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How Should This Retailer Handle the Case of the Communication Catastrophe?

COVID-19-related confusion results in the accidental sale of an item on hold for another client.

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ANGELA RUIZ, OWNER of Vintage Treasures Fine Estate Jewelry, launched her new e-commerce website last November after more than a year of development. Angela was very hands-on with the site’s construction and worked closely with her design team on everything from copy and product descriptions to images and navigation. Her goal was to ensure that the e-commerce customer experience delivered on the Vintage Treasures brand promise every bit as well as the in-store experience did. For Angela, one critical element in that delivery was ensuring that all of the store’s inventory was made available on the site for her customers to buy or simply examine before coming into the store. With POS integration, she was also able to ensure that any piece on the site was actually available in the store and that items sold in the store were removed from the site in real time.

ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal is a fictional scenario designed to read like real-life business events. The businesses and people mentioned in this story should not be confused with actual jewelry businesses and people.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected]

By the end of February, there was no mistaking the restlessness and concern about COVID-19 permeating the state and the major university town surrounding Vintage Treasures. In early March, rumors of impending campus shutdowns, stay-at-home orders and expanding travel restrictions were rampant. Angela and the Vintage Treasures team developed a series of contingency plans that included email contact with all pending repair and special-order customers encouraging pickups, as well as detailed procedures for securing inventory and equipment in the event of a lockdown.

After Angela left for the day on Saturday, March 21, Michele Carr, one of the store’s regular customers, came in to pick up a Victorian bracelet the store had repaired. In conversation with sales manager Jim Boone, she mentioned that she and her husband had decided to postpone the 25th anniversary trip to Tahiti they had planned for the coming week. As Jim was walking her to the door and preparing to lock up, Michele spotted a fabulous art deco emerald-and-diamond ring that the store had recently acquired. The ring was an ideal choice for her, and it even fit perfectly — but with all the uncertainty at the moment, she needed a day or two to think about the $3,800 price tag before committing. Jim told Michele that he would hold the ring for her till Monday. He put it on his desk, planning to put it into a hold envelope in the safe before leaving for the night. While the store was closed the next day, the state’s governor declared a state of emergency and instituted a mandatory stay at home order that included the closing of all non-essential retail, including jewelry stores.

Per state mandate, all Vintage Treasures employees were instructed to stay home, with everyone agreeing to take the first week as paid vacation until Angela could get a better handle on what was happening. Angela, her husband and her son (the bench jeweler) continued to come into the store to handle messages and pending tasks and to deal with processing and shipping for their e-commerce business. That Monday, Angela was pleased to see several website orders from Saturday night and Sunday waiting for processing and shipment, including the biggest dollar item sold online to date: the art deco emerald-and-diamond ring that she had put into inventory just the week before. On her way back to the safe to get the ring, she spotted it sitting on Jim’s desk. She made a mental note to talk with him about lax security when she spoke with him at the end of the week, and proceeded to package the ring for shipment to the buyer. When the ring arrived at its new home the next day, the customer called Angela to let her know that she was absolutely delighted, and that she would definitely be keeping an eye on the Vintage Treasures website for future additions to her collection.

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Nearing the end of that first week, after conferring with her accountant, Angela called each of her employees to check in on them and to let them know she was extending their paid leave for at least two more weeks. In her brief conversation with Jim, he let her know that he and his family were at their upstate lake house and would stay there until it made sense to come back down. He mentioned that internet access was sporadic and asked that she call him if she needed anything. Angela forgot to mention the ring that had been left on his desk.

On April 2, 10 days into the shutdown, Angela picked up an email from Michele Carr. Michele was concerned, as she had sent several messages to Jim over the previous week but hadn’t gotten a reply. She wanted him to send the emerald-and-diamond ring he had put on hold for her and to charge it to her credit card. When Angela told her that the ring had been sold, Michele was livid. Jim had told her the ring was on hold for her, and she wanted it. It was going to be her 25th anniversary present. Since the ring was an authentic art deco piece, getting a duplicate was not an option. Angela offered to find Michele another similar style, but Michele wasn’t having it. She wanted the ring she was promised, and she expected Angela to get it back for her.

The Big Questions

  • Does Angela have an obligation to honor Jim’s hold commitment?
  • Should she contact the customer and try to get the ring back for Michele?
  • Are there any other options that might serve to keep both Michele and the other customer happy?
  • Under the circumstances, should there be any consequences for Jim’s dropping the ball and not documenting the hold on the ring?
Celina O.
El Paso, TX

I believe this was a lack of communication on everyone’s part. Unless a customer is told that a hold is the same as them buying it, a hold is a free-for-all. If they don’t put any money down, it can be sold. Although the client had spoken to Jim, if she really wanted it, she would have called the store and spoken to the owner. I understand his lack of communication caused all of this, and absolutely, leaving the ring would have been cause for a write-up. He should have put it on hold and never ever left it out. It is now up to him to schmooze the customer and explain himself and apologize. Maybe make a copy of the ring?

Ed L.
Dothan, AL

The owner should have spoken to Jim about the ring on his desk before selling it. I would contact the new buyer about the issue and see if she would be willing to sell the ring back at a premium (plus 10 percent) and offer her a discount on a future purchase. Have Jim call his customer to apologize, offer a discount on future items and try to get a similar item — or even make it from a picture, if necessary.

