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America's Coolest Stores

Meet the Judges of The 2019 America’s Coolest Stores Contest

The panel includes experts in store design, merchandising and retail, as well as jewelry designers and retailers.

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Small Cool Judges


Julie Ettinger owns YLANG YLANG in St. Louis, MO, first-place winner of America’s Coolest Stores in 2018. Julie opened her freestanding, destination store in 2014, after leaving the mall location that her parents had founded. The store’s style and decor evoke the South of France. julie@ylangylang.com

Julie Gotz, chief marketing officer for Freshly Digital, spends her days “listening to” market trends and directing market research efforts on behalf of her clients. Prior to joining Freshley Media, she worked in strategic business development and marketing at companies including CBS Television, Esquire Magazine (Hearst Publishing) and Glamour Magazine (Condé Nast Publishing). Gotz has worked with some of the most prestigious luxury brands in the world including Cartier, David Yurman, Patek Philippe, Tiffany & Co., LVMH, Saks Fifth Avenue and Mercedes Benz, to name a few. julie@freshleymedia.com

Barbara Ross-Innamorati, a devotee of jewelry history, architecture and fine art, began Evocateur as a hobby after years in corporate finance. The inspiration came when she was a student in London and saw an exhibition of the glistening, golden paintings of expressionist artist, Gustav Klimt. “Since that time I have been fascinated with gold leaf and the way it can transform even the most ordinary object into something extraordinary, even magical.” It was only natural for her to go on a mission to adapt 22k gold leaf and her love of art into jewelry design, perfecting a proprietary process unique to Evocateur. In the company’s Connecticut studio, Evocateur’s proprietary artwork and designs are gilded and burnished by hand and flecks of gold or silver leaf are added. barbara@evocateurstyle.com

Joel Hassler has been in the jewelry industry almost 20 years, spending most of it on the retail side. In 2016 he sold his interest in the store and started Von Hasle Jewelry Advisers, with a focus on appraisals and store training. Drawing on past experiences in the automotive, restaurant and hospitality industry; along with training from the Ritz Carlton Leadership Center and as an alumnus of the Disney Institute, his focus is on operational efficiency and creating a remarkable guest experience. joel@vonhasle.com

Hedda T. Schupak has been an editor, analyst and business leader in the fine jewelry industry for 33 years. Since 2010, she has been editor-in-chief of The Centurion, a weekly e-newsletter and webzine serving the industry’s luxury sector, bringing relevant business information to prestige-level jewelers and manufacturers. Prior to joining Centurion, Hedda was editor-in-chief of JCK magazine, and before that served as JCK’s fashion and luxury editor. Schupak sits on the board of the Diamond Empowerment Fund and is a member of the 24 Karat Club of the City of New York. For 20 years, she served on the national board of the Women’s Jewelry Association, and also sat on the executive committee of the New Leadership Division of the former jewelry industry chapter of NCCJ. Schupak has won more than two dozen awards for outstanding journalism, was named one of Pennsylvania’s Best 50 Women in Business in 2003, and was inducted into the Women’s Jewelry Association Hall of Fame in 2006. Hedda studied fashion design at Drexel University in Philadelphia and graduated in 1984 from Albright College, Reading, PA, with a BA in English and Communication Arts. heddaschupak@gmail.com

Eric Zuckerman grew up around the timepiece industry. After graduating from Alfred University in New York, Eric’s entrepreneurial spirit led him to launch a niche marketing agency before returning to his roots within the watch world in 2005 by partnering with Alain Borle, owner of Pac Team, USA. Over the next decade, the partners grew the group to the global organization it is today, with offices and manufacturing facilities across the globe. This year marks 70 years for Pac Team Group, which has established itself as an international leader in the design and manufacturing of displays, packaging, fixtures and retail environments. In 2017, Zuckerman launched PT NEXT, a division focused on the integration of custom-designed retail technology solutions for the luxury and accessories industries. ez@pacteamamerica.com


Big Cool Judges

Benjamin G. Guttery, SSEF, GIA GG, A.J.P., is an advocate for jewelry designers, a storyteller, and a self-proclaimed “gem nerd” from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He spent 13 years selling fine jewelry behind the counter of major and independently-owned jewelry stores in Texas before debuting his @ThirdCoastGems account on Instagram. To date, the account has amassed 111,000 followers—including some celebrities like Debra Messing and Kelis. In addition to sharing gorgeous snaps of jewels on the medium, he also teaches retailers how to master it for maximum sales. Reach him at thirdcoastgems@gmail.com

