Are you Ignoring These Important Customers?

Reaching the female self-purchase market effectively is one way independents can compete with national chain retailers.

Though jewelers deny it, their sales associates prefer couples or male customers over female shoppers. In fact, they practically ignore solo women who walk in the store. That’s the shocking conclusion management consultant Kate Peterson has reached after mystery- shopping in hundreds of stores around the country. And her findings are supported by the experiences of others.

Women aren’t taken seriously in nearly 60% of all sales situations, asserts Peterson, who is the co-owner of a jewelry consulting and sales training firm, Performance Concepts, and a contributing editor to this magazine. She mystery-shops nearly 200 jewelry stores across the nation each year. “The attitude jewelers convey is that they don’t want to waste their time serving a woman—even when there are no other customers in the store,” she says. “And the scariest thing is that most jewelers will read this and argue, ‘That doesn’t happen at my store.’ ”

In light of the growing economic clout of women, Peterson’s findings take on added significance. According to a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics study of dual-career families, 23% of women earned more than their husbands in 1996, up from 16% in 1981. Some 15% had wages 25% higher than their husbands’, and nearly 10% had wages that were greater by 50% or more. Moreover, some 8 million American women now own their own businesses, generating $2.6 billion in economic activity a year.

Research that Peterson conducted earlier this year typifies her experience at the jewelry counter. She mystery-shopped three independent guild jewelers and the jewelry departments at two high-end department stores. “I wore four 1-ct. diamonds—one on my hand, one on my neck, and one in each ear. To me, that screams interest and ability. With the exception of one store, I could not get a salesperson to talk to me. I would literally walk through the entire store, where there were more than enough salespeople on the floor, and no one would even acknowledge me. Only the couples and the men were being taken care of. And at the department stores I was treated as if I was a teenager shopping for my own engagement ring. It was bizarre.”

“It’s unbelievable.” Cynthia Marcusson’s jewelry-buying experience mirrors Peterson’s. She owns Cynthia Renée Co. in Fallbrook, Calif., which imports colored gemstones and has introduced a line of jewelry geared toward the female self-purchase market. “Here I am with disposable income,” she says. “I own a business, am decisive. I walk into a store well-dressed, and I want to buy something. No one will help me. I don’t know what they’re thinking. It’s unbelievable.”

Marcusson expects the female self-purchase market to grow: “The jewelry industry is going through a revolution in the meaning of jewelry. It’s no longer a token of affection or guilt between mates, but it’s something a woman purchases for her own joy and satisfaction. Women have come out of the box, and once out of the box, we’re not going back in—to being told to look a certain way, to asking for a spouse’s permission to spend money, or to not being approached in buying situations.”

Reaching the female self-purchase market effectively is one way independents can compete with national chain retailers. “It could be the biggest opportunity you have, if no one else is doing it well in your market,” says Peterson. She also recommends that jewelers send their female associates to competing stores to see how they’re treated. “Sometimes being mistreated is the best way to raise your sensitivity to the whole problem.”

Marcusson separates female self-purchasers into two main types. Everywoman works for someone else or busily fulfills her role as a mother. She budgets carefully, and sales associates should understand that the idea of buying her own jewelry may be new. Everywoman needs to see that she can acquire fine jewelry in her price range. Although her interest in jewelry may be slow to develop, she can become a loyal customer over time.

Self-made woman is an executive, a well-paid professional, or a successful business-person with her own company. She has abundant discretionary income and demands a high level of personal service and contact.

Marcusson and Peterson recommend these strategies to help you tap the female self-purchase market:

  • Assume that any woman who is browsing is shopping for herself. Treat her no differently from the way you would a couple shopping together or a man. Peterson recommends this approach: If a woman is examining a piece of jewelry, say, “Isn’t that amazing? Can you imagine walking into a room and seeing that on someone else?” If she responds positively, follow up with, “Imagine if that someone was you.”
    Peterson says, “What you want to do is open a conversation and touch the emotions of pride associated with wearing that jewelry.”

  • Treat the self-purchase with as much enthusiasm as a gift purchase. Says Peterson: “When you’re buying something for yourself, no matter how confident you are, there’s always this nagging doubt: ‘Should I be doing this?’ A good salesperson picks up on this and says things like, ‘A gift for yourself is the best kind of gift.’ Or, ‘We spend a lot of time in our lives being nice to other people—isn’t it great to be nice to yourself?’ ”

  • Tap into the emotions associated with buying jewelry for oneself. Motivations include achievement, pride, status, and comfort. “Even the salespeople who are best at picking up on the emotional aspects of a purchase tend to forget how to do this when it comes to the female self-purchaser,” says Peterson. Why? Because women tend not to brag about their accomplishments and are more inclined to buy for others than for themselves. The solution: Avoid direct questions, which can put people off. Instead, try ice-breakers like, “You look like someone who has something to celebrate.” Or, when she tries on a beautiful piece: “That looks like a merit badge.”
    “If you give them a wide enough opening, they’ll walk right through it and tell you anything you want to know,” says Peterson. “When a woman buys a diamond that’s a symbol of her achievement, she wants people to know about it. Also, if you can get a purchaser talking about why she is doing this for herself, it becomes very easy to validate not only the purchase itself, but the size and scope of the purchase.”

  • Listen carefully and recognize accomplishments. “If they think a detail is important enough to share with you, it’s important enough to remember,” says Peterson. “Tying that merchandise choice to those details means more to her than a discussion of price or quality. For instance, if you learn in the course of a conversation that she just got a major promotion and is now a vice president at a bank, mention that the diamond pendant she’s admiring is so beautiful and subtle that in her new position she won’t look overdone. When you apply those details to the positive benefits of the purchase, it makes it very difficult for the customer to disagree.”
    Marcusson adds, “When a woman feels listened to, there’s a bond, and she begins to trust. At that point you can begin to educate and suggest and widen her whole view of jewelry. Most people who go into a retail store think of jewelry as a special-occasion item. They don’t understand how jewelry can enrich their lives.”

  • Start slowly. “Women still have a barrier against purchasing for themselves,” Marcusson says. “They need to start with something less expensive, like a $500 citrine and gold ring, so she can see how much she enjoys the jewelry. The first high-end jewelry purchase is like a line you cross. Every time you cross it, it becomes that much easier.”

  • Don’t prejudge a customer’s buying power based on clothing or marital status. Many time-pressed women don’t dress up to shop. If a customer is interested but isn’t ready to purchase, ask for her name and phone number so you can follow up—just as you would with a male customer or a couple shopping for engagement rings. Remember, her net worth may be five times greater than that of the three engagement ring customers who visit your store that day!