.

The store is on Broome Street on the Lower East Side, which has a lively street life as well as a cinematic quality. It’s just around the corner from the Tenement Museum, which brings tourists by the busload. Martin Scorsese recently transformed the block into a 1972 backdrop for the 2019 Netflix film “The Irishman”. The street also starred in the 2014-2015 Cinemax TV series “The Knick,” set in 1901.

Adding to the charm, they scatter glitter across the sidewalk outside, a tactic that draws attention to the store even after it’s closed. They’ve also collaborated with other neighborhood businesses to host block-party sales events.
Social media just adds to the energy. When Yaf announced her birthday on Instagram, she ended up with an impromptu in-store surprise party, where the director of “Dirty Dancing” danced with a former MTV VJ, a Broadway ballerina and a Wall Street broker.

“Yaf Sparkle,” says Torsten, “was created out of the desire to provide an environment where fun, fashion and pleasure are combined as one. We know the day we forget that, we will be forgotten.”

Yaf Sparkle’s previous location, also on New York’s Lower East Side, was featured as the No. 3 Small Cool Store in the August 2016 issue of INSTORE.

VIDEO: YAF SPARKLE STORE TOUR VIDEO


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Five Cool Things About Yaf Sparkle

1. Start ‘em young. The Yaf Sparkle team invites pre-K kids into the store for gem-education classes and birthstone giveaways.

2. Content-rich marketing. They’ve begun implementing automated email marketing, in which a customer will receive information about the pieces and the designer behind it. Their online database is segmented down to collection, metals and gemstones, so they can fine-tune their offerings. The idea is to provide continuous education.

3. In-house marketing. They use an in-house photo studio every day for model and product shots. In fact, 99 percent of marketing is created in-house. Social media is important, but they also rely on phone calls and postcards to share news of an event, a promotion or a specific gemstone that could be of interest. “Our newsletter marketing resembles our in-store experience,” Torsten says. “We don’t take ourselves or our product too seriously. Our love for local is what ties us all together. This is where we met our customer, and this is where we will see her again.” They improved their website to be increasingly ADA-compliant, which means it can be read by machines.

4. Block parties. Together with two other local shop owners they befriended, they gathered contact information for local merchants, set up a Facebook group and host regular events to brainstorm on marketing and event ideas. As a result, the group threw a neighborhood-wide event with 21 local merchants, each offering unique specials.

5. Good causes. Ten percent of net proceeds go to non-profits, most notably the ASB Foundation that Yaf founded in 2007. The ASB Foundation is an international humanitarian organization that supports the growth and development of the children in Koutal, Senegal, a small village created in 1968 to house people with leprosy and their families. The goal is to enrich the lives of the children who have been affected by their parents’ disease.

JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • Julie Gotz: As a former New Yorker, I know how hard it is to stand apart from the thousands of other stores in the city. This is an amazing location with lots of cool and funky shopping options. The store has a great social-media presence and brings in a sense of community with their posts.
  • Julie Ettinger: I so appreciate the energy and passion in this store. It’s so New York; the interior, the exterior, the video marketing all connect. I also love their passion for shopping local and pulling surrounding stores and community together.
  • Barbara Ross-Innamorati: : Yaf’s enthusiasm and joie de vivre are what make this store so special. You can feel her love of what she does loud and clear through all of her online marketing, including her videos. I also love the custom-design page that seeks to educate her customer on the design process. Finally, her philanthropy and the foundation she started is important and brilliant.
  • Hedda Schupak: This business clearly “gets” both millennials and female self-purchasers, two sectors that are critical for our industry to do a better job in attracting. I love the fact that customers can walk in and try on fashion jewelry, but then there’s fine jewelry that costs five digits yet doesn’t look too precious. I love how they restored the original building under layers of soulless concrete.
  • Eric Zimmerman: Today’s retail environment is all about creating an experience and connection for the customer, and Yaf Sparkle is succeeding at just that. I also love the job they have done in making their store part of the culture and energy within NYC’s Lower East Side community.
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Santa Fe’s Reflective Jewelry Aligns with Owners’ Ethics

Fairtrade Gold designation puts the focus on miners.

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Marc Choyt and Helen Chantler work to ensure their business aligns with their environmental and ethical beliefs.

MARC CHOYT AND HIS wife, Helen Chantler, of Santa Fe, NM, have been focused on green initiatives for decades, in all aspects of life.

“We bought land in northern New Mexico in the ‘90s, and there was a creek bed there that was badly eroded from over-grazing to the point that there were cliffs instead of gentle banks,” Choyt says. “We began to realize the impact we have locally and globally. That is a core value for us.”

Their business, Reflective Jewelry, a custom and designer jewelry studio, has been named Green Business of the Year by the city of Santa Fe and Santa Fe’s Chamber of Commerce. “This is a great honor, especially given the industry we’re in and the fact that Santa Fe is a green business city,” Choyt says.

Reflective Jewelry is the only Fairtrade Gold jeweler in the United States, a certification they received in 2015.

“Though there are over 250 Fairtrade Gold jewelers in the UK, we are still the only Fairtrade Gold jewelers in the entire USA,” says Choyt. “We produce our entire two-tone line and much of our bridal collection in Fairtrade Gold. This supports local economies, alleviates poverty and reduces global mercury contamination for small-scale gold producers. Because it’s an international brand and is the only system that audits suppliers and jewelers, it is the best option to create a foundation for responsible jewelry.”

Fairtrade Gold was only one reason, though, that the city of Santa Fe recognized Reflective Jewelry. The shop uses LED lighting, washable cloth towels, biodegradable bags for shipping, organic dish soap and non-toxic floor cleaners. Jewelers use citric acid for pickling, fluoride-free flux, a soap-based solution for tumbling, sink traps for catching heavy metals, and vacuums that capture dust and compounds—all of which are recycled. Their landscape garden, once a concrete foundation, now has mature apricot and cherry trees and native plants fed by water channeled off their roof.

Chantler, an experienced bench jeweler, launched her jewelry design business in 1994, while Choyt led the sales effort, initially concentrating on distributing jewelry to 250 stores and catalogs.

By 2001, they refocused on online sales and their own retail store. Today, six people work in the shop and the store.

Along the way, they began using recycled metals in production, which was a logical place to start, Choyt explains, but doesn’t address the big picture. “Basically, gold is going to be mined, and that’s independent of how much is used by jewelers. If we’re going to really make an impact, we have to support small-scale mining communities.”

When Choyt explains to customers that the Fairtrade Gold designation is the same well-known global brand used for Fairtrade coffee and chocolate, they are “astonished that I’m the only one operating this way, out of a small shop in Santa Fe,” he says.

So while Choyt can point to numerous 5-star Google reviews and show clients the studio where the jewelry is made, he can also ensure ethical, fair-trade sourcing from mine to market, adding another level of authority and credibility.

“Certainly one of the most important elements of any jeweler is reputation. Fairtrade Gold is just another thing that makes people feel really good about buying from us,” he says.

When the U.S. consumer market adopts Fairtrade Gold, he says, hundreds of thousands (or possibly millions) of small-scale miners finally will find their lives improved.

“When this happens, we’ll be able to point to our small studio on Baca Street as one of the catalysts.”

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