Elle Hill has amassed a golden rolodex and a stable of A-list clients served by her and her team of fine jewelry industry experts in the US, UK and Hong Kong during her 24 years in fine jewelry. In December 2015, she spearheaded the successful IPO on the Australian stock exchange of Plukka, an award-winning, designer jewelry, omni-channel retailer that she launched in 2011 in Hong Kong. In 2010, Hill helped overhaul the business model of the jewelry division of Dalumi Diamonds, the largest diamond cutter in Israel, which she helmed for four years, opening the US and Chinese markets and making them profitable for the first time since the jewelry division’s launch 10 years earlier. Hill is now based in the UK, the time zone perfectly suited to manage her team of fine jewelry consultants located in the USA, Europe and Asia. elle@hillandco.co

Surbhi PandyA is the cofounder and designer behind VIVAAN diamond jewelry. Having been born into the diamond business, she believes passionately in the healing power of diamonds. The spiritual aspect of life has always attracted Pandya, whose guiding principle is: “Every moment is beautiful.”  surbhi@vivaan.us

Bob Phibbs has over 30 years of experience in retail, and he has worked as a consultant, speaker and entrepreneur, helping businesses revolutionize their brand and grow their success. He is the author of The Retail Doctor’s Guide to Growing Your Business: A Step-by-Step Approach to Quickly Diagnose, Treat, and Cure. Clients of his consultancy, The Retail Doctor, have included Yamaha, Omega, and Vera Bradley. He also has experience working with startups, such as It’s a Grind Coffee, which he helped grow to over 125 franchised locations around the country. Over many years, Bob has helped thousands of businesses in every major industry to strengthen their business structure, close more sales, and stay ahead of the competition. bob@retaildoc.com

Michael Roman, AIA, founded C2 Design Group in 2009, combining functionality and award-winning design. Roman has over 20 years’ experience in the management, design and construction of a wide range of projects including planning, programming, adaptive reuse, renovation and new buildings. He has designed multi-family houses, mixed-use buildings, corporate and municipal offices, retail stores, medical facilities and worked with SUNY Schenectady. Michael serves on the Board of Directors for the Eastern Contractors Association. roman@c2-designgroup.com

Mark Tapper is president of Tapper’s Fine Jewelry, based in Southeastern Michigan where the family has three stores. His father, Howard, founded the family business in 1977 and Mark began working in the store around the age of 12. He took over leading the business in 2010 and is passionate about creating unique experiences in his own family stores. Tapper’s Jewelry is proud to have been named among America’s Coolest Stores in 1995 and 2018. matapper@tappers.com

Over the years, INSTORE has won 80 international journalism awards for its publication and website. Contact INSTORE's editors at editor@instoremag.com.

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America's Coolest Stores

Urban Planning Background Helps 4th-Gen Jeweler Find Perfect Location

Ohio store was once an airplane hangar.

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Welling & Co., West Chester, OH

OWNERS: Bill Welling, Daniel Welling; URL:wellingsjewelers.com ; FOUNDED: 1920; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2015; SHOWCASES: KDM Pop;DESIGN: Leslie McGwire & Associates Interior Design Co.; MTL Construction; EMPLOYEES: 4 full-time; 3 part-time ; AREA: 2,000 square feet; TOP BRANDS: Breuning, Christopher Designs, Frederic Duclos, Vahan; ONLINE PRESENCE: 53 Google reviews with a 4.9 rating; 1,706 likes on Facebook; 669 Instagram followers; BUILDOUT COST: $225,000


Daniel and Bill Welling play to their strengths at Welling & Co Jewelers.

IF YOU’RE VISITING Welling & Co. Jewelers in West Chester, OH, and happen to hear music from ‘70s progressive-rock band Ambrosia playing, it’s a good bet that Daniel Welling is out of town.

Daniel and his father, Bill Welling, clash a bit over what kind of music to play in the store, with Daniel leaning toward something more modern than Bill, the Ambrosia fan, would choose. No doubt hashing out a playlist is a typical source of exasperated eye-rolling in many a multi-generational family business.

There are other challenges in an overall deeply rewarding experience.

“It’s a learning experience working with Dad,” Daniel says. “I have to juggle being professional, but also having a personal relationship. It’s awkward for me sometimes, to say, ‘Hey, Dad,’ in front of a customer. We have a different relationship here than we do outside the store. For the most part, I’m being educated by him on how to run the business.”

The most important thing he’s learned from his father is how to be flexible by adapting to changes in shopping habits and inventory. When Daniel expresses his concerns about how to handle laboratory-grown diamonds or online shopping, his dad is able to put it in perspective, since he’s been through many changes himself over a 47-year career.

