Greetings From Stuller/Swamplandia!

A couple months ago, JCK publisher Mark Smelzer and regional sales manager Randi Gewertz invited me to join them in Lafayette, La., for Stuller’s second-to-last Bridge Conference of 2013. The 4-year-old retail education program—intended to challenge Stuller’s customers to adapt to changes in the retail jewelry environment (and, let’s be frank, to help the industry behemoth sell more products)—has been hailed as a fruitful learning experience capped by Stuller’s signature Cajun hospitality.

It had been a decade since I’d last been to Lafayette, so I was primed to say yes. But then Ashley Brown, Stuller’s executive director of marketing, threw in the offer of a swamp tour the day before the conference, and I was sold. I’d always had romantic notions of the bayou. Here was my opportunity to see it while getting reacquainted with one of America’s—if not the world’s—largest and most influential jewelry manufacturers.

And there was sugar on top: Mark and Randi and I agreed to meet in New Orleans, have some dinner, and then drive to Lafayette late Saturday night. An evening in NOLA on top of everything else? Twist my rubber arm!

By the time we met for breakfast yesterday morning, dressed in jeans, long sleeves, and layers of bug spray, the swamp jokes were in full effect. “Oh honey, our mosquitoes are the size of Volkswagens,” said Randi, mimicking the Southern drawl of the woman who’d given her the local bug forecast.

When we arrived at McGee’s Landing in Henderson, a rundown little river town about 17 miles east of Lafayette, we were prepared to find automobile-size mosquitoes, trees writhing with water moccasins, and waters teeming with alligators. But what took all of us by surprise as we cruised through the Henderson Swamp—aboard a platform-like airboat with a giant outboard engine that lets you, more or less, float above the swampy debris—was the beauty and serenity of Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River Basin.

 

Clockwise from top right: Stuller’s Ashley Brown (in pink top), me, Randi Gewertz, Mark Smelzer, Stuller interiors director David Hollingshead (in orange t-shirt), and Ashley’s friend, Stacy, reporting for swamp duty

I’m a little ashamed to admit that I was expecting either a cheesy Disney-fied version of the bayou or a beer can–strewn redneck playground—certainly not the perfectly preserved, thriving ecosystem that we encountered in the Atchafalaya Basin. Much of the swamp stretches beneath the pylons supporting the Interstate 10, forming a lovely yet incongruous sight (modern 18-wheelers speeding along the highway above, ancient reptiles cruising the byways below).

 

Cypress trees strung with Spanish moss in the Atchafalaya River Basin

Our able driver and swamp guide Trey Allemond (his family has owned McGee’s Landing for 30 years) piloted us through a watery dreamscape in the heart of Cajun country populated by cypress trees strung with Spanish moss, floating fields of lavender water lilies, egrets and herons, and, yes, plenty of critters. (A baby gator lurched in front of our boat and Mark actually started clapping, as if he’d just watched LSU score; we all shared his giddiness.)

 

Mark, a little giddy after our gator sighting

The swamp tour concluded after an hour and a half, but our good time in Cajun country was just beginning. If you’ve ever visited Stuller, you know what I’m talking about. For one thing, come hungry. They stuff you with all the usual delicious suspects: shrimp and grits, gumbo, pecan pie.

Following lunch, we embarked on a tour of Lafayette’s fancy new River Ranch development, where we—Mark, Randi, Stuller interiors director David Hollingshead, and me—even squeezed in a visit to an open house (a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath, Tuscan-style home with high ceilings, and tasteful, if predictable, features…on sale for about $650,000).

We regrouped at our hotel for the opening reception. With nearly 100 retailers from all over the country in attendance, this Bridge session (one of nine held this year alone) was shaping up to be among Stuller’s largest.

“At Bridge, professional jewelers have gathered to address challenges and opportunities they share,” said a statement in my conference packet. “We favor interaction and discussion over lecture to examine the dynamics at play in our rapidly changing retail jewelry environment. Together, we survey strategies important to your business, including merchandising, marketing, staffing and training, and orchestrating memorable shopping experiences.”

The exercise that followed—themed “Adapting to Change” and led by chief merchandising officer Danny Clark—gave us a glimpse of the interactive element. We heard from retailers based in Michigan, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia about which members of their staffs are open to—and capable of—change. The upshot, said Clark, was that the future would belong to retailers who are quick to embrace it.

“The big will not beat the slow,” he said. “It will be the fast beating the slow.”

As we prepare to tackle a full day of Bridge sessions today, I’m looking forward to learning what else this thoughtful, progressive company has to say about the future of retailing. If the parting words of the Bridge statement are any indication, we’re in for a provocative ride:

“We believe that to market your business in increasingly profitable ways is to be tomorrow’s jeweler, and we believe that the path begins here.”

Just don’t forget, they might add, to add a detour through swamp country. You won’t regret it.

P.S. Last week, I blogged about five of fall’s can’t-miss jewelry exhibits and stupidly forgot to include the American Jewelry Design Council’s new exhibit at the Forbes Galleries in New York City: “Variations on a Theme: 25 Years of Design from the AJDC.” Thanks to the council’s reputation for nurturing cutting-edge design through charming, clever, and creative takes on specially chosen themes, the exhibit is bound to be magnificent. It runs through Feb. 22. For real, don’t miss it!