Last week, I spoke to people in Italy about how they were coping with the new coronavirus (COVID-19). What they told me was shocking. Schools were closed. Streets were empty. People weren’t leaving their houses. I wondered if that could happen in the United States.
Now, a little more than a week later, it has. I’m writing this from a city where regular life has come to a virtual halt.
The sudden, devastating, and overwhelming impact of the spread of COVID-19 has reminded many in the jewelry industry of 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis. Both came on with a sudden force and power and, as they dominated the news and affected our daily lives, we wondered if things would ever be the same again.
Life—and business—did get back to normal, mostly. But that took a while, and those events took a serious toll on people’s lives. The industry has changed a lot since 2001 and 2008, but those changes would likely have happened regardless.
If I could go back in time, and give myself advice as I lived through those two crises, I’d say, “Things will get better.” Of course, a lot of jewelry businesses closed during those times. But a lot of jewelry businesses closed last year too. And the businesses that did hang on are now among the strongest in the industry.
We now are faced with a new crisis, and it’s looking quite scary, for reasons that I hope are now obvious. This will hurt sales in the short-term, particularly at physical stores. It may help online sales. Overall, though, it’s not a good time to be selling much more than food, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer.
Many local businesses will be forced to shut for an extended period. I hope this makes people realize how important those small shops are to our communities and our lives. Yes, there may be bailouts for airlines, hotels, and casinos—three industries not exactly known for consumer-friendliness. But what about the small local stores that are the true backbones of our towns and cities?
These two tweets offer good thoughts along those lines. (The first is by the son of a former jeweler.)
Local stores and restaurants are not just a source of jobs, but the binding agents of community. They connect us to people unlike ourselves. They provide a sense of communal identity. Their demise will have human and spiritual costs. Governments need to salvage them.
— Franklin Foer (@FranklinFoer) March 17, 2020
If you can afford it, buy gift cards from your neighborhood restaurants to spend at a later date. It will at least stem the tide until more lasting solutions are figured out during these tough times. https://t.co/xh5xXrG0GW
— Sleeping Giants (@slpng_giants) March 17, 2020
By that point, people will be tired of being cooped up. (I’m already tired of it, and it’s been less than two weeks.) There’s just so much Netflixing and chilling a person can take.
Brick-and-mortar retail stores will then have an advantage. As will stores that offer fun and exciting—or just plain helpful—experiences. So will events and conferences. Teleconferencing works in a pinch, and it’s how many of us will be forced to communicate for the time being. But nothing beats meeting someone face-to-face.
Humans are social creatures. We want to interact with other people. And if we have spent a long time hibernating, we will crave that interaction more than ever. A few years ago, my wife went away for the night, and my young son got upset. I told him we could call her via FaceTime. He said, “That’s not the same.” I couldn’t argue. FaceTime doesn’t compare to real face time.
We sell products that are about beauty and connection. People will need that after so many months of ugliness and “distancing.” There may be also a wedding boom. A lot of people are either canceling or postponing their ceremonies. There’s potential for a lot of ring sales.
In China, there is already talk of a surge in “revenge spending”:
Amrita Banta, managing director at Agility Research, used the term—previously coined to describe pent-up Chinese consumer demand that was unleashed in the 1980s after the chaos and poverty of the Cultural Revolution—to describe buying by luxury clients whose pockets are flush with cash after weeks of canceled plans.
“China seems to have turned the corner and bigger cities are showing cautious optimism,” she said. “We see a slow but definite bounce back.”
I don’t wish to minimize the potential human toll here. We don’t how this will play out. Things are scary. But we have experienced scary times before. We just need to hang on and do the right things, like staying inside, washing our hands, looking out for the vulnerable, and taking care of employees, including continuing to pay wages and benefits even if stores are closed, if that’s possible. And soon, we all hope, we will again be able to look back and say, “Things did get better.”
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