One of the most important changes they’re navigating lately, Bill believes, is that the current generation doesn’t see jewelry in the same light that his generation or his dad’s generation did. It just doesn’t carry the same significance. Second, the customer walking in the door is much more knowledgeable than in years past.

That means everyone in the store needs to be well-educated. “You have to be able to answer the questions,” Daniel says. “I want them to have an experience and not just come in and drop their watch off for a battery. They have to be engaged, even when they are waiting for a battery.”

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Daniel hadn’t planned to go into the business, but when he graduated in 2007 with a degree in urban planning, prospects in his field were few. He worked at Welling & Co. as a stopgap, but his level of commitment reflected the fact that he considered it temporary.

“My dad started getting annoyed, because I was just kind of hanging around,” Daniel says.

But Bill had an idea about where Daniel might shine. Although they had invested in Matrix, their bench jeweler didn’t have time to learn it. “Dad said, ‘Why don’t you try this out?’” Daniel recalls. Daniel agreed, and when he trained with Gemvision, something about it just clicked for him. Now he spearheads the custom design side of the business. ”Probably the thing I like the most about it is helping engagement ring customers make rings. That’s something that’s so exciting to them. That’s kept me going as far as being productive here, and it’s a full-time job for me.”

Both Wellings are pleased with their new store in Butler County, which is one of the fastest growing counties in Ohio and a bedroom community for both Cincinnati and Dayton professionals. The renovation of an old building — once an airplane hangar — on the road between Cincinnati and Dayton drew a lot of attention in the town of West Chester. Exposed brick interiors, an assortment of modern pendant lighting, high, open ceilings and modular cases all combined to add a fresh possibility to regional retail design. Impressed neighbors even stopped by to take a look at the floor, which is a vinyl material made to look like wood. And to marvel at the walls of windows that were once garage-style doors.

A converted airplane hangar provides a wide open space for a casual concept store.

After they made the decision to move out of a shopping center, Daniel and Bill met with interior designer Leslie McGwire during the JCK Las Vegas show to plan the place. ”She guided us through the process and pulled out information about what we wanted the same way we do with custom-design jewelry customers,” Daniel says. “She asked about the ambience and how we wanted our customers to feel when they came in.”

The inspiration for the store is a Starbucks coffee shop. It’s designed to create a relaxed setting, with organic elements throughout, including an open slate-gray painted ceiling and a textured wood plank floor, and textured stone on the wall behind the logo wall and the diamond bar. The focal point is the live-edge recycled walnut wood tables that display much of the jewelry. The neutral colors of the chandelier’s glass globes over the wood jewelry cases blend smoothly with the finishes.

“The amazing thing was that Leslie never stepped foot in this store,” Bill says. “But she did a terrific job coordinating. When customers first experience our store, they don’t know what to expect, because it’s not a traditional jewelry store. I think for that reason, they are more receptive to how you approach them and what you show them.”

Daniel agrees it’s made a big difference in how the business is perceived. ”People think it’s warm and inviting,” Daniel says. “Customers really appreciate us being on the same side of the case with them. I didn’t want people to come in here and feel like they were in a bank. I don’t wear a suit. I want to be comfortable and feel comfortable when I interact.”

Welling & Co. was founded a century ago in Loveland, OH, where it has returned to open a second store recently.

After the building was complete, a customer dropped by with a surprise: a Welling & Co. clock dating from the family’s first store, which opened in 1920 in Lockland, OH. The customer had inherited it from a relative who had found it in a building she owned. Now it occupies a place of honor on the new store’s wall.

In 1920, Richard E. Welling purchased a jewelry store in downtown Lockland, OH, on a recommendation from a friend in the wholesale business. After serving his country during World War II, William F. Welling, son of Richard, took over the store and was later joined in business by his younger brother, Thomas. They continued to thrive in downtown Lockland and decided to open a second location in 1979 in nearby Mason, OH. William F. Welling, Jr. had a large role in the success of the second location and eventually purchased the store from his father and uncle.

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Nearly 100 years since the store’s founding, four Welling family members are on staff: Bill and Daniel, as well as Josh in jewelry and watch repair, and Taylor in sales.
Good-natured disagreements about the musical playlist aside, Bill says his son’s interest in the business has inspired him.

“A jewelry store today is very much generational, and when he came onboard, it solidified to me that I did the right thing from the very beginning,” Bill says. “When you’re the employer and the father, you have to learn which boundaries you can step over and which boundaries you can’t, because no one will do the job exactly the way you want it to be done. I let him make mistakes. I just don’t let him make big mistakes.”

