In January, I started a debate on what impact online jewelers have had in the jewelry business.
That conversation included comments from online jeweler Union Diamond’s senior vice president and good friend Barbara Palumbo. Her witty and spot-on insights added an indispensable perspective on the differences (and parallels) between online jewelers and brick-and-mortar stores.
I asked her recently if she’d mind telling me more about her company’s story in an effort to better educate the industry on where an online jeweler might fit in today’s marketplace.
After our conversation, I’m convinced that her advice would be valuable to all retail businesses, not just those in the jewelry industry.
DF: Tell me a little about your store’s history.
Barbara Palumbo: Are you sitting down? Good, because you might not believe this one. UnionDiamond.com was launched on Sept. 11, 2001. Scott Anderson, president and CEO of the company, knew that if he could just get through that day, he and the company would do okay. He did, and it did, and it has gone beyond “okay” 10 years later. We were rated early in our company’s history as one of Forbes magazine’s “Best of the Web,” in the luxury retail category, and over the years we’ve celebrated everything from being the most vouched for company on IVouch.com to hosting a Platinum Party with Glamour magazine to various segments on the television show “Get Married with Colin Cowie.” We are staffed with GIA graduates, do our own in-house setting, and we never, EVER, drop-ship merchandise to customers like a fair amount of our competitors do.
DF: Why the decision to be solely an online retailer?
BP: To be clear, we aren’t solely an online retailer, though we are primarily one. Unlike many jewelry e-tailers that exist today, we have a physical showroom for those customers who still aren’t quite ready to take the plunge into buying an item as meaningful as an engagement ring without seeing it first. Over the last 10+ years our 18th floor showroom in the historic Vinings section of Atlanta has welcomed a plethora of clients from in and around the Georgia area, but we’ve also welcomed visitors from as far away as Ireland, and even Australia on more than one occasion. Scott and his business partner, Tony Rixom, decided to venture into web retail because they realized that the brick-and-mortar way of selling was broken, and that technology was changing how the world shopped. They both had retail and wholesale backgrounds in this industry so the decision wasn’t necessarily a hard one to make. It was a natural progression to head into web-retail, and I for one am certainly happy that they did.
The company’s 18th floor showroom.
DF: What are some of the similarities and differences between running an online store versus a brick-and-mortar store?
BP: Whether you are retail or e-tail, the secret to success is the exact same: great customer service. As a woman who shops online all the time (please don’t tell my husband), I am often met with terrible customer service, which has driven me to keep two important things in mind when considering the power of the customer:
- It reminds me of just how tremendous our staff of diamond consultants is, while filling me with pride in knowing that our customers are not left with a feeling of disappointment.
- It empowers me as the consumer in knowing I can choose to spend my hard-earned dollars elsewhere.
I have the choice in the same way that our customers have the choice, and if you live with that reminder never far from your mind you’ll never lose another sale, no matter the price, the product, and no matter if you are an Internet dealer or a brick-and-mortar retailer. I’ve heard Tony give this particular piece of advice time and time again to various members of our staff: “If they like you, they will buy from you, and for over 10 years, thousands and thousands of people from all over the world have liked us enough to call us their jeweler.” The key is giving them something to like, and we give them service like they’ve never experienced.
DF: What are the most popular items on your site?
BP: Certified diamonds and bridal jewelry are still key for us, but I’d have to say that our custom orders have really gone through the roof since the introduction of CAD/CAM. While the economy plays its part and retailers everywhere struggle to stay above water, people are still getting married and will continue to do so, so that part of our business is rarely affected. Custom pieces can be done now in a matter of two weeks and people love knowing that they played a part in the process —that they, themselves, were the “designer.” It adds a certain level of romance to the engagement ring buying process, which unfortunately gets forgotten sometimes. Designing a ring for the person you love using CAD/CAM is a quick and easy way to earn yourself some true goody points. We call it “Romance, Advanced.”
