Scott Ward doesn’t consider himself to be very dangerous. But the scorpions in his jewelry display cases are – well, somewhat (more on that later). The stinging, venomous creatures were used many years ago as part of a southwestern themed display. When the display was dismantled, customers wanted the creepy crawly creatures back. And, with that popular request, Ward began making his jewelry stores look like exotic jungles complete with jungle inhabitants, most recently Brazilian honey bears.
On its face, the move seemed a little risky. The average jewelry store owner goes for an understated interior design theme with just enough flair to keep things visually interesting. But that’s not the way Ward rolls.
The owner of four South Lyon Jewelry and Watch stores, Ward knew he was on to something with a store jungle theme idea when customers asked to bring back the scorpions. But before hitting on the winning theme of exotic flora and fauna, Ward struggled to get started like most jewelry store owners looking to break into the business.
Working as a bench jeweler most of his adult life, Ward lost his regular job and decided it was time to be his own boss. In August 2003 he borrowed $3,000 from his retirement account to open a repair shop. Two years later, Ward had enough original designs to switch over to a retail operation. Today he has four stores (one in Michigan, two in Maryland, and one in Delaware) with a fifth store to open in Kentucky next summer.
Not bad for a guy with scorpions and cute small fuzzy bears from a rainforest in his jewelry store. When asked if the animals are part of Ward’s success story, his resounding response was an affirmative: “Absolutely, yes,” says Ward. “We make our stores a destination and something to do on a rainy day. People often stop in just to see the bears and the scorpions. We have regulars who stop by to check-up on them and new comers who heard about us from friends or family. About 10 percent of our customers stop in to talk. We do not hire salespeople and we don’t push sales on our customers.”
The scorpions are put in the jewelry cases every morning as routinely as trays of jewelry. “Everyone here has had the opportunity to handle the scorpions daily to show our customers,” says Ward. “The first time you ask an employee to stick their hand into a tank seething with venomous scorpions is always the most fun! All employees are trained on where to hold the scorpions to avoid being stung or pinched.”
South Lyon Jewelry and Watch store owner Scott Ward with a scorpion.
In each store Ward has roughly 60 to 80 scorpions. Years ago Ward purposely chose black scorpions from Southeast Asia. “We use these scorpions because they are scary looking but are less venomous than most other species,” says Ward.
The creatures have become as common place as diamond-set jewelry in the stores’ display cases. Still, customer reactions run the gamut. “Customer reactions have varied from recoiling in horror to being completely fascinated,” says Ward. “They always come back with someone else to show them off to.”
Although the primary function of the scorpions is for display, there is an added security bonus. With stories of smash-and-grabs making headlines daily, Ward takes comfort knowing that any would-be assailant would give serious second thought to taking jewelry from display cases crowded with nasty looking scorpions. “The security benefit was just a bonus,” says Ward. “You’d have to be insane to stick your hand in the showcase.”
The scorpions are a bit of fun for Ward. Some may view it as “extreme visual merchandising” while others might think there’s a significant cool factor to being the only jewelry store in the country with venomous scorpions in their display case. But Ward had bigger and better ideas with flora and fauna themes.
A 15-foot garden store entrance through a garden arbor with a grass floor and vines hanging from the ceiling.
Again, like any other jeweler, Ward is up against some stiff competition in his markets with well-established jewelers in town. Looking for a little market differentiation, Ward’s once-simple southwestern display with live scorpions evolved into a more complex flora and fauna jungle theme. “We built a 15 foot garden entrance through a garden arbor with a grass floor and vines hanging from the ceiling,” says Ward.
The garden arbor fulfilled the “flora” part of the equation. In the past the “fauna” was the scorpions, but in recent months Ward has brought in Lucy and Ricky, two Brazilian honey bears: Or, more accurately, a pair of kinkajou (in zoological terms, potos flavus).
“I saw Lucy at an exotic pet store here in Michigan and noticed how unhappy she was as people walked by and tapped on her glass container the size of an aquarium,” recalls Ward. “I felt terribly guilty and I thought I just had to have her. She fits so well with our theme and she loves it so much here. Her enclosure is quite spacious and accommodates her play time. Recently, we picked up Ricky from a rescue to keep to Lucy company and they’ve been getting along very well!”
Brazilian honey bears Lucy and Ricky.
Although the honey bears hit the red zone on the cute-o-meter, these mostly passive mammals are still wild animals. According to Wikipedia: “Kinkajous are playful, generally quiet, docile, and have no noticeable odor. However, they can occasionally be aggressive. Kinkajous dislike being awake during the day, noise, and sudden movements. An agitated kinkajou may emit a scream and attack, usually clawing its victim and sometimes biting deeply.”
Ward is keenly aware of the fine print on the warning label that comes with owning exotic animals. “These aren’t pets in any sense of the word,” says Ward. “We wouldn’t want a customer being mauled or stung for just wanting to pet the cute bears or touch a scorpion.”
To date there hasn’t been a single customer issue and there haven’t been any real problems with the honey bears – or the scorpions for that matter. Being relatives of the ringtail family, the honey bears’ unique tail has many functions including a “fifth hand” performing various functions and tasks. And, the tail allows them to hang easily from high places.
On occasion the honey bears have climbed out their enclosures where they frolic during business hours, finding their way up into open ceiling rafters that support the roof. “It’s mildly annoying,” says Ward. “Coaxing them down with food usually works.”
With no real city codes or ordinances to follow regarding the care of the scorpions and the honey bears, taking care of his exotic co-workers is as engrained in the daily work habits of the jewelry store staff as cleaning glass. Ward is a self-admitted softie when it comes to animals and he and his staff take excellent care of their exotic co-workers.
“It’s a market differentiation decision we feel comfortable with,” says Ward. “We take the care of these animals as seriously as our business model of being a jungle-themed jewelry store – complete jungle creatures.”