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Five Cool Things About Welling & Co.

1. Back to the future. In August, Welling & Co. opened a second store in downtown Loveland, OH, where the business was born a century ago. The 700-square-foot space has a mid-century modern theme and polished concrete floors. Because the town has boutiques already, Welling & Co. in Loveland will steer away from fashion jewelry and concentrate on traditional and fine jewelry.

2. Summer soiree. An end of summer bash in September is a time to have fun with customers, Daniel says. “We rented a beer truck with three different local craft beer choices. We also had a food truck and DJ for the event. Our idea was to just have a fun night with customers and not necessary to have a big sale. We ended up having a large sales day early on and clearing up some space for new merchandise before the holidays. Later, our staff was able to enjoy the beautiful evening with our customers who hung out and enjoyed the beer, music and free food.”

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3. Something for everyone. It’s tough to pinpoint a typical Welling & Co. customer for marketing purposes because Welling & Co. really does offer a wide range of inventory, from Kendra Scott fashion jewelry to custom bridal.

4. Great Google reviews. This feedback forum has been the best form of marketing for Welling & Co., although the team also employs a wide range of social media, local publications, billboards, mail, e-blasts and, on occasion, movie-theater ads or TV commercials.

5. Floor plan. Clients can sit and enjoy a beverage at the L-shaped bar while shopping for diamonds. Instead of talking to customers over a counter, staffers are able to walk around with them from case to case, with many of them pulling out to allow customers to take a closer look.

JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • Julie Gotz: The interior and exterior of the store is beautiful! I love the history of the building and the fact that the store has been in the family for over four generations. The L-shaped bar and End Of Summer Bash are great ideas and smart marketing tactics.
  • Julie Ettinger: I love the generations that continue to flourish in this business. The story behind the building is fabulous, and it must be the coolest exterior of any store that I have seen.
  • Barbara Ross-Innamorati: : I especially love the warmth of the hardwood floors. I am impressed that this business is 99 years old and still in the same family. Excellent online reviews tell me that this store has been a beloved retailer in the community for a long time. Kudos to them!
  • Hedda Schupak: It’s a lovely store, a lovely story, and a great third-generation business. I like how the design pays homage to the vastness of the space.
  • Eric Zimmerman: The Welling family’s store is a pleasing combination of materials such as walnut wood furniture, textured stone walls and glass chandeliers. They have done an excellent job of creating a warm and comfortable environment for their customers.
  • Joel Hassler: They did a great job of keeping the character of the building but still creating a unique shopping feel. I like that it has an open industrial feel without looking cluttered and mismatched.

 

Try This: Gem Lightbox

The purchase of a new piece of tech equipment will allow Welling & Co. to more easily photograph its jewelry (the images can be rotated 360 degrees) and prepare for e-commerce on their Gemfind-designed website, launched last year.

 

ONLINE EXTRA: Q & A with Daniel

Will you carry lab-grown diamonds?

We live in Cincinnati and it’s a pretty conservative area. We haven’t really gotten a lot of requests for it yet. I wouldn’t say I’m against it. The hardest thing is to see in the future. At our store and at a lot of stores, if you buy a center stone and you upgrade it later, you get that price back. But are lab-growns going to drop in price and how will that affect the trade-in policy. That’s our biggest hesitation. That and just being transparent. I want to be as transparent as possible.

Why did you decide to open a second store?

We felt like it was a great opportunity to get a footprint somewhere there wasn’t much competition. It’s going to be more work but we signed a five-year lease. After five years, I’d rather say I failed than be kicking myself for not trying. Dad is the type of person who loves having sales and events where people are lined up out the door. Opening a new store is giving him energy and excitement in the industry.

How did you choose your current location in West Chester?

My major was in urban and regional planning. I was able to look at this location from that perspective and say I think this is a positive and evaluate the whole area. Butler has been one of the fastest growing counties in the country. So it wasn’t too difficult to choose something here. Cincinnati/Dayton will eventually be one large metro area. West Chester is ranked the No. 1 county in the area, it’s an affluent area and an easy commute to Cincinnati or Dayton. There are lots of parks around here and shopping. The mall is two exits up.

How did you get into the family business?