Drue S.
Albany, NY

Talk about being between a rock and a hard place! There is no easy or good answer to this situation. Jim should have written up the hold before he left for the evening. On the other hand, the client had not committed to the sale until after they had closed the store.
I do not think she should call the new client that purchased the ring over the weekend, but on the other hand, Jim should have communicated with the owner and the client during this time, especially since he was being paid to sit at home. Thus, Jim should be admonished for his lack of follow-through and written up in his employment file. The new client is under no obligation to cooperate and return the ring. The only answer is to somehow find a similar ring for the existing customer and hope she will be accepting of that compromise. They just may lose a good customer over this — accept it and move on!

Bill L.
Vestal, NY

After over 40 years in this wonderful business, I have seen many incredible moments for our clients. It has been passion and commitment to excellence that inspired my wife Birdie and I to continue our family’s 100-plus years of selling jewelry. However, things have changed. Our world has been turned upside down. Any clients that would act irate now, during this pandemic, are not worth having. Accidents happen; it was purely unintentional. Tell your client “I’m sorry,” and give them their money back. I’d invite them never to return.

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Myriam G.
New York, NY

I’m not sure if the client emailed the salesperson on that original Monday as promised. If the answer is yes, the store does have an obligation to that client. However, because of “Covid time,” all bets are off. The salesperson made a mistake by forgetting to tell the owner about this “hold” purchase, yet it is understandable that something like this could happen because of the time’s uncertainty. Everyone was scared and overwhelmed, and if a human error was made, it should be forgiven. Having said that, they do have a good faithful customer that is extremely annoyed. The store needs to appeal to their client’s heart and explain to them what happened and the no wi-fi issue. Additionally, offer to search high and low for a similar ring or even a better one, and then offer it to her at a really good deal or even at cost. Perhaps they can involve the client in the search. Bottom line, they have to turn this around and make the client feel special.

Bruce A.
Sherwood Park, AB

A “hold” is simply a mechanism we offer in order to complete a sale. But the sale is the end goal, and for that reason, it stands. Don’t we wish that everything we held for customers always ended by being sold? The customer that purchased the piece should not be notified, and Jim did nothing wrong. If not for COVID-19, the sale would have been completed with Michele. If Michele “wasn’t having it” regarding resolution, there is nothing more to be done. Great sale though!

Murphy M.
Kalispell, MT

In my opinion, “holds” are something that should be discouraged. Can you imagine a real estate company offering to hold a property while a customer makes up their mind, or an auto dealer? My response to “Can you hold that for me?”, which I feel is an easy way to get out of a buying decision, is, “I’m sorry, but it wouldn’t be fair to all the other customers that have been looking at this item. However, I would be happy to put it on layaway for you.”

Megan C.
Poulsbo, WA

This is certainly a tough situation with many layers. Internally, not documenting the status of a piece and not following procedure set the situation in motion. No one could have foreseen the closure, but professional behavior is to be expected. I’d get him involved in the response to the disappointed client.
Unfortunately, the client won’t care about any of this internal conversation. As the owner, I’d give the client 24 hours to digest the loss of the ring, and then make this offer: Despite assurances, due to the rapid COVID-19-related closure, this hold wasn’t communicated fully. It’s very unfortunate. We can offer to find another piece of jewelry to select from, bring it to her home if it’s convenient, and add a savings of $XXX as recognition that the oversight is the store’s responsibility. Ask her, short of getting the ring back, what can the store do to remedy the situation? Sometimes, asking the client what they want or giving them two choices produces better results than only being told what they’ll get from the store.

Marcus M.
Midland, TX

Jim definitely dropped by the ball by not following protocol on “hold” pieces, but it was on his desk, which should have led Angela to at least call him and ask him why it was there. I think Angela needs to reach out to the customer who bought it, explain the situation and see if she’ll accept another similar ring. If not, too bad. Jim will have to own up to his mistake to Michele and see how he can make it right for her. I think you can ask for the ring back with an explanation, but you can’t push it if she doesn’t want to part with it. Jim will have to learn from this mistake and hope he’s a good enough employee to keep his job. I don’t think this is a fire-worthy mistake, but it definitely dings his credibility.

Ira K.
Tallahassee, FL

Michelle is believably upset, but has to understand that with the COVID-19 pandemic, everybody’s apple cart got upset. Angela’s offer to try to find something else for her (work on a shorter margin) is more than fair. Jim did screw up, but sand happens.

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David B.
Calgary, AB

Jim really did not drop the ball entirely. There were issues that aided in the screw up. It is impossible to have perfect communication with every employee. If anyone out there can find a way, make an app and get ready to retire.
Items go on hold all the time and are, in most cases, left past the date agreed upon. Having an item on hold is not a sale or a contract of a sale. Had a deposit been given, different story.
The customer relied on email and right now many servers have been overloaded and emails are being lost at a huge rate. Pick up the damn phone. There is an old saying in retail, “You snooze, you lose.” In other words, buy the item when you see it. While many clients don’t believe us, some of our inventory really does sell! I feel the owner has offered the best she can to try and find another item.

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Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected].

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