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A Walk in the Woods

Northern Michigan store reflects its environment with rustic elegance.

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URL: michigansjeweler.com;  OWNERS: Ken Branham and Joyce Hill;  FOUNDED: 1959;  OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2016;  TOTAL LOCATIONS: 2;  DESIGNER: Michelle Bailey;  AREA: 6,000 square feet;  EMPLOYEES: 4 full-time; 8 part-time;  BUILDOUT COST: $400,000;  ONLINE PRESENCE: 5 Stars on Yelp;  TOP BRANDS: Alex and Ani, Effy, Gabriel & Co., Kameleon, Lashbrook, Levian, Michou, Pandora, Reactor, Rhythm of Love, Seiko, True Romance, Twogether


 

When the Branham family began renovation work on their new jewelry store in the northern Michigan town of Tawas, residents showed up to cheer.

The building had been so reviled — with its big green vinyl signs — that the fact they were buying and renovating it created a sensation.

“It was amazing how many people gathered around and cheered as we cut the awning away from the building and let it fall to the ground,” says Ken Branham, who owns the business with his sister, Joyce Hill. “As we did the countdown, much like the traditional New Year’s Eve countdown, you could feel the excitement build. The cheering could be heard throughout the neighborhood when the signs hit the streets. People were talking about it for weeks.”

Tawas is a picturesque Saginaw Bay village on Lake Huron that attracts vacationers, so when a landmark hotel was torn down to create a ghastly green discount retail outlet, the building and its owner became notorious. “When we announced that we would be purchasing and remodeling the old ‘Norman’s Building,’ the support we received from the community was overwhelming,” Branham says. “It really helped drive our passion for creating a jewelry store that complemented the community it belongs to.”

They told interior designer Michelle Bailey they wanted to create an interior that reflected the city’s personality and location.

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“I began designing Branham’s Jewelry from a perspective of walking through the northern woods,” Bailey says. As a result, the store has large pine trees, ash planks and a “river walk” running through it that invites customers to meander around showcases until they arrive at a two-story fireplace with a waterfall feature and a coffee bar.

All of the big timber and wood paneling on the walls and showcases came from the Branhams’ family property, including the 20-foot trees that function as support posts, the barn wood and the branches used in the custom lighting creations.

Branham and Hill sketched out what they wanted on paper. “We’re kind of artistic that way,” Hill says. “We kept getting ideas and sticking them together and hoping for the best. Everybody’s heart poured into it. We had a dream and it came to life.”

As  they collaborated with the design team, which included an architect with an engineering specialty, new ideas emerged every day. “It was exciting, but also there was a lot of pressure,” Hill says. “We really wanted to make sure we did it right so that everybody in town would be proud.”

Experiential Retail

The new store offers something extra for bridal customers.

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On the second floor is the Treasured Memories room. It can be converted easily to a conference or training room, but it was also designed to provide a space for brides to prepare for their weddings, many of which take place outdoors in the summer at lake or river settings. One such wedding-venue beach is directly across the street from the store. The room is equipped with full-length mirrors, lighted makeup stations and holders for curling irons. Once the bridal party is ready, they can have their picture taken on the staircase or in front of the fireplace. If the couple buys their rings at Branham’s, there’s no charge to use the room, which has proved to be a good incentive.

They host wedding parties every weekend in the summer, and sometimes two or three on a weekend. 

For Hill, the most memorable bride posing on those stairs was her daughter, Katie. “I remember her coming down the stairs and the customers running over to take her picture. They didn’t even know who she was.”

Branham says the feedback they’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive and he finds it humbling.

“We tried to find something that reflected the area so our customers felt comfortable,” he says. 

“It’s not over the top but it’s memorable. Our customers seem to just love it. I always joke around that I’m going to put a sign on the ceiling that says please occasionally look down at the jewelry.”

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Branham says he can tell when customers haven’t  been in the store before because they stand in the entrance with their mouth hanging open.

A Tourist Attraction

The store has become more of a destination than ever and has helped grow the business.

Hill says her brother began asking couples that came in whether they’d been to Branham’s before. And three or four out of five had never been in the old store even though they’d been visiting Tawas forever. “People drive by and want to see what’s inside,” Hill says. “It’s right on the corner. And it’s so drastically changed from that bright green box. People go home and drag over 10 more people.”