I did not know I’d go into the business. It was a fallback plan. My sister works here and I have two other siblings, but when I graduated the job market wasn’t great. I started working here and my dad started getting annoyed because I was just kind of hanging around. Our jeweler had done the Matrix course and he just wasn’t grasping it and didn’t have time to learn it. Dad said, why don’t you try this out? So I went out to Gemvision and got trained on it and I’ve been doing it over 10 years. Probably the thing I like the most about it is helping engagement ring customers make rings. That’s something that’s so exciting to them. And that’s kept me going as far as being productive here, that’s a full-time job for me here.

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America's Coolest Stores

New York’s Yaf Sparkle Excels at Hospitality

Creating an experience comes naturally.

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Yaf Sparkle, New York

OWNERS: Yaf Boye-Flaegel and Torsten Flaegel; URL:yafsparkle.com ; FOUNDED: 2012; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2017; EMPLOYEES: 4 ; AREA: 1,400 square feet total; 720 square foot showroom TOP BRANDS: Vieri, Elements Studio NYC, Lyon Fine Jewelry, John Varvatos, Sarah Michiko; ONLINE PRESENCE: 8,600 Facebook likes, 4,515 Instagram followers, 161 Trip Advisor Reviews with a 5.0 rating. Yaf Sparkle is No. 6 of 1,001 shopping experiences in New York City on Trip Advisor; BUILDOUT COST: $85,000


ON A SULTRY JULY afternoon, an out-of-town customer, who had reluctantly left Yaf Sparkle without buying anything, returned soon after. She couldn’t shake the feeling she had to buy that pair of earrings that caught her eye.

Even after sealing the deal, she was reluctant to leave. Her husband, resigned, was ready to sink into a chair in an air-conditioned reprieve from the muggy air outside. As his wife succumbed to a number of add-on purchases, he told store owner Yaf Boye-Flaegel that she had mastered the art of the ABCs.

ABC? Yaf inquired.

“Always be closing,” he said.

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But Yaf said she had never heard that expression. For her, closing is about a lighthearted musical laugh and a playful “Hey, where are you going?” That’s what she might say if customers don’t seem certain whether they’re ready to leave or buy a second or a third piece of jewelry. Temptation is everywhere within reach, like low-hanging fruit. Add-ons abound in the form of stackable rings and layered pendants. She floats from one customer to another, jangling a pile of Julie Voss-designed bangles on her wrist with enthusiasm. She sells those gold-plated brass items as quickly as if they really are pieces of fruit.

Yaf says it’s the hospitality she learned from her parents in her native Senegal that helps her so effortlessly create such a welcoming atmosphere. Working in other people’s jewelry stores before she had her own, she observed that her friends weren’t comfortable stopping by even to say hello, let alone to hang out. Now that she’s created her own environment with a Caribbean-music soundtrack that makes swaying to the beat impossible to avoid and a playful approach to mixing and matching layers and stacks of jewelry, everyone who happens by wants to stay a while.

Sometimes a regular will dash in just to pull out one of Yaf’s “Goddess” cards from a stack to read an inspirational message guaranteed to improve their day. Or they might stop by for a hand-painted card, handmade candle or a New York postcard. There’s something for everyone. More than anything, though, they have become hooked on the positive, pervasive energy Yaf exudes.

Yaf and her husband, Torsten Flaegel, a native of Hamburg, Germany, are adept at inventing ways to enchant everyone in their orbit.

Torsten, long fascinated by the quality of light on the street, worked with Yaf on an event for the Manhattanhenge, also known as Manhattan Solstice, a time during which the setting or rising sun is aligned with the east-west streets of the main street grid in New York City. The sunsets and sunrises each align twice a year, on dates evenly spaced around the summer and winter solstices. For Yaf Sparkle’s Manhattanhenge event, there was music, a tarot card reader and a feeling that magic was in the air.

The ranking fluctuates, but customers have voted Yaf Sparkle as the third-best shopping experience in all of New York City on tripadvisor.com. At most, though, only a third of Yaf Sparkle shoppers are tourists. The majority are New Yorkers. “Online sales are growing and online is what brings people into the store,” Yaf says. “We’re not on a main street, but we have lots of content online.”

Affordable pieces displayed casually in the center of the store encourage shoppers to try something on.

They see their store as a walk-in jewelry closet and encourage customers to bring in a special-occasion outfit to be accessorized. Yaf constantly develops her own collections, presents the work of new local and international designers and changes the displays every other week to stay fresh.

“We have this internal competition of who can surprise our customer with the coolest new jewelry outfit that they didn’t consider wearing a day ago,” Torsten says. “There’s no being shy in our store; adorning oneself is fun and that’s what we are experts in. All in all, it is about being happy. Sharing a laugh is what keeps us in mind, and there’s nothing easier than that once you understand that every customer is first and foremost a potential friend.”

