Amazon’s Become a Player in Fashion. Could It Become One in Jewelry?

In an article this week on QVC’s purchase of flash site Zulily, The Wall Street Journal writes that “being an e-commerce company in the U.S. has increasingly come to mean one thing: figuring out how to coexist with Amazon.com.”

So far, though, jewelry has been an exception. In recent years, Amazon has been mostly reluctant to sink its e-tentacles into our business, having fumbled past attempts. But that could change, given the growing success of Amazon Fashion, its burgeoning vertical that includes jewelry. Cowen & Co. estimates that the e-tailer’s fashion sales have grown 29 percent in the past six quarters and predicts that Amazon will surpass Macy’s as America’s top clothing retailer by 2017.

Amazon did not respond to an inquiry from JCK, but there are scattered signs that it wants to beef up its jewelry department. One recent job ad says it’s aiming for “the Earth’s biggest selection of jewelry.” Of course, it’s aimed at our industry before. According to The Everything Store, an authoritative history of the company by Brad Stone, in 2003 CEO Jeff Bezos considered jewelry “a tempting target: the products were small, the prices were high, and shipping was relatively cheap.”

Amazon put a lot of effort into its jewelry shop, the book says, nabbing exclusive rights to Paris Hilton’s line, introducing build-your-own ring and diamond search tools, and creating special packaging:

For months, Bezos was consumed with the design of the elegant wooden box that Amazon would use. “The box was everything to him,” says Randy Miller. “He wanted it to be as iconic as Tiffany’s.”

It also kept prices low, not surprising for a company that has never been allergic to low margins, even when that means low profits. When Amazon Jewelry premiered in 2004, it claimed its jewelry averaged a 13 percent margin, undercutting not only brick-and-mortar jewelers but its online competitors. (Bezos also timed Amazon’s jewelry announcements to coincide with Blue Nile’s financial results, “a draconian tactic that further exposed his competitive streak,” the book says.) In one fascinating anecdote, Stone writes that the CEO was “set off” by a discussion of traditional high jewelry margins:

One [executive] mentioned how the jewelry industry conducted business in the “traditional way.” “You’re not thinking about this right,” Bezos said, and excused himself to get something from his office. He was gone a few minutes, then returned with a stack of photocopied documents and handed a page to everyone in the meeting. It had only one paragraph, about ten sentences long. It began with the words,  “We are the “Unstore.’ ”

Being an unstore also meant that Amazon had to concern itself only with what was best for the customer. The conventions of the jewelry business allowed routine 100 or 200 percent markups, but, well, that just didn’t apply to Amazon.…

He suggested that Amazon could ignore the conventions of pricing in the jewelry business and envisioned customers buying a bracelet on the site for $1,200 and then going to get an appraisal and finding out from the local jeweler that the item was actually worth $2,000. “I know you’re retailers, and I hired you because you are retailers,” Bezos said. “But I want you to understand that from this day forward, you are not bound by the old rules.”

Yet, consumers didn’t bite. Jewelry became “modestly profitable for Amazon,” and watches did well, but it never fulfilled Bezos’ ambitions, and it soon did away with the tools and packaging. Stone writes: “Employees who passed through jewelry described a grueling experience, with shifting goals, rotating bosses, and endless disputes with suppliers who disliked Amazon’s pricing.” (That’s apparently not uncommon.)

Why didn’t it work? Stone points to the standard difficulties selling jewelry online: Most people prefer to see, touch, and feel the piece before they buy it. Blue Nile CEO Harvey Kanter has noted that less than 10 percent of jewelry is sold online, making it the category with the second-lowest online penetration.

Jewelry also lacks recognizable brands, so it’s hard to grab buyers’ attention. “Shoppers go [to Amazon] more often to research and buy what they have in mind, not to be seduced into something new,” writes Kevin Kelleher in Pando. “Amazon’s DNA is closer to search than discovery.”

That proved a problem in 2013, when Amazon recruited New York City designer Wendy Brandes—of emoticon earring fame—to sell on Amazon Fashion. Brandes hoped it would boost her exposure, but she didn’t receive the backing she expected.

“Smaller jewelers like myself didn’t show up high in the search results,” she says. “To show up high in the search terms and algorithms you have to sell more. It’s like a catch-22.”

Executives told her that if she let Amazon do fulfillment, her visibility would increase, but that seemed like a “long distance consignment” arrangement that made little sense for her. In the end, she stopped working with the site, having generated little business. Other designers told her they had the same experience.

Finally, buying jewelry—in particular, an engagement ring—on Amazon arguably lacks the cachet of doing it at Tiffany or recognized local jeweler, wooden box or no. Of course, that is also true of mass merchants like Wal-Mart and Costco, and they sell plenty of jewelry. But not everyone is open to that. One survey found that 29 percent of online shoppers said they would “never” buy a luxury good on Amazon, the second highest number, behind groceries.

Amazon has long tried to gussy up its image, launching arms-length fashion sites like Endless (since closed) and flash seller MyHabit. Recently, it hired a former Vogue editor and sponsored runway shows to boost its fashion cred, but as Bloomberg notes, that’s seen mixed success:

“What’s missing—what can be improved upon—is that there is theater involved in fashion,” says Ari Bloom, founder of New York–based A2B Ventures, a strategic advisory firm that works in fashion, food, and wellness. “Amazon’s brand positioning has really been about convenience and price. Fashion is often about experience.”…

“The truth is, Amazon is not Neiman Marcus,” says [Forrester Research analyst Sucharita Mulpuru]. “And the consumer recognizes that.”

Brandes puts it even more succinctly: “Who wants to buy jewelry in the place where you buy your cat food?”

For now, most of Amazon’s jewelry offerings come from third-party sellers, with all the plusses and minuses that entails. In January 2014, some griped they faced increased scrutiny over the accuracy of their item descriptions. But problems persist: One month later, Gizmodo found the site’s jewelry offerings riddled with false discounts.“In all cases, the ‘sale price’ isn’t really a sale at all,” wrote Leslie Horn. “It’s just what you should realistically pay.”

If that’s true, the “unstore” that once tried to reinvent jewelry retailing has fallen victim to our industry’s worst impulses. Uncool, unstore.

JCK News Director