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Real Deal

This “Real Deal” Jeweler’s Nightmare Scenario with Lab-Grown Diamonds and How Retailers Suggest He Handle It

Should this retailer agree to his client’s demands?

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A lot had changed in the four years since Keith Thomas took over the day-to-day operation of The Gem Vault from his mom. Volume and profits were on a steady incline. The Vault ’s bridal business had nearly doubled over four years as Keith’s new ideas began to take hold. 

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 kate@performanceconcepts.net

Keith felt especially grateful for his dad’s early jump onto the “we buy diamonds and gold” train. Nearly 20 years’ worth of his dad’s sharp eye and good deals left the store with a great selection of diamond qualities and sizes, and often made them price-competitive with internet sellers. 

When a diamond jewelry rep who had been visiting the store since Keith was in high school stopped by about 18 months ago, Keith made time to listen as he made his best pitch for his new lab-grown diamond line. Keith had done some homework on the “lab-grown phenomenon” and believed that it was here to stay. He also knew that his mom and dad were both firmly opposed to carrying synthetics in the store. But the rep was able to counter every argument. He talked about the need to service today’s eco-minded and socially responsible consumer and pointed out that all of the stones were clearly inscribed, making inventory mistakes unlikely. He offered to leave Keith with a 25 stone memo complete with a cool in-store display and iPad to tell the story. Keith agreed — and after six months, lab-grown diamonds represented nearly 35 percent of loose diamond sales at The Gem Vault.

Keith was on the floor one day several months ago when Ian Sandren came in looking for an engagement ring. Ian had just moved to town for a job as the new art director at a local marketing firm and had been sent in by a colleague who was a long-time customer of the store. He said that he had seen information on lab-grown stones on the store’s website, but that he was only interested in seeing natural diamonds. He said that while he didn’t have a problem with the concept in general, he didn’t feel at all comfortable with the idea of a synthetic in his fiancée’s engagement ring. Keith assured him that all of the lab-grown stones in the store were clearly marked. He pointed out that reports from independent grading services were available if Ian chose, and that his engagement ring would be accompanied by a detailed appraisal that included a statement of natural origin. 

After spending several hours with Keith over the course of three visits, Ian chose a 0.98-carat round diamond (G, VS2, ideal cut) from the store’s stock and a beautifully designed platinum and diamond mounting with a total price of $9,200. The center diamond did not have a grading report, but Ian was comfortable with the grade assigned by the store’s appraiser. The finished ring was delivered two weeks later, and Ian loved it. 

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That was the last Keith heard from Ian until last week, when he signed for a registered envelope addressed to him personally. In it was a letter, along with a copy of a GIA report. In his letter, Ian said that his fiancee’s father — an insurance broker — highly recommended that his daughter get a GIA report on the diamond and took her to a local jeweler friend who agreed to help. The diamond was taken out of the mounting and sent to GIA New York. When the diamond and report came back, GIA had identified the stone as laboratory grown. Grades for color, clarity and cut (near colorless, very slightly included, XXX) did match those assigned by the Gem Vault appraiser.  After receiving the report and before resetting the stone, the jeweler took the mounting to a nearby manufacturer who, with proper screening equipment, was also able to identify four of the 20 melee in the setting as synthetic. 

Ian made it clear that he believed Keith and the Gem Vault had been either terribly careless or deliberately fraudulent. He said he had to assume that he was not the only customer who had been sold a synthetic under the guise of a natural diamond. He demanded that Keith supply documented natural diamonds of the quality for which he’d paid to replace the synthetic stones, and that the Gem Vault refund the price paid for the ring to compensate for his and his fiancée’s stress and expense.

Keith was mortified. The only possible explanation he could come up with was that the synthetic center had been purchased by the store in an over-the-counter transaction and that the supplier of the mounting was far less cautious than they claimed. He was committed to making it right with Ian — but it was clear that he was staring down a potential public relations nightmare. He had no way of knowing how many other synthetic melee or larger non-disclosed loose diamonds had been bought and/or sold by the store, but he didn’t think he could live with the idea of not finding out.

The Big Questions

  • Should Keith agree to Ian’s demands? If he does, is it appropriate to ask for a confidentiality agreement?
  • Is there a way to ensure that he identifies any other synthetics that he might have unknowingly sold without incurring overwhelming expense and/or creating a public relations nightmare?
  • Should he stop selling synthetics and adhere to his parents’ recommended “natural only” strategy?

Expanded Real Deal Responses

Ira K.  Tallahassee, FL

Keith is probably not the first and certainly not the last that this will happen to, but if he doesn’t mind a $5,000-$7,000 loss, he can pay Ian off. Offer Ian either a refund or a new ring with natural GIA-papered diamond, a discount on his wedding rings and a sincere apology.

As a thought: how do we know that someone couldn’t or wouldn’t switch a natural for a synthetic and then work this as a scam?

Bruce A. Sherwood Park, Alberta

Keith should obviously supply his customer with the same or better quality diamonds as those for which he was charged. That makes the purchase complete and it should not be accompanied with a refund of the original sale. Do not ask for a confidentiality agreement because any fallout from this client will be best handled confidently and professionally if and when it surfaces. He must recheck all of his diamond inventory, whether it is expensive or not! As for carrying synthetic alongside natural, he will face the same dilemma we all do when we weigh the decision regarding synthetic. This problem was not caused by him carrying synthetic, so it should not enter into how he proceeds in future.

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Marcus M. Midland, TX

In my opinion, buying diamonds off the street has always had its risk and been a tricky game. Now, with lab-grown diamonds in the mix, forget about it. I never buy off the street and refuse to buy into the lab-grown diamond business. Am I missing out on some sales? Maybe, but I’m also safeguarding myself from potential disasters like this. Keith absolutely has to make this right for Ian and he needs to make it very clear that it was a careless mistake on his end but that he would appreciate keeping it confidential. And I don’t know what he can do about ensuring he didn’t do this to other customers, but he better get on top of it quick. He should also really think about going back to his original family business plan and stick to selling naturally grown diamonds. Good luck Keith.

