Get Lined Up
A new designer line can draw customers and drive sales. But how do you choose the perfect collection for your store? INDESIGN offers 25 questions retailers should ask before buying a new line.
BY TRACE SHELTON
Published in the March/April 2014 issue
HOW DO YOU SELECT THE PERFECT MEAL AT A FINE RESTAURANT? Some read through all the choices on the menu and make their decision alone. Others consult their dining partner or their server for advice. Price, quality and the restaurant’s reputation can all come into play.
Regardless of how you choose, the worst that could happen is that you’re stuck with a bad meal. But when you select a new designer jewelry collection for your store, a bad result could be far more costly — while a good one can mean new customers, more sales, and a happier core clientele.
Retailers often base their selection criteria for new designer lines on a combination of lessons learned over the years and their own personality. Some tend to be more creative, and so they gravitate toward looks that resonate with them. Others are more analytical, focusing on required investment, terms, and exclusivity guarantees. The most successful have learned to do both, gathering all the facts while also trusting their aesthetic instincts. “We don’t have crystal balls,” says Debbie Klein, owner of Art + Soul in Boulder, CO. “You’re always taking a risk, but it can be a calculated and informed risk.”
Before you can make that calculated and informed choice, you have to ask yourself — and your prospective jewelry providers — the right questions. If you hear the right answers, you could be on the verge of a delicious new partnership, with a new collection that will satisfy your clients’ jewelry cravings.
BEFORE YOU BEGIN APPROACHING DESIGNERS ABOUT THEIR LINES, THERE ARE SOME QUESTIONS YOU NEED TO ANSWER IN YOUR OWN MIND. THIS IS ALSO A GOOD TIME TO GATHER OPINIONS FROM YOUR STAFF, CONSULTANTS AND YOUR CURRENT CUSTOMERS.
WHAT ARE PEOPLE LOOKING FOR THAT I DON’T HAVE?
Even your best clients sometimes leave empty-handed. The question is, why? More important, if you’d had another line in your store, would it have made a difference? “You can’t be complacent with your merchandise,” Klein says.
“You have to buy new things to keep your best collectors interested.”
Business consultant Andrea Hill of StrategyWerx suggests asking your customers — and giving them the right vocabulary for their answers. “If a customer leaves your store without buying, ask them, ‘What are you looking for that you didn’t see here today?’ Customers often have a difficult time articulating that, so you have to give them words. Ask them, ‘Were you looking for something a little more funky, more unique, or in different colors?’”
Alex Sepkus owner Jeff Feero and designer Stephen Webster kick off a trunk show “Road Trip” with Art + Soul owner Debbie Klein.
Hill also suggests showing customers jewelry images on iPads in the store, or on Facebook, to gather opinions. “Retailers should get a read from customers on the looks that resonate with them. Consumers get really excited about being included in the merchandising process.”
DOES THE LINE FILL A CATEGORY I’M MISSING?
A fresh product, style or look can be a gold mine for your store. And if you’re looking to purchase a new line, it needs to fall into one of those three categories.
That said, don’t take this advice to the extreme. “You don’t want to have 10 different lines with 10 different ideas that speak to 10 different customers,” says Cindy Edelstein, owner of Jeweler’s Resource Bureau, a marketing firm that specializes in helping jewelry designers prosper. Instead, she advises, move laterally in other directions. “Garlic and sugar don’t go together in a dish, but garlic and parsley do. For instance, it would be hard to take a store that sells lots of little cheap things and bring in a big line. Instead, you could bring in the lower-priced pieces of a particular line — a line that has depth at that price point. Then, add in some big pieces that stretch the imagination later.”
DOES THIS LINE SPEAK TO MY BEST CUSTOMERS? AND WILL IT ATTRACT MORE OF THEM?
If 20 percent of your customers provide 80 percent of your business, then it only makes sense that any new line should be one that those 20 percent will buy. Hill says you should start by knowing those customers inside-out. “I have one of my retail clients fill out a checklist every day about what kind of customers were in during the day. How are they dressed? What type of jewelry are they wearing? What types of bags do they carry?”
Klein says that when you know your best customers well enough, you’ll recognize the perfect collections for them more easily. “I was planning to pick up a line at Couture last year with one of my biggest clients in mind. When she came in to say hello, I showed her the items online. She was so excited that she pre-purchased two pieces. She said, ‘I know you don’t walk around thinking about me, but I’m so excited you’re going to get this designer.’ And I said, ‘Actually, I literally did buy this for you.’
DOES THE DESIGNER’S WORK LOOK LIKE ANY OF MY CURRENT DESIGNERS?
