Building Relationships Online

The Internet delivers an endless stream of information—much of it complex and confusing—on every topic imaginable, and its growth appears infinite. For example, a quick search for “jewelry” using the Google search engine will produce nearly 34 million results.

Jewelers who want to attract more customers or sell items through a Web site have an enormous number of options available as well as an ever-changing array of technologies. And there’s a multitude of companies to design, populate, and market Web sites.

With so many choices, the job of creating an effective Web site may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Small and medium-size companies can win online by using the following strategies:

  • Use a Web site to tell your “story” in a compelling way.

  • Provide a site where people feel comfortable browsing.

  • Provide educational materials.

  • Attract customers who are looking for a jeweler that meets their specific needs—regardless of location—and nurture those relationships online as you would in person.

Good stories sell. A case in point is Judith and Arthur Anderson of Bijoux Extraordinaire, Manchester, N.H., also known as “The Jewelry Experts.” People who find their Web site for the first time—and Arthur admits that it takes some searching to find it—are rewarded with a wealth of information presented in an engaging and authoritative manner.

On the site (www.jewelryexpert.com), consumers learn the Andersons’ “story.” Judith, a certified gemologist and appraiser who hails from a family of jewelers, has spent her life in the business. Arthur, who had a career in finance and mathematical modeling, had a passion for jewelry. Curious Net surfers can learn when, why, and how the couple launched Bijoux Extraordinaire and read about the old Victorian house that’s home to their business. They even get to know the couple’s dogs and cats.

But mostly they learn about the business. The Web site is loaded with information about the couple’s services—which include diamond brokering and jewelry appraisals—but their emphasis (thanks to the Web site) is on custom jewelry design. The Web site includes images of pieces designed by Judith, along with stories about some of their clients and the specific pieces of jewelry made for them.

Visitors to the site also can learn about how the couple does business online; read articles written by Judith on custom jewelry design, diamonds, colored gems, and antique jewelry; and take advantage of consumer guides and links to other educational resources on the Web.

Most importantly, the Andersons understand that the Internet is a tool they can use to foster long-distance and long-term relationships. That’s how they’ve been able to expand their custom-design services, which now account for more than 80% of their business. Individual sales average $10,000—and that figure is climbing. Their Internet clients hail from all parts of the United States, with some as far away as Europe and Asia.

“Our business is still based on strong relationships,” Judith says. “We work with clients long distance the same way we do if they are in the gallery. We work throughout the process with them. … It’s an extension of our local business because we work with clients in a very personal way helping them to create a custom product and custom design.”

Arthur adds, “The thing that I find amazing is that the Internet is viewed as a ‘cold’ technology. But if you put enough information out there and let people get to know you, it’s amazing the kind of relationships you can develop long distance. Part of that has to do with the breadth and depth of what we have on our Web site. Judith talks to people well from being on the traditional retail side, and she has been able to take her love for custom design and fashion gemstones and express that online. And when they talk to Judith they get a real reinforcement. It is used as a vehicle to create a passion.”

The Andersons occasionally speak with a client on the phone, but they work primarily through e-mail. About one-third of their clients fly in to see the product, often combining the visit with a New England mini-vacation.

The couple ask for payment in full for each project—up front. Much to their initial surprise, most people have no qualms about paying it. The Andersons credit the personal nature of their Web site.

“We were truly amazed at how comfortable people are in sending us money,” Judith says. “They tell us, ‘We already know you. We know your pets’ names, where you went to college, your new designs.’ In the beginning it was something of a shock. What our Web site has done for people is allow them to get to know us and our business without having a salesperson over them. Most consumers have a fear of going into jewelry stores because they fear the jewelry salesperson will hover over them and be pushy. They can shop and get to know our business and can contact us if and when they are ready.”

The Andersons track the various ways in which people view the site, which averages 3,500 to 3,800 unique viewers per day. The average time spent on the site is eight minutes, and visitors download many files. “We’ve got good ‘stickiness,’ ” Arthur says. “It’s better than being in a mall.” They also learned that many people view the site while at work.

The couple developed the site themselves, with Arthur handling most of the construction. They put up five or six new jewelry items per week in a section of the site dedicated to new designs. Many customers find the site through search engines, but the Andersons say that because of the unique nature of their business they don’t bother making sure their site is located up high on a Web site search engine—and that’s fine with them, because they don’t want to be listed with companies that do volume business. According to the Andersons, viewers might spend up to six months on their site as well as other Web sites before contacting them.

“The person who does call us is going to be a more committed, more dedicated client,” Judith says.

Thanks to the success of the Web site plus word-of-mouth referrals, the couple stopped all other advertising, including phone book ads. They also refuse to publish a catalog of their work, explaining that the rich graphic images they use on the Web site serve as their catalog.

When they look at other jewelry Web sites, they are astounded at how many sites are loaded with the latest in flash technology but tell little about the store itself and the products being sold.

“We religiously follow the rule of keeping it simple,” Judith says. “We built our site with Notepad.

We search the Web and see all of these Flash programs running, but I am truly amazed at how many jewelers are not showing their product.”

