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When Nature Strikes, Should This Owner Take Care of Her Employees or Her Business?

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ROBIN SAGER OF GULFSHORE Jewelers had worked with her mother and father for more than 10 years before their 2015 retirement, and she helped to build the business from a small repair shop into a regional powerhouse. Her dad had always talked about “taking care of those who take care of you.” He was proud of his longstanding friendships with a number of sales reps and of his loyal and long-tenured staff. Once she bought the business and took over day-to-day operations, however, Robin quickly saw that what she had always considered her father’s admirable loyalty was really just his way of avoiding difficult situations with vendors, customers and employees — all of which would need to be handled if Gulfshore Jewelers was to be restored to sustainable health. With a firm commitment to the future, Robin laid out her priorities and chose to deal with the issues decisively yet slowly to minimize disruption.

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

Within the first year of her tenure, Robin took on the problem of shrinking margins and obsolete inventory. In some cases, that required severing vendor relationships that her father had maintained for years and building new ones with suppliers of more current lines at more advantageous prices. She also re-evaluated the store’s pricing strategy, re-tagging existing inventory using consistent markups and eliminating large-scale discounting. As expected, several of Gulfshore’s older customers were unhappy when they could no longer claim their usual 30 percent “friend of Joe’s” discount. When the “regular” sales reps stopped visiting and new product started arriving, a number of employees were openly critical of Robin and of what they saw as a betrayal of the friendships that were so important to her father. Much of the grumbling subsided over time as the new product caught the attention of regular customers who recognized the fair pricing.

In 2017, Robin chose to address the issue of the store’s often inconsistent business practices. She worked with an industry consultant to develop an Employee Manual that clearly defined performance expectations and with her (somewhat reluctant) team to implement a mission statement and service standards based on a forward-thinking “extraordinary customer experience” philosophy. By the end of 2017, despite some lingering staff grumbling about missing Robin’s dad and the way things used to be, Gulfshore’s volume had stabilized a bit, and the bottom line was looking healthier.

Robin knew that the last big issue she had to deal with was the store’s payroll. It was clearly high as a percentage of gross profit and was out of line for the store’s volume. She looked at a list of eight employees who had all been with the company for 10 years or more. Each was paid a salary that had been automatically increased by 3 percent per year regardless of store performance to accommodate cost of living increases. They also got a Christmas bonus each year that ranged between $1,000 and $2,000 per person (based loosely on hours worked) because her father had always believed that honesty and loyalty should be rewarded.

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There were no sales goals or productivity standards in place and no commissions attached. It was easy to see that some people worked harder than others. Some were really good at their jobs (jewelers and salespeople with solid relationships in the community) and some simply did a good job of being nice to the people who came into the store. Overall, they all got along well, though — and since it seemed that things were picking up a bit, Robin decided to leave the structure as it was for one more year while she worked on designing a new plan that would be fair to everyone, including the business. Everyone got their 2017 Christmas bonus and a 3 percent raise going into 2018.

Much to Robin’s delight, business continued to improve through the first half of the year. Traffic in the store and in the town overall was up, and everyone’s comfort level with the new product, policies and procedures seemed to be increasing steadily. It all hit a major stall in the fall though, when back-to-back hurricanes blasted through the region, creating major issues for local residents and wreaking havoc on the tourism industry in the area.

By the end of the year, sales had dropped nearly 30 percent, and the bottom line Robin had worked so hard to recover was decimated. Looking at the numbers in December, Robin realized that there was no way she could afford to pay out the usual Christmas bonuses. On one hand, she hoped the staff would understand, since they could easily see the circumstances, but on the other hand, she knew that they were all impacted by the storms as well and that they were likely relying on the money for their own families’ Christmas celebrations. She also knew that without a doubt, there would be no salary increases for the coming year, and that the base plus incentive compensation plan she’d worked to develop would be an absolute necessity.

Though she knew she could stand to reduce staff overall, Robin hated the idea of making life any more difficult for her people and was terrified with the prospect of damaging her reputation.

The Big Questions

  • Are there options that Robin is missing with regard to the holiday bonus?
  • Should she find a way to take care of her people and pay it as usual, even if it means borrowing more money from the bank?
  • Is there a way to change a longstanding (and generally unreasonable) compensation plan without losing long-tenured and community-connected employees?