Rex S. Houston, TX

In today’s environment, it is almost negligent to sell a center diamond over a half-carat without a recognized and respected independent lab report. They represent a minute cost compared to the item. We have almost exclusively used GIA after we have all the diamonds we buy from the public recut to ideal proportions. Through this process, we have two outside layers to examine and verify our diamonds as not being treated or lab-grown. At JCK last year, I put a deposit down on the GIA id100 and received it yesterday. Last week, our entire staff was trained on the device at the IJO show. It is the only device to quickly test for lab-grown HPHT and CVD; all of the other machines only test for HPHT. Get the machine test for everything, always!

Daniel S. Cambridge, MA

Not only should he immediately do what the customer asked, but he should go over and above that. Give him a large credit to be used at the store or give him back 20 percent of the price on the diamond purchase as well. He’s screwed up big time and he’s responsible. And yes, he should go back to selling naturals only, have all the stones in the store certed, refuse to buy from the supplier of the mounting anymore and tell him to take back any other goods of his that they have and refund the money for the setting. It’s all on him. A costly lesson, but one that more jewelers today should be paying attention to as well. Know your suppliers. Insist they take responsibility and don’t buy off the street. It’s a whole new world out there now.

Stacey H. Chicago, IL

1) Keith should call his lawyer! There’s an excellent chance that some kind of fraud has taken place, and that the real victim is KEITH! Way too many other people handled that ring for Keith to be certain that the other jeweler did not swap out the stone to make him look bad and steal the sale.

He should not admit any kind of guilt; he should tell Ian that he will look into it and get back to him later in the week. If Ian wants a refund, he has to prove that the stone he is returning is the one he bought.

2) Keith should call the GIA and arrange to have his whole loose inventory checked, graded and inscribed ASAP. The appraiser at the store should be sent for more training to recognize synthetics!

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3) Keith should call the supplier for the band and tell that guy he wants a full refund on every piece he has left, and return them all! Maybe his lawyer will write that letter for him!

Michelle S. Towson, MD

Disclosure, disclosure, disclosure. A client can’t get enough of it. In addition, making everything right as far as the client who didn’t get the genuine diamond is a must!

Emily J. Minneapolis, MN

First and foremost, Keith should contact a lawyer for advice. This could have major consequences on his business and he needs to get all the facts before he acts. I would also ask to see the grading report and confirm with the GIA that this was a legit report. I would be more likely to offer a full refund on the ring and take it back, OR replace the diamonds with natural diamonds at no cost and then throw in a free wedding band or another similar bonus. But I don’t think giving the customer an entirely free ring would be my first choice; that’s why a lawyer could be handy to confer with.

Going forward, I would not stop selling lab-grown diamonds, but I would stop stocking the store with them. Have a few rings with lab-grown as examples in a special location, clearly tagged and then just bring in loose lab-grown diamonds by request for custom work.

Susan G. New York, NY

Keith must admit fault and accept responsibility. It’s unfortunate that this happened, but it did and he has to make the necessary changes so that it doesn’t happen again.

Going forward, he must continue to sell natural and synthetic diamonds and make sure he knows what he is doing. His diamond suppliers can help him to identify natural from synthetic. There are also trade organizations and labs that will identify a diamond and colored stones for that matter. Maintaining proper record keeping is important as well.

Mistakes happen; dealing with them is critical to the future of the business.

Jim A. Missoula, MT

The moral of the story is stay as far away as possible from synthetic diamonds. Short-term profits aren’t worth the long-term hassles.

Mack T. Walterboro, SC

First thing I would do is express how deeply sorry I am that this happened and explain to him where the diamond was purchased from and how I too had unknowingly purchased and sold a lab-created stone. I would then replace the lab-grown with naturals of equal grading with GIA reports to accompany them. I would not give a refund, but I would make it right. If explained correctly, the customer will understand and be sympathetic. After all, Keith is just as much the victim as the customer in this situation.

Shari L. Georgetown, KY

I would not give in immediately to his demands, but yes, this needs to be made right. Honesty is best policy. This is a nightmare that I am afraid will become a familiar story.

 


The Rest of the Story: More Insights From Kate Peterson

As many of our Brain Squad members pointed out, Keith had two critical priorities in this situation: To protect himself and his business and, as Ira Kramer (Diamond Exchange of North Florida, Tallahassee, FL) said, assuming he was not being victimized himself, to make his client whole.

Keith called Ian immediately after receiving his letter. He offered a sincere apology for the inexcusable mistake, assured Ian that he would make things right, and asked Ian to bring the ring back to the store as soon as possible. Ian seemed to be reassured by Keith’s immediate response and genuine concern. They set an appointment to meet a week later.

During that week, Keith took a page from Rex Solomon’s (Houston Jewelry, Houston, TX) play book. He researched the synthetic screening devices on the market and after much discussion with his parents, decided to make a major capital investment in a highly rated scanner that works on both loose and mounted goods. The initial expense (nearly $18,000) was painful — but he was thinking forward both to his plan for resolving his current situation and to ensuring that he could use this experience as a powerful brand positioning tool going forward. He took the time to check out the jeweler who handled things for Ian’s fiancée. He learned that the store was very highly regarded in the community and was a part of several major trade organizations. Keith called the owner of the store, Warren Barret, to confirm the details of the situation. He explained how it all happened, and was quite surprised when Mr. Barret said, “You know, this could have happened to any of us. No one on my end caught it either until we saw the GIA report. There is a lesson in this for all of us.” By the end of the conversation, he felt confident that Barret’s was not simply trying to take the sale and that they were not part of any sort of scam. Moving on to the stone in question, Keith examined the GIA report carefully, and verified that, as closely as he could tell, the plot on the report matched the plot done by his own appraiser. By the time they met, Keith was sure that Ian’s story was accurate, and the problem was his to deal with. He had a new diamond (1.02ct, F, VS1, XXX, with a GIA report) as well as four matched melee with an affidavit from the supplier verifying natural origin, ready and waiting.

