After living and working on both coasts, George Walton has struck gold in Alaska. Walton is the owner of George Walton’s Gold & Diamond Co., a successful jewelry store based in Anchorage. Founded in 1977, the guild retailer specializes in exclusive diamond jewelry, designer goods, and custom pieces. It has a master jeweler on staff and is known for superior customer service. In an exclusive interview with JCK, Walton discusses the challenges of operating in Alaska, as well as some of its successful strategies.
1 What’s most challenging about running a jewelry business out-side the lower 48 states? One major challenge is dealing with the time zones. We’re four hours behind New York, so at 1 pm our time, New York is shutting down. We have to be prepared to do things earlier and set up ways to dealwith it. For instance, our cutoff for Federal Express is noon. Also, we’re landlocked. You can’t drive somewhere else. … Island fever/cabin fever is very real. We also have to deal with extremes—darkness in the winter and light in the summer. In terms of fashion, we run about a year behind, so you have to gauge your buying by that. We do a lot of business with the executives at the oil companies in the area, and they move around a lot, so we’ve tried to maintain our relationship with them. The result has been that our client base has grown outside Alaska.
2 You’re known for exclusive diamond jewelry. What does it take to build this kind of reputation? It’s all in the buying—getting the right sources. We spent many years getting to this point. People were not interested in selling to us in the beginning. Also, we don’t work with a large group of suppliers. We work with a small group we can be more important to and form a partnership with.
3 How has participating in organizations such as Leading Jewelers of the World and the Continental Buying Group helped your business? You’re always looking to have credibility with clients who don’t know you. Leading Jewelers is a great name; we felt it would help us build our credibility and client base. The idea of branding yourself is very important. You have to stand out and be leading the pack … especially in Alaska, as the people who live here travel a lot. They can afford to buy their jewelry anywhere, so we have to give them something better to keep their business. Also, we’ve done a lot of awards shows like the Grammys and the Academy Awards, which we might not have been able to do otherwise. As for our participation in the Continental Buying Group, it has allowed us to join with a group of strong independent jewelers to buy bigger, negotiate better deals, and enhance our credibility.
4 What has been your most successful initiative for building sales? To stand out, we do a lot of events like awards shows, and we’ll bring back pictures for our customers to show them what jewelry we supplied and who wore it. We also do a lot of charity events in town with the schools and social services. … It’s important to be a part of your community. We also try to really spoil our best clients with exceptional service. We’ll get them show tickets if we know they’re going to New York, or send a fine bottle of wine if we know they are at a restaurant celebrating an important occasion. One of our best initiatives has been our 10 Carat Club, which includes all our clients who have bought center stones of at least 10.00 cts. We have luncheons, dinner parties, and other events for them exclusively. For instance, we brought in Dr. Ruth for a dinner party, and they loved it. It leads to a lot of additional sales with our elite customers. They may not always buy at the event, but it keeps us in their minds—and at the end of the year, it does work for us.
5 Where do you see the greatest growth opportunities? We have to learn more about selling online. … We didn’t think it would work with high-end goods, because they require a more personal relationship, but surprisingly, companies are making high-end sales online. So we are looking at updating our Web site and trying e-commerce. Also, we realize we have to keep raising the bar to come up with new merchandise and better ways to reach our customers.