Independent Jewelers Dive Into the Talent Pool

Amid the doom and gloom the jewelry business has faced during the painful recession of the last two years, there has been one major silver lining for independent jewelers: an available pool of employee talent unlike any the sector has seen in decades. Experts note that there are large numbers of experienced, highly skilled jewelry people looking for work, especially those with chain, department store, and mass retail backgrounds. This has created an opportunity for independent jewelers to employ some staffing “superstars” without necessarily paying superstar salaries.

JCK spoke with a number of independent jewelers who have hired staffers with chain store backgrounds. In general, their experience has been positive. They say the right chain store people bring certain benefits to smaller organizations including a willingness to work flexible hours, particularly weekends, holidays, and special events.

Jewelers also acknowledge that integrating someone with a corporate background into a smaller store setting is not without risk. Independent jewelers could face a number of issues when bringing aboard former chain store employees, and many independents won’t even consider them, experts say. Those challenges include poor jewelry clienteling skills, no team mentality, poor understanding of luxury jewelry and the luxury market, over-reliance on discounting, and potential dissatisfaction from making less money than they made in the corporate world.

Suzanne DeVries, president and owner of Diamond Staffing Solutions, a jewelry staffing firm in Derry, N.H., says that in the last few years, she has worked with many “heavy hitters” from major retail operations such as Bailey Banks & Biddle, Zale, Finlay, Whitehall, Kay, Jared, Carlyle, and other chains. While DeVries has placed a number of these candidates with independent jewelers, she says it’s easiest to place someone from an upscale chain with an independent because they’re perceived as having good training and sales skills and know the brands and the higher-end market. She concedes that it can be difficult to overcome the negative perceptions some independents have toward major jewelry organizations and their people—particularly higher-end independents toward mid-market and value priced chains.

“There is a perception among many of the guild stores that people coming from a mass marketing philosophy do not understand the value of better jewelry and better brands and how to sell them to upscale customers,” she says. “Many independents do not value these candidates’ skills and experience as highly as they would someone with comparable independent experience or even as highly as someone coming from a nonjewelry luxury background in apparel, cosmetics, or fragrance. They believe the learning curve for the chain people is just too great.”

Another issue is that many chain store candidates were accustomed to earning significantly more money in a corporate environment than they can in the independent sector, and some won’t accept that their value in this economy has dropped considerably. “Some do not want to accept that 50 percent of their former salary may be all that the market can bear right now,” DeVries says. “Some of these people are holding out as long as they can, and a number of them are even looking at changing fields to other industries.”

These kinds of financial issues make some independents hesitant to hire chain store people because they’re afraid they’ll leave for higher pay as soon as the market turns around, DeVries adds.

Jenny Caro, who owns Woodbridge, Va.-based Jewelry by Design with her husband, John, has a firm policy against discounting. But Jewelry by Design is only a few miles from Potomac Mills Mall, and Caro competes with numerous department stores, jewelry chains, discounters, and other mass merchants that sell jewelry primarily through discounting. She’s interviewed plenty of former chain store candidates and has even hired a few. But she no longer does so, she says, because such prospects have too much trouble adjusting to an independent store operation and her upscale business philosophy. “We have had trouble when we’ve hired someone from the mall,” Caro says. “They have trouble selling without discounting.”

But other independents who have hired former chain store salespeople, office staffers, and executives believe the potential benefits outweigh the risks. They say virtually any challenge can be overcome through due diligence, proper training, and patience.

Tapper’s Diamonds and Fine Jewelry, in West Bloomfield, Mich., opened its second location two years ago and needed to bring on an entire staff to operate it. The retailer hired a number of former Macy’s and Finlay people and overall has had a positive experience, says co-owner Steve Tapper. He attributes this success to the rigorous training the company puts all candidates through in its Tapper’s University program, as well as the individual scrutiny given to each candidate during the hiring process. He believes the keys to a former chain employee’s ability to adapt to an independent store environment is a desire to serve customers, ability to listen and accept constructive criticism, and willingness and ability to build long-term relationships with customers.

“Sometimes people who have been in the industry a long time acquire a lot of baggage and have trouble learning something new,” Tapper says. “We don’t want people who are only about reaching sales and profit goals. We need people who can integrate the values of our company into every sale they make and everything they do.”

Tapper believes one of the biggest advantages former chain store candidates bring is flexibility and a willingness to work a range of shifts including weekends. This is not always the case with new employees, he says. Many of these candidates also had to operate within multiple levels of corporate hierarchy and had no chance to develop personal relationships with managers or supervisors. Tapper has seen a number of these people flourish under hands-on, one-on-one daily contact with ownership in his company’s smaller, family-owned setting.

“We don’t have a huge pool of people in our region to select from, so if a chain person understands what we’re trying to do, and is willing to learn, why not take a chance and hire them?” he says.

Long’s Jewelers is another retailer willing to look for staffing talent from larger (upscale) jewelry chains and department stores as well as from outside the jewelry business. Craig Rottenberg, president of five-store, Boston-based Long’s, notes that sometimes people coming from chain stores have a “lone wolf” mentality because they’ve been forced to look out for themselves. They also are accustomed to working through layers of corporate red tape and infrastructure and must adapt to the flexibility and quick responsiveness that a smaller company like Long’s demonstrates in serving its customers.

“They must learn that as a company, we will work as quickly as possible to support sales in any of our stores,” Rottenberg says. “But they will find they have a lot more opportunity to use their own judgment and are much closer to management than they were in the chain store environment.”

When evaluating chain store sales candidates, Rottenberg looks for people focused on customer relationships, not transactions. He believes the key to success in integrating former chain people into an independent organization is to give them enough time to get acclimated and learn about your company and the way you operate without the pressure of selling or reaching sales goals. (Long’s offers three months.)

“These chain people can be so determined to prove themselves after you’ve hired them, they may take missteps without the right guidance,” Rottenberg says. “They can have a lot to offer and can really flourish in the right environment.”

Hiring people with chain store backgrounds also has been a winning formula for Boudreaux’s Jewelers, a three-store retailer in Metairie, La. According to owner Brian Boudreaux, one of the main attractions of hiring former chain people is that they often have extensive training and experience and need less attention to get up to speed than other candidates. Also, once they escape the corporate hierarchy and cutthroat sales atmosphere, a lot of pressure comes off their shoulders and they begin to appreciate the less-structured, more personal independent jewelry business, he maintains.

Boudreaux acknowledges that people from larger jewelry organizations, particularly at the executive level, are accustomed to more incentive-based pay and sometimes have difficulty adjusting to lower compensation at a smaller organization. But on the plus side, if they’ve cultivated clientele on a large level in the past, it’s not that hard for them to do it on a smaller, more intimate scale for an independent—which, in the long run, can lead to more money for them and the store. They also feel less performance pressure and appreciate a calmer environment. These factors can help make former chain people happier, more loyal, and more productive employees for an independent than they ever were for a chain operation, Boudreaux believes.

“We look for people who really love jewelry, know how to sell it, and know how to build and maintain relationships with customers,” he says. “Management qualities are somewhat more important for a chain store organization than for our independent business, because we are family owned and have family members involved in making our decisions. We are more interested in the candidate’s selling skills and qualities. Yes, this is very different from their former corporate environment, and it does require adjustment, but on the whole we’ve had a very positive experience bringing in people from larger organizations.”