As Mack Thomas (Infinger’s Jewelry, Walterboro, SC) suggested, during their meeting, Ian was far more understanding and reasonable than Keith expected. He said that Mr. Barret had called him and explained that he believed this really was an honest mistake, and asked that he give Keith an opportunity to make it right. In the end, Keith replaced the synthetic stone with a more valuable diamond, replaced the synthetic melee in the ring, paid for all costs associated with getting the GIA report on the synthetic and gave Ian a $500 gift card to use toward his wedding bands. Ian was happy, and by his calculation, the hard cost to the store for resolving the immediate issue was about $2500 all in (plus whatever they paid for the synthetic originally).

Once the situation with Ian was handled, Keith contacted his sales rep for the mounting manufacturer, explained the problem, and let him know he was returning all remaining stock and discontinuing the line. He also laid out a schedule for checking every piece of diamond jewelry in the store with the new screener he ordered. Keith was still left with the task of working out a plan to examine as many of the diamonds sold by the store over the past five years as possible (discretely, of course). He asked his marketing company to come up with a ‘complimentary service’ promotion that would encourage customers to come back into the store once his new screening device was up and running. He didn’t really expect to find more problems, but he was prepared just in case, and he felt much better knowing that he was making an honest effort.

Whether or not to continue carrying synthetics is a question still in discussion for Keith and his parents. Keith is considering whether the brand value of saying (legitimately) ‘all naturally sourced and verified’ is bigger than the potential business loss associated with not offering the alternative for interested customers. His bigger concern lies in how he might deal with the customers who purchased lab grown diamonds from the store over the past year.

What’s the Brain Squad?

If you’re the owner or top manager of a U.S. jewelry store, you’re invited to join the INSTORE Brain Squad. By taking one five-minute quiz a month, you can get a free t-shirt, be featured prominently in this magazine, and make your voice heard on key issues affecting the jewelry industry. Good deal, right? Sign up here.

Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at kate@performanceconcepts.net.

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Real Deal

When A Bride-To-Be Threatens To Pull the Couple’s Business, How Should The Owner React?

The husband-to-be has been a loyal and good client.

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SHIRLEY JONES WAS born and raised in Abingdon, a small New England town. She loved the town and couldn’t remember a time when she’d regretted her decision to leave the world of corporate finance and buy Pruet Jewelers from her retiring great uncle. As she sat at her desk one bright, sunny January day, she remembered the three admonitions her uncle left with her the day she took the keys:

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 kate@performanceconcepts.net

1. Always let your passion drive your business.
2. Protect your name and fine reputation at all cost.
3. If you look hard enough, you’ll always find a way to make even the most difficult, most obnoxious customer happy.

Then, she looked again at the letter that had just come in the day’s mail:

Dear owner,

I am writing to request you remove my fiancé, Devin Hines, from your mailing list. I have requested he no longer purchase jewelry from your store, and instead do business with Moeller Jewelers in Westgate.

I am satisfied with the quality of your jewelry and with the selections he has made. I am extremely dissatisfied, however, with your customer service. Recently, one of my channel diamond earrings fell out of my ear and was lost. Rather than have me go without it, Devin insisted on replacing it so I would once again have a matching pair. I insisted he have it replaced “at cost,” considering how much business he does with Pruet’s. Otherwise, it wasn’t worth it to me to replace it. Unfortunately, he was given a mere $50 discount on a $500 earring (he paid $1,000 for the original pair). I find it disconcerting to know that your establishment benefited from our misfortune.

I have inquired about the practices of other local jewelers who all indicated they would have treated Devin with more respect and provided him a much better deal to encourage his future patronage. Because he wasn’t treated with this level of consideration, I insist he no longer shop at your store. He realizes how strongly I feel on this matter and has agreed to honor my wishes.

Hopefully, our circumstances will encourage you to reconsider your policy.

Sincerely,
Jenna M. Sheely

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After getting past her initial anger at the arrogant and manipulative tone of the letter, Shirley pulled up Devin Hines’s file and found that he had indeed purchased a number of items over the past six years, including a strand of pearls, diamond stud earrings, the diamond hoops in question and an engagement ring. All told, he’d spent over $15,000 with the store. She also noted that, per store policy, Devin had been given an insurance valuation document with every item on which he spent $500 or more. She clearly remembered taking care of Devin when he came in for the earring replacement as well. While he asked if there might be some sort of a “break” on the price, he did not object to the 10 percent discount. She believed that he appreciated the $50 “break” and recalled that he even commented on her willingness to sell him just half of a pair.

As angry as she was with Jenna’s letter, Shirley hated the thought of losing even one customer. She picked up the phone to call Devin, but put it back down as she realized that she had no clue what she would tell him. Her first instinct was to apologize for putting him in so difficult a spot and to offer to refund part of the earring price. Good sense told her, though, that doing so would bring the value of everything else Devin had purchased into question, and would also demonstrate that Jenna’s brand of extortion was a viable strategy.

The Big Questions

  • Should Shirley even acknowledge the letter at all? If so, should she deal with Devin, or with Jenna?
  • Short of questioning Devin’s good sense in even considering a lifetime with a woman so demanding, what should Shirley do?
  • Is there any strategy that might help save Devin as a customer and repair the situation?

Expanded Real Deal Responses

Ilah C.
Sudbury, MA

Sorry not sorry. It sucks to lose a good customer, but she already lost him to his nutterbutter fiancée. That is a fight that cannot be won with any amount of good customer service. Leave it alone and be glad that she is not your problem moving forward.

Davy D.
Williston, ND

I would reach out to the customer as soon as possible, apologize for the situation and ask the customer if there was anything I could do to fix it. If they said no, then at least the effort was there and maybe they won’t complain to everyone and blow you up on social media. If they say yes, then I’d probably do what they wanted this one time and then I would suggest homeowner’s or renter’s insurance for future issues of that nature. Sure, the store would lose money on fixing that for cost or a little above. Chalk it up to advertising budget to keep bad word-of-mouth from spreading. I think any reasonable person would allow you the chance to take care of the problem. Some of our best customers have had major customer service issues, and how you handle that can make or break your business. Take the ego out of it. Try not to fire the customer; let them quit, if that makes sense.

