The Troubled Rebirth of Bailey Banks & Biddle

Bailey Banks & Biddle was born in the 19th century, but for a while it looked like it wouldn’t last long in the 21st.

Most people reading this likely know the company’s recent tortured history. Finlay bought the chain from Zale and owned it for a grand total of two years. And when Finlay went bust, it looked like 150-plus years of jewelry history was dead. However, former Zale exec Paul Leonard bought the Bailey name in bankruptcy court, planning to build a 50-store chain.

And now we are seeing yet another chapter in the BBB story. Leonard and his team have left, and Smyth Jewelers, a nine-store chain, announced it was taking over day-to-day management of the chain.  

From what I understand, the resuscitated chain had been making headway—but slowly. As new COO John Jackson indicated to me last week, it isn’t currently profitable, though that’s to be expected for companies in start-up mode.

Bailey was also trying to introduce a new concept to diamond selling, which utilizes some features of online shopping. Here is how it was described to me: 

“When customers walk in, they will see our design studio with flat screen TVs.… That will let them surf our site on a 55-inch flat screen and select diamonds from our web site with our diamond selector. It will make it a fun, interactive environment.”

And yet, we are seeing, once again, how difficult it is to dramatically revamp an established brand—even one that, in this case, had gone away awhile.

Quite a few of the new BBB stores are located where the old ones are—and in some cases, some customers apparently didn’t know the chain had closed down, given how most customers don’t go to jewelry stores more than once a year. As a long-established name, Bailey still enjoys a good deal of brand recognition. But part of the challenge was introducing the customer who was used to the old BBB, which was a very traditional jeweler, to the new-fangled high-tech version. (Of course, a tough economy doesn’t help.)

It remains to be seen if the new owners will continue on the current path. Jackson indicated that the current formats won’t change, but also that “we want to build what our customers are used to.” 

Despite its sad recent track record, Bailey Banks & Biddle is one of the great names in our industry. It was founded in 1832, even before Tiffany, and is considered the nation’s oldest jewelry chain. In fact, this year it turns the grand old age of 180. We are all crossing our fingers it will make it to 200, and beyond.

JCK News Director