Branham’s Jewelry has been in Northeast Michigan for more than 50 years. Ken and Joyce’s parents, Joe and Betty Branham, founded the business and are retired now. “I think that any time the next generation takes the business to another level instead of just coasting on what’s been laid down for them, that’s always a prideful moment. I think they’re pretty pleased with what we’ve done,” Ken Branham says. 


 PHOTO GALLERY (17 IMAGES) 

5 Cool Things About Branham’s Jewelry 

CUSTOM CHANDELIERS. Interior designer Michelle Bailey designed two types of custom chandeliers in the showroom. The first suspends Mercury glass pendants from barn beams through plumbing pipe. The second suspends Mercury glass pendants from inverted 15 by 9 foot platforms through large branches and logs that were created as a group effort by Bailey, the contractors and the owners.

2.NEVER SAY “I CAN’T.” Branham has banished the words “I can’t” from their business vocabulary, because, Ken Branham says, they are the enemy of success — excuses that some teams use to stay within their comfort zones. “Our team has replaced these damaging words with, `How can we?’ We don’t settle for quick answers. We take a moment for all of us to examine a challenge from all angles. Egos don’t drive our organization; solutions do.

3.LOCAL TRIBUTE. The Tawas Destination Bracelet was designed as a tribute to the Saginaw Bay region and appeals to locals and visitors alike. The Tawas Point Lighthouse is wrought as a “T” that embraces the sunrise, and the union of the two symbols represents the “hook” that this locale has on the hearts of many. Two 14K gold wraps symbolize East Tawas and Tawas City.

4. ORIGINS HONORED. The original neon sign from the first Branham’s location is displayed in the showroom.

5.ADAPTIVE MANAGEMENT. Since the first store opened in 1959, the Branham family has operated as many as five stores at one time. They have two larger stores now instead of smaller ones. The original was opened by Joe Branham in 1959 and the second one came along in the early ‘70s. 

Try This: Journey Videos

Branham’s works with Collected Concepts to offer customers personalized videos. The videos are created using a customer’s choice of pictures and music. They can be used to announce an engagement or a benchmark anniversary. Once they receive their video, they will almost certainly share it with others in person and on social media, which in effect allows customers to actively promote their store.

 

Online Extra: Q & A with Michelle Bailey, Interior Designer

What did owners Ken Branham and Joyce Hill say they wanted when you designed the store?

They wanted to create a store interior design that reflected the personality of the city and location of the store: Up north, woodsy inspiration.

What did you do to help them achieve that?

During the design process, we were able to incorporate large trees, as well as ash planking into the design scheme that actually were harvested from the owner’s own property. I began designing Branham’s Jewelry from a perspective of walking through the northern woods.

Please describe three of the most unique elements in the store.

I designed two types of custom chandeliers in the large showroom. The first suspends Mercury Glass Pendants from Barn Beams through plumbing pipe. The second was more complex and suspends Mercury Glass Pendants from inverted roughly 15’ x 9’ platforms through suspended large branches and logs that were created by contractors, the owners, and myself. The custom chandeliers provide functional lighting, but lend to greatly to the overall interior design of the showroom.

The interior “River Walk” meanders through the store along showcases and runs indirectly from the front entry through areas of main walk traffic along jewelry cases and ends at an interior side showroom entrance to 2-story fireplace with water feature and coffee bar seating area. The floor covering is strategically placed to allow customers to feel as if they are walking along a river, and offers a chance to travel beyond a strait line through the showroom.

I created a large private room that overlooks the showroom from the second floor we lovingly started calling “the transformer” room. This room converts easily into a large conference room offering a relaxed seating area, as well as, traditional conference table style seating for up to 36, as well as, converts as needed into a training facility. The “wild card” aspect of this room is that it transforms into a beautiful Bridal Suite space that allows Brides and their Bridal Parties to get ready for their weddings after purchasing engagement rings from Branham’s Jewelry. This “wild card” room is state of the art, and has brought customers to the showroom to purchase rings for use of the Bridal Suite. To our knowledge providing a Bridal Suite to Customers is a new idea, and it has proven a profitable venture that began somewhat as an experiment

What were some of the challenges you faced?