Mary-Beth T.
Alliston, ON

I find this statement incredibly sexist: “Short of questioning Devin’s good sense in even considering a lifetime with a woman so demanding, what should Shirley do?”

Although I don’t believe that many jewelers would offer the earring at cost, for the client to request a substantial discount is not a “brand of extortion.” Although purchased by the fiancée, if they have a joint household income, she has every right to question the money spent in the store.

I think for the owner to invite the engaged couple into the store together, she could demonstrate that she values both equally as clients. I would offer a gift card for the cost value of the single earring for future shopping.

I’m very disappointed to see how the woman is vilified in this story. An assertive female client shouldn’t be immediately marked as a problem.

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Ursula P.
Naples, FL

Dear Ms. Sheely:

Thank you for writing. I regret the loss of your earring and appreciate your frank description of the stress you felt about the replacement circumstances.

Jewelry is meant to bring joy, especially if it is a thoughtful gift from a loved one. We always want to do whatever we can to add to and sustain this joy.

So, in order to find a solution, may I invite you to visit me at the store?

Perhaps, over a cup of coffee and honestly-shared information, we can find a mutually agreeable solution?

Please, call my mobile number if we may have this opportunity.

Respectfully,

Shirley

Ralph H.
Connersville, IN

You are a one-price store or you aren’t. The earrings were likely not defective, and the customer would likely have had insurance (you provided an appraisal). No matter how low you go, you would never make a dollar’s profit again with her, they’ll never respect you, and you can bet she’ll tell all of her buddies (your customers?) how she “got one over on you.” Don’t tell her your cost (then she’ll “know” your mark-up is too high). You might have given a “nice” gift certificate on a future purchase? Keep being nice and honest, and remember the customers who really trust you.

Ernie C.
Lawrence, KS

Our store’s policy is to charge approximately half the margin on the original sale. This seems to work for both sides: lower price for customer, and enough margin to help with the fixed cost of being open.

If she wants to change store policy for this situation, she may be able to keep the customer and still retain a good relationship. This problem comes up occasionally, in my case. We treat some situations as political. If we incur a cost to retain good relations, we think of it as an advertising expense. Try to put yourself in their shoes.

If Shirley wants to keep her policy, that’s her approach to business.

These are difficult situations. We believe helping with a lost situation is usually successful. We also ask if it is insured and if that could be a solution.

Gabi M.
Tewksbury, MA

Dear Jenna,

I’m so sorry that you lost your earring. Being in the jewelry industry for so long, my heart goes out to all the lonely earrings out there that have been lost over the years! Our jewelry is priced competitively and fairly, along with the value of each piece being honest and accurate. We do not price our pieces high enough to give any large discounts. I appreciate the bond Devin and I have created over the years, and I would hate for both of us to lose that. I would like to help you further if it interests you — I could turn the earrings into locking posts and backs, at no cost to you. That should protect you from another future situation that would otherwise cause them to fall out again. I hope to hear from you soon so we can resolve this.

Thank you,

Shirley

Walter B.
West Orange, NJ

Shirley needs to deal with Jenna as Jenna has shown herself to be the decision-maker. Shirley should let Jenna know that she has thought about the situation and appreciated the letter. Shirley can offer a gift certificate to Jenna to get her in the door and win her over. She has nothing to lose.

When couples get engaged and/or move, the decision-making dynamics change. Jenna is letting Shirley know that she is now in charge of the jewelry buying decisions.

David H.
Rose Bay, New South Wales

For the client to be motivated enough to write a letter, she must have been pretty worked up. When an earring is lost, there’s often a sense in the client’s mind that the jeweler is at least partly responsible; after all, they made the earrings.

The client is waiting for a response, so I would call the client, thank her for reaching out to me and ask what would they like us to do?

Any partial refund I would consider would be in the form of a credit note.

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Marcus M.
Midland, TX

Jenna sounds like an entitled brat! We have had to replace several half earrings for people and have never had someone demand it at our cost. People who are civil and have common sense can accept that it is their fault for a loss like this and own up for their mishap. Shirley does not need to bow to Jenna’s request and should steer clear of dealing with her. Maybe Shirley can send Devin a $200 gift card to her store or to a nice local restaurant. She should include a note saying she appreciates all of his business, and since she couldn’t do much about the price of the replacement earring, please accept this gift. If he is loyal and trusts Shirley, then he’ll stay on as her customer. I can’t see this being a deal-breaker unless Devin has no backbone and won’t stand up to his fiancée.

Bruce A.
Sherwood Park, AB

Dear Ms. Sheely,

I wanted to thank you for taking the time to write your thoughts on our handling of Devin’s diamond hoop purchase. I have always felt a passion for each and every one of my clients, and it easy to tell that you are driven by passion as well. The world could use more of us, don’t you agree?

I was happy to look after Devin personally when he told me about your lost earring. I pride myself in sourcing and pricing our fine jewelry so that Pruet’s can offer the best jewelry value to all of our clients. The 10 percent discount was offered because of the unfortunate circumstances.

I am very sorry to lose your business. I value each and every one of my customers. Moeler Jewelers in Westgate are excellent competitors and I know they will welcome your support.

Please find enclosed a copy of a $200 donation that I have made in your name to Soldiers’ Agents. I hope we can meet someday.

Shirley Jones

President

Noreen M.
Rochester Hills, MI

It was certainly not the store’s fault that she lost the earring. The woman was totally out of line and should have filed an insurance claim. Probably not the first time she has used this tactic. Chalk it up to an irrational person and move on. It’s not in your best interest to contact him either.

What’s the Brain Squad?