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The space itself, they say, was a raw diamond when they found it, veritably buried in layers of concrete. The little laundry that had occupied the space before them had cemented its machines into the ground, and the new landlord had no idea what lay behind the cement smeared on walls and floors. Months after they started digging, they realized that the old brick walls were in good condition. Even the ceiling was made of bricks with original ironwork between the arches. Once they got down to the bones, they pulled wires through the walls for showcases and laid out a beautiful wood floor. All of the wooden furniture is made from reclaimed wood.

The store is on Broome Street on the Lower East Side, which has a lively street life as well as a cinematic quality. It’s just around the corner from the Tenement Museum, which brings tourists by the busload. Martin Scorsese recently transformed the block into a 1972 backdrop for the 2019 Netflix film “The Irishman”. The street also starred in the 2014-2015 Cinemax TV series “The Knick,” set in 1901.

Adding to the charm, they scatter glitter across the sidewalk outside, a tactic that draws attention to the store even after it’s closed. They’ve also collaborated with other neighborhood businesses to host block-party sales events.
Social media just adds to the energy. When Yaf announced her birthday on Instagram, she ended up with an impromptu in-store surprise party, where the director of “Dirty Dancing” danced with a former MTV VJ, a Broadway ballerina and a Wall Street broker.

“Yaf Sparkle,” says Torsten, “was created out of the desire to provide an environment where fun, fashion and pleasure are combined as one. We know the day we forget that, we will be forgotten.”

Yaf Sparkle’s previous location, also on New York’s Lower East Side, was featured as the No. 3 Small Cool Store in the August 2016 issue of INSTORE.

VIDEO: YAF SPARKLE STORE TOUR VIDEO


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Five Cool Things About Yaf Sparkle

1. Start ‘em young. The Yaf Sparkle team invites pre-K kids into the store for gem-education classes and birthstone giveaways.

2. Content-rich marketing. They’ve begun implementing automated email marketing, in which a customer will receive information about the pieces and the designer behind it. Their online database is segmented down to collection, metals and gemstones, so they can fine-tune their offerings. The idea is to provide continuous education.

3. In-house marketing. They use an in-house photo studio every day for model and product shots. In fact, 99 percent of marketing is created in-house. Social media is important, but they also rely on phone calls and postcards to share news of an event, a promotion or a specific gemstone that could be of interest. “Our newsletter marketing resembles our in-store experience,” Torsten says. “We don’t take ourselves or our product too seriously. Our love for local is what ties us all together. This is where we met our customer, and this is where we will see her again.” They improved their website to be increasingly ADA-compliant, which means it can be read by machines.

4. Block parties. Together with two other local shop owners they befriended, they gathered contact information for local merchants, set up a Facebook group and host regular events to brainstorm on marketing and event ideas. As a result, the group threw a neighborhood-wide event with 21 local merchants, each offering unique specials.

5. Good causes. Ten percent of net proceeds go to non-profits, most notably the ASB Foundation that Yaf founded in 2007. The ASB Foundation is an international humanitarian organization that supports the growth and development of the children in Koutal, Senegal, a small village created in 1968 to house people with leprosy and their families. The goal is to enrich the lives of the children who have been affected by their parents’ disease.

JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • Julie Gotz: As a former New Yorker, I know how hard it is to stand apart from the thousands of other stores in the city. This is an amazing location with lots of cool and funky shopping options. The store has a great social-media presence and brings in a sense of community with their posts.
  • Julie Ettinger: I so appreciate the energy and passion in this store. It’s so New York; the interior, the exterior, the video marketing all connect. I also love their passion for shopping local and pulling surrounding stores and community together.
  • Barbara Ross-Innamorati: : Yaf’s enthusiasm and joie de vivre are what make this store so special. You can feel her love of what she does loud and clear through all of her online marketing, including her videos. I also love the custom-design page that seeks to educate her customer on the design process. Finally, her philanthropy and the foundation she started is important and brilliant.
  • Hedda Schupak: This business clearly “gets” both millennials and female self-purchasers, two sectors that are critical for our industry to do a better job in attracting. I love the fact that customers can walk in and try on fashion jewelry, but then there’s fine jewelry that costs five digits yet doesn’t look too precious. I love how they restored the original building under layers of soulless concrete.
  • Eric Zimmerman: Today’s retail environment is all about creating an experience and connection for the customer, and Yaf Sparkle is succeeding at just that. I also love the job they have done in making their store part of the culture and energy within NYC’s Lower East Side community.
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America's Coolest Stores

Portland, OR, Couple Fine-Tunes the No-Pressure Engagement Ring Sale

Website and window displays create perfect curb appeal.