Expanded Real Deal Responses

Jillian H.
Miami, FL

Are there options? Yes, she can openly address the current financial strain placed on the business due to the inclement weather. Meet with each employee to discuss the impact of receiving a bonus versus receiving a pay increase. From there, the employees should understand the reasons behind a pay change. In my opinion, she has to choose bonus or pay increase; can’t take away both.

Should she find a way? Not as usual, but yes, she should pay. Whether it is a bonus without a pay increase or no bonus with a smaller pay increase, it wouldn’t be too much out of pocket. If all the improvements increased business as stated, the store’s bank account will be healthy again in only a month or two.

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Is there a way to change? Possibly. If those same employees were to look for a similar job now, they would see what compensation structures are currently available. If those other available jobs are all commission-based and more demanding, your employees will fuss, but most likely stay.

Carolyn W.
Omaha, NE

Assuming Robin has already cut her own wage, she cannot currently afford the entire bonus payout this year. Recommend to her employees that they receive what she can pay, whether it be 30 percent, 50 percent, or 80 percent, and when the rest of the funds are available, she donate them toward hurricane rehabilitation efforts. This will help build rapport with the community and economic recovery as well, meaning there will be less delay in sales coming back into the store and making Gulfshore Jewelers a household name for consumers.

As far as the 3 percent increase to yearly pay, if Beth had not yet announced the reformatting of her bonus and wage system, now would be the perfect time. While everyone is struggling financially and emotionally due to natural disasters, having this as news would show there’s hope for the future and better times ahead for the town and the company.

Overall, these recommendations should at least pacify her workers, prevent layoffs and greater debt, and in the end, benefit the community to some degree.

Tim S.
Harrisonville, MO

A bonus should be contingent upon performance of the employee and the business — not guaranteed. Explain the challenge of a 30 percent drop in business, ask for buy-in to weather the storm.
US Consumer Price Index for Urban Consumers shows inflation was 0.7 percent in 2015, 2.1 percent in 2016, 2.1 percent in 2017 and 1.9 percent in 2018. The historic 3 percent raises paid have outpaced inflation. Eliminate this expectation.

Manage employees according to performance or lack thereof. Employees who are not in alignment with the “team” and “business” may need to find new homes. Keep good faith, be honest. Lead with optimism and fairness. Evaluate performance, conduct difficult conversations, set goals and motivate the team. Convert to base plus incentive pay in lieu of automatic raises and bonuses going forward. Bonuses can be used privately to reward exceptional individual results.

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Focus on employees who are generating the most revenue. Keep their buy-in, ask for more. Reward results. The community cannot run the business. Eliminate entitlement mentality. Complacency cannot persist. Take courageous steps now to be stronger when the whole economy sees recession.

Marc F.
Houston, TX

When the “expert” was making the policy book, a section on “Emergency Preparedness” should have been included. We have had to respond to several natural disasters. Robin should call each employee and let them know the situation. Set a sales goal, and if they meet that goal, they will be rewarded with a bonus. This way, they will feel like they are getting something for hard work. She should not bring up the automatic pay increase; just address it privately if asked.

Valerie N.
Oklahoma City, OK

This is Robin’s opportunity to do three things: inspire her staff, change the automatic bonus structure, and be a local hero. Don’t borrow any money. Share the news of the 30 percent drop in sales with the staff. Explain it‘s not possible to give the bonus; however, a bonus can be paid monthly or quarterly if the following happens: the sales staff calls clients every day about upcoming anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, wish list items and add-on sales, and these result in measurable sales at the expected profit margin. The jewelers need to complete repairs and custom jobs on time so delivery is not delayed. Robin can negotiate new terms for merchandise she can’t pay for. Most vendors will give extended terms with no interest or take product back with a minimal restocking fee. In the end, the staff who prove to be “rainmakers” stay and those who don’t are gone. Now the new bonus system is in place! You produce, you get a bonus! And the company survives.

Jennifer F.
Colorado Springs, CO

This may be the year for Robin to pick one versus the other … and to communicate transparently with her team. People understand numbers when It is laid out in black and white. Share a sales report of year-over-year numbers showing a profit and loss history, and give each team member the option of either a cost-of-living increase or a one-time bonus. If she truly can’t afford to do either, then it is time to make the decision to let go of under-performers or abstain from the wage increase/bonus altogether and let team members leave on their own. If they see and truly appreciate how much the business was impacted, she won’t lose anyone and they will band together to recover together. If the recovery is huge, she needs to be fully prepared to pay it forward to them all in the following year.

