A Touch of Class

Class began at 8:30 on a Sunday morning at the Arlington Marriott outside Dallas. The 200 students – mostly from the Dallas area but some from as far away as

Nebraska – were of all ages and races. Some wore jeans and T-shirts, others suits or dresses. There was no final exam or term paper, but the instructors did give quizzes. One even bestowed prizes for correct answers.

Welcome to Jewelry 101, a one-day program to teach beginning retail sales associates about the products in their showcases and how to sell them. If students came to class not knowing what to expect, they could take comfort in the fact that the curriculum was new to the instructors, too – the October program marked the inauguration of an educational initiative conceived, developed, and implemented in just 10 months.

Jewelry 101 is the brainchild of Caroline Stanley, director of education at Platinum Guild International USA. Cochairing the program with Stanley is Bev Hori, director of education at Jewelers of America. Because of recent negative portrayals of the jewelry industry on television, “we are no longer in a position to put someone on the front lines without some basic knowledge,” Hori explains.

“Today’s shoppers are fairly smart,” Stanley adds. At least when it comes to platinum, she says, “we find they [sometimes] will know more than the people across the counter, because they’ve done research.”

“We all benefit.” Jewelry 101 quickly grew to reality from the time Stanley and Hori first discussed the idea at last January’s JA Show in New York. By April, they’d recruited the instructors: representatives from the industry’s major trade organizations. At the October program, Doug Hucker, executive director of the American Gem Trade Association, led a workshop on gemstones; Devin Macnow, executive director of the Cultured Pearl Information Center, presented a session on pearls; Elizabeth Florence of the World Gold Council’s jewelry division discussed gold jewelry; Walter Raine, a St. Petersburg, Fla., fine-jewelry sales training and consulting specialist working under the auspices of the Diamond Promotion Service, taught the diamond class; and Stanley was the platinum instructor.

Stanley says developing the program was worth the investment of time, since sales increase when associates know how to present products properly. “I won’t say it’s philanthropic, because we all benefit from it.”

The inaugural effort was designed specifically for associates newly hired for the crucial fourth-quarter selling season. The program was held on a Sunday to minimize students’ time away from their stores and to enable travelers to take advantage of Saturday-night airline and hotel discounts.

“It’s such an obvious concept; we’ve talked about it for years, but we’ve never done it [before],” says AGTA’s Hucker. “This is where you can really have the greatest impact.” By “bringing the mountain to Mohammed,” Jewelry 101 is a cost-effective alternative for store managers who can’t afford to take their entire staff to a major trade show, he notes.

Tuition was only $59 for one student and $25 for each additional student from the same firm. Breakfast and lunch were included. Certificates of completion were to be mailed after the course.

Classmates. The Texas program attracted attendees from major high-volume chains as well as small independents. Their experience in the industry ranged from two weeks to 27 years. Bob Sirois, owner of Classique, a Frisco, Texas, store that had just opened in February, brought an employee new to the jewelry business. Educational programs help store owners cope in a tight job market, since “it’s so hard to find [already] trained employees,” Sirois said.

Crystal Dawn Muegge, on the job at Chapin’s Jewelers in Katy, Texas, for six months, was glad to be exposed to the information. Several weeks after the class, she noted, “I’m still looking through [those] books, going, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ ”

Several senior staff members at high-volume stores said it’s easier to teach newcomers about jewelry products than to instruct them in sales techniques. But knowing the products helps bolster a sales presentation, according to Gail R. Carriere, jewelry field support specialist at The Jewelry Store at J.C. Penney in Dallas. “If you don’t feel comfortable, you’re not going to actively sell the product.”

Leesa McElroy, manager, training at Zale Corp. in Irving, Texas, said that sometimes “companies get so inundated with sales techniques – how to show this, how to present that – that they kind of take product knowledge for granted.”

Multimedia. Instructors used a variety of tools to pass on their product knowledge. (See next page for excerpts from the lessons.) Videos depicted pearl farming in Japan and pearls in art throughout history; scenes from movies and television in which actors mentioned platinum jewelry; “person-on-the-street” interviews discussing platinum; and diamond advertising from De Beers. Florence used role-playing to encourage students to put themselves in customers’ shoes.

Humor was an important educational aid. Hucker joked that the Sunday program’s remarkably high attendance illustrated “the length to which people will go to avoid going to church.” Macnow described the process of nucleating an oyster and then explained why it so rarely results in a 10-mm pearl: “It’s like inserting a softball into a gonad.” Raine admonished beginning sales associates to see their customers “as human beings, not just a wallet with feet.” Stanley, noting that some salespeople discourage customers from buying platinum by telling them the metal is hard to work with, asked how students would feel upon ordering a soufflé in a restaurant if the chef said, “Those are hard to make; don’t you want a cheesecake instead – or a Jell-O?”

Furthering education. The classes offered in Arlington were repeated the following Sunday in Seattle, with 140 students participating. Partially in response to feedback from the Texas students, several of whom noted on evaluation forms that the information presented was a bit too elementary, the instructors altered their presentations in Seattle to “flesh [them] out,” Florence says, explaining that students “had a lot more knowledge than we anticipated.” In her Seattle presentation, for example, Florence added some information on gold throughout history as well as the gold mining and refining processes.

Spurred by the high enrollment for the initial offering, Stanley and Hori plan to expand the program. The course will be offered on Sunday, Jan. 24, during the Jewelers of America show in New York. An advanced course, Jewelry 501, will debut on Monday, Jan. 25, also at the JA show. According to Stanley and Hori, Jewelry 501 is designed for the seasoned manager; it will address training and provide a recap of product information. Long-term plans call for videotaping the Jewelry 101 program to make it available to a wider audience.