If you’re the owner or top manager of a U.S. jewelry store, you’re invited to join the INSTORE Brain Squad. By taking one five-minute quiz a month, you can get a free t-shirt, be featured prominently in this magazine, and make your voice heard on key issues affecting the jewelry industry. Good deal, right? Sign up here.

Continue Reading

Real Deal

A Salesperson Discovers Her Store Owner Is Cheating Her Out of Commissions. How Should She Respond?

He lied to her about two huge sales.

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ELIZABETH KRISTOF WAS A sales professional at Elegance Fine Jewelry, a successful family-owned store in a high-end resort town in Florida. Elizabeth had worked at the store for 12 years, ever since James Turner, the current owner, took the store over from his mother. Like all Elegance sales professionals, she was paid a base salary plus a commission equal to 5 percent of her personal gross profit production.

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 kate@performanceconcepts.net

In mid-January, Brad Fitzgerald came in looking for a special gift for his 20th anniversary. After Elizabeth had spent a considerable amount of time with him over several days, Brad selected a natural fancy yellow diamond ring that had been brought in on memo for him, and negotiated a price of $27,500. He asked Elizabeth for some time since he still had a few weeks until the anniversary, and he wasn’t prepared to take it with him that day. The ring was put into the showcase and quickly became a conversation piece with women who visited the store.

The following week, Elizabeth returned to the store after a day off and noticed that the ring was no longer in the showcase. She asked James about it, and he told her that the vendor had requested that the ring be returned. She reminded him that Brad was interested in the ring, but James told her that he’d checked with Brad, who had decided against the purchase, opting instead to take his wife to Paris for their anniversary.

In early February, James brought in two matched pairs of four-carat total weight round diamonds for Henry Askew, another local businessman and longtime friend who was looking to buy a pair of diamond earrings for his wife’s birthday. The diamonds arrived while James was away on a family vacation, so he asked Elizabeth to contact Henry and to arrange a time to show him the diamonds. He told her not to worry about the price — that he would work the details out with Henry when he returned. The next day, Henry came in, selected one of the diamond pairs and worked with Elizabeth to choose suitable mountings. He thanked Elizabeth for her time and said he would follow up with James in the coming week. When James returned, he told Elizabeth he’d contact Henry personally and take over from there. Elizabeth wasn’t concerned; she felt that the sale was solid, and store policy indicated that she would be entitled to at least half of the commission on the sale for her effort. A week later, when she asked James about Henry’s decision, he told her that Henry had learned that his wife did not want large diamond earrings and was thinking about other options. Elizabeth thought it odd that Henry would back out, as he’d seemed so committed.

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With the fast pace and the high volume of in-season business at the store, it wasn’t long before Elizabeth forgot about both Brad and Henry’s transactions. Neither man’s change of heart had kept the store — or Elizabeth — from achieving monthly goals.

The following month, Elizabeth’s husband Joe, a well-known local artist, surprised her with tickets to the Children’s Hospital Spring Charity Gala. Elegance and the Turner family had traditionally been sponsors of the event, and over the years they had donated several spectacular pieces to the evening’s live auction. James had made it clear to his mother even before he took over the store, though, that he was not a “black-tie kind of guy” — so Elegance hadn’t had a representative at the Gala since 2005. Elizabeth was more than excited to attend the event for the first time.

At one point during the cocktail hour, Elizabeth spotted Brad Fitzgerald, Henry Askew, and their wives. As she and Joe approached, she was shocked to see that both women were wearing the pieces she had shown their husbands — the ones James told her had not been purchased. She managed to engage in the usual social small talk, keeping it very brief and making no mention of the women’s new bling. While Mrs. Askew’s diamond studs could well have been purchased anywhere, Mrs. Fitzgerald’s yellow diamond ring was very distinctive and was obviously the same one that had been in the store.

Elizabeth kept her suspicions to herself but decided to investigate. At the next opportunity, she looked up a few other important pieces that had been brought into the store over the previous year and had supposedly been sent back to vendors after customers lost interest. Along with the Fitzgerald ring and the Askew diamonds, several additional pieces had been noted in the inventory system as purchased from vendors. Some were later marked as “broken up” or “sold.” One was marked as “lost” and a few still showed as in inventory, though they were nowhere to be found. It didn’t take long for Elizabeth to conclude that James was selling merchandise “off the record,” altering the company’s books and denying her and other sales professionals commissions they had legitimately earned.

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Although Elizabeth recognized that as a business owner, James could do whatever he wanted with his inventory, she felt disappointed and betrayed. In her view, he was undermining the integrity of the business while being horribly unfair to her and to her associates.

The Big Questions

  • Should Elizabeth confront James with her suspicions?
  • Since other sales associates were involved, do they have a right to know about the off-the-books sales?
  • Elizabeth have a moral obligation to report her concerns to local tax authorities?

Expanded Real Deal Responses

Bernie S.
Ephrata, PA

If she was hired as a commissioned salesperson, he OWES her. With interest. Stealing the sale is, in my opinion, illegal in that instance. And she should quit, because she’s working for a dishonest man.

Newton S.
Flowood, MS

Yes indeed! Confront him in a private, professional way. Stand firm if the policies described are really in effect. Always remember this warning I was given early in life: if someone will lie to you, they will steal from you.

Daniel S.
Cambridge, MA

Well I’d be pissed if this was me it was happening to. And she has good reason to be. As a store owner who used to have employees who were paid on commission, I can’t imagine anything more sleazy and disgusting than screwing the people you depend on in this way. Even if the guy is selling them off the books, the employees should still get their cut. How the guy declares or doesn’t declare sales isn’t their problem, but they should get paid. If I were her, I’d confront him publicly in front of the other employees with it. I’d tell him that if he didn’t pay up for all the missed commissions, I’d walk and go to the closest competitor and let all my regular customers know just what was going on. These days, the labor market is so tight, she wouldn’t have any problem finding another job. I’m on the fence about talking to the tax people as she doesn’t really know whether or not he’s truly hiding the income.

