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Real Deal

Real Deal: The Case of the Designer Deception

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BY KATE PETERSON

Editor’s Note: Real Deal scenarios are inspired by true stories, but are changed to sharpen the dilemmas involved. The names of the characters and stores have been changed and should not be confused with real people or places.

Twenty years is a long time … unless you’re talking about the age of a retail jewelry business. In just 20 short years, Paul James has watched his business grow from a small, second-floor appraisal office into the premier bridal, fashion and custom shop in his Midwest town.

In thinking about the evolution of P. James Fine Jewelry, Paul thought first and foremost about the people who helped him along the way. The assistants, managers and sales people whom he had hired and who had grown professionally with the store.

The P. James brand evolved over the years as well. What started as a storefront filled with random, inexpensive basics and a lot of memo goods grew into a well thought out, influential center for high quality, contemporary brands.

Paul loved the brands he represented, but it was the birth of his custom department that marked the achievement of his premier professional goal. He’d hired Allen Thomas, an experienced craftsman from a local trade shop, as part of the move to the new store. Allen was young and ambitious, willing to learn and constantly in search of new and better ways to work. Paul also knew him as a wonderfully creative designer, but his work at the trade shop was limited to the mechanics of jewelry repair and fabrication.

Paul was committed to investing in Allen’s growth, and he made sure that the P. James shop grew with the times. They were the first in the area to begin using laser technology, and Allen was at the front of the line for training when Paul agreed to add an advanced CAD system to the store’s offering. Hiring a second jeweler and a polisher helped Allen keep up with the high volume of repair work while still allowing time to develop the custom trade.

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Over the years, custom design became an increasingly important part of the business. Paul was continually impressed with Allen’s creativity as well as with his skill in building designs that not only met his customers’ needs, but that consistently exceeded their expectations. He saw great potential in the development of his custom design department and as part of the promotional effort, wanted to create a feature page on the P. James website to showcase Allen’s work. He asked Allen on several occasions to photograph his finished pieces before delivering them to customers, but for reasons ranging from “too busy” to a simple “I forgot,” the photography never seemed to get done.

Several months ago, after meeting with Allen to discuss the shop’s budget as well as plans for promotion in the coming year, Paul decided to do a web search to see how far his competitors had come in keeping up with the demand for custom design work in the area. He was pleased to see that, when he entered “custom jewelry design” in his town, P. James was number one on the list with the three top search engines. His joy was short lived, however when he flipped to the third page of results in his Google search and found a listing for “ART Custom Jewelry Designs.” He’d never heard of the company, even after his 20 years in business in the area, and was shocked to see, when he clicked on the link, images of pieces that had been created by Allen in his own shop. The web page provided little additional information beyond a brief bio of ART the designer’s 25 years of experience (that never mentioned P. James by name), and descriptions of the pieces pictured. Contact information included a Gmail address and a phone number Paul recognized as belonging to Allen’s cell.

Paul felt angry and betrayed as he struggled to find a possible explanation for what he was seeing. Allen had been with him for more than 15 years. He had given absolutely no indication that he was unhappy with Paul or dissatisfied with his job. He was paid very well — a base salary that was far above both local and industry standard, plus a significant percentage of shop profits and participation in the company’s profit-sharing plan. He worked hard in the store and put in a lot of hours in a design studio and shop that were both fully furnished with all the latest tools and equipment. Paul couldn’t get his head around how Allen might have the time or the resources to go out on his own, or why he would even want to.

Paul decided it was best not to confront Allen immediately — but rather to take a day or two to think through the whole situation and to get his emotions under control before calling Allen in for a meeting. Now, sitting in his living room, staring at the ART web page, he found himself at a total loss for how to handle the situation.

The BIG Questions
How should Paul approach Allen? Could there be an explanation beyond the obvious? Should Paul dig deeper to learn more about the business of ART Custom Jewelry Designs, or should he simply confront Allen with what he found and fire him on the spot? What about the future of the P. James’ custom department? Is it ever safe for a retail store owner to build a significant part of his/her business around one employee? Are there reasonable, cost-effective alternatives?
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