Marie Helene Morrow, owner of Reinhold Jewelers in San Juan, PR, loves many designers — but she only carries collections that don’t compete with each other. “It is essential that the new designer has her or his own ‘language,’ as I call it,” she says. “It’s not necessarily that they look like nothing that I have ever seen before. It’s that the interpretation is their own.”
Designer John Hardy and retailer Marie Helene Morrow share a moment
DO I LOVE THE LINE?
“The retailer has to really love it — not think it makes sense or fills a slot, but really get it and want to talk about the line,” says Edelstein. “The best buyers are not numbercrunchers. The retailers who love designer jewelry are buying it because there’s something about it that they connect to.”
Amie Guarino of Louis Anthony Jewelers in Pittsburgh, PA says the store once picked up a new line because they liked the sales rep — and they paid the price for it. “It’s important to love the product first!”
ARE OTHER SIMILAR STORES SUCCESSFUL WITH THIS JEWELRY?
Here’s where sharing information becomes very useful for retailers — and why it doesn’t always pay to be secretive. Says Edelstein: “Particularly in the designer market, the good retailers should shop their compatriots’ websites.” Once that’s completed, pick up the phone and give your fellow retailers a call. Ask them how they’re doing with collections you’re considering. Since you work in non-competing markets, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t help each other.
CAN I PUT TOGETHER AND TELL AN INTERESTING STORY WITH THIS LINE?
Like all of us, customers gravitate towards product with a story. “Most retailers ask about the best-sellers from a given line — I’m more interested in creating something unique and interesting. I look at the line and try to put together a story. If it feels like an interesting story, I’ll buy it,” says Jim Rosenheim of Tiny Jewel Box (Washington, DC).
IS THIS LINE A “FIT” WITH MY CURRENT INVENTORY AND BRAND?
Hill urges store owners to identify their own merchandising point of view. “You don’t need all the customers; you just need the right customers.” Edelstein says that if a new line hits a cross-section of your customers’ point of view as well as your own sensibility, it should work. “When you have a good sense of your customer and factor in your own gut instinct for what you like and can have passion for, and you agree the pricing is good and the value is strong — then you’ve got a winner.”
Klein adds that just because it would be a new category for your store, that doesn’t mean you should fill it. “You have to look at it within the context of what you already have and what you feel will appeal to your clients. It may be a niche you haven’t filled, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will sell.”
ask the designer
NOW THAT YOU KNOW THE TYPE OF DESIGNER LINE THAT CAN BE SUCCESSFUL IN YOUR STORE, IT’S TIME TO INVESTIGATE YOUR OPTIONS. THE MORE INFORMATION YOU GATHER, THE MORE LIKELY YOU’LL CHOOSE THE RIGHT COLLECTION.
WHAT’S THE INSPIRATION AND VISION BEHIND YOUR LINE?
It’s not only about understanding the designer and his or her story — it’s about forecasting whether this will be a good line to carry in the future. “Make sure that this truly is an inspired, interested product maker who has a vision for products down the road that make sense,” Edelstein says. “If the collection is too narrow or just based on a trend, what will this designer do next year? Is he Johnny OneNote, or is he someone who can be a good partner for the next 10 years?”
HOW HAS YOUR LINE EVOLVED OVER TIME?
Ask to see the designer’s line sheets from previous years, advises Hill. See for yourself how the collection has evolved, so you can predict how it might develop into the future. “If they look like a different designer every year, they’re going to be difficult to work with,” she cautions.
That said, don’t necessarily walk away from a line just because they haven’t been in business long. There are other indicators for predicting future success, says Edelstein. “What shows have they been in? Maybe they’ve been in business six months but they’re in 30 doors; how did they do that?”
(LEFT TO RIGHT) Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright with designer Myriam Gumuchian and retailer Jim Rosenheim of Tiny Jewel Box.
HOW VERSATILE IS THE LINE?
You may have thought, “If I had a nickel for every time I’ve read ‘works from day-to-night’ as a descriptor for jewelry, I’d be a billionaire.” Nevertheless, versatility is a must for today’s designer jewelry. “We’ve become a much more casual society over the years,” says Guarino. “People want something that will stand out with a pair of jeans, leather jacket and T-shirt. It either makes the casual outfit, or it adds a beautiful accent when you’re dressed for a formal occasion.”
WHAT’S THE QUALITY OF THE PRODUCT?
As important as craftsmanship and quality obviously are to customers, it may come as a bit of a surprise that there are still jewelry collections out there that don’t put a premium on manufacturing a strong product. Art + Soul’s Debbie Klein has personal experience with what a poorly-made collection can do to your bottom line.
