On the Road in Kansas City

It’s known for blues, barbecue, and jazz; for its heartland values and laid-back lifestyle. It’s also a place with enough cosmopolitan flair to please even the most discriminating sophisticate. It’s Greater Kansas City, a metropolitan area of more than 2 million people that spans two cities, two states, and 18 counties.

Kansas City, Mo., is older, larger, and more dynamic than its offspring on the Kansas side, but both cities and their surrounding areas share a thriving business environment that includes companies as varied as Hallmark Cards, Sprint Nextel, H&R Block, and AMC Entertainment. The diversity of the region is reflected by the jewelers JCK spoke with, which include a luxury retailer, a small-town jeweler in a big-growth county, and a downtown jeweler.

One of the most exclusive parts of this region is the home of one of the nation’s premier shopping districts, Country Club Plaza. “The Plaza,” as it’s known, is considered the first shopping district in the United States planned for automobiles. It opened in 1922, 6 miles south of downtown Kansas City, Mo., on a swampy area that at the time was outside the city. It was modeled after Seville, Spain, and its fountains, building facades, and overall architecture continue to carry that vision.

Its 15 blocks of high-end shopping in a car- and pedestrian-friendly urban landscape have more than 150 stores. Most are upscale national-brand retailers, but a few local businesses that set up shop during the early days remain on the 55-acre site. One is Kansas City’s premier luxury jewelry retailer, Tivol.

TIVOL

Tivol employees say longtime owner Harold Tivol foresaw that the Plaza would become a world-class shopping district so he opened a store there in 1951. Harold has a simpler explanation: After serving in World War II, he joined his father, Charles Tivol (who founded Tivol in 1910), in his second-floor shop. He was looking for a first-floor space to open a new store, and the Plaza had one available. Not long after, the downtown store merged into the Plaza store.

“We just had to move downstairs,” says Harold Tivol. “The Plaza was relatively new. I found a spot and opened. Eventually all the fine stores in Kansas City moved out there,” he says. “When I opened my store, I was kind of by myself.”

Harold Tivol knows jewelry. However, when discussing the brand he created (and which his daughter Cathy now runs), he spoke about the taste, knowledge, and sophistication of his customers and noted that the store has always worked to provide high-end jewelry to fit this demographic. In other words, he considers his customers to be his brand.

“I think we appeal to people that have the money and a taste level who appreciate and who to want to buy fine jewelry,” he says. “We will provide the best of its type and be proud that it has the name Tivol on it. … We serve a small percentage of the population. Not necessarily the wealthiest, but people who have the taste level and an appreciation of fine things.”

Ward Manes, Tivol director of merchandise, also extols the sophistication and worldliness of Tivol’s customers. “Our customers are very, very sophisticated people,” says the Kansas City native who has also worked for Saks Fifth Avenue stores in St. Louis and New York. “They are well traveled. They like cool things that are still classic enough to wear whenever.” He adds: “I cannot believe how much Kansas City spends on jewelry. It still blows me away.”

Designer jewelry is very popular, Manes said. He will often buy the most conservative styles from cutting-edge designers. Among his recent additions are Italian designers Calgaro, Staurino, and the fashion house Bulgari, which fit nicely with long-standing designers such as David Yurman, Lagos, Michael B., Michael Beaudry, and Michael Bondanza.

“Kansas City will support it if we tell them it’s cool and it’s OK to wear it,” says Manes.

A significant part of its customer base, particularly for designer jewelry, is self-purchasing women, a demographic Tivol pursues through advertising. Manes says self-purchasers tend to buy items up to $5,000. “After $5,000, it becomes a husband and wife decision.”

High-quality watches have always been a vital part of the store’s product mix and account for about a quarter of its total business. Lines include Baume & Mercier, Cartier, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Patek Philippe, and Rolex.

The store also focuses on service. Salespersons keep in touch with their customers by e-mail. While JCK was visiting, a saleswoman had scanned photos of jewels and was in the process of e-mailing them to a male client. His wife had picked the jewels at the store, and she was sending them to her husband to view.

