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Cool Store: Pioneer Jewelers



North Star: A seasonal Alaskan Store Caters To a Growing Tourist Market.

Pioneer Jewelry

Pioneer Jewelers

Location: Juneau, AK
Owners: Jack and Penny Tripp
Year founded: 1975
Opened featured location: 2002 (2006 addition).
Area: 2,280 square feet
Architect/design firm: Don Baker of Baker Store Equipment, Cleveland, OH.
Interior build-out cost: $275,000
Revenues: $1 million-plus
Employees: 13 seasonal, part-time or full time
Slogan: Creating an experience, not just a sale, is our goal.

Every summer, visitors to Juneau, AK, arrive by the boatload — in 2007, a million of them by cruise ship alone — looking for an opportunity to strike vacation gold. If they can’t find a gold nugget the traditional way — panning in a stream on a shore excursion — often they are eager to part with some green to take home some gold. They need not walk far to find gold-nugget jewelry. Jack and Penny Tripp, who have been in the retail jewelry business since 1975, are happy to accommodate them at Pioneer Jewelers, just steps from the cruise-ship pier. In their seasonal store, the Tripps offer more than the typical souvenir shop by focusing on their longstanding ties to the community and quality products with an Alaskan flavor.


“Mom and Pop Personified”


True pioneers, Jack and Penny both grew up in Alaska, moving there as children before it was a state, he in 1939 and she in 1955. “I was a little kid,” Penny says. “My mother said we’re moving. Jack and I both traveled to Alaska as small children because our mothers were single parents looking for a better life.”

The couple met in Fairbanks, married and moved to Juneau in 1971, where she worked for the state and he worked on the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline. In 1975, Jack indulged his creative spirit by renting a little waterfront shop in Merchants Wharf, a renovated sea-plane hangar. Mt. Juneau Trading Post was born. It focused on Native Alaskan-made products, and jewelry and carvings that were primarily handmade. “Jack didn’t want to work for wages,” Penny says. “He liked to carve, he got into doing jewelry repair work, and he just wanted to do his own thing,” Penny says.

When he worked as a Teamster, Jack risked ridicule by carving little wooden animals whenever he took a break. “We used those to stock our very first store,” Penny says. “We’d gather driftwood and make little scenes, and people bought them. You can’t put that into a business plan. We didn’t have a bank loan, we didn’t owe any money, and we didn’t have any bills. Michael, our youngest, was 8 years old, and was selling things. We were mom and pop personified.”

Penny joined the business full-time in ’78, when the Tripps bought their own building, and added a second store, Dockside Jewelers. “We’ve been working together ever since,” she says. She concentrated on sales and accounting; he was interested in the creative side. In 2002 they sold Dockside Jewelers to a local company, but the Mt. Juneau Trading post is still in the family, owned and operated by son Jack.


Authentic Alaska


In 1975, few cruise ships visited Juneau, and locally owned family businesses catered to the few that did come. But by 2000, 640,000 cruise-ship passengers were disembarking in Juneau, and by 2007, they numbered 1 million. Big international companies now own most of the stores in Juneau, where tourism has become serious business.

But the Tripps have an authenticity that sets them apart. “So many of the stores are the same thing they find in the Caribbean and Mexico. But when people come to Alaska they want to buy Alaskan. They want to feel that they are dealing with Alaskans. Cruise passengers like the idea that ours is a local store.” The Tripps focus on local products including natural gold nuggets, gold quartz and handcrafted carvings and figures. Brooke Stone & Co., exclusive to Pioneer Jewelers, is a collection of handcrafted silver and mixed metal totem and animal jewelry.

“Certainly not all our products are locally produced,” Penny says. “We have been fortunate to have the support of a number of fine companies such as Lladro and Swarovski, to name just a couple. Lines like that give customers a feeling of confidence, and it gives stores some validity. We tend to support a few great names with depth rather than stock a few items from many suppliers.”


Entertaining Sales

The Tripps know their customers expect to be entertained. “We always try to treat our clients as we would like to be treated on vacation in a strange town or location. With dignity, fairness and honesty in markups, honest answers to straightforward questions and with a little fun. We don’t act like a bunch of clowns in the store by any means, but when a person is on a trip, they want to have fun. Shopping is a part of it,” Penny says.


