JCK Las Vegas: Independent Jewelers Will Survive, Panel Says

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The independent jeweler is better positioned to survive today than the large chains or the mall stores today, panelists at a recent JA panel on “Adapting and Evolving Your Business in a Changing World” agreed.

A panel discussion on Adapting and Evolving Your Business in a Changing World took place yesterday during JCK Las Vegas.

Susan Jacques, president of Borsheims, in Omaha, Neb., predicted that “those that survive this will come out stronger and leaner with greater market share” and she thought independent jewelers were particularly well positioned to take advantage of any upturn.

However, Jeff Corey, of Days Jewelers in Maine, worried that the industry is not appealing to the younger generation, and has noticed not many young people coming into his stores. He said that his store has now specifically targeted younger consumers.

Holly Wesche-Conn, of Wesche Jewelers in Melbourne, Fla., said that consumers today expect a very different store experience than they did 20 years ago.

 “Just going into a pretty jewelry store with a nice salesperson and an okay selection of product is not going to cut it anymore,” she said. “Customers tell me all the time they love going into my store because of the amenities we offer. A cup of coffee is nice, but I think the bar’s been raised. We have guys who come in for engagement ring and they love it when you give them a nice cold beer in a glass, not just a cup.”

Jewelry analyst Ken Gassman began by “promising” the audience that “the worst is over.”

He noted that while Zale and Tiffany’s recent reports of same store sales both showed substantial decreases, their CEO’s comments indicated demand had “stabilized.”

On the first subject, technology, Gassman says he sees online sales going to 10% of the industry by 2010.

“The Internet will have a role, but store based jewelers are here for the long term, in my opinion,” he said.

However he added, “You all should be online. You certainly have to have a calling card, but you also should show some product.”

Corey said that “technology has been a part of our company for the past 20 years.”

He said the company uses webinars, an Intranet, and social networking. He also hired a college intern to run Days’ Facebook, twitter, and myspace page, and then write a plan for Day’s social networking strategy.

“And when I apologized and said, this only pays $8 an hour, she said, ‘This is a paying job?’” he said. “So there is this whole pool of resources available at very little cost.”

Wesche-Conn was advised by local students to have a “twitter war” with another local businessperson.

“I am still figuring out how well this will work, but it sends the message at Wesche Jewelers we are with it,” she says.

She also spread the image of “Holly the Diamond Hunter” on her buying trips via updates on a blog.

“I could not believe the number of people who followed me,” she said.

The panel also discussed how to take advantage of “stranded customers” that have been left without a jeweler as a result of business failures.

Gassman noted: “There are a lot of good people out of work. You are going to get talent so cheap you won’t believe it.”

Corey noted he recently hired an employee of a rival that went bankrupt and that person has since become a top seller.

Moderator David Peters, director of education for Jewelers of America, added that one of the big resources a jeweler that closes has is its customer lists, and that they may be interested in selling or giving it to you.

Regarding social issues, Corey said that “he is amazed at the perception people have today” about diamonds.

“We need to have big signs saying, ‘We do not sell conflict diamonds,’” he said.

He said his store has his success selling “Made in Botswana” diamonds.

Jacques advised everyone to “embrace corporate social responsibility.”

“We have quit doing business with people who we think are non-complaint,” she says. “I will not risk the reputation of my business. The new generation takes this seriously and will shut you out if you are not part of the world they want to live in.”

Several of the panelists said they had begun buying gold from the public. Wesche-Conn says it’s not just been good for cash flow, but it’s gotten new customers into her store.

“We take people into the back office, hear their stories, and try to make a friend,” she said.

Jacques advised jewelers to “do your research so you can confidently tell customers you are offering the best price in town.”

And she advised jewelers, if they do take in gold, “don’t hold it, send it in.”

Peters warned jewelers that they have to be in compliance with local laws if they buy gold, and the Patriot Act if they buy $50,000 or more.

The panelist also talked about the “silver lining” of the recession. Wesche-Conn noted she has been able to negotiate lower advertising rates.

“Our marketing is the same as ever but we’ve cut expenses 20%,” she said.

And she added: “I think we are going to emerge from this better businesspeople. We are going to look back on this, and say: ‘Boy was that a hard time. But we really made some great strides.”

Also at the panel, Rio Tinto’s John Hall, vice chairman of the Responsible Jewelry Council, talked about that group. And Helena Krodel, of the Jewelry Information Center, talked about her group’s “Jewelry Stories” campaign.