A private diamond viewing room.
DF: Do you approach promotions any differently than a brick-and-mortar store would?
BP: Yes and no. One of our most popular and successful promotions in the last 10 years was created in very brick-and-mortar fashion. We mailed—yes, mailed—$100 plastic gift cards to every customer in our database for the holidays and the reaction was unfathomable. We ran with it a few years in a row and when we decided to do something different the following year by offering an online coupon code, customers were calling us asking where their gift card was. People still liked the idea of getting actual mail. Who knew?
DF: Being an online jeweler, how important is social media to your business plan?
BP: Social media is here to stay in one form or another, in the same way that buying online isn’t going anywhere. At this point, they go hand-in-hand, although I think it would be a long shot to put all of your eggs in that basket. We have a brilliant blogger by the name of Megan Reynolds who is currently enrolled in the Graduate Gemologist program at GIA, and who keeps our customers and her blog followers informed of the latest trends, industry stories, and even all-out jewelry oddities with her very special brand of humor. We have also tried to make blogging a group effort by requesting that various team members pick a topic and be “guest blogger” for the day. But as beneficial as social media can be in regard to spreading the word and making a name for yourself, there is a fine line between showing up in your followers’ news feed and outright spamming them. I think we’ve been able to find a balance while also linking all of our social networks together (Google+, Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest) for consistency.
DF: Are you involved in the community?
BP: Very much so. Scott and Tony donate and participate in a variety of charitable events every year and will again this year in an upcoming American Cancer Society event. And as you may have read on this very site, just this past December, Union Diamond awarded a $40,000 diamond ring to a member of the U.S. military in time for Christmas. They have also been kind enough to provide auction items over the years for my personal charity of choice: The Epilepsy Foundation of Georgia. My young son was diagnosed with epilepsy just over five years ago and I’ve received nothing but support and encouragement from this company ever since.
DF: What’s been your favorite customer memory/sale?
BP: When I first came to work for Union Diamond, I had two customers—a father and son—who began emailing me about these rather large, fairly expensive diamonds. The son was looking to get his wife a “push present,” and the father was looking to purchase his wife a 40th wedding anniversary gift. The son—a man in his mid-thirties—was adamant about not making the purchase of the diamonds without seeing them in person. He wanted me to drive the stones to where he lived in Alabama, so that he could view them with his own eyes before he committed to the sale.
The father, however, at the age of 68, did the entire process, start to finish, online without ever seeing the diamonds. He emailed questions daily, and I would respond quickly. We developed a wonderful rapport, and when the time came, he spent $66,000 and made his first-ever Internet purchase.
The son thought he was INSANE for doing so and decided to buy locally instead. Needless to say, father knows best. The [older] gentleman found himself in Atlanta along with his wife about a year later and they came to visit me. They were the most gorgeous late-60-somethings I had ever laid eyes on. He said to me, “My son is so stubborn. I told him he was going to get raked over the coals, and of course, he did. He started kicking himself when he took one look at his momma’s new ring.” To this day my heart swells when I think about how nearly 10 years ago, when e-tail was still new and buying diamonds online was seen as a severe leap of faith, this 68-year-old man from Alabama got to be the first kid on his block to buy something like this over the Internet. I hope they come back for their 50th anniversary.
One of Union Diamond’s metalsmiths working on a rose gold halo engagement ring.
DF: What are some of your thoughts on where the jewelry industry is headed in the future?
BP: This is a tough question to answer because we genuinely feel like we’re living the future of the industry. Tech plays an important role for e-tailers, so as technology advances we have to keep up without letting go of the “golden rules” that earned us the accolades we’re so proud of. Right now, for us, 3D technology helps to show off the intimate details of the items on our website, but again, without good service, all of the bells and whistles don’t mean a whole lot. We’re on board with whatever the industry throws our way. Ten years is a long, long time to be a successful jewelry e-tailer, so obviously we’re doing something right.