Robert C.
Montclair, NJ

Difficult situation; however, her team has been there for years and should know the facts as to the unavoidable downturn in business. It’s not a change of policy implementation without basis.

Her team needs to be introspective. They’re not being “punished.” Unless she makes some changes, the store’s future could be devastating, and that would affect them all, long term.

Her loss is their loss, inevitably.

The “winners” will stick around and fight to put it back in good shape, day by day. Their livelihood depends on their commitment to success.

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

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?
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.

Lydia W.
Larkspur, CA

I want to say do the right thing, which is call the owner on his behavior and state that he has stolen your commission from you (in some kind of tactful way). I also come from a point of fear — worried about retaliation and losing my job. The Labor Board will back you up, but will that be good enough? The owner has created an environment of distrust and ill will. He should be grateful to have such a committed, hardworking and great sales person on his staff and appreciate her.

I have a very similar problem at my job. I make my owners considerable amounts of money, and am rewarded by them not paying my commissions in full and on time. This is unethical and ugly. And builds a toxic work environment.

I don’t leave as I love what I do and I am good at it. And jobs in retail jewelry are not easy to find these days. My grateful customers and coworkers help make the situation bearable.

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?
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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Real Deal

When a University Foundation Director Calls Him on the Carpet, How Should This Store Owner React?

An appraiser undervalued a client’s jewelry donation to the university.

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GORDON THOMAS WAS the third-generation owner of Thomas Family Jewelers, a highly regarded store in a Southern college town. Gordon’s rather forward manner was far different from that of his humble and reserved father. Bumps in the road had been regular occurrences over his four-year tenure, but despite the challenges, the store, with its strong, professional team, continued to thrive.

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

Elinore Billington, a well-known mover in the town’s social circles, had been an important client of Thomas Family Jewelers since the days of Gordon’s grandfather. When Elinore passed away late last summer at 93, her final charitable act turned into a nightmare for Gordon and his team.

As specified in her will, Elinore elected to donate one of the more impressive pieces she’d purchased from Thomas Family Jewelers to the charitable foundation attached to her alma mater, the state university at the heart of everything in the town.

The piece was a platinum ring set with a 4.22-carat, intense blue, unheated oval sapphire surrounded by 1.5 carats of high-quality diamonds that had been specially made for her by a designer featured by the store. Elinore paid $22,400 for the ring when she bought it in 2014.

Several months after her death, when Marc Chou, the newly appointed director of the university foundation, received the ring, he processed it in the same manner as other material gifts (jewelry, art, collections, etc.). He reviewed the accompanying insurance evaluation and began looking for options for converting the donation to cash. Having moved to town recently, he was not familiar with Thomas Family Jewelers, or with other local resources. Relying on his past experience in another part of the country, he chose to start by taking the ring (without original documentation) to a jeweler in a neighboring town who listed appraisal service on his website to get an independent opinion of the value. When Marc picked up the ring and the appraisal several days after leaving it at the store, he was shocked to see that the ring was only valued at $8,500. He also saw that there were discrepancies between the jeweler’s one-page appraisal and the original sale document in diamond weights and quality and in the weight and description of the sapphire. He noted that the appraisal said “weights estimated by measurement” and that the descriptions were vague, but he was nonetheless very concerned.

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Since his ultimate objective was to convert the ring into cash for the foundation, he then took it to a local store that was known for buying estate jewelry. The estate buyer looked the ring over, weighed it, measured the sapphire and diamonds, and made Marc a cash offer of $4,200. With the huge gaps between the original insurance documentation provided by Thomas Family Jewelers, the value stated by the local appraiser and offer made by the estate buyer, Marc was convinced that Mrs. Billington had been ripped off.