The main challenge I face when working on interior design projects is getting contractors to think outside of the box, to create to the maximum of their abilities, and to utilize materials in ways that are not just standard. When designing Branham’s Jewelry store the biggest challenge was pushing contractors to execute their fullest potential in creating a truly one of a kind showroom.

Had you worked with trees as design elements before? What was that like?

In the past, I have created large-scale custom artwork for healing environments, as well as, created interior design projects. I created a series of large sculpted bonsai tree panels for St. Peters Hospital’ Healing Garden, as well as sculpted a 12-foot-high Tree of Life for Maimonides Medical Center’ Oncology Departments, among other projects

I enjoy creating design elements that I have not ever executed or seen before. There is an element of fear, but also extreme excitement in implementing design elements that are cutting edge while pushing myself to the fullest of my own abilities. I have not ever utilized actual trees or branches in any previous design project, and had not ever created custom chandeliers. It was enjoyable creating the custom chandeliers for Branham’s Jewelry as contractors constructed elements of my design, and the owners and I created the remainder on site utilizing a scissor lift, wire, huge branches / logs, and other materials.

What has your clients’ and their customers’ reactions been?

The owners of Branham’s Jewelry are very excited by the design of their new store, and it exceeded their expectations. Good design often increases sales and business growth. Branham’s customers are extremely impressed with the new store, customer bases have been expanding, and there have been increased sales as a result. Word of mouth referrals have also brought much new business to Branham’s from a much larger geographic radius, resulting part from the interior design of the store, but also part from the amazing customer service that Branham’s Jewelry provides to their customers. The interior design of a store is the first impression; the customer service is part of why a customer wants to repeat an experience.

We created an interior design that functions even better than it looks, and customers are extremely impressed with the design, while the employees and owners are impressed with their increased ability to build relationships while operating their business.

Eileen McClelland is the Managing Editor of INSTORE. She believes that every jewelry store has the power of cool within them.

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At Komara Jewelers in Canfield, Ohio, Wilkerson handled all the aspects of its retirement sale just as owner Bob Komara’s children took over day-to-day operations of the business. They’d used other companies before, says Brianna Komara-Pridon, but they didn’t compare. “If we had used Wilkerson then, it would have been so much better.”

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America's Coolest Stores

How These Cool Georgia Jewelers Reinvented Marketing

Focus on charity touches community.

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Mucklow’s Fine Jewelry, Peachtree City, GA

URL:mucklowsfinejewelry.com ; OWNERS: Robert and Priscilla Mucklow; FOUNDED: 1996; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2003; LAST RENOVATED:2010; ARCHITECT AND DESIGNERS: Foley Design Associate Architects; Chris Kacena, lead architect; Dave Stone, interior design; Rock Eagle Store Fixtures; Grice Showcase & Display Manufacturing; BUILDOUT COST:$790,000 ;EMPLOYEES: 4 full-time; AREA: 5,000 square feet; TOP BRANDS: JB Star, Henri Daussi, Gregg Ruth, Dabakarov, Nina Nguyen


JEWELER ROBERT MUCKLOW, owner of Mucklow’s Fine Jewelry, is uniquely qualified to understand the value of relationships.

At the heart of his life story is the 50-year bond he’s enjoyed with his wife, Priscilla, whom he met when he was 16 and married when he was 20.

“We deal with love in our business, so we all know that there’s not an awful lot of people who meet the love of their life as a kid,” Mucklow says.

Cultivating relationships extends to his dealings with clients and employees alike.

And when he decided to take a step back from his beloved retail business in 2010, he forged a relationship with manager Rod Worley that helped him achieve his latest dreams to spend more time with his family.

The two met when Worley worked as a regional manager for Bailey Banks and Biddle, which closed in 2010. At that time, Mucklow asked him to come aboard as manager. Says Worley: “I told him I was going to start my Four Grainer consulting business, and he said, ‘Why don’t you use Mucklow’s Fine Jewelry as your base store?’ So I became an embedded consultant.”

They also agreed that Worley would use the store as a testing ground for innovations in marketing, merchandising and management. “It’s totally different how we run this store versus how every other independent runs,” says Worley, who wrote the book, A Reason To Chant, based on his experiences at Mucklow’s.

PROMOTION: Mucklow’s takes every opportunity to be visible in the community..

