How to Make It Like Christmas in May

It was any retailer’s fantasy come true: customers six deep at the counters clamoring for expensive jewelry. And it was only May.

The scene was at Borsheim’s, the Omaha, Neb., jeweler, and what a scene it was. More than 5,500 people showed up Sunday, May 3, to shop, and there wasn’t even a sale. They were all shareholders in Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., and they had come from all over the United States to attend the company’s annual meeting. One of the draws was a visit to Borsheim’s.

Berkshire Hathaway, the fabulously successful holding company with large investments in blue-chip companies like American Express and Coca-Cola, holds an 80% stake in Borsheim’s and owns the Helzberg Diamond Shops chain.

The partying shareholders love Warren Buffett. As a cofounder and chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, he’s made them rich, or at least made them feel that way. An “A” share of the company worth $100 in the 1970s closed at $68,000 on the day before the big May weekend – and hit $70,000 two days afterward. People who have a couple of shares feel comfortably happy. People holding 15 shares are millionaires. And they all thank Buffett, flocking to Borsheim’s to tell him so – and to buy jewelry.

“The cash register rings every 13 seconds on this weekend,” says Borsheim’s CEO Susan Jacques, who came up through the ranks from sales associate. “It’s bigger, much bigger than the week before Christmas.”

Waiting for The Man. Even the day before the main event, Saturday, May 2, Borsheim’s – which calls itself the largest free-standing jewelry store in the United States – enjoyed a Christmas-like crowd. The clientele was a mix of Berkshire Hathaway early birds and the general public. Both groups were hoping to catch a glimpse of The Man – but they were also shopping.

“We take a year to prepare for this event,” says Jacques. “We do a lot of buying in the first quarter, and this time we had several collections Brinks-expressed to us from the Basel Fair in Switzerland. Breitling, the watch people, sent a monoplane to display in the mall outside especially for us,” she says, adding that several designers created collections especially for the weekend.

She quickly puts the interview on hold. Buffett has arrived and is chatting with customers in the store, signing autographs and shaking hands with staff. He’s in a navy blazer and gray-gold slacks, looking very much like any other Midwestern man his age. “Mr. Buffett’s bought some very nice things from us over the years,” Jacques confides as she moves out to meet him.

The Sunday bash begins at noon. Lunch is on Borsheim’s. Tables loaded with sesame chicken, roast beef, cheese cubes, champagne, and other treats stretch in long lines outside the spacious mall entrance to the west Omaha store. Within 15 minutes, eager customers are jostling six deep at the counter. And while there is some haggle room over larger pieces, nothing is marked down.

At the middle counter, a couple examine a ruby and diamond ring costing one or two BH shares. At another counter, several men are trying on some luxury sports watches while four or five others patiently wait their turn. A youngish couple in jeans look at a relatively modest-sized diamond ring, and all the while credit cards and merchandise are whisked by on trays on their way to the registers. Atop the cases, models in black gowns wearing costly jewels sit mannequin-still.

Through it all, the staff remains calm, taking full care of each client in his or her turn, answering questions and showing comparative pieces.

“Fully prepared.” “The staff is fully prepared, pumped, and excited for this event,” Jacques says. “And we maintain our full level of service. We have 10 bench jewelers who can mount loose diamonds or colored gems immediately, so customers can walk out with the diamonds on their finger, neck, or ear.”

Following the event, Jacques holds a meeting with the staff, including security guards (they’re everywhere) and marketing personnel, to find out what can be improved for next year.

Though the clientele is wealthy – at least on paper – the average sale price is not much greater than that on a “normal” Borsheim’s weekend. It’s the volume that’s huge. “We sell across the board,” says Jacques, who worked the floor that day wearing a stunning white South Seas pearl necklace.

“South Seas pearls, black and white, gold, certified diamonds – they all do very well. But we’ve got many things for $100 which also sell quite well.”

Buffett himself says he enjoys the shareholder parties because Berkshire Hathaway “is a company owned primarily by individuals, not large institutions. When I come here I can see we’ve had a positive impact on people’s lives. I enjoy that.”

Buffett tells JCK he isn’t high on De Beers’ stock at the moment. “They’ve had less control over the diamond than they have in 30 years,” and the diamond stockpile seems too large, he complains. “But maybe we can help reduce it at our party today.”