On the Road in Madison

It’s the coldest weekend of the year when I visit Madison, Wis. The windchill factor is –25. It burns exposed skin, freezes tears, and nearly persuades me to fly back to New York to conduct phone interviews from the warm safety of my cubicle.

The jewelers of Madison are unfazed by the weather. Owners and sales associates are inside their stores conducting business as usual and treating me as a minor celebrity—they’re impressed that a reporter from a New York magazine has come to their Midwestern city to see them. But that’s the way these jewelers operate—with enthusiasm that stems not only from their stereotypically cheery location on the map but also from a general feeling that, well, business is good. They enjoy the benefits of close proximity to a huge university, a corresponding burgeoning of businesses and culture, and loyal customers who see them through slow times.

Madison owes much of its dynamism and growth to the University of Wisconsin–Madison, home to about 37,000 undergraduate and graduate students from all over the world and known for its excellent programs in medicine, journalism, and business.

The interplay between the university and jewelry retailers works on different levels. Most obviously, students, professors, and others from the school buy everything from birthday presents to engagement rings at their local stores. There is also college-related business, explains John Hayes, owner of Goodman’s Jewelers. Goodman’s, located in the heart of Madison, is the city’s oldest jewelry store (it opened in 1933) and the primary producer of university-related specialty items such as awards for the school’s athletic department.

The university also draws educated, intellectually curious people to Madison, who have an effect on the jewelry business. Patrons of Goodman’s Jewelers are “alert to social issues” like conflict diamonds and dirty gold, Hayes says. “Every week we get someone asking about sources.” He says his staff is well versed on these issues and can give detailed answers to queries.

The notion of the university as a source of stimulation for the jewelry community is reiterated by Fred Muci, marketing director for Chalmers Jewelers. “The university brings in an extra level of energy and excitement,” Muci says.

Thanks in part to university influences, business in Madison is growing and diversifying. Across the street from Goodman’s Jewelers on State Street, the Overture Center for the Arts, a $200 million complex, was recently built. Throughout Madison, varied restaurants—many high-end, like the Asian-fusion Crave Restaurant & Lounge and the sophisticated American Café Continental—add culinary interest and help counter the state’s cheese-focused reputation.

As a result of these developments, Hayes says, affluent people are moving downtown, which increases the store’s foot traffic. With more patrons, Goodman’s felt it was “necessary for us to update, [and] keep up appearances,” so the company remodeled its store in August 2004.

Chalmers Jewelers also feels the effects of the city’s growing business. Opened 15 years ago, the company has since relocated and built a new store—a freestanding space in Middleton, Wis., just 10 minutes from downtown Madison. Muci cites two factors that have helped invigorate the area and motivated jewelers to smarten up their stores: Middleton was named 2005’s best U.S. city to live in by Money magazine, and Madison was ranked 2004’s best place for business by Forbes. Such accolades have sparked an influx of people—both residents and visitors—to this pocket of Wisconsin.

To keep pace with their city, most Madison jewelers publicize. Goodman’s Jewelers advertises in multiple mediums including radio, broadcast television, and print. Chalmers sponsors local events and projects such as an in-store gem show and prizes like a trip to Las Vegas. The retailer has also sponsored a performance by Yo-Yo Ma at the Overture Center and an in-store Mother’s Day event to raise funds for the University of Wisconsin Children’s Hospital.

Wisconsin jewelers emphasize good customer service and employee-customer relationships. “People [here] are very loyal—[they] want feel-good, look-in-your-eyes trust, integrity,” says William Fuhrmann of jewelry company William Thomas Designs, which does custom work. Good service goes far in Madison, particularly in this store, where almost all business is driven by word of mouth.

Goodman’s prides itself on quality customer service as well, which, Hayes says, separates it from mall chain stores. “People that come in here buy,” says Hayes, who claims about a 90 percent closing rate.

Customer tastes are as reliable as business. Most jewelers cater to two general niches: (1) ages 25–34, with a focus on engagement and bridal jewelry, and (2) 50s and up, with a focus on anniversaries and other special occasions. Diamonds and pearls consistently rank most popular among both categories (with colored stones garnering little interest, Muci says), and Furhmann notes that the cushion cut, round diamond ring is still his best seller. As for newer trends, Muci cites circles, and Hayes says he’s seen a growing interest in vintage styles. But it’s clear that their customers never veer far from the traditional.

Business in Madison isn’t all consumer predictability and high sales. In December 2005, Goodman’s Jewelers’ sales of wedding bands were way off the norm. It was such a drastic departure that local media did an article on the economic climate and changing prices. In the end, Hayes says, he and his staff went through the store and retagged all wedding bands. In addition to the economy, which every jeweler with whom I spoke described as a concern, other retail anxieties include conflict diamonds and dirty gold.

But optimism trumps these issues. After citing the economy as his top concern, Muci quickly adds, “But there’s a lot to be excited about.” He describes community projects, Chalmers’ increased focus on public relations, and a computer-aided design technique that the store’s staff is eager to explore. Such is the mood of Wisconsin jewelers, who, as Fuhrmann puts it, “don’t need to work too hard to keep business.” The customers are loyal, the city is growing, and the University fosters a dynamic, intellectual climate that benefits everyone.