Mucklow had been spending heavily on print, radio and TV advertising, but he wasn’t able to gauge the response. “So we said let’s change things up,” Worley recalls. “Let’s not go after ‘likes’ on social media, let’s get people to come through the door, actual bodies.”

They developed a community outreach program based on charitable giving, through which all marketing funds are channeled. “Every day across the country, jewelers are approached to give to local charity, to take an ad in a yearbook, to sponsor this or sponsor that. It’s not effective. It’s not sending the right message or portraying the store correctly in the community.”

Worley wanted to approach charity differently. “We say we will give you as much money as you want if you’re representing the local chapter of the Cancer Society. All we ask is that you have people come into the store and sign the book.” The “book” is a list of names, addresses, email addresses and phone numbers. “We donate based on how many people the charity sends in and we get everything we need to contact them in the future.”

They’ve been able to reduce advertising costs while building their mailing list and goodwill throughout the community. They give away tens of thousands of dollars to 30 to 40 charities each year, boosting their community profile in the process and guaranteeing foot traffic.

“When we hire people, we ask them to tell us about their community involvement. Everyone is involved in the community, and if they need to work on that during store hours, we make that possible,” Worley says.

Another big change they implemented was a 30 percent reduction in inventory. “We reduced all the inventory to what’s in the case and we buy continually,” Worley explains. “We’re placing orders just about every day. That’s what really turned us around financially. He carries no debt.”

Rod Worley, manager, and Jessica Rossomme, director of operations.

How It All Started

Mucklow, who grew up in Chicago, took a circuitous route to retail.

The most likely career for him would have been a third-generation electrician, he says. “I always liked to work with my hands, but Grandpa and Dad always said you’ve got to go to school and work with your head, not your hands.” A film major, he took two elective metalsmithing classes at Southern Illinois University and began crafting art jewelry in his mother’s basement, an effort that led to acceptance in a juried Chicago art fair. “I don’t know what inspired me. I was very primitive in materials, wood and ivory and amber, organic materials, silver, rattlesnake rattles.” With plans to start a family, he landed a job polishing wedding rings, and then worked in a variety of roles in wholesale and retail companies before he returned to the bench to learn to repair fine jewelry.

Robert and Priscilla moved to Peachtree City, GA, in 1986, after his sister relocated there. “It’s an idyllic town,” Robert says. “It looked like heaven on earth.” Mucklow initially worked as a lead goldsmith for Maier & Berkele Jewelers in Atlanta.

A decade later, he stepped out from behind the bench, setting up a 130-square-foot shop with two showcases called Canterbury’s Gift Shop and Mucklow’s Fine Jewelry.

“I fell in love with retail because back in the day, when I was doing those art fairs, I got to meet you — the person who was going to wear the earrings,” Mucklow says. “That’s what I had missed all those years.”

In 1999, he graduated to his own 800 square-foot strip center rental space, which was half shop, half showroom. But Mucklow couldn’t create the overall impression he craved without his own building. So he bought a lot across the street and planned every detail of his building, inspired by the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright and assisted by like-minded architects.

“The décor of my store was very important to me,” he says. “We’re big fans of the Arts and Crafts period, and that’s reflected in furniture design, showcases, everything.”

Even the drainage eave spouts on the roof are historically correct. “He didn’t just put up rain gutters,” says Worley. “He researched and had another company bring in the right rain gutters for the period. It’s part of the whole philosophy; it’s all about the details that when you put it all together make a huge difference.”

Mucklow wanted his store to showcase handcrafted jewelry along with the pottery and glasswork of the artists he knew from his days on the art-show circuit. “I have absolutely zero threshold resistance,” Mucklow says. He’s got proof of that:

“One Saturday morning, a guy walks in at 10 a.m. and sits down in an overstuffed leather chair. The staff tries to approach him. Finally he says, ‘I’m getting new tires at the tire center and if you don’t mind, can I wait over here?’”

Mucklow says much of the magic lies in authenticity. “Everything you saw and heard in the store was me. I was the DJ, I picked all the music we would play. I want people when they drive down the street to have an experience when they pass by my building. I want the experience to envelope you as you approach, with the atrium and the cathedral ceiling, the mica light fixture.”