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Malka Diamonds & Jewelry, Portland, OR

OWNERS: David and Ronnie Malka; URL: malkadiamonds.com ; FOUNDED: 2010; ARCHITECT AND DESIGN: One Hundred Agency and Bedford Brown Store; EMPLOYEES: 3 ; AREA: 1,000 square feet total; 700 square foot showroom; TOP BRANDS: Custom, vintage, Point No Point Studios, Vatche, Jolie Design; ONLINE PRESENCE: 1,645 Instagram followers, 957 Facebook followers, 4.9 Stars with 62 Google reviews; RENOVATED: 2018; BUILDOUT COST: $75,000; SHOWCASES:KDM


Ronnie and David Malka

VINTAGE RINGS DISPLAYED in authentic, retro jewelry boxes share space with newly minted engagement rings in the front window of Malka Diamonds & Jewelry, a boutique shop in the historic Hamilton building in the heart of downtown Portland.

Passersby enchanted by that tempting array are welcomed inside by owners David and Ronnie Malka, who offer guests a warm greeting and refreshments from the coffee shop across the hall.

Adding to the relaxed environment, they rarely ask for the prospective customer’s information right away. “Our customer is our friend. Just like you don’t ask someone you just met for all of their information, you really should try to take the same approach with your customers,” David says.

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Once guests have a chance to settle in and look around, graduate gemologist David loves to share what he knows by comparing loose diamonds at his desk. What makes the Malka experience distinctive is that David includes tricks of the trade in his consumer education, such as explaining what kind of diamonds people in the jewelry business might select for themselves.

“A lot of people who are thinking about buying diamonds online have done some research, and I like to educate them on the stuff you can see in a diamond that you should pay for,” David says. “The stuff you can’t see, why pay for it? Common sense goes a long way when you’re spending thousands of dollars. Great, if you want to buy a VVS stone, we have it, but most of the people who see the difference, or don’t see the difference, between D and F color are making a much more informed purchase, and they feel good about it.”

Large windows allow passersby to glimpse a mix of vintage and new rings on display while flooding the space with natural light.

They’re also adept at explaining the difference between the diamonds and their paperwork. “The cert says XYZ, but if you lined it up with five others, you might see why that stone was priced so low in its bracket,” Ronnie says.

They think it’s just fine if their customers walk out without buying anything on their first or second visit — even if they’re headed to the competition.

“We keep it really simple in here,” says Ronnie. “A lot of the guys who come in are buying something they don’t know anything about. We don’t bombard them with phone calls or emails; we just offer education. They continue to explore and research, and most of those people we see back here.”

The Malkas are taking the long view. “We want to be like their grandparents’ jewelers with a state-of-the-art shop so we can create things that are going to last,” Ronnie says. “Like the 1920s-era jewelers you trusted but still current and evolving with time.” Although engagement and wedding rings dominate their business now, with as much as 85 percent of sales, they believe that as their original customers continue to mature, they’ll eventually diversify into jewelry for other occasions.

By the time the customer does make a purchase or put a deposit down on a custom ring, David and Ronnie have developed a relationship with them. They give their customers a Malka hat, pin or T-shirt. They also give them a pamphlet detailing the history of their three-generation tradition of diamond dealers, and paperwork that includes an appraisal. There’s no paperwork involved with the guarantee; that is automatic for the life of the ring.

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As for that history, David’s father, Yossi Malka, who still has an office across the street from his son’s store, began his career as an apprentice under his great uncle in Israel, studied diamond cutting and later became a wholesale dealer in Portland.

David studied at the GIA, earned a graduate gemologist degree, and worked in a retail store for several years. David also ran his own jewelry appraisal lab, Independent Gemological Services, for the trade and private clients. “That’s a tough gig to be looking through the scope all day,” he says. “I was getting a little bit bored.”

Still, everyone thought he was crazy, he says, when he decided to open his own store. “It was the recession. It was a tough time.” Three major Portland jewelry stores had closed. “I figured if we took this plunge and we could stay afloat for two years, we should be able to weather anything,” he says. They’d been considering a variety of different names for the business when a friend offered this advice: “When you put your name on the door, you’re putting your name behind the business.”

Perfect. They had a name.

Ronnie Malka collects retro jewelry boxes to display vintage engagement rings.

They leased a prime 1,000-square-foot spot within a vacant 10,000 square-foot space. It was bare bones, with not much beyond walls and floors.

