AGS Blogging: Some Optimism, A Lot of Caution

For as long as I’ve been doing this, I’ve asked retailers about their business, and they tell me “we are cautiously optimistic.” That is, until the last few years, when more than a few expressed what I would term “full-fledged pessimism.” But now, at the AGS Conclave in Miami, I have seen a definite return to “cautious optimism” – except I would say that it’s comprised of about 75 percent caution, 25 percent optimism.

Granted, the mood is a million times better than it was three years ago. I recall quite a few jewelry events from back then that were more like ghost towns. By contrast, this is a real Conclave: Sessions are crowded, people are ready to learn, everyone is talking about business. One jeweler told me he had just come off his best year ever. 

But for quite a few, business remains spotty. Things are great one month, terrible the next. And even among those who see sales picking up, the progress is often exasperatingly slow. People feel struck in neutral, and that basically mirrors the economy as a whole.

Which is one reason for the excess of caution. The other is, going through an experience like 2009/10 leaves its scars.  Inventories are lean, and retailers are hesitant to commit; some still stock items from three years ago. We are also witnessing an interesting phenomenon. For the last three years, many retailers survived on gold buying and selling charms. Now those two categories are slowing down, and, as one person put it, “retailers have to learn how to be jewelers again.”

If there has been one theme to this Conclave, it has been embracing change, something that was preached by this morning’s speaker, Jeremy Gutsche. There are a lot of interesting ideas floating around out there, from mastering social networking to developing innovative “viral” ads. 

Sometimes when I talk to jewelers who are experiencing downturns, I ask if they have run any new promotions or advertising, or are stocking a new line. And they’ll tell me they haven’t changed anything, because the real culprit is the bad economy. And yes, in many places, the climate is awful. But businesses who don’t change are not going to survive, even if the economy improves. As a wise industry observer put it, if a CEO went on television and said that his business has dropped but the company wasn’t doing anything to fix it, he would be instantly fired.

We are in a different world than we were in ten years ago. Change today is constant. The best retailers today are the ones who are breaking out of the box, and trying something different. It’s fine to be cautiously optimistic. But being too cautious is a curse, and it’s something too many people in this industry still suffer from.

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