“We once had a line in the gallery that was beautiful but technically not that well done. We had a lot of returns within a couple of weeks. It’s embarrassing. It’s your reputation on the line.”
A jeweler himself, Beaudet Fine Jewelry owner Charles Beaudet of Eugene, OR says that durability issues are paramount when considering a new line. “Structure, weight, alloys and setting must be as important to the designer as they are to me.”
Guarino says that just as important as durability is the way a piece feels when worn. “There is a lot of jewelry out there that you think it looks nice and has good value, but from a tactile sense, when you pick it up, it has to feel good. It shouldn’t be too light or delicate.”
WHAT MARKETING RESOURCES DO YOU OFFER?
Imagery, materials, and co-op money offered by designers often come with restrictions. To keep up with them, Tonia Ulsh of Mountz Jewelers (Harrisburg, PA) developed a form that she has each vendor fill out. “We utilize most co-op with our top vendors,” Ulsh says. “Some allow us to use it toward mailing materials. Some also permit it to be used towards donations.” And since Mountz donates to more than 100 charities per year, the company takes “as many as we can get.” Be sure to also ask if brands will allow you to use co-op for digital advertising like Pandora, Facebook or Google Ads.
HOW ARE YOU BRINGING CUSTOMERS TO YOUR BRAND?
If you read INDESIGN’s annual story on the 100 most visible brands in the country, you understand how important a brand’s visibility is to your business. Such visibility can reside in consumer magazines, but it doesn’t have to: Small designers can use Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and their own website to get the word out. “Are they creating great imagery and putting effort into social media to create awareness? People aren’t expecting to make purchases on social media, but they are expecting to share pictures and feel connected to the brand,” Hill says.
Ylang | 23 client Lynne Palmeiro, designer Irene Neuwirth and store owner Joanne Teichman.
WHAT SALES TRAINING RESOURCES DO YOU OFFER?
Buying a new line is like entering into a partnership, says Trey Bailey of Bailey’s Fine Jewelry in Raleigh, NC. If the retailer succeeds, the designer succeeds. “And sometimes, the brand needs to help get buy-in from the retailer’s sales team.” Steven B. Goldfarb of Alvin Goldfarb Jeweler (Bellevue, WA) agrees, saying, “How can you make me and my staff passionate about your designs? Without that, nothing sells.”
Hill advises that you ask if the company will send someone to provide personal training to your sales staff. “I would also love to see retailers be more prepared to get their information in video meetings or online, because they could get more information more often,” she adds.
HOW STRONG IS YOUR CUSTOMER SERVICE?
As a designer, if you want a retailer’s loyalty, go above and beyond in this area. As a retailer, ask other retailers what their customer service experience has been with a designer company. Hopefully, you’ll hear stories like this one that Chuck Kuba of Iowa Diamond in West Des Moines tells about designer Mark Schneider: “We were working with a couple who had picked a Mark Schneider style that they really liked, but they wanted some changes. We called Mark’s office, and he got on the phone personally. We put him on a video screen via Skype and he began sketching out what the customer wanted. What really added the finishing touch was that Mark sent the couple a cocktail book on jewelry design over the centuries with a nice description about how much he enjoyed working with them, how he hoped she enjoyed her ring and how he wished them happiness and health as they started their new life together. My first reaction was, ‘What a guy.’”
HOW DO YOU DO IN OTHER STORES?
The designer should know the answer because they’re out there doing trunk shows, says Hill. Bailey says to get more specific, asking, “What is your average turn in an independent account; what is your highest volume done in an independent store, and what is the average volume done?”
WHO IS YOUR “POSTER CLIENT”?
“The designer should have a clear view of this and the good designers do,” Hill says. “A designer who is generic in their thinking about their own client isn’t going to be able to design to a well-defined aesthetic. The organization has to have a clear view of who it is they’re designing for. If a designer is vague, then they may not continue to design a look that works for your clientele.”
WHAT ARE THE MINIMUM INVESTMENT AND TERMS?
Buying at a show without a good sense of your overall inventory budget is a bad idea. Jim Rosenheim avoids this problem by never committing to anything while at a show. “I go to a show with a budget in mind, but I never buy at a show — I come back and look at the pictures I’ve taken.”
Klein says to invest enough to make a splash, but don’t get carried away. “Don’t go crazy until you know it’s going to work for you. We all expect that it’s going to be our next gangbuster, but you never quite know.”
Finally, Tom Duma of Thom Duma Fine Jewelers in Warren, OH, suggests asking if memo is an option for supplementing your owned inventory during key times of the year, such as the holidays.
WHAT ARE YOUR STOCK BALANCE TERMS AGAINST THE INITIAL ORDER?