SILVERS JEWELRY

Johnson County, Kan., south of the city, is one of the fastest-growing counties in the region and one of the wealthiest in the country. Housing developments and strip malls are being built at an extraordinary pace. Harold Tivol saw the growth and wealth and after some coaxing from Cathy and his son Tom (who recently went on his own), the company opened a store there in 1995.

The second-largest city in the county is Olathe (o-LAY’-tha). Once a stop on the Santa Fe Trail, this city of approximately 116,000 is one of the fastest growing in the nation. It’s home to Silvers Jewelry, a store that specializes in affordable jewelry and traditional small-town service in an area where large chain stores are overtaking the retail environment.

The 1,200-square-foot store has been at the same strip-mall location for 34 years. Sheila Reitmeyer bought the store from the original owner 20 years ago. When she isn’t selling jewelry, Reitmeyer, a community fixture, is an instructor at a local fitness studio.

The comfortable and casual store interior contains neatly laid out displays of diamond, gold, and silver jewelry; pearls; a small line of watches; and gifts. “A little bit of everything,” she says, when describing her merchandise. Price points for most of her jewelry run from $250 to $500. Her most expensive item is $3,600.

She and her small staff—one full-time and four part-time workers—know their clients personally, a point of pride. “They’re all repeat customers,” Reitmeyer says. “We know everyone on a first-name basis.”

Her new business often consists of the sons and daughters of longtime customers.

Reitmeyer, a hands-on owner, does all of the store’s repairs.

She keeps in touch with her customers by phone, which she prefers to direct mail. “Direct mail doesn’t work,” she says. “Phone calls are just as good if not better.”

There are drawbacks to knowing your customers. A few years ago she sold a piece of jewelry to a man, a regular customer, for a gift. Later she talked to his wife about the purchase and found out that the gift wasn’t for her. “You learn in this business that you have to be discreet,” Reitmeyer says.

GOODDEN JEWELLERS

Downtown Kansas City is undergoing another urban revitalization. This one seems to have staying power. The Downtown Council of Kansas City, the area’s main advocacy group, points to $4 billion in investment money that’s being used to build or renovate modern urban housing (such as condos and lofts), office buildings, and entertainment venues. The Sprint Center, a multiple-use indoor arena, is expected to open in October 2007. The downtown area—about three square miles—has 100,000 employees and 16,000 residents.

Goodden Jewellers, a fixture in downtown Kansas City, renewed its commitment to the neighborhood by moving from a second-floor location to a first-floor space in the city’s historic Library District.

“We love downtown and we’ll continue to be here as Kansas City continues its rebirth,” said Elizabeth Goodden, when she and her husband Rick received an Urban Hero Award from the Downtown Council in 2005.

Frank Goodden Co. Inc. was founded by Frank and Della Goodden in 1946 as an engraving shop. The business expanded into wholesale silverware, jewelry repairs, and pearl stringing. Their son, Rick Goodden, armed with a Graduate Gemologist degree from the Gemological Institute of America, took the business to retailing.

“We pretty much cater to everybody, from people with little money to wealthy clientele,” Rick tells JCK.

He says business had been good until about five months ago, and he speculates that the downturn may be the result of the increase in oil prices and the Iraq war. “The climate recently is much more difficult from that point,” he says. “The uncertainty is driving people nuts with the war and all that. If people felt good about things, they would buy more.”

He says that since moving to his 400-square-foot, ground-floor showroom, traffic has increased but sales are lagging. “People are still finding us,” he says. “Every day I get new people. Traffic is up but spending money isn’t happening.”

The store specializes in custom jewelry, estate jewelry, repairs, and bridal jewelry and has a line of watches from Belair. Rick gets a steady supply of colored gemstones from a miner in Brazil and says these stones are doing well. “Colored stones are very popular right now,” he says. “Diamonds are so commoditized … we have received less calls on diamonds for the past six months.”

He says his customers prefer conservative jewelry and appreciate quality. Basic diamond earrings, wedding sets, and engagement rings are always popular as are gold and platinum.