Spreading the word. For Michael George, owner of MSG Jewelers in St. Louis, having an effective Web presence began with radio. In the 1980s, George bought radio advertising time and produced an ad, in a talk format, called “GemTalk.” The segments were three minutes long and ran five times per week in several time slots. The program educated consumers about buying jewelry, with each ad focusing on a jewelry-related topic.

“I created GemTalk to be an advocate for the consumer,” George says. The concept was born of George’s experience in buying an engagement ring for his fiancée. At the time, he was a medical student and knew nothing about jewelry. He researched the topic for a year before he felt comfortable enough to buy a 1.5-ct. pear-shaped diamond. His yearlong study led him to a life in the jewelry business.

George ran the GemTalk ads for two years until the radio station changed its format and refused to renew his contract.

“It was the most successful form of advertising I’ve ever done,” says George, who advertises in several different media. For the past five years, he’s run a weekly GemTalk column in one of the smaller newspapers in St. Louis, and in 2002 he brought GemTalk to the Internet through a dedicated Web site (www.GemTalk.com) and on his store site (www.msgjewelers.com). The store site features articles (which are different from the ones he writes for the newspaper) on everything from the “four Cs” to purchasing insurance for jewelry.

The GemTalk site uses audio-stream technology to produce live, hour-long audio programs. During the broadcasts, people can call in or e-mail their questions, which George answers live. To produce the programs, George rents time in a studio, which includes an engineer. The programs are then archived so Web users can listen at their convenience.

“There’s a lot of good information that people seem to enjoy,” he says. “It was a once-a-week event. We digitized everything and saved it at the new Web site and on disk, so we can use it any way we like because we have the rights to it.”

In the beginning, George says, he was surprised that he wasn’t receiving a lot of phone calls and e-mails while doing the shows live. He quickly learned why.

“We weren’t getting a lot of questions,” he says. “What happened was we would get hit with a bunch of e-mails [after the program]. People didn’t want to take the time to write during the program. That was the nice thing about it. They could ask a question seven days a week and 24 hours a day. We would bring up those questions during the next program.”

George isn’t finished yet. He plans to add experts to his audio broadcast—for example, if the topic is synthetic diamonds, he’ll bring in a manufacturer of synthetic diamonds to discuss the product. He also plans to produce a streaming video program for his store Web site. Instead of a live broadcast, however, he is planning to pre-record a short segment and post it on the home page of his store Web site. Anyone coming to the Web site can hit play, receive a visual greeting from George, and learn something about jewelry and gemstones.

George, whose Web site has e-commerce capabilities, also plans to use the site to gain a national presence. Although e-commerce is not yet a major part of his business, he has attracted some business from outside the St. Louis area. For example, a doctor from the West Coast came across one of George’s Web sites and told George he had been looking for 10 years for someone to custom-build a ring. “It was a $5,000 ring, and we were able to do it for him in a short period of time,” George says. “It was all because of our Internet presence.”

Information: Quantity vs. quality. Cos Altobelli, president and owner of The Altobelli Jewelers, uses his Web site (www.Altobelli.com) to introduce consumers to his store in North Hollywood, Calif. He also provides detailed information on the services he offers, which include traditional retail business, custom design, appraisals (including litigation services), and watch repairs.

Altobelli’s site also provides comprehensive educational information on virtually every aspect of the jewelry industry as well as information on jewelry trade organizations. It’s rich in graphic images of many of the pieces he sells, and he personalizes the site with details about himself (a jeweler who has been part of the family business for more than 50 years, and an expert appraiser) and his staff. He also publishes the work he does for the motion picture and television industry, including a wedding ring that was created for the television show Friends.

“You can spend days on our site and not read everything in there,” Altobelli says. “It’s not just a sentence or two. It’s a very informative thing, which gives a feeling of confidence, professionalism, integrity … gives people a feeling we know what we’re doing. It generates trust and honesty. It gives a whole picture.”

Fortunately, Altobelli’s son is proficient in Web design, so he was able to build and maintain the site at minimal cost. “My son spent thousands of hours building the site. I can understand why the cost of building a Web site could run $25,000 to $100,000 because of the time spent to justify the service.

“And it isn’t finished yet,” Altobelli adds, noting that he has the ability to go into the site to make content changes, which he does often. Jewelry images are updated anywhere from monthly to quarterly.

Like the Andersons’ Web site, Altobelli’s site has enabled him to do more custom design work for clients outside his immediate area, including Canada and Asia, as well as sell other product. When working on a custom-designed piece for a client abroad, he can send digital images online.

“We can do a basic rendering and photograph it and e-mail it,” he says. “We don’t get too involved until we know that there is something solid. At some juncture we will get a deposit before going on to do it. A sketch is time consuming and is part of the equation.”

The Web site also provides Altobelli with another revenue stream as he works toward retirement.

“I’ve been around for over 50 years in the business,” he says. “I take off a lot now. I like to travel. At the drop of the hat I’m gone. I don’t need anything. I think [the Web site] just adds another avenue for generating business.”