Now Mucklow, although still overseeing the business, spends most of his time with Priscilla, their three children and seven grandchildren, planning getaways in a newly purchased RV. And his dream store is just a 20-minute stroll through the woods in the idyllic village he still adores.

PHOTO GALLERY (10 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Mucklow’s Fine Jewelry

1. Personal connections. A Brand Ambassador program directly rewards clients for sharing their excitement for the brand.

2. Team building. Mucklow’s empowers staff to make decisions, pursue continuing education, chair local charities and go on buying trips. Employees benefit from generous paid time off, educational support and flexible schedules. After their first 90 days, everyone gets four weeks of vacation and five paid holidays.

3. Reasonable workload. Limited store hours allow full-time team members to work just 36 hours per week. The store is open five days per week and closes at 5:30 p.m. It works. “We had done the research and we knew what the traffic patterns were,” Worley says.

4. Every visit is unique. “We are an escape from the mundane,” Worley says. “Every touch point reaffirms and strengthens the other. Our captivating décor creates a visual experience and is enhanced by our jewelry offerings. We don’t carry under stock; jewelry sold is replaced with a different offering. We’re continually sourcing new designers and reworking our displays so every trip to Mucklow’s is unique.”

5. Accessible authority. The online Mucklow’s Magazine has become the destination for women in search of a one-stop site for their fashion, health, beauty and fitness needs. Constantly updated with engaging articles, the site is also an invaluable source for wedding planning and features local vendors for a range of bridal needs.

JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • Lyn Falk: Informative website with good info on founder. The great online magazine supports the business. Amazing attention to detail with the Arts and Crafts decor throughout. Exterior design is strong and memorable. The butterfly bench has probably become an iconic piece!
  • Sofia Kaman: What an inspiring business! I love the magazine and Brand Ambassador programs. Here’s a model of how to stay connected and relevant to customers for life!
  • Tiffany Stevens: Gorgeous exterior, colorful and fun overall.
  • Mia Katrin: Beautiful, warm and elegant interior and exceptional Arts and Crafts inspired exterior. Mucklow’s Magazine is a cut above!
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America's Coolest Stores

Grace-Themed Jewelry Gallery Reaches Out To Santa Fe

Creative decor stops shoppers in their tracks.

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Wear Your GRACE, Santa Fe, NM

OWNER: Hillary Fitzpatrick Randolph; FOUNDED: 2015; URL: wearyourgrace.com; BUILDOUT COST: $39,650; EMPLOYEES: 5, full and part-time; AREA: 650 square feet; TOP BRANDS: Owner’s GRACE pieces and Etkie (contemporary hand-loomed bracelets crafted by Native American artisans)


ONE DEFINITION OF “GRACE” is simple elegance. Another is refined movement. The word is also associated with the bestowal of blessings.

Artist and designer Hillary Randolph takes a creative approach to exploring the nuanced meanings of “grace” as the theme for her brand and her Santa Fe store, wear your GRACE. She also established “Share Your Grace,” a multifaceted program that benefits Santa Fe’s community, including its nonprofit organizations.

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Choosing grace as her theme triggers interesting conversations and builds meaningful rapport with clients, she says, who share what grace means in their own lives.

Randolph designed her Santa Fe store based on her aesthetic sense of what grace looks and feels like — warm and inviting with a dash of elegant simplicity. She opened her gallery in 2015 in a 250-year-old adobe building on Palace Avenue in the heart of Santa Fe, just off the historic plaza. Her jewelry emphasizes graceful flowing movement. Much of the work is developed upstairs in the design studio.

Her approach to interior design is hands on.

A unique orb light fixture is an eye-catching element near the entrance. Randolph created it from a grapevine she found in Round Top, TX, that had been steamed, coiled, shaped into an openwork globe and re-dried. She took it home, painted the bottom of it with gold leaf and hung from it 100-year-old faceted crystal drops from France. The table below is also painted with gold leaf so it appears as if the crystals are dripping gold. It complements the interior design, with its gold-on-white palette and a trompe l’oeil tangerine curtain painted by a local artist across the back wall. The curtain painting creates a sense of flowing movement and acts as a backdrop for casually luxurious décor.

“The best decisions I have ever made came from feelings, instincts and hunches, rather than spreadsheets, schematics and trend forecasts. I’ve learned to make business decisions according to how I want my life to feel. The unique look of the gallery came from the feeling I get from certain colors, combinations and materials. I want my guests to feel as inspired by the store’s ambience as I do.”