Sometimes, new relationships just need a little tweak. “I am a fan of designers offering merchandise flexibility, particularly within the first year so the retailer can get the mix right,” Hill says. “In the beginning, you might go with a broad range of accessible price-point items with a few high-end looks, and then you’ll find that certain looks are working better.”
Klein says that a designer’s flexibility “will seal a deal for me a lot of times. If someone wants a 3-to-1 ratio, you wonder why you would buy three times as much if it didn’t work the first time.”
Finally, Tom Duma of Thom Duma Fine Jewelers in Warren, OH, suggests asking if memo is an option for supplementing your owned inventory during key times of the year, such as the holidays.
Ed and Tracey Dikes, owners of Weston Jewelers in Weston, FL, with designer Marco Bicego.
IS THE TERRITORY EXCLUSIVE?
If it’s not exclusive, how close is the nearest competitor who carries the line? Chris Snowden of Snowden’s Jewelers (Wilmington, NC) warns of the pitfalls of not getting clarity: “I spent a couple of years promoting the product and building a customer base in my area. Then, the sales rep opened another account in my town.”
Olivia Cornell of Cornell’s Jewelers (Rochester, NY) adds that you must be clear the georgraphy of your marketplace. “Just because it has a different ZIP code doesn’t mean it’s not in your area.”
DO YOU OFFER CUSTOM OR SPECIAL PROJECTS?
“Not every customer in the world can afford platinum. Some designers don’t mind losing some customers on that, but some are willing to do it in 18K or even 14K gold if requested by the customer,” Kuba says. Others, however, are not so flexible: “One of the designers we worked with would not even change the head size — the rings were only available in 0.5, 0.75, 1 carat, 1.25 carats and 1.5 carats. They wouldn’t go up or down.”
WHAT IS YOUR DELIVERY TIME?
Most customers expect to wait a couple of weeks for an order, Kuba says. “It’s when the manufacturer changes the dates that we get into trouble.”
Casey Gallant of Stephen Gallant Jewelers (Orleans, MA) suggests asking whether products are in stock to ship quickly — and if not, what is the company’s average fulfillment time.
DO YOU SELL ONLINE?
This one is a deal-killer for most retailers, including Sally Hilkene of Churchill (Fairway, KS). “Unless they tell me they price their items higher on their website than the stores that carry their line, and they promise to refer the customer to our store first if they live in our territory, and they allow me images of their entire line for my website, and they do a good job of promoting the stocking stores on their website, then I’m not interested,” Hilkene says. “True or not, there is an inherent belief the customer is cutting out the middle man and unnecessary markups.”
CAN I GET THAT IN WRITING?
Sealing a deal with a handshake is great — until the first sign of trouble. Get it in writing so you won’t find yourself in a situation like the one in which Susan Eisen of Susan Eisen Fine Jewelry & Watches (El Paso, TX) found herself: “I took the word of the sales rep about details, and when I decided to act on them, the sales rep was gone and the designer would not follow through as we had agreed.”
INDESIGN asked our America’s Finest Jewelers panel, “What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made when starting out with a new designer line?” Here’s a selection of what they had to say.
"Sometimes I have been drawn to beautiful and original design, and it was such a niche line and I bought it anyway. Even when we couldn’t sell it, I had to admit how beautiful it was."
Joanne Teichman, Ylang | 23, Dallas, TX
"ALLOWING THE LINE TO DICTATE HOW MUCH I MUST BUY AND HOW I SELL IT."
Murphy McMahon, Murphy McMahon & Co., Kalispell, MT
"Buying a line where sizing the rings on most of the styles was very limited because the grillwork underneath was too thin."
Charles Beaudet, Beaudet Fine Jewelry Design, Eugene, OR
"CONTINUING TO PURCHASE THEIR WORK EVEN IF SALES DON’T JUSTIFY IT. THEY DO BECOME FRIENDS ..."
Zdena Jiroutova, Z Folio Gallery, Solvang, CA
"BUYING FAR TOO DEEPLY INTO THE LINE. TAKE TIME TO GROW WITH A DESIGNER. THAT WAY, IF IT DOES NOT WORK OUT, YOU ARE NOT LIVING WITH THAT MISTAKE FOR YEARS."
Steven B. Goldfarb, Alvin Goldfarb Jeweler, Bellevue, WA
"Buying items that are too ‘edgy.’ Our customers like unusual pieces, but not so dramatic that they can’t be worn often and with varied outfits."
Dorothy Vodicka, The Gem Collection, Tallahassee, FL
"Adding a designer so someone else couldn’t instead of asking whether or not they would really work for me."
Matt Rosenheim, Tiny Jewel Box, Washington, DC