Jeweler on a Mission

During the March 2010 Jewelers Executive Conference (JEC), I met an uncommonly courageous retail jeweler. At first glance, Christopher Ragan, owner of Missionhill Jewelry, was unlike any retailer in the room. To date he is unlike any retailer I’ve ever met.

Sporting a goatee, long hair pulled back into a ponytail, a black leather vest, and a bolo tie, he confidently approached our breakfast table on the second day of the JEC. He politely asked if he could join us for the AGTA morning keynote presentation on selling colored stones and, like the rest of us, proceeded to make short work of the pastries in the middle of the table. 

Christopher Ragan, owner of Missionhill Jewelery

Christopher Ragan, owner of Missionhill Jewelry

After the initial introductions and pleasantries I instinctively asked Ragan the obligatory icebreaker questions of where his store is located and how long he’d been a store owner. His responses were “nearby Mission, Kansas” and “six months.” 

I assumed he meant that he’d been in a new store location for only six months. But I quickly discovered that he had only been a retail jewelry store owner for six months. Then a litany of questions followed. The most obvious: “Were you a jewelry designer, bench jeweler, watchmaker, or a jewelry manufacturer rep before opening a store?” The answers were “no” across the board.

Last fall, Ragan was an unemployed guitar player working as a day laborer in the jewelry store then managed by fellow band member HeatherAnne Norbury. She was doing her level best to manage her grandmother’s store with the hopes of one day owning it, but the elder family member never gave Norbury the time, resources, or permission to grow the family business. After several years of trying, Norbury gave up her jewelry retailing ambitions.    

HeatherAnne Norbury 

HeatherAnne Norbury, previous owner’s granddaughter and current store consultant

While Ragan was busy lifting boxes, moving furniture, and doing whatever tasks he was asked to perform, he noticed that the business wasn’t struggling for a lack of customers. The small jewelry store simply needed some new, ambitious management and a fast-forward to the 21st century. Ragan got it in his mind that he was the person to take Mission’s longest-running business to the next level.

The aspiring store owner couldn’t have chosen a worse time to make this particular career change. The economy, both national and local, was in dismal condition last fall. The business district on Johnson Drive where the store is located continues to show signs of lackluster traffic. And Ragan had to leverage every conceivable asset he has to secure a small business loan to buy the store.

But the challenges didn’t stop there. Ragan had zero gem and jewelry industry and small business management experience, had never worked in sales, and had never worked in retail.

When the store opened on Oct. 27 last year, Ragan had 30 days to raise thousands of dollars to pay the bills, including payroll. Fear being a great motivator, Ragan’s first executive decision was to let go of the only staff member, a longtime employee whose salary he couldn’t afford to pay. A store schedule was worked out between Ragan, his wife, Melanie, and the kids—working for nothing.

With keys in hand and the front door open, Ragan walked straight up to the main counter and emptied every coin and bill out of his pockets into the cash register, then declared Missionhill Jewelry open under new management. His first customer: a man in with a watch repair.

The previous store owner had replaced the battery and the stem on the customer’s 8-year-old Fossil watch. Upon examination, Ragan determined the watch’s movement had to be replaced at a cost the customer wasn’t willing to pay, operating under the assumption that the previous repairs should have returned the watch to working order. The customer became angry and belligerent then began making threats of physical harm to Ragan.

In his exchange with Ragan, the customer made it known he was a skip chaser. Bail-bond trackers are known to possess conceal-and-carry permits for handguns, so Ragan thought it would be wise to call 911.

“I decided not to file charges,” says Ragan. “The watch obviously means a lot to the man—his wife, who is in stage three of breast cancer, gave him the watch many years ago. So I let the whole thing slide.”

Calling the police knowing there’s a possibility they’d have to disarm an irate customer over a simple watch repair wasn’t exactly the way Ragan thought his first customer on his first day as a jewelry store owner would go. He quickly moved on, knowing he had bills to pay at the end of the month and had to sell jewelry to do it. 