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“I hear people talk about the experience they have when they walk in,” she says. “The product is an offshoot of the experience.”

Randolph’s approach to sales is to honor each customer’s personal sense of style, wardrobe and lifestyle in general. “It’s our passion to truly connect with women from all walks of life, listening to their stories and encouraging self-expression through their jewelry,” she says. “So we connect, we listen and we always have fun.”

Although shopping in Santa Fe is a favorite pastime of tourists, more and more of Randolph’s regular clients live in town. So marketing is increasingly local as well, with in-store events and email campaigns. This year she plans to feature the “faces of Grace” in her marketing and discover what “grace” means to her clients to make her social-media marketing more interactive.

Another goal is to spend less time on paperwork upstairs in her office and more time downstairs in the gallery, being the ambassador of her brand.

Randolph’s career started in Palm Beach in luxury goods followed by a move to New York, where she worked with Ralph Lauren in his flagship Madison Avenue store. Other luxury brand retailers recruited her to develop their wholesale brands and open brick-and-mortar stores across the United States.

In 1999, she visited her mother in Santa Fe and never left.

“I never thought I would stay, and then I saw the moon rise over the ski basin and it was the biggest moon I’d ever seen in my life,” she recalls. “There was a certain connection with people from all over the country that I found here. I had conversations with them here that I would never have if I were sitting next to them at a dinner table in New York. There is a certain veil that is removed here, an authentic connection that feeds me.”

She launched her jewelry-design career in 1999 with Somers, a line based on the sculptures of her creative partner that was sold in galleries and jewelry stores around the country. Later, the idea for Grace took shape.

“Even today,” she says, “there are things I’m still discovering. A new hike, people, artists. It’s not boring here. There’s always something to feed you.”

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She has found the business climate friendly, as well. Santa Fe, she discovered is the No. 1 spot in the U.S. per capita for women-owned businesses.

She finds inspiration for design in Santa Fe, as well. “I design in my head so when I’m on that hike the best design pops into my head,” she says, “If I’m just sitting there with the stones it doesn’t work as well.”

Randolph believes in being an active part of her community by creating a business model that gives back. She is a founding member of Santa Fe’s 100 Women Who Care, a group that meets quarterly to learn about and donate to a charity that the group selects.

Share your GRACE also holds invitation-only sales events throughout the year, during which a portion of net proceeds benefit non-profit organizations while boosting Randolph’s philanthropic profile in the community.

Randolph is certain she’s where she’s supposed to be — both literally and figuratively.

“I am living proof that if you choose to make decisions from your heart and persevere, you will never look back,” she says. “Creating GRACE has given me more connection, has inspired other women to embrace their entrepreneurial spirit and has led to deeper relationships with my clients all due to my own personal decision to choose GRACE as this next chapter of my life.”

PHOTO GALLERY (21 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Wear Your GRACE

1. Practical magic. Randolph is focusing on gemstones and custom-creating talismans using labradorite and rose quartz. They’re marketed as being an essential element of everyday protection. “Being in Santa Fe with all of our ‘woo woo,’ people love it,” Randolph says. The jewelry line that I am creating is the core things we need as women to feel safe, protected, guided, grounded, but it’s also an individual connection.”

2. The canine experience. Just outside the store’s entrance is the most popular “Dog Bar” in town, complete with treats tucked inside a mailbox over a trompe l’oeil of splashing water from a faux-spigot. Four-legged friends may quench their thirst in cool H2O. Pet owners peek in with an amused smile as they view candy colored leather dog leashes and collars engraved with “Walk with GRACE. Sales help support animal rescue groups.

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3. Versatility behind the scenes. The second floor is the atelier, where the jewelry is designed and made from cast components. “I have used the space for open houses, gallery night on Fridays, and featured a painter here with her larger work upstairs,” Randolph says. “So it is a working studio, but also a social space. Or I’ll have a client come up and we’ll collaborate to remake something. Just minutes after a design is completed upstairs, it can be displayed on the floor.”

4. Guest stars. Randolph loves collaborating with artists she’s met on her travels, so she regularly features jewelry by guest designers and hosts events promoting other artwork she loves.

