Business School in a Book

The annual banquet weekend of the 24 Karat Club of the City of New York is always a great gathering and, between the gala banquet, the JVC and JSA luncheons, and the JIC Gem Awards, an excellent chance to catch up and assess business.

This year, of course, the news was subdued. But there also was a sense of determination: We’ve been through bad times before, and we’ll get through them again. No need to point out that some will fall by the wayside; we know all too well. The abrupt lockdown of Christian Bernard, for example, was surprising only in its swiftness. When the Colibri Group did the same a few weeks later, one couldn’t help but wonder, “Who’s next?”

Still, I did pick up a sense of survival at 24 Karat. We will get through this.

For JCK‘s annual post-holiday report, our editorial team called dozens of independent jewelers across the United States (we already had results from the publicly held majors) and found the news wasn’t all bad. (See the summary in News + Notes, page 29, and the full report on JCKonline.com.)

Though as one jeweler wryly put it, “OK is the new good,” most of the independents we spoke to said they were down for holiday 2008 but up for the year. And not all were down for the holiday. Some stayed even with last year, and a few saw growth. There was some cautious optimism.

Rachel Lieberman, content manager for the Israel Diamond Industry’s Web portal, asked me, “What can jewelers do to improve sales?” (Read the complete interview at www.israelidiamond.co.il.)

The first thing jewelers should do is stop focusing on what they can’t control—the economy and especially unemployment, the biggest drag on sales—and look at what they can control, i.e., improving their business. Bring down debt, clear out stale inventory, wean off memo, and make sure staff earns its keep.

Work customer relationships harder and get on the phone with good customers. Every independent who had decent holiday sales mentioned this. And don’t cut back on advertising. It’s an old adage, and I acknowledge one might be suspicious of the media, which depend on advertising, preaching about it. But it’s true. Again, all the independents who told us they fared reasonably well for the holiday also said they maintained their advertising, while those who scaled it back or cut it out entirely were among those who reported the worst results.

Bring in merchandise that’s in line with what customers want to spend now. In the flush years, a lot of jewelers turned up their noses at inexpensive or “bridge” lines. Yes, it’s hard to keep a business going on small sales, but in lean years small sales can keep people coming in and help the bottom line.

To that end, JCK‘s focus in 2009 is to help jewelers do business smarter. Of course, we’ve been doing that for 140 years, but this year we’re bringing even more specialized top-level business knowledge to you. Dr. Tim Malone, a former professor at GIA’s School of Business, has joined our roster of bloggers on www.jckonline.com and is contributing to the magazine every month, discussing—teaching, if you will—merchandising from top to bottom. Between his Memo to Merchandisers blog every week and his articles every month, he covers the gamut of a business-school course in merchandising, including inventory selection and management, sales management, marketing strategies, and best financial practices. It’s like business school in a book—and I’m proud to say that his first two blog posts garnered more comments for a new blogger than any other on our site.

We’re also happy to have Suzanne DeVries, president of Diamond Staffing Solutions, bringing her expertise in hiring and human resources to our pages. Her article in this issue, “Bring Your ‘A’ Team to the Jewelry Counter,” explains how to get the best from your employees. But the best way she can help you is by answering your questions directly. Have a staffing dilemma or an HR question you’d like a solution for? E-mail me (hschupak@reedbusiness.com) with the subject line “Ask Suzanne.”

As I write, we’ve just witnessed a miracle in New York City, as the pilots of a US Airways flight ditched their disabled plane in the Hudson River without a single fatality. It speaks to the skills and fortitude of the pilots and crew.

It also puts things into perspective. Losing some business is one thing; losing your life is quite another. So while it’s bitterly cold and business is bad and the temptation is to crawl back under the covers, remember there’s a difference between hunkering down to work (good) and hiding (bad).

Here’s to better business!