8 Great Takeaways From AGS Conclave 2015

The first American Gem Society Conclave I attended was in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2002. I’m not quite sure why it took me 13 years to get to my second one, but it was certainly worth the wait. After last week’s Conclave in New Orleans, which was expertly emceed by JCK’s very own Rob Bates, I’m inspired to follow the advice of keynote speaker Diana Nyad, the marathon swimmer who completed a 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida in 2013 at the age of 64: “You’re never too old to chase your dreams.”

I’m also brimming with insights into the jewelry business, gleaned from a handful of the 99 educational sessions that I was able to attend. Here are eight of my favorite takeaways from a memorable week in the Big Easy:

1. Terry Bradshaw has a miniature burro named Snoop Donk.

The opening keynote speech of Conclave belonged to Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw. He spoke in platitudes—“You gotta keep things simple in life”—but did it with such charm, enthusiasm, and sweaty exuberance that his well-worn bromides came across as gentle reminders of the right way to live. “Learn how to smile, learn how to live happy.” “When it’s all said and done, it’s about family—those are the things that sustain you.” And my favorite mantra of all: “You don’t want to wake up one day regretting what didn’t happen.”

Among the personal details he shared last Wednesday morning was that he lives on a ranch in Oklahoma, where he raises Angus cattle and is surrounded by pets. The animal posse includes a miniature donkey named Snoop Donk, who stands 28 inches tall and is “cute as a button.” When I recalled that anecdote this weekend, a smile sprang to my lips every time.

2. Friends don’t let friends walk drunk.

“You’re eight times more likely to die by drunk walking instead of driving a drunk mile,” said Stephen Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, during his keynote address on Thursday morning. It sounds like a random fact, but taken in the context of the other anecdotes he shared—about turkey sex and the booming market in fake college diplomas—it was clear that he was leading up to a larger point: The key to figuring out a problem is to understand the incentives people are responding to and to get good data.

Incentives can be positive or negative. They can be social, moral, financial, or reputation oriented. In sales, they are almost always positive—except when you’re talking about scarcity. But unless you have the right data, you will not be able to design an incentive scheme that works. That was the underlying message of Dubner’s eye-opening speech, which included one especially great insight into jewelry selling:

3. Grow your business by assuming the title of storyteller in chief.

“Everyone in your business really needs to tell stories all the time,” Dubner said. “You can describe things, but if you tell stories about how a product moves someone or changes a relationship, stories work. Why? Because we’re all a little narcissistic. When we hear a story, especially a good one, we naturally insert ourselves in that story—and stories are way more memorable than data and rules.”

4. The independent jeweler is an endangered species.

Consolidation in the retail jewelry sector was a topic of discussion when I entered the industry in 2000, and it’s still a topic today, albeit with far more grist added to the mill. “If you were at Conclave in 2000, about a quarter of the people there are no longer in business,” said Brian Watkins, president of Ritani, during his Saturday seminar, The Future of Retail.

Forevermark US president Charles Stanley provided some figures to give context to the shifting retail jewelry landscape. “Sterling’s acquisition of Zale is only going to make the largest jeweler stronger,” he said as he prepared to introduce Bradshaw to the stage. “We’re seeing a worrying 22 percent decline in diamond profits for the independent jeweler since 2012. We’re saying goodbye to a lot of good jewelers.”

5. Omnichannel retailing is the mark of Web 3.0.

For retailers who hope to stick around, it’s critical to understand that the next evolution of the Web isn’t about brick-and-mortar stores or pure online players—it’s about a seamless combination of every method of interacting with clients, including mobile stores, mobile apps, and good old-fashioned telephone calls, aka omnichannel or multichannel retailing, aka clicks-and-bricks.

Stanley broke it down during a seminar on diamonds: “Measured in pieces, 18 percent of diamond jewelry acquisitions were made online in 2013,” Stanley said. “Pure online is only 7 percent of all acquisitions.…90 percent of online acquirers visit a store as part of their purchase journey.… No question that clicks-and-bricks will be a powerful model for the future.”

6. It’s important to make a commitment to ethical sourcing.

“I’m concerned about the threats facing the retail sector,” said Martin Rapaport, chairman of the Rapaport Group, during his Wednesday seminar, Ethical Challenges and Opportunities in the Jewelry Industry. Whether you’re buying diamonds from Angola, selling synthetic diamonds, or being subjected to “greenwashing” (when companies exaggerate their commitments to environmental responsibility), it’s no longer possible to feign ignorance at the retail counter.

“How you spend your money is important,” Rapaport said. “Know your supplier.”

7. Millennial mania has reached a fever pitch.

“Everything was about millennial customers,” said Watkins in his single sentence review of Conclave. And boy was he right. The jewelry industry’s obsession with how to target millennials, and whether they’re fundamentally interested in luxury, was the leitmotif of last week’s Conclave. Practically every seminar speaker made mention of the massive generation of consumers aged 18 to 35 and how the jewelry industry should be approaching them.

“We have to start changing how we attract their business,” said Scott Murphy, the president and CEO of Jewelers Mutual.

For starters, see points 3, 4, 5, and 6!

8. A full-size muffuletta has 3,452 calories.

In a city known for excess, the meat-packed Sicilian bread monstrosity known as the muffuletta—the signature sandwich of Italian immigrants who settled in New Orleans—takes the (king) cake. Boasting 100 grams of fat and a staggering 3,452 calories (according to MyFitnessPal.com), it topped the list of decadent things I inhaled last week (including po’boys, gumbos, sweet potato cakes, and bags upon bags of powdered sugar–covered beignets). My flight home to Los Angeles departs this evening—not a moment too soon. I’ll be rolling myself to the airport.

Courtesy Gourmetsleuth.com

A quarter of a muffuletta has just 863 calories!

For more on Conclave 2015, as well as some of the hot-button issues discussed there (including the future of the independent jeweler and ethical sourcing), don’t miss JCK’s June issue. It’s a doozy!