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Best of the Best: Creating a Customer Advisory Board

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Customer advisory board at Von Bargen's Jewelry

Von Bargen’s advisory board is made up of 30 jewelry-loving regulars at each location, who meet every three months. 

Von Bargen’s Jewelry

Five stores in New Hampshire and Vermont

Ever wondered what your customers really want to wear? Or what kind of advertising, exactly, would grab their attention? Philip Bosen, director of Von Bargen’s, wondered all that and more before he decided to start asking key clients what they thought in an organized fashion.

IDEA

Create an Advisory Board

The manager of each of Von Bargen’s five stores in New Hampshire and Vermont oversees a client advisory board made up of 30 savvy female shoppers. Why just women? There are a few reasons: “Women make or influence more than 80 percent of all consumer purchases in the U.S.,” Bosen points out. Although men are important to the business, women are almost always the end user of the jewelry, at least at Von Bargen’s. And Bosen has found that when men are included in a focus group, they tend to dominate the discussion.

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EXECUTION

Find Savvy Shoppers

First they had to figure out whom to invite. “We sat down and asked ourselves, ‘What does this woman look like?’”

They decided she doesn’t have to be a top spender, but she should be bright, connected, articulate, fashionable and preferably affluent. She should appreciate quality, be an expert in her field and socially responsible, Bosen decided. As for age, “I would say our sweet spot is 35 to 55, and I’m going to have people on both ends of that range, some in their 20s and some in their 60s.” Location, too, is a factor. “Where does she live? It would be nice to have a map of your area and have these people spread out a little bit.”

They meet quarterly, the first meeting of the year being a party. Perfect attendance isn’t mandatory. “I consider it a success if we have 50 percent,” Bosen says. “We send written invitations and follow up with phone calls or emails.”

Sometimes they’ll include a field trip to a restaurant or a wine shop, but usually they meet at the store, where noise and security can be controlled. Wherever they meet, the store serves food and beverages — cheese, fruit, chocolate or a vegetable tray. Participants receive gift bags, including $100 gift certificates to the store, and sometimes gift certificates donated by other local stores.

The group is very influential in buying decisions. If 15 of 20 women suggest a particular SKU, for example, it will definitely be on the store’s shopping list.
The group also helps the business choose charitable events to participate in and where to focus advertising dollars.

REWARDS

Improved Buying and Turn

“Every time you think you’re going to have an idea of what they are going to say, you’re wrong,” Bosen says. “Or at least I am.”

“We did fundamentally change our buying,” Bosen says. After two years of focus groups, buying and turn were so improved that they could locate just nine pieces from all of the stores for the annual sale.

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“You will begin to select the right designers and the right pieces and have more successful trunk shows and private in-home parties,” Bosen says. “Your board members will recruit additional clients of similar type. They interact with other women who don’t shop with you, probably because they think your jewelry is boring. If it’s boring, it’s because it’s jewelry men choose for women; it’s safe jewelry.”

Board members also made it clear that the stores had nothing available for young bridal customers on a budget. In response, Bosen pointed out two rings that were priced at about $5,000. But the board influenced the decision to add a line of smaller, quality rings to meet a popular $3,500 price point. “That part of our business has gone crazy,” Bosen says.

The advisory boards also have created authentic social media buzz.

Von Bargen's Jewelry customer board in action

Also on the menu for customer events, makeovers and lots of trying on of jewelry.

Do It Yourself: Create Your Own Customer Advisory Board

Recruit a blogger for best social media results.

Text, email or FaceTime members when you’re at a trade show and want their advice about new lines or new pieces.

Brag about the store staff during board meetings. It’s a great opportunity to celebrate staff members’ personal and professional accomplishments.

Memorize everyone’s name, or ask them to wear name tags.

If personality conflicts develop, it’s OK to rotate a member or two off the board on occasion; just send them a gift and thank them for their service.

Always have an agenda. For example: How can we get more people on Facebook? How can we improve the store’s appearance?

Eileen McClelland is the Managing Editor of INSTORE. She believes that every jewelry store has the power of cool within them.

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