From Siri to J.C. Penney’s CEO, 5 People to Watch in 2012

They may not all be human, but their influence will shape the conversation in the new year

The team at Refinery29

With front-row seating at runway shows and growing credibility on the jewelry rows, fashion bloggers have risen to the ranks of celebrities in an era when curated content is so closely linked to consumption. (Italian research firm Altagamma says online luxury sales will grow to 11 billion euros, or $14.8 billion, by 2015, “largely owing to blogs and social media, as one of two customers turns to Facebook or Twitter for advice before buying.”) Retail jewelers may want to pay special attention to the advice-givers at, a fashion, beauty, and shopping site with an uncanny grasp of trends, even before the rest of the world knows about them. While the site—presided over by editor in chief Christene Barberich—offers daily local newsletters comprising deals, trends, and news, a healthy dose of ­accessory-centric editorial calls attention to celebrity favorites, cheap chic pieces, and designers with a range of fresh and fun (often costume) looks that are sure to appeal to a younger clientele. Retailers may also want to borrow a page from the site’s e-commerce model, which features limited-edition buying incentives, such as half off Melissa Joy ­Manning jewelry.

Matt Lauzon, founder of Gemvara

Gemvara’s Matt Lauzon

Matt Lauzon would watch his friends buy jewelry, and noticed they often couldn’t find what they wanted. And so the entrepreneurial 20-something, who was described (quite accurately) by Inc. magazine as “perpetually rumpled and in need of a shave,” founded Paragon Lake, which he conceived as an in-store customization program for jewelers. When that didn’t work, he moved his “customer-designed jewelry” idea to the Web, where it now does business as Gemvara. “We really needed to be controlling the experience ourselves,” he says. That was in March 2010. Having done $3 million in sales in its first year, the Boston-based e-commerce site raked in $15 million from investors and now boasts staff from Tiffany & Co. and Zappos. The latter serves as something of a touchstone for Lauzon, though he distances himself from other online jewelers: “We want to create such a great experience for our customers,” he says, “that we don’t need to squeeze every nickel and dime out of the supply chain.”

Ron Johnson, CEO of J.C. Penney

J.C. Penney’s Ron Johnson

Now that Ron Johnson, widely considered a retail genius for his work on the Apple stores, has taken over J.C. Penney as chief executive officer, what does he plan to change? A lot, apparently. “I’m working with our team to rethink, really to reimagine, everything we do,” he said on his first investor conference call. But can the 109-year-old J.C. Penney really be dragged into the modern age? Johnson, who is surrounding himself with former colleagues from Apple and Target, pledges to make the department store chain more online-savvy and customer-focused. “A store has got to be much more than a place to acquire merchandise,” he recently told Harvard Business Review. “It’s got to help people enrich their lives.”

Cynthia Carroll, CEO of Anglo American

Bloomberg/Getty Images
Anglo American’s Cynthia Carroll

When Nicky Oppenheimer sold his family’s 40 percent share in De Beers in November to Anglo American, the world’s fifth-largest miner, suddenly Anglo’s New Jersey–raised CEO, Cynthia Carroll, became one of the most powerful people in the diamond business. The 54-year-old mother of four is keeping tight-lipped about any future plans for the diamond giant, although spokespersons have indicated that Anglo plans to retain De Beers’ famed sightholder system and recently appointed CEO Philippe Mellier. While Anglo—founded by Nicky’s grandfather Ernest—would seem a natural fit to take over the company, analysts noted that Carroll comes from a very different background, cutting her teeth as a geologist dealing in commodities like oil and gas rather than a glitzy consumer product like diamonds. Still, Carroll recently told Bloomberg that increasing Anglo’s ownership of De Beers was a “unique opportunity,” and she will honor De Beers’ history as “an iconic brand and iconic company.”

Siri, Apple’s virtual assistant

Apple’s Siri

She may not yet be entirely free of kinks, but already Siri, Apple’s new voice-operated virtual assistant for the iPhone 4S, “saves time, fumbling, and distraction, and profoundly changes the definition of ‘phone,'” David Pogue, The New York Times‘ tech columnist, wrote in October. Siri takes dictation, sets alarms, sends text messages, schedules appointments, gives directions—she even answers philosophical questions about the meaning of life (a sample riposte: “All evidence to date suggests it’s chocolate”). But for retailers, the revolution will be spoken as Siri matures into her role in the future of mobile commerce. Using a sophisticated combination of search algorithms, GPS location, and voice command technology, the artificial intelligence program with the soothing female voice is being hailed as the next generation of search; some are calling her a “do engine.”

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