Bruce A.
Sherwood Park, AB

Yes, Elizabeth needs to talk with James. Her important discussion is a search for the truth and not rumors or suspicions. Clarification is the issue, and if it appears that James is moving items in order to bypass his requirement of paying commission, then Elizabeth is working at the wrong jewelry store. Without concrete paperwork, reporting this to the local tax authorities would not only be inappropriate, but could potentially leave Elizabeth open to legal action from Elegance Fine Jewelry.

Fred F.
Hyattsville, MD

As a second-generation owner/partner in our store, this totally disgusts me. Your staff is what makes you, and if you are going to use them like that and not share what is owed to them, then I have no problem with her giving her two weeks’ notice and finding another job in town. She has enough of a following to make her desirable to another store, and if she has proof of anything, she should contact the IRS and suggest that they audit him. If he is indeed cheating, then he deserves to be made an example of. It is owners like that that give our industry a bad name. I have no problem having a cheater exposed and punished. If she wants to confront him before progressing that is her decision, but the proof seems to be there, and why should she continue to be used and not compensated for her work? Hopefully this would be an example to others to stay on the right side of the law.

Bill C.
Ridgefield, CT

If I was Elizabeth, I would sit down with James. Explain to him what I saw at the Gala, then after some investigation, I noticed the earrings and ring were sold under the table, plus other inventory items over a period of time! Either pay me and the staff what is owed to us for commissions, or, I report you!

James, you own the business, we don’t, so you will be the one in trouble with agencies. Once he pays them, quit and take all of their customer book with them!

Jennifer T.
Oconomowoc, WI

She should ask him about these items. Not to confront him, but to find out why she was lied to and it was kept a secret from her. Maybe it wasn’t intentional on his part, maybe it was. Either way, piece of mind goes a long way.

Marc M.
Midland, TX

What an unethical POS James is! I mean I don’t know how you can go down for embezzling from your own company, but it seems like he certainly is. It’s very clear what has happened and Elizabeth has every right to confront him. Call him out! What’s he going to do? Fire you? You’re better off not working for a dirtbag like that anyway. Maybe give him one chance to explain it and tell the truth, but I don’t see how there is any other possible play out here. If he comes clean, then I would point-blank tell him that he HAS to pay everyone who helped with sales that he burned them on. If he doesn’t, then take it to the local tax collector. This guy is a bad character and needs to taken care of. There are no excuses for his actions and he can’t walk from this without repercussions.

Jim D.
Kingston, NH

Elizabeth is in a bit of a pickle, should she say something and possibly lose her job, notify the IRS and possibly lose her job but get the reward, or stay silent and hope the stuff hitting the fan doesn’t cost her, too? If James is cooking the books, it could lead to tax issues and potential store closure. Whistle-blower laws will shield her from certain retaliation.

I would suggest she should mention to James that she attended the gala and saw the yellow diamond ring … then see how James reacts. Hopefully he will come clean and do the right thing, but there are no guarantees in life and she needs to make sure she is protected. Elizabeth may also want to clue in her fellow employees to the situation, remembering that she needs to be ready to seek a new employer. From the sounds of it, Elegance may not be around much longer.

Taner A.
Istanbul, Turkey

Elizabeth should confront James about her suspicions. In my opinion, there were no other possibilities other than what she saw. James officially stole Elizabeth’s sales commissions. Because of this, others also have the right to know what is going on. She also should request from James her past commissions. If Elizabeth is convinced that everything will be recorded after she warned James, and if she still wants to continue working in the same place, she doesn’t need to report it to the tax authorities. However, she should inform the local tax authorities if she encounters a different attitude after the warning.

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Gabi M.
Tewksbury, MA

Elizabeth should absolutely confront James. Although he is the owner, he agreed to her salary plus commission, so now he is simply stealing from her. I think Elizabeth should approach James “nicely,” simply letting him know that she is completely aware of his thievery. From there, I would hope that he would apologize and give her and the other employees the money they deserve. Then, I would expect Elizabeth to pay closer attention to any future sales so it doesn’t happen again. If James doesn’t apologize and compensate everyone for their losses, I would look towards legal action.

Michael J.
Port Charlotte, FL

Definitely sit down and have a meeting with James saying how much of a “coincidence” it is that she saw not one, but TWO wives wearing the pieces she showed. If James in fact sold them, she is being stolen from. To do that to loyal, hard-working employees to save a few bucks is bound to backfire, especially when the records are as telling as the ones she found! It’s one thing to sell it off the books, but at least pay the commission and explain why. If he admits to the back-door deals, I would tell him that the tax issue is between him and the IRS, but the commission issue will be discussed with other employees AND with his family (if they still have any stake in the company) unless proper compensation is made.

Marc F.
Houston, TX

Provided Elizabeth can absolutely prove that James did in fact do what is alleged, then she should arrange a meeting with James, his mother, and the company attorney to provide the evidence of what James was doing. She should also have her attorney present with a demand for the commissions that she was cheated out of, as well as a generous separation check with a letter of agreement of resignation. Elizabeth should not contact other employees about the matter, as it’s none of her business.

Shevvy B.
Louisville, KY

I think she should confront the owner about the irregularities. If he doesn’t face up to the fact, she should report him to the other employees first, and if it’s not corrected, commissions paid, and promised to stop, he should be reported to the authorities. What he did was wrong, illegal, and should not be tolerated.

Edward S.
Garwood, NJ

If she doesn’t mind losing her job. Of course, James may not want to lose her either, so this may be a bargaining chip for her. If she is brave, confront him with a figure for her estimated commission, and give notice, as working for a thief is an impossible situation. If he really wants to keep her, ask for a higher base salary to make up for his thievery.

Ernie C.
Lawrence, KS

First, I hope that James is really fictional. There is no happy ending to this story if he is truly this dishonest. Having said that, there are two sides to every story. My advice is for the salespeople who contribute the most, meet outside the store. They can discuss the situation and develop a strategy to meet with James. There must be a confrontation.

