E-Tail: The Empires Strike Back

The jewelry business is famously fragmented—so it’s not surprising the jewelry e-commerce business is fragmented as well.

Looking at mostly e-tail companies, you have Blue Nile, James Allen, Brilliant Earth, and Diamond Nexus, along with intriguing well-funded newcomers like Ritani (which just announced it did $50 million in business last year), Gemvara, and the new Ice.com

General merchandise e-tailers like eBay and Amazon have paid only scattered attention to the sector. Amazon’s past entries into this business—it once pledged to charge only a 13 percent markup on each piece—have gone the way of its Fire phone. But a recent Amazon employment ad for a jewelry buyer indicates it’s not giving up: “Our mission is to create a world-class Jewelry store where customers will discover, research, and buy Earth’s Biggest Selection of Jewelry at Amazon.com.” (Amazon did not return a request for comment.) “Amazon is starting to making a play for this industry,” says Mabel McLean, a researcher for luxury think tank L2.

On the mostly brick-and-mortar front, there has been more action from independent jewelers and department stores. But the real news may be how seemingly stodgy brick-and-mortar names Signet and Tiffany have staked their claim in e-tail. 

In a recent presentation, L2 made a fascinating point: When asked about fast-growing e-tailers, your mind conjures flashes-in-the-pan like Lyst or Goliaths like Amazon. Yet, here are America fastest-growing e-tailers: Dick’s Sporting Goods (65 percent), AutoZone (59 percent), Costco (48 percent), and Lowe’s (45 percent). 

That’s not a roster of hot young companies—it’s more like the directory at the local strip mall.

Granted, that growth starts from a lower online sales base than Amazon, the current online king of the mountain. (With $88 billion in annual revenue, Amazon does more online sales than its 12 largest competitors.) But for years those brands sat on the sideline. Now they are showing a greater interest in e-commerce, and their growth is fueled by their biggest advantage—their network of stores. 

Having so many physical locations lowers delivery fees and allows options like in-store pickup and same-day delivery that most e-tailers can’t match. (Shipping costs are turning into Amazon’s Achilles’ heel, argues L2 founder Scott Galloway.) They also have the standard economies of scale and name recognition. 

We are seeing something similar unfold with regard to jewelry. Blue Nile remains the current king of the mountain for e-commerce in the U.S., boasting $473.5 million in sales for its last fiscal year, following 7 percent growth. It does $392.3 million in the United States. 

Signet’s e-commerce sales for the last fiscal year totaled $283.6 million, a 20 percent increase on a comp basis (the comp number excludes Zale, which it owned for half a year). Signet’s total includes revenue from its U.K. and Canada divisions, which it doesn’t break out as far as e-commerce. That said, given the competing rates of growth, it wouldn’t be surprising if Signet eventually overtook Blue Nile as the leading e-commerce jeweler in the U.S. (Worldwide, it’s possible Chow Tai Fook may do more overall online sales; it also doesn’t break out that info, but it has said sales rose 90 percent last year.)  

Going beyond the mass market, the picture gets murkier. There is no longer any question whether people will buy expensive jewelry online. They will. 

But as Galloway writes, half of all prestige jewelry and watch brands surveyed by L2 still offer no e-commerce option. “[They] treat their products as Fabergé eggs, not to be tarnished by e-commerce.” (For the record, Fabergé has enabled e-commerce.)

And yet some big players are making a go of it. According to L2, Cartier’s online sales now rank third for company sales, behind its two flagships. Tiffany doesn’t break out e-commerce sales, but says they accounted for 6 percent of worldwide net sales. Last year, that amounted to $254 million. 

For now, though, the high-end brands only dabble online, just as brands like Costco did in years past. They may be losing a lot of sales, even if they think they are guarding their reputation. But keep in mind luxury consumers are the kind of people who use the Internet. Not allowing customers to shop online may damage their cache as much as it helps it.

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JCK News Director