Von Bargen’s Jewelers

John Von Bargen is president of Von Bargen’s Jewelers, a four-store chain based in Springfield, Vt. Von Bargen, a former economist with a background in silversmithing, founded the company on Killington Mountain in 1975.

Initially focused on unique silver designs, the business grew, with Von Bargen pushing it into increasingly more upscale jewelry. Within a few years, he had moved into the larger Springfield location. In 1986 and 1987, the company opened two additional Vermont stores on Stratton Mountain and in Burlington. In 2003, Von Bargen’s opened its fourth location, in Hanover, N.H. In this month’s “Five Questions,” Von Bargen talks about marketing, creating solid relationships with vendors, and other strategies for success.

  1. What are your best sellers? We do very well with fashion jewelry— color with diamonds. It’s not a commodity, it’s unique, and it typically requires no maintenance or sizing. Our best sellers are in the $2,000 to $5,000 price range, in 18k gold or platinum. We decided seven or eight years ago to de-emphasize our reliance on bridal. We still sell it, but it takes up a big chunk of your capital and your inventory. And it’s a very competitive business, with steadily shrinking margins on the center diamonds. Unlike many jewelers, we won’t live and die with our bridal.

  2. What has been your most successful marketing program? We brought a marketing director in-house last year. By November, he had wrapped up all our disparate programs into a very consistent image, tone, and flavor. The response I was getting from people was the perception that we were advertising more than ever before, even though our advertising had only increased a little.
    We’re not really focused on any one specific marketing program. Rather, we are relentless on the concept of long-term branding. We make sure our print ads have consistent language, relationship, and size, and we coordinate vendors and products that work well together. Even our stores reflect our branding concept. There are certain elements inside and out of each of our four stores that are consistent with the others.

  3. What has been your best money-saving initiative? We pay our bills fast and get discounts from our vendors. There’s no return on your money equal to creating a relationship with your vendor. If he knows he will get paid fast, he’ll give you his best price. This strategy saves us in excess of $100,000 per year. Also, if you turn around and rebuy your best sellers immediately at these great prices—and in onesies and twosies, not just waiting until you have a bulk order—you give your vendor a constant wave of orders and help his cash flow. We realize our vendors have to make a profit for us to do well—and our vendors are very appreciative with their terms.

  4. What has been your most successful strategy for increasing sales? Never underestimate a client. Always strive to go upstream in quality and price points. I learned this lesson years ago in my first store. We were in a dying industrial town in New England. Vendors would come in—many of whom didn’t even work in 18k—and they would ask me how I could sell high-end stuff in this town. I told them I buy what I would want if I were a customer. I like really beautiful pieces, and I spend as much as I can on them. And it’s worked. Who wants to compete with Wal-Mart? I think for independents, moving more upscale is the way to go.

  5. What has been your biggest business challenge—and what have you done to resolve it? Having enough capital and using it correctly is always a big challenge—especially for a first-generation business like ours where raising capital through ever-increasing sales is an endless mission. The other big challenge is to be a manager and motivator of people. I’m not very good at it, but I have been fortunate enough to hire a great team that knows how to train, manage, and motivate.