Very tough situation, salespeople could lose their jobs and their livelihood. James could lose his reputation and his income producers. Let’s face it, great salespeople are worth their weight in gold and they don’t grow on trees. They need total respect. What’s going to happen at the meeting? Not good. If James doesn’t have a reasonable explanation, he has to make some tough choices.

My idea would be to get some sort of mediator. I would suggest someone in the jewelry business. Meet with all parties, develop a plan to continue the business with a method to verify all practices. James must either come up with some sort of settlement or lose his people. He will need to sacrifice power to someone else. He will have to win back their trust; his family should be part of disclosure. This situation is messy and tough …good luck to all!

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Real Deal

This Client Asked the Owner to Lie for Him … But Should the Owner Have Said Yes?

He didn’t want his wife to know how expensive the ring was.

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A FTER ALL THE YEARS she had spent working at a chain store in the mall, Maria Sanchez was more appreciative of her current environment than most. She had very much enjoyed the six years she’d spent as the sales manager of Kerrigan Jewelers, and she looked forward to many more. She felt as though she had a very solid relationship with the Kerrigan family, and she knew that they were pleased with her performance.

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 kate@performanceconcepts.net

Maria loved the Kerrigan store location. She loved the building’s original architecture and lovingly restored interior. She loved the brick sidewalks and benches that made up the downtown pedestrian mall. Mostly, though, she loved the customers. This was a different type of shopper than she knew in the mall. Maria was especially pleased with the number of other downtown merchants and shop owners who entrusted their special occasion purchases to Kerrigan — and to her. Many had started as business associates — colleagues on the downtown council or on the organizing boards of various charity events — before becoming customers and ultimately friends.

Such was the case with Philip and Grace Jerome, owners of the contemporary fine art gallery in the next block. The Jeromes were pillars of the downtown community, much like the Kerrigans, and members of their family had been customers of the store since the days of the previous generation. Grace Jerome had taken a liking to Maria with their first interaction, and both she and Philip had quickly become regular, personal trade clients.

Maria knew that the Jeromes were very well off, and that the gallery was a successful enterprise for them. It came as no surprise then when Philip came to the store one day and asked Maria to find a special piece for Grace. He explained that they had seen a stunning ring in a shop window during their last trip to Brussels — a large, fancy yellow diamond with white diamonds on each side. It was soon to be their 20th anniversary, and he thought it would be the perfect surprise gift. He knew that he wanted at least 2 carats in the center, and it had to be a bright, dazzling yellow — not one of those ‘mousy ones’, as he described it — and definitely no imperfections that she could see — even with one of those little eyepiece things. After bringing in several different diamonds for Philip to see, Maria finally found one that was, in her opinion, a real show stopper. It was a 2.05-carat, fancy intense yellow cushion cut with a VS2 clarity. Philip loved the diamond and Maria had no trouble matching 1-carat G color cushions for the sides. Philip chose a simple platinum mounting for the ring — one that would be custom made to fit the diamonds. Maria brought John Kerrigan, the store owner, in on the negotiation and John agreed to sell the diamonds and the mounting to his friend for a total of $45,800. The diamonds were handed over to Kerrigan’s in-house craftsman and after three weeks, Grace’s magnificent new ring was ready for delivery.

Needless to say, Philip came in to see the ring as soon as Maria called to let him know it was ready. He loved it, and told Maria that he would like to surprise Grace by having the ring placed in the store’s front window — just like the one they saw in Brussels — the following Saturday, when he planned to bring Grace by on their way to an anniversary lunch at the restaurant next door.

Saturday morning, Philip called Maria with an unusual request. He was certain that Grace would want to know the price of the ring, and wanted Maria to agree to tell her it was a “steal at $25,000.” He insisted she would not know the difference, but that with things tighter than usual at the gallery lately, she would have an absolute fit if she knew that he had spent over $45,000 on a piece of jewelry. He promised to hand Maria a separate check (discreetly, of course) for the difference before they left the store with the ring.

Maria was uncomfortable with the request and went to John Kerrigan for advice. John was no happier with the situation than Maria, and after thinking it over, decided that it was not his place — or Maria’s — to lie to Grace about the price of the ring. John called Philip back himself and told him that he would do his best not to discuss money in front of Grace and could easily demonstrate the value of the ring, but that he would not tell a direct lie about the price — and neither would Maria.

Philip was very upset. He tried every persuasive tactic he knew, but John wouldn’t budge from his position. Finally, in a fit of anger over what he called his “high-minded inflexibility,” Philip told John that the deal was off — and that he’d never see him or Grace as customers again.

The following Monday, as John and Maria revisited the situation in their weekly management team meeting, they wondered what they might have done differently. Word of mouth was a powerful tool in a small town, and John wondered how much collateral damage he would suffer as a result of his decision.

The Big Questions

  • Could Maria or John have handled the situation differently?
  • Is there any hope for Maria or John to save the sale, the customer or the valuable word of mouth advertising they’d enjoyed from the Jeromes without compromising their own values?

Expanded Real Deal Responses

James L.New York

I would have suggested that Philip come in earlier with the additional amount and pay for that portion of the ring, leaving a $ 25,000 balance that he could pay in front of his wife. If he chose to tell her the truth after the purchase, that would be his business and the store would not be involved. When asked what he owed, the store could truthfully say $25,000. This happens frequently and we as sellers need to know how to handle it without losing a customer — good or otherwise.

Donna P.Dunn, NC

I would have honored the customer’s wishes. He just didn’t want his wife to know the full price. I’ve done this several times, but it’s the women who ask me not to tell their husbands the regular price.

Wynn F.Joliet, IL

My response to this fictional story is that any jeweler with any common sense would have received at least half down for the ring before even setting the stones, regardless of the fact that they might have been “friends,” and contracted to receive the balance upon completion and delivery of the ring. Otherwise, the deal would be null and void from the beginning. Nobody does “handshakes”; that is just plain dumb.

