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Cool Store: Morrison Smith Fine & Custom Jewelers

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In Charlotte, NC, a 1920s building is restored to its former glory … and then some

Old Bottle, Fine New Wine

1920’s building is restored to its old glory and then some

For one week during the chaotic eight-month renovation of Morrison Smith Fine & Custom Jewelers, owners Chuck and Pam Smith held court in a tent in the parking lot and showed jewelry in the one room deemed safe from falling plaster. “We would offer them a drink under the tent, and bring out their repair,” Chuck says. “It was almost like running a drive-through. When we moved back in we had a wood subfloor and no ceiling and plywood walls — for months. It was interesting and trying. I don’t recommend it.” The 1928 building was gutted to its exterior walls and roof, and reborn as a 4,800-square-foot wonder. The couple celebrated their grand reopening as the recession hit, but are thankful for having pulled it off. “Because where would we be if we didn’t have something new and exciting to offer the customers?” Chuck wonders. — EILEEN MCCLELLAND

Store Details

Morrison Smith Fine & Custom Jewelers
Charlotte, NC
www.morrisonsmith.com
OWNERS: Chuck and Pam Smith
NO. OF EMPLOYEES: 13
COST OF EXPANSION: $1.6 million
ARCHITECT: Ann Erickson of Shook Kelley
TOP BRANDS: Chela by Morrison Smith, Hearts On Fire
SLOGAN: There’s only one.
TAGLINE: No two people are alike. Should your jewelry be any different?

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Five Cool Things About This Store

cool reason # 1: Inspiration

The Smiths visited jewelry stores all over the country, but they found the best inspiration close to home, over dinner in local restaurants. Two of the restaurants they most admired had been designed by Shook Kelley, so the decision was a snap. Usually, Chuck and Pam tend to obsess over details, but during the renovation process they deferred to the design team.

cool reason # 2: The exterior

The building is in the oldest, wealthiest neighborhood in Charlotte. The customer base is ideal, but neighbors don’t readily embrace change. Although the Smiths favor modern design, they were determined to make their neighbors proud by enhancing and restoring the building to its 1920s glory. The neighbors repaid them with rave reviews, and they were free to add a few contemporary touches — blade signage and diamond-ring-shaped door handles. Inside, though, they were free to express their contemporary taste.

cool reason # 3: Balance

W e had to keep some of the traditionalism in the store for our older customers,” Pam says, “but we wanted to bring more younger customers in as well. We wanted a balance.” There are few straight lines. Two-toned dark wood showcases with light maple and aluminum accents are curved and follow the lines of the ceiling. Accents and colors are cool — ocean greens, grays and browns brightened with contemporary lighting. The entire building has motion-activated lights. Skylights, another energy-saver, add natural light to interior offices.

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cool reason # 4: Customer comforts

In 1954, the original jewelry store occupied just 400 square feet of a building that also housed a grocery store and several shops. Over the years, both the grocery store and the jewelry store prospered and grew. But by 2001, the grocery store, outgrowing its space, moved on. “We had the opportunity to take the entire building,” Chuck says. By 2004, they had consolidated a second store location, a shop and an accounting office there. The next step was to build out the space to its current size, in order to showcase their craftsmen and designers at work. Everything — from repairs to gift-wrapping — is visible to the customers, who now realize just how hands-on the business is. Customer comfort improved in other, more tangible ways, too, when they added a lounge area and a kids’ area, complete with miniature lounge chairs.

cool reason # 5: Career options: Nuclear subs or jewelry?

Chuck began polishing jewelry in the family business at age 13. His father told him, though, that he only hired college graduates. So he graduated from North Carolina State University with a bachelor of science degree in nuclear engineering. He worked for the federal government overhauling nuclear submarines for five years before rejoining the family business in 1990. “The aspect that made me come back was the entrepreneurship,” he says. “What I bring to the jewelry business is analysis and computer skills. I think most people who grow up in the jewelry business have a different skill set — artist, bench jeweler, craftsman. But my skills from engineering have also helped me a lot with CAD/CAM.”

Store Interior

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Store Exterior

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Owner Interview

What do each of you bring to the business?

CHUCK: Pam brought a true passion for jewelry. I have a passion for the business.

PAM: I’ve always loved jewelry and now I’m helping to purchase and design it. I think being in corporate America helped me to bring skills to a small, independent business, things like having an employee handbook and different ways of management. I’ve been a graphic designer for 20 years, so I’m also bringing marketing skills.

What did you do to cut costs in 2009?

CHUCK: Charlotte is the No. 2 financial center in the U.S. and we’ve been impacted pretty hard in our primary customer base. We did have a staff reduction, we cut our travel expenses, we are working harder on our repair business, and we had a big Mother’s Day sale to reduce our inventory. We have always carried items from $10 to $100,000. But now we have more $300 to $1,500 pieces.

PAM: I didn’t think extra magazine advertising was doing any good when customers weren’t shopping. We reduced our advertising but went back to a normal level in the fourth quarter of 2009.

What is your brand strategy?

CHUCK: Morrison Smith Jewelers is the brand. We offer quality value products at a good price. We have developed our own designer brand, which is Chela by Morrison Smith, which includes some of our popular sellers and we’ve expanded into a bridal line.

What have people said about the new space?

CHUCK: “Wow. It’s a year after we’ve finished and a lot of people still come through the front door and just stand there and look around and say, ‘Wow, I haven’t been here since y’all changed.’

What was daily life like during the renovation?

PAM: Nothing was as it appeared. They knocked out a wall and found a column right in the middle of our appraisal department. We wanted 11-foot ceilings and there was no support for that. We made a million decisions and because we were onsite, we were available to the contractor all the time. It was a daily Q&A session.

Marketing

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True Tale!

WE WERE IN the temporary showroom with temporary plywood walls. You could hear the workers sawing and jack-hammering. One customer looked down and said, “Are you going to leave the floor like this, or are you going to put down carpet or something?” Even with everything going on all around us, she thought we were done.

Another customer came in and we had no ceiling, you could see through to the roof. The lights were just dangling. He looks around and says, “Did y’all paint or something in here?”

It’s funny how you obsess over so many details and to some people it doesn’t matter, how bad or how good it looks. And then other people are concerned for you — that this may have been your decision to not have a floor! — CHUCK SMITH

This story is from the January 2010 edition of INSTORE

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