Robbins Diamonds’ High-Flying Superstore

If the Robbins Diamonds business model were simplified, it could read: Build it bigger, make it fun, and they will come.

For the past 10 years the venerable Philadelphia jeweler has been in the business of building “superstores,” which it defines as large retail spaces designed to bring in $5 million to $10 million in annual sales. The company’s third such store opened in May in Allentown, Pa. The interior of the 5,600-square-foot store, designed by Grid/3 International, New York, expands upon many of the elements that proved successful in the other two superstores while adding new design twists to give shoppers a more entertaining, playful, and educational experience. The new store also aligns with the company’s goal of moving from a bridal and diamond jewelry specialist to a full-service jeweler, without losing its focus on bridal and diamond jewelry.

Jerry Robbins, chief executive officer of the five-store regional operation, says he talks to other jewelers around the country and observes their operations. He’s been swayed by the profitability of large, freestanding stores.

“If you look at the trend, independent jewelers that are successful today are the ones who are building superstores,” he says. “I observe those things and that’s the way to go if you want to be big now. You used to open 30 stores that do $1 million in business. I could now do $30 million with five stores. … Everybody I know who is growing in this business is growing with superstores.”

He says buying a lot of land and developing a large freestanding store incurs more up-front costs and a large mortgage, but the payoff is bigger. It also gives store owners more flexibility in locating a store. For example, the new Robbins Diamonds in Allentown, Pa., is located across the street from Dorney Park, a popular regional amusement park.

“One thing that the jewelers wanted to get away from is making the mall their partner,” he says. “When they open up a freestanding store, they don’t have to pay any percentage for rent. And when you walk into one of those stores, it’s a totally different experience.”

Robbins, 69, adds that larger stores coincide with his personal plan of gradually shifting the business to his three sons. “We decided if we’re going to do anything, we’re going to invest money in a store that does $5 million to $10 million in sales. … I have three sons in the biz and key staff members, and they want to see this thing continue, and they want to make more money, and I’m with them 100 percent.”

It was Robbins’s son Jason who was responsible for much of the custom- design elements in the Allentown store, particularly the two art installations by artists who take their inspiration and materials from kites. Along with a water wall, large banquette seating areas for bridal jewelry sales, a separate room for diamond sales, oversize jewelry displays, and a variety of lighting and other treatments, this store also manages to maintain its brand image, increase business efficiency, broaden its merchandise selection, and provide an artistic appeal.

“It looks totally different, but it doesn’t act different,” Robbins says. “The look is very unique. I didn’t pick it up from any jewelry store.” Adds Ruth Mellergaard, Grid/3 principal: “It’s a totally different approach. It’s much more casual and fun than most jewelers.”

Jason Robbins is a kite enthusiast, which led him to contract installations with Marc Ricketts and Tim Elverston. Ricketts’s company, Guildworks, creates environments with kite designs and materials for special events, museums, art galleries, and retailers. For Robbins Diamonds, he created a ceiling treatment throughout the store of hanging, stretched fabric panels that conjure up kites or sails. Computerized LED lighting produces subtle pastel color changes in the ceiling. Robbins says it evokes the constantly shifting light and facets of a diamond.

“The sails on the ceiling and lighting on the ceiling—I don’t think there’s any store in this country like that,” he says.

Meanwhile, Elverston, a skilled kite designer, decorated a wall of the store with circular, backlit displays made of origami. Robbins says the two art installations are “the most distinctive, unique, and unusual part of the store.”

Six large, round private circular seating areas with central tables are situated inside the store. These stations are known among the staff as “selling circles,” also referred to as “banquettes.” Whatever they’re called, they are designed to provide comfort, privacy, and romance while selling bridal jewelry. The concept was first used two years ago at the Robbins store in the Trenton, N.J., suburb of Hamilton. The company’s store in Delaware also has them. The banquettes designed for the Allentown store are larger.

Robbins explains that buying an engagement ring is often a family event, so the circular booths are intended to allow family members to be involved with the decision. “They’re like round restaurant banquettes,” Robbins says. “It’s romantic and cozy. Sometimes you get a whole family with the purchase of an engagement ring. We can seat five people comfortably in a banquette. … With special lighting, it breeds romance and shows off the diamond beautifully.”

Grid/3 International specified products that give the banquettes sound dampening and durability. “We have these curved, white, sound-absorbing canopies that provide oral privacy in the booth,” says Mellergaard, Grid/3 principal. “We used these very cool new products from Armstrong.”

“Ruth did something acoustically that is very interesting,” Robbins adds. “You can talk quietly and not hear outside sounds.”

The upholstery had to be attractive and durable. For this, Mellergaard specified a product called Crypton. “It’s fabric, not vinyl, and it’s supposed to be impervious. Seating is comfortable for all types of body sizes.”

Working with Robbins, the company also designed a unique layered lighting pattern that combines the functionality of office lighting while enhancing a diamond’s sparkle. “We have this very neat circle of light, including an LED task light fixture to focus on the table where they’re showing the product,” Mellergaard explains. “It does help sell the jewelry. The other light is all color corrective. I did it in conjunction with Jerry. They have positioned them in an interesting manner. Jerry is very knowledgeable about lighting.”

Four sit-down counters are stationed in a separate section for customers who are in the market for high-fashion diamond jewelry. An entire room is dedicated to selling Isee2 branded diamonds. Isee2 is a selling system developed by Overseas Diamonds. The focus of the system is a diamond analyzer machine, coupled with computers and Isee2 software. It uses digital technology to measure a diamond’s brilliance, which is shown on a computer screen.

The showroom houses 45 custom- made wood-and-glass display cases for the store’s collections of engagement rings, wedding bands, and new lines of designer jewelry. The latter include Bergio, John Hardy, and Scott Kay. The cases are higher and wider than most jewelry-store showcases, and most are situated in groups of oval islands. Robbins says the showcase concept was introduced 10 years ago when the company opened its first superstore in Delaware.

“The glass is higher than at most jewelers,” Mellergaard says. “They have an 8-foot modular unit with a 4-foot divider. Someone can make a 4-foot presentation, and it’s somewhat shielded from a person giving another 4-foot presentation. It’s an interesting way of doing it.”

The taller cases bring the jewelry closer to the customer. The additional showcase space allows more freedom for the staff to arrange the merchandise. “It’s really becoming a trend to give a little more display,” Mellergaard says.

The curved end spaces are made of solid wood and are lower than the glass displays. Product brochures and cards can be placed on the display edge without affecting the view of the jewelry.

“They’re very wide because it’s a big store,” Mellergaard says. “The store feels very spacious, to tell you the truth, even though there’s a lot of merchandise in it.”

The space also contains many of the customer amenities that are starting to become standard in retail stores, including a lounge, a cappuccino area, and children’s play area.

Allentown is only 65 miles north of Philadelphia, but the city and surrounding areas are part of the Philadelphia media market. With 30 years of radio and television advertising behind it, the Philadelphia-based Robbins brand is already well known in the area.

Allentown and the surrounding Lehigh Valley is becoming a bedroom community for people who work in New York, and the area’s population is growing.

So when you combine the brand awareness and the demographics of the Allentown area, the decision to open a new store there is what Robbins calls a “no-brainer.”

“It’s pretty simple. … We’re a known commodity,” Robbins says. “We should be able to do a nice business based on my projections.”