Dennis P.Johnstown, PA

We have had identical scenarios several times over the years. We refer to them as “conspiracies of happiness.” We have never had an issue result from the creativity. We do note the “irregularity” in appropriate documents.

We have a similar situation always around the holidays that has resulted in various degrees of temporary headaches, but always ends on a high note: a boyfriend comes in with his girlfriend and chooses a ring the girlfriend “loves.” We are asked to put it on “hold.” Later, the boyfriend comes in alone and purchases the ring to be given as a surprise. He asked us to “fib” to his girlfriend if she happens to come in to see it again or show the ring to a girlfriend and to say it was accidentally sold. We’re the “bad guys” until she actually receives the gift, but then we become heroes when everything works out. It helps create a special bond with the customer.

Ernie C.Lawrence, KS

Only the truth, always the truth. It’s the customer’s responsibility to deal with personal matters like the price. I think it’s pretty simple. Maybe he should have bought a $25,000 ring instead. Wouldn’t worry about the bad review, because the cause of the review will be worse for the customer in the long run. Management was spot on. Pretty simple.

Andrea R.El Dorado Hills, CA

Though we hate not telling people the truth, we’ve had dozens of customers do this. We’ve also seen a trend of brides-to-be coming in and paying a fairly large deposit on the ring they want and then asking us to tell the other party in the couple that the ring costs less.

A woman, good customer, nice person, came into my store, and chose a ring from the window. A $25,000 ring. I reduced the price by 25 percent and quoted the price of $15,000 plus tax. She wrote a check to my store for $10,000 plus tax. The deal was to be that we tell the groom-to-be that the ring price was $5,000 plus tax. We did it and I still can’t look the guy in the eye. But I’m glad we got the business instead of our competitor down the street. And they are both still good customers. Their finances are none of our business as long as they pay their bills to us. In the end, the other party ends up knowing.

Michael J.Port Charlotte, FL

Two options for me could be: simply take $20,000 plus tax as a deposit today and the balance due ($25,000 plus tax) when they pick it up. The verbiage would be something along the lines of, “The balance on this piece is $25,000.” I am unsure Grace would even catch on to the phrase because she’d be so enamored with the ring. The second option would be for John to excuse himself along with Philip to take care of the payment while Grace shows off her new ring to everyone in the store. Chances are that Grace will find out in the end anyway, unless she and her husband don’t have joint accounts!

Laura C.Woodbridge, VA

I would take her hand and smile at her, saying, “This is a gift; I’m not supposed to share those details.”

James D.Kingston, NH

Really, you want me to underprice the ring so you can forget to “slip Maria a check for the balance” and then claim the sticker price was as the final price? Talk about a scam artist! Trust me, that could very well happen. Imagine a 50 percent-plus price reduction on a custom piece; I’ll take two please. The nerve of some people, especially knowing their gallery was going through lean times … the whole thing smell like last week’s fish. Sure, they were good clients in the good times, but now it appears they want the flash without the cash. I say it is time to weed their client list and be grateful if they only have to eat the mounting (though they could replace the diamonds with colored stones and market it, maybe nice yellow and white sapphires). A reason I take a non-refundable deposit with any custom order. Honesty is always the best policy.

Corrina H.Houston, TX

They did the right thing. I would ask the customer to pay for the difference first and give him a receipt as layaway. When his wife comes in to buy it, then tell her the price that he requested.

Marcus M.Midland, TX

Are you kidding me?!? Do what your customer is requesting and sell that biscuit! It’s a little white lie that would only get Philip in the doghouse (a small one at that) with his wife. And who knows if she’d even ask about the price. He was willing to spend the money and all they had to do was throw a little shade on the price. Big deal! What he spends is between him and his wife, not you. Now Kerrigan’s is out a nice sale. I get it, you want to stay true to your values, but they made an issue out of non-issue with this one. Not only did they lose the sale, but who knows how the repercussions will play out through word of mouth. Philip wants to spend some money on a special occasion and you wouldn’t play ball because you felt wrong about a simple request. All you had to do was not put a price tag on it, let her see/love it and then let him quietly pay.

Marc F.Houston, TX

Give the customer what he wants. If he wants to split a transaction in two payments, so be it. I never discuss price with a client receiving a gift — that’s a big no-no! How about the guy that wants you to tell the fiancée it’s a diamond, not a CZ?? You just don’t have conversations with gift receivers; it’s their “real deal,” not ours!

Alexis K.Kennett Square, PA

Why not have the customer pay the full amount prior to “window shopping” so the financials aren’t an issue. You don’t want the transaction to ruin the moment!

Mike B.Kennesaw, GA

The store handled the request exactly as they should have. If the condition of making the sale was to be complicit in a lie to the customer, then walking away is the best thing. No business is better than bad business.

As far as the customer bad-mouthing the jeweler, then so be it. If the jeweler has been in the community that long and has a strong reputation in the community, then they should feel secure that one client’s bad-mouthing will not have much of an impact. If anything, other customers will understand the professionalism that the jeweler has and how they will not bend their beliefs just to make a sale.

Al H.Livingston, MT

Would have told the buyer that we would not misrepresent the price to his wife if she asked — but if she did ask about price, we would tell her that that was between her and her husband.

Glyn J.Victoria, TX

I fully agree with John and Maria about not lying for Philip. Let him know that the salespeople and the owner were Christians and do not and would not lie to save a sale. Let him know if he wanted to lie to Grace about the price of the ring, that would be up to him. If it caused the loss of a sale, then so be it, and your honesty would be upheld. Let Philip know if word gets out about what he wanted to do, let Philip know the truth would be made known to your clients about the situation.

Mary A.Peoria, IL

He should have gotten a deposit, and then when finished, asked him to pay the balance. Then they can place it in the window for her to see and pick up as a “surprise” already purchased. That way her husband could tell her whatever he likes about the price.

Christine P.Green Bay, WI

I would have suggested he come in and pay for it beforehand, then there is no sneaking around. Leave the price off the tag and show her the ring. Say it hasn’t been priced out yet, such a special custom piece, etc.

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