Two-thirds of their customers are on vacation, but that doesn’t mean the Tripps don’t need to build loyalty. Some cruise passengers return every year for new purchases or repair work; others order online after they go home. Customer-service is paramount, and a part-time staff member is on call throughout the winter to fill online orders and open up for local residents, by appointment. The staff members are primarily Juneau residents. “We’ve employed some of the children of the children we knew when we started in business,” Penny says. They don’t work on commission

“We’re never going for the hard sell,” Penny says. “We don’t grab people off the street and say, ‘We’ll give you 99 percent off.’ If anything, we’re probably on the lax side. If we have a person come in and have a nice rapport with our sales staff, that sales staff will be with them for the whole transaction.”


The Concept

In 2002, when the Tripps opened Pioneer Jewelers in the south end of Franklin Street, the neighborhood was a wasteland of a warehouse district. But they saw it as a growth area, a prediction that has been realized.

They had purchased a sliver of land — 140 feet long by 20 feet wide — from one of their sons, who had bought it as an investment. The Tripps put a lot of thought into the store’s design and decided their customers were looking for an environment that would effectively showcase their Alaskan artwork and their hand-made jewelry, as well as be convenient and welcoming to shoppers who might be pressed for time. Their competitors’ stores are uniformly bright, high-tech and slick.

The Tripps decided to take a softer, subtler approach and infuse the design with traditional Alaskan elements. They consulted Don Baker of Baker Store Equipment of Cleveland, OH. “We told Don that we’ve got this store that is about 19 feet wide. We thought this is going to be a real challenge to have good traffic flow and not look like a bowling alley.” They were clear about what they didn’t want: chrome, glass, glitz and high-tech-looking lights.


A Gold Rush Look

The period look of the store recalls the days of the Gold Rush and also attests to the fact that the business is a reliable and respected Alaska institution, says Gerry Gonda of Don Baker. Gonda added moulding to standard cases to achieve a vintage feel. “You want it to look like it’s been there a while and established, that the store isn’t a fly-by-night.”

Color infuses the store with warmth. “They wanted to achieve that Gold Rush look. And of course, it’s cold up there! So the store reads much better with lots of golds and warm tones.” Lights are recessed and the ceiling gleams like gold metal. Tripp says the bright exterior colors are also appealing in the climate. “The exterior color scheme may be a little bright, but our Juneau weather can be a little gray quite a bit of the time. A little color never hurts. Gonda created a center bay and niche displays along the wall with pull-out cases to increase browsing opportunities.

He also played with the height of cases and mouldings, creating niches and ledges to display art and gift items. The result? A gallery or boutique feel. The staggered heights of the dark veneer cases also tend to lead customers through the store and quickly demonstrate the wide variety of designs and merchandise available. Last year, the Tripps added about 540 square feet of retail space and a second entrance to access a Seawalk dock extension that the city had built along the ship-docking area.

The second level houses an office, storage area and jewelry repair shop. “Don and his design team did an outstanding job of making a very narrow and long store look appealing as well as making it function effectively,” Penny says. “The store works really well, the traffic flow is really good, and people think it’s an old store. In fact, we have visitors in daily who assume the store has been in place for many years, or insist they had been here 15 years ago.” — Eileen McClelland


Penny Tripp, co-owner

Penny Tripp

1How has your market changed? We started in 1975 when there were three ships that came all summer, and one of those was a little Canadian ship with maybe 150 people on it. Now it’s a big tourist business. In 2007 Juneau had more than 1 million cruise-ship visitors. That doesn’t include independent travelers.

2What can jewelers in tourist markets learn from your experiences? Quite frankly, consistency and customer service. You don’t stay in business if you don’t take care of those people.

3What was one thing you did with the new store you hadn’t done in the past? We had always pieced our stores together, so Jack and I went to Chicago to a trade show and met Don Baker and saw what he was doing. He was exceedingly responsive to what we wanted as a final look. Calling him was one of the brightest things we ever did.

4What are tourists looking for, primarily? In our store it’s gold, it’s all gold. You still have the allure of Alaska and gold. And it doesn’t matter whether gold is expensive or not expensive, they like that history of gold nuggets.

5Where have you traveled in the off-season? We’ve been on some spectacular trips to Africa. We’ve been to Europe. But lately we find ourselves on cruise ships — small ones, only.


Said in the store

You’ve heard people say there’s no such thing as a stupid question but there are, there truly are. Some of the ones we laugh about are “What kind of money do you use?” or, standing on the dock and asking how far above sea level it is.

— Penny Tripp


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This story is from the March 2008 edition of INSTORE



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