Ragan refers to his wife, Melanie, who holds a degree in business management, as the “little bird on his shoulder.” One of the first lessons she instilled in her husband was cash flow: “Always be mindful of incoming and outgoing cash,” says Ragan, quoting his wife.  

Melanie Ragan.

Melanie Ragan, Christopher Ragan’s wife and “little bird”

Working weekends and some nights, Melanie quickly gained some insights into how the business was being run. Working mainly on advice from his “little bird” and gut instinct, Ragan made careful decisions on how to best invest what little time and energy he had in his first month. With his first Christmas season coming up, there was a lot of learning to do and not much time in which to do it. So, the first task: Know what’s in the store and what it is. “You can’t sell what you’ve got until you know what you’ve got,” says Ragan.

His first inventory check gave Ragan an idea of the actual product in the store. By identifying the jewelry items and all that went into the finished product, he became a quick study on precious metals, diamonds, and gemstones. Any reference materials he could get his hands on helped to establish a workable knowledge base to sell his product, from Stuller catalogs to trade magazines to online diamond price lists and website sources on colored stones.

Working for free and relying on his wife’s unwavering support, Ragan’s second task was advertising. In the first few months of operation, he had no marketing budget. Necessity being the mother of invention, Ragan and family members took to the streets to show passing motorists store messages on cardboard signs.

Coming from the music and entertainment business, Ragan took
the homemade effort a step further by creating his now famous character “The
Dancing Jeweler.” The homespun effort brought in increased sales for
Valentine’s Day, but didn’t work as well for Father’s Day and Mother’s Day.

“At first we had great sales because of the Dancing Jeweler,” says Ragan. “Many people didn’t even know there was a jewelry store in this part of town. And, given our hats and costumes, people still talk about the Dancing Jeweler.”

Dancing jewelry videos were made and like most jewelers, Ragan increased his SEO (Search Engine Optimization) by “broadcasting himself” in true YouTube style.

In the first quarter of 2010, Ragan had enough surplus revenue to have a small marketing budget. His first promotion was a 20-percent-off sale with direct mailers going out to 700 customers. Results were good and the inventory he inherited with the store purchase was being sold down, giving him the chance to purchase new product.

Sales reps started calling, and he took what he needed or thought the market would buy and left the rest. “I’ve found that people in this market like value over bling, so that’s what we’re selling,” says Ragan.

He also brought on Bulova watches and Chisel, a men’s line of silver and gold jewelry that’s doing well in the store. And, when in doubt, Ragan asks the customers the jewelry they’d like to see in his store…and he usually buys it.

Dave Symons

Dave Symons, the custom and repair guy

He then caught a break in staffing. Dave Symons, a friend since high school, took interest in Ragan’s ambition to take an old neglected jewelry store and make something of it. A vet on disability, Symons offered to work for free. As luck would have it, Symons wasn’t a bad salesman and has some work history and education in goldsmithing and jewelry making and repair. Today Symons does most of the soldering and repairs for the store, which has become a tidy little profit center.

Next on the agenda was the store’s website. It didn’t exist. Melanie made a quick call to GoDaddy, secured the MissionhillJewelry.com domain name, and got to work using the company’s template websites and drag-and-drop technology. As Melanie learned new tricks, the website went from static pages to slideshows with a dissolve feature showing off the store’s growing and expanding inventory.

With a web presence established, Ragan and his wife could quickly embrace the low-cost outreach methods their peers were using: social media platforms. Ragan had instinctively started the social media effort off well by creating his own blog entitled “Missionhill Jewelry’s Gems,” a collection of customer love stories, “Ask the Expert” pieces on jewelry and watch care tips, and new product announcements.

Of the social media platforms that have become low-cost ways of reaching out to customers, Ragan has experienced early and continued success with Facebook and his blog. Ragan obeys the Facebook rule, don’t hard sell and allows fans to peer into his irreverent personal and work lives with postings that run the gamut, from poses with his guitar to whacky home life shots of his family.

