De Beers LV CEO talks about modern retailing

Alyce Alston, CEO of De Beers LV USA, told attendees at the JCK NYC Invitational that one of her primary goals for the De Beers retail stores in the United States has been to debunk many of the long-held myths about luxury retailing. Speaking Tuesday morning at the New York Hilton Hotel & Towers, she explained how many small nuances add up to a big retail experience she termed the “De Beers Retail Advantage.”

“The greatest brands in the world honor their past while inventing their future. De Beers wants to build [its stores into] the diamond jewelry destination in the world. My job is to build it in the United States.”

The differences in the De Beers store in New York, the first in the United States, are subtle but important to her mission. They include:

1. Counters. Alston put her hand at her waist to demonstrate the typical height of a jewelry-store counter, and then lifted her hand to show the height of a De Beers counter. A higher counter means the customer doesn’t have to bend as far to see the merchandise. De Beers’ counters are also freestanding, allowing the customer to walk all the way around it, and the salesperson to walk with the customer instead of sitting behind the counter. “It’s a side-by selling experience [instead of a barrier],” said Alston.

2. Floor-length mirrors. Yes, Alston said, a customer does want to see the jewelry with her whole outfit, not just the neck or ears.

3. Armchairs. The De Beers store offers big overstuffed chairs for customers to sit and relax, not just chairs at the counters for selling. “You won’t find armchairs in Tiffany, Harry Winston, or Cartier. Good luck trying to find a place to sit down,” she quipped.

4. Navigational signs. “This debunks the myth that you can’t have signs in a luxury store. You can if it’s done tastefully.” De Beers’ signs point the way to its bridal and high-end jewelry collections, both on the store’s second level.

5. A bridal bar. “Make bridal jewelry shopping fun!” insisted Alston. “We don’t get customers drunk, but they can sit on bar-style stools, or go relax in the bridal lounge area. It’s just plain fun.” The bridal lounge offers a wide low couch and coffee tables, much like an elegant nightclub.

6. Showing prices. “You’ve heard me say this before, but there’s a price tag on a Maserati car and an Oscar De la Renta gown. You can show prices in a tasteful way, and it’s time we communicate to the consumer what’s for them and what’s not.” De Beers’ cases show the price range for what’s in that particular case, rather than the individual price per piece.

7. High-end collections on display. “We show our jewelry. In lots of stores, it’s like the customer is interviewing for a diamond. They sit at a corporate desk and the salesperson brings out the diamonds they want to show. This isn’t a corporate transaction!”

Alston next described the new 4,000 sq.-ft. De Beers store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, Calif. That store incorporates many of the same elements of the New York store, but also features a special open terrace area where they have parties.

“I sensed that LA is going to be mainly a word-of-mouth business. Of course I’m going to advertise, but I think it’s really a word-of-mouth town.” She described a recent event—the store threw a birthday party for a customer who’d bought herself a high-end piece for her birthday. She invited 24 of her closest friends and wore her new jewelry to the party. What a great endorsement for the store, said Alston, to have all the woman’s friends there admiring her new jewelry.

“When you add up all the nuances, it makes a big difference,” she said.

Alston said in the focus groups she’s asked about the stores, typically two out of 10 participants didn’t like them, preferring the old-fashioned “gold brocade” type of atmosphere, but eight out of 10 participants loved it. That, said Alston, is more than enough proof [they’re on the right track.]

In terms of product, Alston highlighted the various collections, from the most basic entry-level price points (under $500) up to the highest end (prices in the millions). “Again, we’re debunking the myth that you can’t be all things to all people. You can, if you specialize in one thing and do it right.” De Beers specializes in diamonds and only diamonds—no rubies or any other gemstones. Colored diamonds, yes, but colored gemstones, no.

She discussed the emphasis De Beers puts on the quality of its diamonds—with a special focus on cut as the “C” that makes all the difference in beauty—and explained how every stone is analyzed for the customer through De Beers’ beauty scan machine (a product of the company’s own technology). Every piece is offered with both a GIA certificate and also a De Beers certificate, and she said the firm is putting final touches on a new “passport program,” in which the customer will receive a passport-style document detailing their jewelry closely.

Wrapping up her presentation, Alston reassured the audience that she doesn’t have a direct pipeline to De Beers’ supply chain—the store is not a vertically integrated operation and she has to buy stones on the open market like everyone else.

“Yes, I have a special advantage in my store. I have the De Beers brand name on it, and all that stands for, including the famous “A Diamond Is Forever” tagline. But the brand is only going to get them into the store. Like any other retailer, it’s the work we do once they’re in the store that will keep them there.”