5. Coco’s Bangles. The wear your GRACE collection includes best-selling Coco’s Bangles, designed by Hillary’s teenage daughter, Coco. Coco donates a portion of the proceeds of sales to the Heart & Soul Animal Sanctuary outside Santa Fe.

JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • Sofia Kaman: I love seeing a business that embraces fun, whimsy and a sense of happiness in all that they do. The dog bar is a brilliant touch!
  • Jimmy DeGroot: I love the concept and the business model.
  • Lyn Falk: Great website. Clever and sophisticated. Unique name and use of the name in marketing. Interior and exterior are well done — distinct, savvy, artsy with touches of whimsy. Unique displays pushed the envelope in terms of a typical retail experience. More like a gallery. Hillary appears to exude charm!
  • Tiffany Stevens: This is a beautiful store! The exterior encapsulates the rich history of Santa Fe while the interior is modern and unique.
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America's Coolest Stores

Cool Store Design for Albany Store Based on Consumer Research

Vice-president Gregg Kelly considered aspects from the scent of flowers used outside to handicapped signage.

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Northeastern Fine Jewelry, Albany, NY

OWNER: Raymond Bleser; FOUNDED: 1980; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 1998; ARCHITECT: C2 Design Group; LAST RENOVATED: 2017;BUILDOUT COST: $1.3 million; NO. of LOCATIONS: 3; EMPLOYEES: 14;AREA: 5,000 square feet; TOP BRANDS: Cartier, Tacori, Simon G, IWC, Forevermark


WHEN GREGG KELLY told customers he was planning to redo the Albany, NY, location of Northeastern Fine Jewelry, they inevitably asked him, “Why are you spending money on a store that still looks beautiful?”

But Kelly, vice president and son-in-law of owner Raymond Bleser, understands the importance of updating a store’s look and making it as functionally modern and approachable as possible. He invested untold hours studying store design, traffic flow and consumer behavior before embarking on the major remodel he undertook in 2017, which went far beyond a touch up or a new coat of paint.

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In fact, the store was gutted, all while it remained open, with the support of its two sister stores in Schenectady and Glens Falls, NY.

What’s new? A 1,000-square foot addition, the floor plan, the cases, a glass façade, a patio and landscaping. Even the parking lot is new.

“We try to redo the stores every 10 years, and some stuff was falling apart,” Kelly says. “When a customer visits a few times a year, we want to re-engage them and give them a new environment, a new experience.”

The company realized a 15 percent increase in business the first full year following the renovation.

In preparation, Kelly painstakingly considered every detail and collected sources of inspiration from around the world, making it a priority to visit stores when he travels.

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He also reads the Robb Report and other national luxury magazines to stay on top of retail trends. He took a class with neuroscientist Robert Cooper, a New York Times bestselling author and business strategist specializing in consumer behavior. Kelly was particularly interested in what gives people the ability to make good, conscious decisions based on the retail environment itself. “Once you have their attention, it comes down to the associate who guides the decision to purchase.”

To get their attention, Kelly wanted the store to have an open floor plan and optimal traffic flow while balancing the individual requirements of a variety of international shop-in-shop brands with less of a choppy look.

Michael Roman of the C2 Design Group says the overall challenge was to take Kelly’s concept and bring it to life within an existing building.

The sense of openness was achieved by repositioning the entry and shifting it over, which also affected the exterior of the building. The goal inside was to improve traffic flow, so shoppers could feel comfortable, meandering freely without encountering any obstacles. “It’s the experience that’s going to bring you back,” Roman says. The shop-in-shops are tied together with materials and lighting, while accommodating each vendor’s own design criteria.

The glass facade offers a transparency that puts shoppers at ease as they approach. Especially at night, the window reveals the character of the store within, Roman says. And the casual patio setting in front offers a decompression zone between parking lot and shopping experience, easing threshold resistance.

Finishes are sleekly upscale and timeless, rather than trendy.

Kelly also told Roman he wanted a store that looked like it had leaped off the pages of a luxury magazine. Accordingly, finishes are sleekly upscale, but timeless rather than trendy. Decor includes shades of gray and imported European leathers. LED lighting is new, green and efficient. Roman describes the materials used in the interior as the bow on the design package — timeless, clean and relatively simple, designed to complement the design without overshadowing it or being too understated.

