Bernie Robbins, Davids, PA
OWNERS: Harvey and Maddy Rovinsky; FEATURED LOCATION OPENED: 2004; YEAR FOUNDED: 1962; STORE AREA: 5,400 sq. ft (3,000 ft showroom); ADDRESS: 595 Lancaster Ave., St. Davids, PA, 19087; ARCHITECT/DESIGN FIRM: Alexi Belinsky/Bower Lewis Thrower; PHONE: (610) 971-2446; URL: bernierobbins.com
FORTY-FOUR YEARS … nine businesses… five different business models. It’s the type of math most retailers try to avoid, but it has equalled monumental success for Bernie Robbins Fine Jewelry. Add to that a new 5,400 total square-foot location in the highest-income market area in Philadelphia, and you can start to see why this numbers game is one that owners Harvey and Maddy Rovinsky never get tired of playing.
Building a Name
Harvey Rovinsky loves the jewelry business, and he came by those feelings honestly. His grandfather was a jeweler in Ukraine that came to America at the turn of the 20th Century. Rovinsky’s father was a watchmaker, and his uncle was a diamond-cutter. So it was no surprise that Harvey went to work polishing showcases at the ripe young age of 10.
After his father died, Rovinsky worked part-time on Saturdays at another jewelry store on Jeweler’s Row in Philadelphia. In 1966, at the age of 19, he went to work for Bernie Rosenberg, the father of his girlfriend, Maddy. Rosenberg’s business, Bernie Robbins, was a small appliance store. Three years later, Harvey and Maddy were married.
Over time, Rovinsky began to insert jewelry into the store’s product mix. Bernie was uncomfortable with jewelry at first, and Rovinsky had to prove it was a viable business. It was the late 1970’s before jewelry surpassed appliances as the primary revenue stream of the store, but it was always more profitable.
From 1975 to 1986, Bernie Robbins became a catalog showroom, followed by a period of selling middle-end jewelry. The year 1992 was a turning point for the company.
Rovinsky took over as full decision-maker in the business, and he and Maddy decided to transform Bernie Robbins into a high-end, luxury jeweler. Maddy’s parents were not inclined to go that route, but Rovinsky was convinced there was less competition in that market.
The decision paid off, with the business seeing annual revenue increases 10 times over the last 14 years. Today, the company includes nine businesses, including four main stores, three casino stores in Atlantic City, an outlet store, and a separate insurance business. The tenth, another main store, is set to open in 2006.
Move to the Back
Three glorious months. That’s what the Bernie Robbins flagship location in Somers Point experienced each year as the wealthy came to reside in their summer cottages. It was fun for Rovinsky, but he got to thinking … why not build a store where these people live the rest of the year?
Thus, St. David’s, a high-income area in Philadelphia’s stylish Main Line neighborhood, was chosen to be the home of the newest Bernie Robbins. Rovinsky approached the developer of the Radnor Hotel, which was expanding out to include a three-level office/ retail complex. The developer intended for five retailers to inhabit a large first-floor area. Rovinsky took all five spots —but not before six months of negotiating the lease.
The location is in the prime corner of the newly built hotel addition, with a separate entrance for store traffic. A retail behavioralist was brought in to help optimize traffic flow inside the store. Because the space is long and somewhat narrow, the Rovinskys did not want customers congregating at the front and causing a bottleneck. Therefore, the floor and ceiling are designed to direct people toward the back of the store.
“It actually took longer to plan the interior layout of the store than it did to do the construction,” says Rovinsky. He wanted to make sure this design was exactly as he wanted, as he and Maddy intended this store to be the prototype for all future Bernie Robbins stores.
“We also wanted to make sure the store was non-threatening,” says Rovinsky. For that reason, there is a seating area placed squarely in the middle of the showroom. “It offers a decompression area as customers walk in, so we don’t hit them with product right away. It’s not a living room environment, but we wanted it to feel that way.”
The final cost of the store was more than half a million dollars. Was it worth it? “Very much so,” says Rovinsky. As the new location’s annual revenues have more than doubled the previous location’s only two miles away, we’d have to agree.
Ready to Serve
Bernie Robbins customers are served from an Art-Deco cappuccino bar entitled “The Jewel Box.” They enjoy signature jelly beans while they browse, and celebrate with champagne. Children are entertained in their own area complete with movies, toys and games. In-house jewelers assist customers with special requests and custom orders. It’s a fun, exciting shopping experience, and Rovinsky built a store environment to match.
