Good as Gold

For John Calnon, U.S. managing director for the World Gold Council, extensive retail merchandising and management experience in a variety of industries helped pave the way for his success at boosting gold jewelry sales through innovative trade programs and strategies.

Born in Rochester, N.Y., Calnon moved at the age of 9 to Winter Park, Fla. He graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in marketing.

Calnon’s first job after graduation was with Allied Department Stores in 1971, where he worked for the Jordan Marsh department store division in the management training program and briefly served as a department manager. Calnon says the most valuable thing he learned at Allied was that “the department store business wasn’t for me.” He moved on to Disney Corp. in Florida, where he worked in retail management and buying decorative gifts and accessories for Walt Disney World.

Calnon spent eight years with Disney, eventually transferring to the headquarters in Burbank, Calif., where he served as corporate merchandise manager for all non-licensed product. “I really became a young guru of merchandising and retail planning,” he says. “I had a lot of responsibility at a young age and was given the creative license to do a lot of fun things. I did all the retail concept planning for what would eventually become Epcot.”

At Disney Calnon learned how to merchandise for a large retail organization, traveling the world, getting involved in corporate planning and strategy, and being exposed to Disney’s customer- and quality-focused culture.

Looking to move back East, Calnon decided in 1980 to take a position as vice president/merchandise manager of imports for an Atlanta company called World Bazaar. At the time, World Bazaar, with about 100 stores, was larger than Pier 1 and had a similar retail concept, and Calnon was head of the buying group in charge of importing gifts, furniture, and home accessories. During his five-year stretch with the company in the early 1980s, Calnon made many buying trips to China, Thailand, and the Philippines, greatly broadening his international experience. He also learned the ins and outs of international procurement, coordinating the logistics of shipping and distribution, getting product delivered to the stores on time, monitoring the performance of the product, following fashion trends, and being in touch with the customer.

Calnon’s introduction to the jewelry industry came indirectly in 1985, when he accepted a position with Zale Corp. in Dallas as executive vice president of the retailer’s Aeroplex Stores division, which consisted of airport and hotel shops selling gifts and sundries. At the time, Zale owned a number of businesses not involved in jewelry. Calnon says he decided to take the position because it offered “a new challenge with greater responsibility.” He worked for Aeroplex for a year, until management was dismissed and Zale put the division up for sale in 1986. Calnon was asked to head the division until it was sold and stayed on when he was named executive vice president of merchandising for the Diamond Park division, which at the time was the country’s leading leased department operator.

“When they hired me to run merchandising for Diamond Park, I had no jewelry experience,” he recalls. “I learned the jewelry business through baptism by fire.” One of the things Calnon quickly learned was that the jewelry business had nuances that set it apart from any other category he had been involved with. This included the sentimental and aesthetic aspects of jewelry, low inventory turn, and promotional pricing strategies.

Calnon was soon asked to go to New York to head Zale’s corporate replenishment systems. He notes that this was during the early days of electronic data interchange, when Zale had $100 million in inventory sitting in New York and had “legendary problems” getting the right merchandise in the right stores at the right time. Calnon worked in New York for a year, until Zale was sold (to Peoples Jewellers of Toronto and Swarovski International Holding of Zürich, Switzerland) and the New York office was closed. The corporate replenishment function was transferred to Dallas, and Calnon continued to run it for the next six months, going back and forth between New York and Dallas. Calnon’s stint with Zale lasted only three years (1985–88), but he says the experience “may have challenged me more than any other career move I ever made.”

In 1988, Calnon accepted the position of vice president of merchandise and operations with American Vision Center, a chain of approximately 70 high-end optical stores based in New York. His experience at Zale served him well, as the guild optical business was similar to the jewelry business. Calnon worked for American Vision Center for three years. In retrospect, he says his “retail management and business skills really matured” during that time.

In 1991, Calnon was approached by World Gold Council head Michael Barlerin, who knew him from their time together at Zale. Barlerin was familiar with Calnon’s retail knowledge and retail management experience, and asked Calnon to come to WGC to help him develop the organization’s retail-practice standards. Calnon accepted and assumed the role of director of trade development. “At the time, [WGC’s] focus was on research-based consumer marketing,” he says. “Most of the gold ads told you what to buy, but not where. We needed more involvement with the trade and developed the retail tags on the ads during that period.”

One of the biggest challenges Calnon faced was working with an organization that was essentially an advertising agency with no real understanding of the industry. He is proud that he played a major role in changing WGC’s focus and corporate culture and set it on the path to become more involved with helping the trade. He also sees his early years at WGC as an ideal platform for focusing on the product and exposing the trade to new, innovative merchandise. Calnon worked with many major retailers to transform how they sold gold in their stores. One offshoot of his work with high-volume retailers was his launch of WGC’s first Gold Symposium, which brought together the industry’s leading retailers for two days of frank discussions on gold merchandising, procurement, marketing to customers, and other key business topics. Calnon was also behind the development of WGC’s successful “Build Your Business Out of Gold” trade campaign, which he says has become even more important today.

In 1996, Calnon went to the Philadelphia area for a meeting with QVC. The electronic retailer’s head of merchandising informed him that the position of vice president of jewelry was open and asked if Calnon was interested in taking it. Calnon accepted the role and made the move to Philadelphia—an experience he calls “the most rewarding” of his career. “QVC was a 24–7, fun, life-consuming growth experience,” he says. “From a retail perspective, it was a dream—develop a concept for a product, put it on the air, and get immediate gratification from the consumer in terms of fast turnaround.”

Calnon says he drew heavily on his earlier Disney experience while at QVC, mainly in creating product concepts consumers could understand. He says both Disney and QVC focused on products and consumers, which made his QVC role feel like “coming back home for me.” He also notes that this was a tremendous growth period for QVC, particularly in its jewelry division, with a never-ending demand for new products and concepts and a major commitment to brand development. Jewelry sales soared under Calnon, and the company positioned itself as one of the nation’s largest jewelry retailers.

Calnon says he came to QVC with the understanding that he would run its jewelry operations for five years. So in 2001, he left the company and set up a private consultancy. However, Calnon missed the energy of New York and wanted to get back, so he rejoined WGC, this time as director, international jewelry. “During my years at QVC, I gained insights into the importance of branding, new product development, consumer education, and how to romance the jewelry products we sell,” Calnon says. “This learning has been instrumental in helping [WGC] continue to grow demand for gold jewelry in the United States and supports our international efforts to elevate awareness and demand for gold jewelry on a global basis.”

Calnon, who has since been promoted to WGC’s managing director for the U.S. market, has more responsibility now than he did the first time at WGC. But the main difference between then and now, he believes, is that gold was on the upswing during his first stint at WGC. When he came back to the organization five years later, gold was experiencing a significant sales decline as white metals were rising in prominence. “Our consumer research told us that yellow gold was not as relevant to the consumer, and its relevance to the trade was diminished,” he says. “Our challenge was to reinvigorate gold for the consumer and for the trade.”

Thanks to efforts like the innovative Gold Expressions global project Calnon launched to bring new exclusive designs from Italy to the world, yellow gold has made a strong comeback, he notes, with positive coverage for the category in Women’s Wear Daily, USA Today, and other influential publications. Promotional efforts for the metal are now geared toward the aspirational, and the fashion industry is once again embracing gold. Another Calnon initiative that has helped restore gold’s luster has been WGC’s strategic partnerships with major retailers like Ben Bridge Jeweler, Helzberg Diamonds, and JC Penney. “From a product standpoint, the QVC experience is: ‘If the product is right, the consumer will buy,’” Calnon says. “My experience there gives me the credibility to go out and talk about the product to these major chains.”