Jewelry 101 organizers’ ultimate goal is to encourage young people to embrace jewelry sales as a profession, Hori says. The industry representatives leading the sessions were selected because “they live and breathe the products,” enabling the newcomers to be “exposed to the information by people who are passionate about it.”

At the same time, Hori adds, the organizers hope that the course’s “one-stop-shopping” format will ensure that “nobody is behind the counter without a certain amount of knowledge,” resulting in an improved public image for the industry. As she explained to the Jewelry 101 students in Texas at the conclusion of the course: “You are the jewelry industry to every single retail customer that you have.”

For more information about Jewelry 101, contact Jewelers of America at (800) 223-0673 or Caroline Stanley at (714) 668-0968.

Sales Tips from the Pros

Here are some sales-presentation suggestions from the Jewelry 101 instructors, excerpted from a student’s notes:

Doug Hucker, American Gem Trade

Association: Discuss colored gemstones in terms of vibrancy, purity of color, and intensity. You have to be prepared to explain to customers the difference between a pure, vivid, saturated red stone and one that’s a slightly pinkish red or a slightly purplish red. The customer does not necessarily realize the distinction.

When you talk about value, show more than one gemstone as a comparison – but never show more than three. Don’t paint yourself into a corner by telling customers that the “best” stone is out of their price range; when showing two gems, make them both seem like the best. For example, you might say, “Many people like the more saturated blue; however, a lot of my customers prefer the pastel blue, because it goes well with pastel clothing.”

Be prepared to answer questions about durability, but never reinforce a negative; when customers ask about durability, they’re looking to buy. They may have heard, for example, that tanzanite is a soft stone; if so, remind them that tanzanite is worn by thousands of people with few problems.

Devin Macnow, Cultured Pearl

Information Center: Cultured pearls are one of the highest profit-margin categories in the jewelry industry; they are rarely shopped around by consumers. Pearls are very much a slave to fashion, with a 15-year cycle from peak to peak. There’s currently a pearl boom, with cultured pearls gracing the covers of magazines like Mademoiselle and Vogue. Two more years of growth are expected before sales level off.

Round pearls constitute less than 5% of total production, but consumers perceive pearls as round because many classical paintings depict nobility wearing round pearls. If it looks round from 2 ft. away, it’s round enough for the average consumer. Few would want to pay an extra $1,000 for perfectly round pearls.

Never refer to a cultured pearl as a “bead” or as “man-made”; they’re man-assisted. It takes 800,000 oyster hours to produce one strand of pearls.

To maintain the longevity of pearls, wipe them with a damp cloth after every wearing. Tell customers never to put on pearls before applying hairspray or makeup. A customer who wears pearls three times a week should have them restrung once every year; if she wears them once a month, she should have them restrung every three years.

Elizabeth Florence, World Gold

Council: Offer basic product information. World Gold Council surveys show that customers feel shy about asking questions.

Be a gold consultant. Tell the customer that drop earrings look good with today’s long jackets and skirts. Describe details of the product; show the karat stamp and manufacturer’s trademark.

Pay attention to the customer’s needs; encourage try-ons. Instead of saying “May I help you?” to start a conversation (a question that can be answered flatly with a “no”), note that “We just got a new shipment in” and offer to show products. Don’t make price a mystery; group items in price ranges so as not to intimidate customers and to empower them to ask further questions. If a customer says she can’t afford something, take down her information and start a “wish list” for her.

When you tell your customers that gold jewelry requires special care, you add perceived value to the purchase. Tell them to remove their chains at night, store them flat to prevent kinking and breakage, avoid chlorine and direct contact with cosmetics, and polish gold jewelry with a soft chamois cloth.

Caroline Stanley, Platinum Guild

International USA: Most platinum in the United States is 90% or 95% pure, while 18k gold is 75% pure and 14k gold is 58.5% pure. Platinum is hypoallergenic, doesn’t tarnish, and isn’t harmed when exposed to chlorine. It’s 60% heavier than 14k gold; because it’s so dense, it needs less upkeep than other metals do. Platinum is rare; 10 tons of ore and eight weeks are required to produce one ounce of platinum.

Platinum has captured 25% of the bridal market share in the United States – one in four bridal customers is looking for platinum. Those millions of people who purchased platinum bridal jewelry are going to come back to your store to buy something to go with it.

Platinum sales in the United States are up 700% since 1992. Platinum appeals to customers in all income ranges and is available at price points starting at several hundred dollars.

Customers view platinum as the ultimate. They have heard of music groups whose record sales have “gone platinum”; they know a platinum credit card is a bank’s top card.

Walter Raine, Diamond Promotion

Service: Most people can remember every single thing that happened the day they received their diamond. Every time a woman looks at a diamond, she sees the someone who gave her the “diamond moment.” Consumers who have a “diamond moment” buy more and bigger diamonds. It’s the experience that determines whether the diamond is cherished and kept – and that means fewer returns for your store.

Keep your customer focused on what the sale is all about. Get the couple’s names. Find out how they met. Use your own personality. Connect with your customers; notice something about them. Be spontaneous and natural; focus on them, not on your technique. You can actually be a part of the engagement and wedding process. The Internet will never do that. All you need to do is act like a human being, not a computer.

When you show a diamond, always show it in motion to demonstrate how it gives off light. Show your best diamonds; customers want the best that they can afford. Remember that the most important of the “four Cs” – color, cut, clarity, and carat weight – is the one your customer thinks is the most important. Use your product knowledge correctly; don’t scare or bore your customers with statistics.