“Welcome to the world of retail,” David says he remembered thinking. Traffic was thin at first, and David continued to operate the appraisal lab, taking it month by month. Although changing shopping habits of American consumers had seemed to be a bad omen, it turned out that Portland shoppers who did spend money on jewelry wanted to make sure they were investing in local, independent businesses. Within a couple of years, they’d won Oregon Bride Magazine’s “Best Rings of 2012” award.

In 2013 Malka became the official fine jewelers of the University of Oregon and their shop got very busy. Ronnie left her teaching job to join Malka full time after it became clear David needed help with marketing and events.

In 2018, they expanded the shop and fine-tuned their interior design, adding metallic cork wallpaper, a custom woven rug, a gathering area with a modern, round table and gray leather chairs, and custom-built display cases. The counter now boasts a marble top and black paint. Other additions include a gold light fixture and a trio of geometric mirrors. The look is upscale without feeling stuffy. The decor is also a personal reflection of what makes David and Ronnie comfortable, complete with a prominently displayed black and white wedding photo of the couple.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, you meet a Malka,” Ronnie says. “We want them to know us as we want to know them.”

VIDEO: MALKA STORE TOUR

VIDEO: MALKA “ABOUT US”

VIDEO: MALKA CUSTOM DIAMONDS


PHOTO GALLERY (30 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Malka Diamonds & Jewelry

1. Salt-and-pepper diamonds. A year ago, Malka started showcasing the work of a Seattle designer, Point No Point Studios, which has a strong Instagram presence and specializes in salt-and-pepper diamond rings. “We knew that going out-of-the-box and trying something new would potentially bring new traffic,” says Ronnie, who gets several inquiries about them every week. David, as the son of a diamond dealer, admits he was reluctant at first to move in that direction. “My dad says, ‘How much is that per carat?!’ Ten years ago, it would have been used for drill bits, but now there’s an actual marketplace for it. I don’t think it’s a fad, either,” David says.

2. Collaborative environment. “We all know the projects, what’s going on, and what’s coming up,” Ronnie says. “It doesn’t feel compartmentalized.” That approach also creates opportunity for growth. Chloe, who works in the showroom, says Malka has the friendliest atmosphere of anywhere she has worked, as well as enormous growth potential and pride in values. “It gives me satisfaction learning-wise and experience-wise, knowing what the jewelers have to do to have a certain outcome for whatever kind of piece we’re making,” she says.

3. Custom connection. A 2018 expansion made room for two full-time master jewelers and more equipment in the shop. “We wanted everything done under our roof,” David says, from design to manufacture. Sometimes they are simply consultants: “An architect is doing his own CAD design for us to look at and make sure it’s going to translate into a ring and not a building,” Ronnie says.

4. Website curb appeal. Ronnie considers Malka’s digital presence, including its website, to be online curb appeal. “People want to engage online first,” Ronnie says. “Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, your website was a placeholder for your contact info, but now it tells your story.” People know what to expect.

5. Digital marketing ROI. Digital marketing has for the most part replaced traditional radio and TV, because as Ronnie says, “Our customer is online and if they’re seriously looking for a ring, they are seriously looking — not seeing it on TV. Many jewelers will say this is a waste of time, but in the last six months when our followers have doubled, we have noticed customers referring to an image they saw on Instagram or Facebook. It is a real relief to see the return on investment on the time spent taking photos and creating tag lines.” Even shop dog Toby has his own Instagram handle!

JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • Julie Ettinger: This store is a real gem! I love the shop-local feel and that it can all be done in house. I also appreciate the mix of vintage and new.
  • Julie Gotz: I love that the owners are so invested in the customer and their life cycle. Many stores are too focused on the sale and not enough on the relationship. It is great to hear that a store is using social media in such a successful way.
  • Joel Hassler: I like the approach to gathering customer information. Building a relationship is more important than data-mining.
  • Barbara Ross-Innamorati: : The store interior is exquisite and feels upscale but also warm and inviting. The website is quite informative and I love their blog, “Stories,” as it features a lot of interesting topics with gorgeous photography.
  • Hedda Schupak: I like the laser focus on diamond rings, and I love the impressive depth of selection they have, especially nontraditional styles. The store itself is very hip and welcoming. Their online presence is very strong; they’re using all social media quite well.
  • Eric Zimmerman: Malka Diamonds has done a wonderful job of creating a modern elegant boutique while still highlighting the building’s historic features. Their store’s design tells a story that complements the products they showcase: modern and antique.
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