Still active with his music, Ragan’s Facebook postings are musings that center around concerts he’s playing in, attending, and jam sessions with friends and family. A beer aficionado, Ragan also critiques beers, from pale ales to stouts as well as seasonal brews and little-known imports.

When he gets down to business on Facebook, a lot of the postings are letting fans and followers know about new product in the store. Ragan recently made a significant investment in loose colored stones to stimulate custom work set mainly with birthstones.

Six months into his foray into being a jewelry store owner, Ragan was ready to run another ad. In 1974, a motorist ran a car into the jewelry store. The accident was covered well by the local newspaper and the previous owner capitalized on the available artwork and created an ad. When Ragan found the old ad while rummaging through some old store documents, he decided to retool the ad with a more updated humorous message giving customers a $3 off coupon for any repair work.

Car

“The ad got a lot of reaction,” says Ragan. “People asked a lot of questions about the accident.”

With signs of stability, Ragan admits that his ignorance of the industry and small business management prevented him from having a nervous breakdown. By following his gut instincts, good advice from his immediate support system (namely family and friends), Ragan found his little jewelry store getting some traction in the community. With key areas of day-to-day operations running smoothly, Ragan delved into other staple promotional vehicles such as cross-promotions with nearby merchants.

A member of the Missionhill Merchants Association, a loosely structured band of Johnson Drive business owners, Ragan worked out a Saturday afternoon ritual of selling sausages, food, and, of course, beer with the German restaurant a few doors down from the jewelry store.

The first few sessions included music on the sidewalk, compliments of Ragan’s many musician friends. “These Saturday afternoon gigs generated a lot of foot traffic,” says Ragan. “But the appeal wore off a while back and now we’re looking to try something different.”

Ragan has learned much in his first year as a jeweler. In looking back, Ragan says: “Family and friends thought I was nuts. They still do. I was always the irresponsible and reckless type. But I made this choice and want to make it work for me and, more importantly, to support my family.”

Significant changes to the store in the first year include slowly bringing up the level of inventory, installing new display cases, updating visual merchandising elements inside them, increasing the store’s custom jewelry and repair departments, and sprinkling in some eclectic giftware only a musician-turned-jeweler based in Kansas would offer, from Native American Indian cultural items to silver trays, blankets, dresses, and glassware.

And, in a sign of solvency and stability, Dave Symons is now getting a steady paycheck—even though he’s still willing to work for free.

Although substantially more polished these days, customers can still see modest plain white stickers with handwritten dollar amounts as price tags. But that’s how the Ragan family rolls, at least for now. Ragan admits he’s starting to feel more like a jeweler than a musician, “but every time I think I’ve learned something, I only discover how ignorant I am of what it takes to run a jewelry store,” says Ragan.

Most folks would call that humility, not ignorance.

With his second Christmas season on the horizon, return customers are starting to associate the long-haired, leather-vest-wearing man as their local jeweler. That fits in nicely with Ragan’s plans to some day be recognized as a longtime business owner in the community.

More importantly, he has hopes that with the family being an integral part of the business, that running a jewelry store will enrich the lives of his five children: Guinevere, a budding young sales associate; Avery, the advertising executive and fingerprint-removal technician; Zach, the marketing guru and vacuum operator; Kira (a really good salesperson); and Camen, who excels at taking apart watches (but not putting them back together—according to Ragan).

Who knows, perhaps in the not-so-distant-future, Ragan and one or all of his kids will be the subject of a JCK’s “It’s All Relative” generational column.

Guinevere Ragan, Junior Sales Trainee

Guinevere Ragan, junior sales trainee

Avery Ragan. Advertising Executive and Fingerprint Removal Technician

Avery Ragan, advertising executive and fingerprint removal technician

Zach Ragan. Marketing Guru and Vacuum Operator

Zach Ragan, marketing guru and vacuum operator