Digital Creep

Ten years ago, many jewelers said the Internet wouldn’t impact retailing for several decades. A few years—not decades—later it became clear that the Internet as a means of commerce was a force to be reckoned with. Industry pundits shook their heads and said, “But people will never buy fine jewelry over the Internet” … even as some of the industry’s best and brightest rushed to join the first wave of jewelry e-commerce.

Sites launched with fanfare and died with a fizzle. But some of those early players—Mondera and Ashford.com, to name two—are still active, albeit doing business far more quietly these days. BlueNile.com has gone public, Andin International is growing its Jewelry.com site, Super Bell is banking heavily on its Jewelry Club House, and who can forget the day Amazon.com launched its jewelry portal? And more jewelry is probably sold on eBay each year (estimates are between $750 million and $1 billion annually) than by most of the retailers in the industry.

The question isn’t whether people will buy fine jewelry over the Internet. Even if they don’t buy it there, they research it there. They look at styles and read up on how to buy a diamond (or ruby, emerald, or sapphire). They search for nearby jewelry stores. They look up phone numbers, store hours, and driving directions. And when they have a question about your site, they send you an e-mail and want a response right away—not a week or two later.

And don’t think it’s only younger consumers who shop this way. Older consumers (a category for which I—a Baby Boomer—probably qualify) shop the Internet as well. We may not embrace technology with the eagerness or ease of the younger generation, but we do adopt it on an as-needed basis or when it makes an improvement in our lives. It’s a phenomenon I like to call “digital creep.”

For example, I’ve been happy traveling with my Discman and saw no reason to buy an MP3 player. But when our old computer crashed and we bought a new one, the idea of having my whole music collection on a tiny gizmo no bigger than a compact and not having to schlep the Discman, a dozen discs, and a pack of spare batteries on every trip was appealing. I may not download as fast as a teenager, but I can figure out the process well enough to have traveling music.

Digital creep means these consumers are growing much more comfortable with shopping on the Internet. I’ve always loved to shop, but my free time is limited, so I’ve become much more of an online shopper than I ever expected. Obviously, I use it to find things that aren’t readily available locally. But when I have to buy a specific item, I’d rather point and click than drive to the mall. When I want to know something about a new product, such as what it does and where it’s sold, the first place I look is the Internet. If I still want to feel it and touch it, I find the nearest store (from the online listing) and go. When I want to know something about a store, such as what products it carries or what its phone number is or how to get there, the first place I turn to is the Internet.

I’m not alone. There are lots of us creeping slowly but surely into the digital age. So if you think the Internet is entirely irrelevant to fine jewelry sales, it’s time to reconsider—or you just might find yourself having a liquidation sale on eBay.

hschupak@reedbusiness.com