The State of the Industry

Over the years, articles in JCK have predicted the demise of the independent jeweler. None of those predictions have come to pass, and the jewelry industry remains one of the few retail industries where independently owned stores make up a significant percentage of overall doors.

The danger lies in complacency. Recently, I had a conversation with former JCK editor-in-chief George Holmes about the “State of the Industry” reports in this issue. It was he who reminded me of the occasional “obituary of the independent jeweler” articles we’d done in the past. He asked if I thought the situation was more urgent today. I said yes. “Why?” he challenged me.

I said that I sensed seismic changes headed our way and that those who couldn’t adapt were headed for extinction—not just independents, but all jewelers.

Holmes pressed on. “Elaborate,” he said. I ticked off the reasons outlined in this issue, but I struggled to describe and legitimize what can only be called a “gut feeling.”

Author Malcolm Gladwell in his latest book, Blink, discusses gut reaction and legitimizes the quality of snap decisions. Sometimes we don’t have to think—we just know, without knowing how we know. While Gladwell doesn’t advocate making every decision without research or deliberation, he explains how life experiences allow rapid conclusions that are as valid and correct as ones that take lengthy deliberation.

Holmes used to joke about my passion for shopping, but it’s that very experience that makes me feel the need for change in the jewelry retail environment. Twenty years ago, I saw that malls across America were more or less the same—and I predicted that women (and to a lesser degree, men) would get tired of looking like everybody else. A decade later, Women’s Wear Daily and other retail experts began decrying the homogeneity of shopping in America.

But while American women don’t want to look like everyone else, they don’t want to look too different. Claudia Rose saw this in the Retail Landscape Study (see p. 109). They want to look like individuals, but within safe parameters. We’ve seen this for years in jewelry. Typically, Italian or German design is watered down for American distribution.

Two more factors speaking to my gut are an uncertainty about the times and the proliferation of storage facilities. Within a five-mile radius of our house are at least three large storage facilities. With so many McMansions, and big closets in even modest new homes, why do we need so many storage facilities? How much stuff do we have?

More to the point, how much stuff do we need? When people believe they have too much stuff, a mediocre shopping experience with product they can find anywhere won’t entice them to acquire something new.

Finally, there’s the question of the times. Times have been good for jewelry the past few years, and buying at the spring shows and The JCK Show ~ Las Vegas was strong. But I’m not alone in my sense that it’s a giddiness that feels a bit like Paris before the war. The industry is not on solid financial footing, and as I write, the situation in Lebanon is still escalating. Meanwhile, gas and energy prices keep climbing, and fall fashion is all about dark, somber colors and lots of layers and wrapping. If fashion signifies society’s mood, then it’s tapping a zeitgeist many aren’t even aware of yet. Embellishment—typical of boom times—is largely gone, and the dark palette might be taken as advance warning of a dark mood, while the layers of warm, fuzzy fabric suggest a desire for cocooning and withdrawing, not looking outward and freely spending.

Barring another major disaster or war, I doubt consumers will stop spending. People don’t go back once they’ve had a taste of the finer things. At press time, back-to-school spending—traditionally a bellwether of Christmas spending—is predicted to be strong. But if times get tighter, consumers will pick and choose far more carefully.

This spells trouble for jewelers because so many still resist change, responding to competitive threats with fear and defensiveness instead of innovation and adaptation. Those who adjust their shopping experience and merchandise to reflect the new realities will continue to prosper. Those who don’t will find their stores among the list of stores that used to be.