The next day, he called the Thomas store and asked to speak with Gordon. The conversation started calmly enough, with Marc explaining the situation he and the university were in with the ring, and Gordon trying to lay out the differences between retail pricing and resale value. Marc became more assertive when Gordon challenged the credentials of the appraiser, and things went downhill quickly. Gordon suggested that perhaps Marc needed to learn more about the business before making unfounded assumptions. Marc accused Gordon of being a charlatan who takes advantage of the elderly and promised to make sure everyone at the university, within the Billington family and in the community was made aware of his price-gouging practices. The call ended with both men hanging up in anger.

Lora Goldberg, Thomas’ store manager of 10 years (who had sold the ring to Elinore originally), was a lifetime resident of the town and the chair of the university’s alumni association. She heard about the situation between Gordon and Marc the next morning when she arrived for an alumni association meeting on campus. Marc cornered her within earshot of a number of other members and repeated his accusations about the store’s lack of integrity, including her in the mix. He also said that the store owner had been very rude and belligerent in their conversation, and that he and the university would have nothing to do with anyone representing the store going forward. Extremely upset, Lora turned the meeting over to her vice-chair and left. She went to the store and confronted Gordon, accusing him of mishandling the entire situation and ruining both the store’s and her personal reputation.

The next day, Gordon called the foundation office and left a message for Marc, offering a sincere apology for the direction of the conversation and asking for an opportunity to meet in an effort to resolve the situation. Three days later, he had still not gotten a reply.

The Big Questions

  • What can Gordon can do at this point to make things right with his manager, with Marc and with the foundation?
  • Is there any action he can take to deal with the unqualified “appraiser” who seriously mischaracterized and undervalued the ring?
  • What do business owners need to know about real value and charitable donations?
  • What can Lora do now that she is caught up in what appears to be Gordon’s diminishing ability to sustain important relationships his father and grandfather built in the community?

Expanded Real Deal Responses

Karen M.Oneonta, NY

The discrepancies in value here are easily understood, in light of the unheated sapphire and designer credentials of the piece. An outside appraiser without this information could easily miscalculate these factors. Had Gordon kept his head and reviewed the record of the transaction, he would have understood this enough to explain. But by reacting first, he did inflame the situation. His hot temper is probably also why his longtime manager was so quick to lose confidence, even though Thomas Jewelers did nothing wrong. Gordon should take a deep breath and offer to look into the matter before jumping off the deep end.

But the real shocker here is the behavior of the foundation director! In the course of handling one transaction, he managed to insult an important member of the alumni association, discredit a longtime member of the business community and completely sour the climate for estate giving! By offending everyone involved, he has seriously damaged the school’s relationship with multiple future funding streams. This might be the biggest miscalculation of all!

Patrick D.Little Rock, AR

Gordon and the store manager should offer to send the ring to GIA for evaluation and cite the origin of the sapphire. Second, after the lab report is complete, they should offer Marc copies of the GIA report once all is completed, and the ring should be evaluated for an insurance appraisal by a GIA-trained appraiser. Gordon should present Marc with copies of both, and next should offer to purchase the ring from the university at the store’s list of original costs and expenses involved in purchasing stones and making the ring. If the other store appraisal was faulty, it will automatically be exposed, and hopefully, with forgiveness in order on both sides, Gordon’s family store reputation will be restored. Gordon had best move quickly.

Ursula P.Naples, FL

There are so many missteps in this story.

– Marc was wrong in not taking the ring personally to Thomas Jewelers to discuss his desire to convert it into cash. Thomas Jewelers deserved the courtesy of the first consultation.

– Gordon was wrong in engaging in this spirited conversation, rather than requesting a face-to-face meeting.

– Marc was wrong in divulging the details of his findings and disparaging the good name of Thomas Jewelers.

– Marc violated the first principle of development: that fundraising is friend-raising. He alienated just about everyone involved in this situation.

– Lora was right in leaving the alumni meeting when told of the situation. As the original sales contact to the late buyer, she should have been the first one to be consulted.

Marc placed the university in a very awkward position. Future donors of valuable items will think twice if they learn of how he handled the Billington bequest.

To conclude: brashness almost never leads to a good outcome.

