Every Thursday during the pandemic, we’re checking in on members of the jewelry trade in an attempt to glean shareable tips and tricks for doing business—and living as well as possible—during the COVID-19 crisis.
Today we hear from Marisa Perry, cofounder of New York City’s Marisa Perry Atelier retail store and design workshop (which she co-owns with her husband, designer Douglas Elliott).
JCK: Hi, Marisa! How are you doing a year into the COVID-19 crisis?
Marisa Perry: We’ve done surprisingly well, like many other jewelry stores and companies. It makes no sense at all! Two years ago, if you would have asked me, “If all New York City theaters, restaurants, the opera, and the ballet shut down, and if there were no New Year’s Eve parties, no Christmas gatherings, no large Thanksgivings, and you couldn’t travel, do you think people would buy jewelry?” I would have said, “No, there is no place to wear it!” Right? Thankfully, the opposite is true.
How has it been being a brick-and-mortar store owner during the pandemic?
Now it’s just fun—we are super busy and enjoying every minute. But in the beginning of quarantine, when everything was shut down, it was the most harrowing experience of my professional life. We were in a pretty good place financially, so we were not totally stressed out about how I would pay my staff, vendors, or rent. I was, however, completely stressed out, working 10 hours a day, figuring out how to get the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] and other funding options. Turning over questions like, If I apply for the EIDL [Economic Injury Disaster Loans], can I still qualify for the PPP? And before that, there was talk of some loan that you may not have to repay, but none of the bankers even knew what it was called.
My accountant told me to go to the bank to apply for whatever loans were available—wrong advice. Then my bankers had no idea and actually submitted a regular SBA [Small Business Administration] application for me, not the EIDL and not the PPP! But the PPP was not ready yet. My bankers then gave all of the wrong advice, and only because I worked like a maniac was I able to figure out what to apply for when! Had I had the proper advice, I may have fared better, but no one knew what was going on. Also, store owners will remember questions like, Will we be closed for two weeks, three weeks, or two months? Do I ask my staff to go on unemployment? Then there was, How do I keep the momentum of my sales going? The questions were endless and in the end, you could only hope you made more good decisions than bad ones.
What things did you do during the closures to keep business going?
Against the strong advice of my digital marketing company, I put the marketing and advertising budget into overdrive. My digital marketing [consultant] argued that if we spent more on Instagram and Google Ads it would be a waste of money, since we couldn’t drive business to the store. We had arranged to do virtual appointments before we closed for quarantine. But the only sales we were making via Zoom were from customers who had already been in the store.
I said, “Add money, spend more!” No owner wants to add money to marketing when they have no idea when they’re reopening. Of course, marketing budgets are usually the first to be cut. My fear was that my momentum would dwindle and that once we reopened, it would take six weeks to build back up again. In my shop, sales often happen three to six weeks from the time customers first walk through our door. So my insistence was based on keeping the momentum going online so that when we did reopen, we would be top of mind. And it worked!
How are sales, and how have they been throughout the pandemic?
So far, January and February 2021 have far exceeded the months of January and February 2020, which was pre-COVID. We are up over 35%, thankfully. Throughout the pandemic, sales were up every month that we were actually open to compensate well for the 2 1/2 months we were closed. But what we have noticed is that we have sold so much more jewelry beyond our normal bridal basics. I purchased a year’s worth of necklace and earring boxes, which arrived in October 2020. By Dec. 31, we were completely out!
How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic is changing shopping behaviors when it comes to jewelry retail? Are your clients shopping differently?
We noticed a big shift in how grateful clients are to be able to come in, sit down, and actually speak to another human. Especially immediately after shutdown. We had clients come in who actually did not want to leave. We were safely having fun, but normally, they would have had their other appointments and gone on to somewhere else.
They are also having a great time with social media and shopping for what’s featured, and purchasing really fun, cute pieces for themselves. Lots of smaller necklaces, earrings, and bracelets—rather than only the guys coming in for the big, special-occasions pieces.
In what ways do you think shopping and retail will change once the virus is under control?
That’s an amazing question to which I have given a lot of thought. It could go one of several ways. One thought is that now that people are used to buying all categories online, this buying behavior may come to be a habit and they may not go back to actually shopping physical retail much.
The next possibility is that people are getting tired of returning the items that don’t fit and dealing with the back-and-forth so much that they are looking forward to actually going to a shop and trying things on! Or even just shopping in a boutique to see new items.
Third, it may simply depend on the product category. I know for example that I will shop less in my local supermarket and boutique food markets now that I am used to delivery from them, which I love! But I may not order clothing online because I really need to try things on and it’s so much better when you do. Not to mention, I have been burnt by some terrible online companies where the merchandise featured has nothing to do with what I received.
I just hope people will veer away from the seduction of the giant online retailers and support their local businesses. When this is over, and we can all go out more and enjoy life outside the home again, I hope everyone will make a conscious effort to shop at small retail shops. If we all do it collectively, our favorite neighborhoods will flourish and remain the charming shopping destinations we all love. If we don’t, Manhattan, and perhaps many other towns, will be filled with residential and office space, with no shops left.
What styles are customers gravitating toward?
Customers are loving smaller—mostly yellow gold—cute necklaces and earrings, many with organically placed rows of diamonds, or pretty pendants, just to layer. Also tennis bracelets, stacked with leather string or string bracelets, with maybe a thin gold bracelet to mix it up and give a more grunge edge to diamond bracelets.
What are you most looking forward to once the virus is under control?
Of course, I cannot wait to travel—safari! But mostly I’m looking forward to the restaurants flourishing again, and for everyone to be able to live life free of concern.
Any TV/movie/podcast/book recs you can share?
I loved The Undoing on HBO. The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix was one of the best series I have seen in years, and the ultimate for women cheering on other women!
Other Netflix fun things were The Bodyguard and Bridgerton. During quarantine, all I could handle was Hallmark movies, which I kept a secret until now!
In business books, I liked the classics: The E Myth and Good to Great.
Top: Marisa Perry in Paris in 2020 (all photos courtesy of Marisa Perry Atelier)
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