Kelly put himself in the shoppers’ shoes when it came to details.

“We changed a lot of different things as we went and I always kept the consumer in mind. Even things like how they experience walking through the parking lot, the pitch of the sidewalk, and the feel they get when they step out of their car,” says Kelly.

“We researched for hours how to get the right thing — from handicapped signs that weren’t run of the mill, to the garbage can, to the outside rugs, to the extension of the awning over the front door to give them enough space for their umbrella, so they’re not getting wet when they get into the store. I studied the music, the rocks we used outside and the flowers we put into the planters to make sure the scent is appealing.”

While all of this was going on, by far the ultimate challenge was that the full-service jewelry store remained open, to the extent that it could, one section at a time, while chaos was kept at bay.

“The biggest challenge was to make our employees comfortable, as well as our customers,” Kelly says. “We sectioned off parts of the building so we didn’t lose too much consistency. Every part was gutted. We did all right, too, and our customers were great to us. They still shopped and stayed loyal. We were able to move things from store to store and still fulfill their needs.”

Ray Bleser, who founded the company, was happy to leave the renovation project to Kelly.

Originally, Bleser had studied to be a pharmacist, planning to follow in his father’s footsteps, but after just one day in that professional role, he knew it wasn’t for him. Instead, he decided to pursue his hobby of collecting and selling rare coins and gold.

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Northeastern Coin Gallery opened in 1980 and quickly expanded in scope, becoming Northeastern Fine Jewelry by 1985. In a twist of fate, the company’s flagship location in Schenectady, NY, occupies the building that once housed the drugstore where Bleser’s father worked.

Bleser has given his son-in-law his seal of approval. “He’s stationed in Schenectady, and every time he comes in, he says this is the nicest store from here to New York City,” Kelly says. “It’s a real modern look that’s attractive to all age groups. You get a New York City feel combined with a hometown experience, and I think that’s hard to accomplish.”

PHOTO GALLERY (12 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Northeastern Fine Jewelry

1. The Diamond District edge. Northeastern Fine Jewelry has an office in the Diamond District of New York. “We’ve never been one to just order stuff and ship it in. We like to look at things ourselves and have the first pick of diamonds. We’re picky when it comes to buying. And it gives us a nice edge to pick out what we want and pass those savings on to the consumer based on our buying ability,” says Kelly.

2. Training is top of mind. The company sends staff for training provided by its top brands and invests thousands of dollars a year into additional education. The expectation of expertise extends beyond sales to custom design and the repair shop. There’s also a watchmaker on staff.

3. A respect for jewelry history. They plan for an estate sale every year. “We try to keep our roots and the things that made us who we are today. They’re fun, too, because you get to look at things that are older and helped develop the jewelry industry for what it is today,” says Kelly. “And it’s fun to sell one-of-a-kind, rare things and tell the story of how it became what it is.”

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4. Making marketing a priority. “Traditionally, the jewelry industry markets for six weeks leading up to the holidays; we work hard to have a consistent approach to educating the consumer,” Kelly says. “We’re marketing 12 months out of the year.” Marketing is about 30 to 35 percent digital, and the website recently became set up for e-commerce.

5. Promotional savvy. In 2017, Northeastern sponsored a contest to win the opportunity to propose in a live commercial aired during halftime of the Super Bowl on FOX. The winner was featured in People Magazine, the Daily Mail in the UK and the New York Times. They also sponsored a half court shot during a Siena College basketball game; the contestant made the shot and walked away with $25,000, leading to intensive coverage from ESPN.

TRY THIS

When updating your store’s appearance, consider function as well as form and put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Imagine you are the consumer approaching the building. What is the experience like? Is there shelter from rain? Are curbs accessible? Is there space for seating? Can they tell what kind of a store they will be entering? Have you provided a decompression zone between street and store?

 

JUDGES’ COMMENTS

  • Geoffrey Brown: “Very strong positive word-of-mouth going on here. The more personable and authentic you are, the more you stay top-of-mind.”
    Laura Davis: “The exterior is beautiful and the interior is very nice.”
  • David Lampert: “Nice looking store. Clever promotion with the Super Bowl.”
  • Katherine Bodoh: “I like the modern exterior with the large windows and natural light. The interior layout looks beautiful and very upscale.”
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