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Neil M.Modesto, CA

I would call Marc and ask him if he is having an auction of some sort coming up and say that I can get the $20,000 for the ring at the charitable auction. I would put together 100 CZs with one being laser inscribed “winner,” charge $200 for a 1 in 100 chance of winning a $20,000 diamond (have an independent appraiser re-appraise it). Announce it all through the night (you will usually sell about 65-70 through the first three-quarters of the night). If you HAVE found the “winner” CZ, you announce that there are 30 left and say you really want to sell out of the CZs and will give anyone who purchases one now a $200 gift card to your store with every purchase of the CZs. If the winner has NOT been found, you offer to anyone who wants to buy the rest of the CZs to raise their hands and have them come up and draw a card. Highest card gets to buy the ring for the amount of the remaining CZs.

William C.Paterson, NJ

Ths store owner should have offered to purchase the item during the phone conversation. Given he did not, that still would be the best thing to do now. Explain that it was a terrible misunderstanding. All the appraisals in the world won’t set things straight. If you want to prove it’s worth that to everybody, then buy it back. Write a check for $20,000. Done.

Lance G.Victoria, BC

Wow! First off, the manager needs to understand the value of the jewelry she’s representing, and how appraisals are done. According to the AGS, “If an item is trademarked, the client should be advised to procure an appraisal from the designer.” If Lora sold the original ring, she would know that it was an untreated sapphire, and one of that size would retail for a considerable sum. She should have set Marc straight right then.

So often, other jewelers are willing to low-ball a value without having ANY qualifications, or any understanding how fine jewelry is made. For Marc to then take the piece to “a place that specializes in estate jewelry” — a pawn shop no doubt — and expect to get the highest value makes me think he’s an idiot.

Legal action could be taken against the “appraiser,” but step one would be researching their credentials. We had a similar situation, and the appraisal was rescinded before we went to court. I’m on Gordon’s side on this one.

Michael J.Port Charlotte, FL

It’s quite apparent that Marc doesn’t realize the difference between a retail selling price and a liquidation value, which seems like what he was offered by the estate buyer. He should’ve obtained multiple quotes, not taken the word of ONE buyer. Gordon questioning the appraiser Marc used is definitely not out of line; a lot of “appraisers” aren’t even remotely qualified. As for Marc threatening to disparage the name of the store, that needs to be addressed immediately. Gordon took the high road and apologized as he should have; now it’s up to Marc to be a professional and sit down and have a civil discussion with Gordon and Lora since she knows both sides and sold the ring initially.

Rex S.Houston, TX

There are a number of issues presented, such as tortious interference by the retailer who issued an “appraisal.” It is unethical in the business of buying OR selling a product to appraise that product. It is just that type of thing that created the last financial crisis. Secondly, the “appraiser” did not properly disclose the valuation method or the purpose of the appraisal. A qualified personal property appraiser would have informed their client which valuation method was being used after asking the client for what purpose the appraisal was intended. The university needed a value to liquidate the item; it was the appraiser’s duty to inform the client of the appropriate values and methods of calculation. The defamed store has a cause of action against the unethical and unqualified appraiser.

Gary Y.Ames, IA

While I understand Marc felt he did his due diligence regarding assessing the value of the ring, it is clear he dealt with individuals who were not intimately aware of valuing one-of-a-kind pieces such as this ring.

From where I sit, Marc owes Gordon and everyone else involved a sincere apology. Gordon and others were slandered by Marc’s accusations, and from where I sit, they have every right to sue for the damage to their reputation.

Marc F.Houston, TX

Just because everybody else is going crazy doesn’t mean that you have to, too. Gordon should have accepted the questions from Marc and then, ask to examine the ring, (it could have been switched) with his gemologist, salesperson, and lawyer present. All original documents relating to the ring should be presented to Marc (copy form, notarized). Then examine the appraisal with the team to verify it is or is not the same. At that point, the other appraiser may be challenged. The estate buyer will need to be interviewed by the team as well, as all this is “he said, she said.” The insurance policy bears witness to the replacement, not sale/liquidation value. The State Board of Insurance will be of help establishing benchmarks for values/melt/purchase prices. This is tedious but necessary to preserve the company’s good and longstanding reputation.

Melvin W.San Francisco, CA

In order to keep good faith with the community, I suggest that Gordon’s offer to buy back the ring at their original cost.

Jim C.Fayetteville, AR

If I can’t handle a client or someone upset on the phone, I always invite them in for a face-to-face to work things out. In this situation, I may even go directly to the person. People tend to keep their calm in person better than over the phone, text, email, etc. At this point, though, I would offer to either buy the ring at $12,000-15,000 or match any donation that the ring brings.

