Old-Fashioned Common Sense

With media headlines like “The New Frugality” and “Thrifty Is the New Black,” there’s no question that being cheap is chic. Whether out of fear or necessity, Americans have slammed the brakes on spending. Is the nation that considers life, liberty, and the pursuit of Prada an inalienable right really returning to its thrifty Yankee roots?

Recent polls from leading luxury-industry pundits like Unity Marketing and The Harrison Group indicate this pullback in spending is likely to be a long-term trend, not a short-term fad. Of course, given that banks are highly unlikely to go back to spreading credit around like candy after this year’s hard-hitting lessons, consumers may have no choice.

With consumer spending the driving force of the American economy, families that made a virtue of thrift; paid cash for purchases; and passed up the latest fashions, gizmos, and toys were rarities that the rest of us viewed as eccentrics—or perhaps with a bit of scorn. But under the irrational exuberance, one had to wonder what would become of the economy if consumers slammed their wallets shut. Now we know. And those thrifty folks suddenly went from weirdo to role model.

Renowned personal finance expert and author Suze Orman is known for blunt financial tough love. Don’t have the money for it now? Don’t buy it now. Her strategies sound new to the generations weaned on immediate gratification bought on credit, but many of her mantras are the same philosophies taught by our Depression-era parents and grandparents: Live within your means and save for a rainy day.

So, how can jewelers succeed in such an environment?

First, retrench to the core of our business: emotion. People are still getting married, commemorating anniversaries, having babies, celebrating birthdays, and observing holidays. Even a self-purchaser has some emotion driving the sale. Tap it!

Emphasize the value and longevity of fine jewelry in a disposable society. At the same time, reassure customers that while the diamond or gem may be forever, the setting doesn’t have to be, and they can either redesign or trade in the piece at a future date if their tastes change.

Make sure you’ve got merchandise that sits in the price space in which consumers want to spend. Talk to other comparable business owners in your area and see how local customers are behaving—are they cutting back in volume/frequency, cost, or both?

Don’t forget little luxuries. Whether it’s diet or budget, going from indulgence to deprivation without leaving room for a few treats generally leads to failure of the whole program. Even if it’s something as inexpensive as a nice key chain, make sure you’ve got some treats on hand, because the value of your store experience is part of even a small purchase.

The latest findings from both Harrison Group and Unity Marketing also indicate that consumers are looking for more meaning in their purchases instead of shopping for shopping’s sake. Since doing something for someone else is the best way to feel better about yourself, this is a particularly good time to ramp up your charitable efforts and cause-related selling. Senior editor William George Shuster’s article on page 80 highlights three jewelers who do it well.

Many of the same precepts that Orman shares with her audiences also hold true for running a business. Own your inventory. Pay your bills promptly. Expand with caution. Use memo sparingly, not as a means of keeping stocked. Don’t borrow without a clear and viable plan for paying it back.

There’s an old joke that banks won’t lend you money unless you can prove you don’t need it. Maybe it isn’t just a joke. If your bank suddenly called in a loan, would you be able to keep your business afloat? If the answer is no—even after making sacrifices—then your first order of business is to get to yes as quickly as possible.

Is luxury dead? No. Sleeping, perhaps, or maybe redefining itself, but not gone. As we learned in high school physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction; every trend has a counter-trend. While great risk can have great reward (or not), staying prudent—away from extremes—also has its own reward.

Next month’s issue will be JCK’s Annual Directory, which will include “The Year in Review,” a recap of the most important news of 2008. This page and all your favorite features return in January. Of course, you can still keep up with the industry every day on JCKonline.com.

From the JCK family to yours, here’s to a solid holiday season and good health and prosperity in 2009!