Contemporary lines run throughout the store, with warm tones and luxurious finishes. The showcases are composed of light-colored wood, and were built with customers in mind. “They’re slightly higher and wider than standard cases,” explains Rovinsky. “Wider, because we wanted a little decompression area between clients and salespeople. Higher, so customers don’t have to lean over to see the product.”
As customers enter the store, the marble and carpet floor combination visually welcomes them, paving the way for them to move through the store, towards the back and around the other side. “The medley of different textures on the floor pulls together the large space,” says Rovinsky. One wall includes hand-laid tiled glass, upon which hang brushed silver Bernie Robbins signs. The store also features a state-of-the-art Van Cleef & Arpels boutique, one of only a few in the country.
Perhaps the store’s most innovative feature is its lighting system. The fixtures appear to be suspended in mid-air, and they run along the same lines as the floor to maintain smooth lines. The center light fixture dominates the ceiling in the middle of the store, resembling an artistic sculpture. “This was the architect’s idea for a point of interest, to draw customers at least halfway into the store,” Rovinsky notes. “It creates drama, but not stark drama — and it’s overhead, so it’s not a distraction.”
And that cappuccino maker? “We came up with the idea in 1999 — it was somewhat exotic at the time,” muses Rovinsky. At $5,000, the contraption was expensive but small, just 12 inches cubed. “Visually, it just wasn’t enough. So we bought this big antique-looking brass housing for $1,000, and put it over the top of the actual machine,” he laughs. “Now it looks impressive. And it’s a customer favorite.”
Lighting that Sells
Harvey Rovinsky is obsessed with lighting. “I can’t understand why so many jewelers don’t pay attention to it,” he says. After much research and interaction with consultants, he finally settled on a lighting plan for the store.
“I believe that jewelry should be shown under harsh, intense light,” says
Rovinsky. While many jewelers are opting for energy-efficient metal halide fixtures, Rovinsky says he feels it is too sterile in its current state. Instead, he chose to upgrade the wiring in the building to accommodate an extraordinary number of detailed light fixtures.
“You must showcase the product not only in the case, but out over the showcase. That way, an associate doesn’t have to search for just the right angle to show the product,” he explains. The secret? “Don’t install the fixtures until the millwork is in, so it’s all done properly.” And while the Bernie Robbins lighting fixtures are beautiful to see, Rovinsky holds to a higher cause. “Lighting should be about selling jewelry first, and about fitting the look of the store second.”
But Bernie Robbins’ brilliance doesn’t stop with its lighting. The sales floor includes multiple Internet-accessible computers for all associates, allowing them to handle Internet-related objections once and for all. “We can bring up competing products like Blue Nile and others, and find a diamond from our own vendors to beat theirs,” says Rovinsky.
Additional gadgets include a plasma screen behind the bridal counter (“On Sundays we watch the Eagles”), as well as hand-held inventory scanners — a Dell Palm Pilot with a scanner attached to the top. And the trade shop is second to none, featuring a laser welder in every location, a Rolex-trained watchmaker with a fully-equipped watch repair station dedicated to Rolex, and a bank of polishing machines similar to those used by Rolex in their repair facilities.
For Rovinsky, his success doesn’t hinge on a prime location, or marble floors, or the latest gadgets. Instead, he credits his achievements to a strong partnership with his co-owner and wife, Maddy. She was a teacher for 30 years, only retiring four years ago. But when the business model shifted in 1992, “she came in in a big way” says Rovinsky. “She’s as much a decision-maker as I am.”
And they both love the jewelry business. “We get to travel the world, hire incredible people, meet great colleagues and incredible customers,” he says. “A surgeon’s job is way more important than mine, but they have to see people that aren’t happy.”
His attitude is infectious, and the staff believes in the company vision. But believing is just the start — they have to be knowledgeable as well. To make sure they are, Rovinsky goes over the top to train his staff. Anyone who completes a GIA course and presents their diploma receives a check. Six staff members a year are sent to Hearts On Fire Univer-sity, all expenses paid. A Rolex trainer was recently brought in to teach 35 staff members, all during a paid dinner at a local restaurant. Ad-ditionally, Rovinsky keeps a retail behavioralist on retainer to train staff several days each month.
If his staff is well-trained, they’re also empowered and rewarded. Each staff member has an allowance for taking clients to dinner. And every manager has discretionary funds to reward employees with tickets to the movies, gift certificates, or other bonuses for a job well done.
It’s all part of the company vision. As Rovinsky explains, “We realize people don’t need what we sell, so we have to overdeliver to bring them back.”
PHOTO GALLERY (8 IMAGES)