Marcus M.Midland, TX

This Marc guy sounds like a pretty unreasonable dude who is not willing to find the best solution to this misunderstanding. First, it seems like Gordon did what he needed to by calling and leaving his sincere message. He apologized and reached out for a civilized meeting, which is about all he can do at this point. Now the ball is in Marc’s court. I would side with Gordon here. Knowing his family’s business reputation, I would bet they sold Ms. Billington exactly what they said it was. Did anyone even check the accreditation of the other appraiser? He could be inexperienced. I would leave another message with Marc suggesting the ring be sent to a gem lab and get the full report. Once that is done, then give Gordon the chance to make the right move from there. Is this a scrape on Gordon’s family business? Sure. But with the right treatment … the wound will heal.

James D.Kingston, NH

Marc has quite a headache, and Lora needs to decide where her loyalties lie. It is odd that she would go after her boss instead of automatically defending him until she had heard both sides of things. Moreover, since she sold the ring, she should have explained the costs of a custom ring, its certified sapphire and quality diamonds. Obviously she is infatuated with her status in academia and her associations in it. Dr. Chou is a self-aggrandizing buffoon who thinks he knows everything and poor Gordon is the victim who is only going to be minced by his pomposity. Gordon could sue for slander, but it is difficult to prove. Instead, he should have Lora call and explain retail versus resale and replacement value versus quick-sale value. If she won’t, I would look for a new store manager. Luckily these days, college foundation presidents change often.

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Dennis F.Poughkeepsie, NY

Gordon should make another attempt to contact Marc, even if it means making a visit to his office. He should also immediately pen a letter of apology and state his side of the issue in a concise, forthright manner. This is not the time to be reticent or stubborn when dealing with such a high-profile community institution. He should offer to have the piece independently appraised for replacement (retail) value, at his expense by a certified appraiser from another area. Hopefully the ring will appraise at close to or above the selling price. At this point, Gordon must stress the relationship between retail, estate and wholesale values. If the store is able to, perhaps Gordon should offer to purchase the ring back at a price taking into consideration wear and condition. Clearing this up is critical not only to the reputation of his store but also in how it could potentially impact his manager, Lora. Her role in the alumni association could be severely compromised and he could lose a valued employee.

Steve W.Poplar Bluff, MO

At the store’s expense, have the sapphire graded by GIA and have them determine that it is indeed untreated. Explain that jewelers that are buying off the street to re-sell without a buyer lined up for a custom ring will naturally pay well below retail because their working capital is tied up for no telling how long. An untreated sapphire is far more valuable than a treated one. Without provenance, the buying jeweler cannot pay that difference. With all of these considerations, the discrepancy in offer and evaluation is understandable. The original jeweler should have been able to explain that. The college representative should be able to understand that. The same holds true of the discrepancy in the weight of the diamonds. To measure mounted is an estimate. If you’re off a little times several, that adds up to a lot. But if he truly misrepresented his product, let him hang.

Michael W.Lancaster, PA

This is a real situation that has been brewing ever since the Internet has shed light on past darkness in our industry. “Donations” of unique, unsellable “dogs” should be included in this shameful discussion. Here’s the thing: jewelry (or any other item/service) is worth the fair trading price at the time of trading. Stray from this truth at your own (deserved) peril.

Bruce A.Sherwood Park, AB

Gordon has made the classic mistake of mounting an instant defense rather than listening to Marc’s concerns. Excluding the amount offered by a jeweler that purchases estate pieces, something has definitely gone wrong between the Thomas Family Jewelers appraisal and the one received by Marc. Appraisals vary, of course, but this is a $13,900 difference! It may well be too late, but Gordon should enlist Lora to help him arrange a face-to-face meeting with Marc. He should start with a sincere apology for being unreasonable with their first telephone interaction and acknowledge Elinore’s incredible memoriam. Although the university eventually received $4,200, Gordon should offer to split the $13,900 difference between the two appraisals and write a check in Elinore’s memory for $6,950. This will not necessarily alter the bad reputation that Thomas Family Jewelers may have incurred by Gordon’s ham-fisted handling of this issue, but it acknowledges his place in the community as someone attempting to make right a wrong.

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.

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