Is It Time for Jewelers to Come Back to the Table?

The long-neglected tabletops market holds ample opportunities for revenue growth in both the bridal sector and other niches. Jewelers have good reason to reconsider a category they once dominated.

How times change. In the 1970s, jewelers were the No. 1 retailers of tabletop ware in America. Today, they’re barely a blip on the sales chart of the multibillion-dollar industry, having surrendered the market to department stores and specialty retailers.

Yet some jewelers do a healthy business in tableware. Those who ignore the category may be missing out on a fertile source of revenue. Tabletops are expanding into new markets beyond bridal and are appealing to more affluent consumers.

A sizable market. The U.S. tableware market encompasses dinnerware, flatware, glassware, silver, and crystal – basically anything that goes on the table. And it’s substantial. Tabletops accounted for $4.3 billion in sales in 1997, a 4.7% gain over the 1996 figure, according to HFN, the leading publication of the home furnishings industry. That figure includes $1.7 billion for dinnerware (a 3.6% gain), $1.76 billion for crystal and glassware (up 3.4%), and $835.6 million for flatware (a 9.9% gain).

Department stores are the major sellers, but more retailers are getting into the act. An increasing number of stores along the lines of Crate and Barrel are specializing in the field. Sears has just added a tabletops department. Jewelry and tableware retailer Michael C. Fina recently opened a flagship store in New York City. The wares of the new upscale Movado stores include stylish glass vases and sterling silver. Italian luxury dinnerware was a popular item at the summer jewelry trade shows.

A number of retail Internet sites offer tableware, flatware, crystal, and other items. Borsheim’s of Omaha, Neb., one of the United States’ best-known jewelers, sells its tabletops at www.borsheims.com. Among the most extensive sites is Tableware America (www.tablewareamerica.com), operated by George Watts & Sons of Milwaukee.

Tabletops is “a key gift area all retailers will be watching for years ahead,” says HFN editor Carol Tisch.

A lost category. Yet many jewelers don’t seem to be paying attention. Tableware trade sources say jewelers now represent less than 5% of their sales. Jewelers of America’s 1998 Cost of Doing Business survey found that only 3% of jewelers’ sales are in tableware, gifts, and silver items. A recent JCK survey of independent jewelers revealed that tableware represents a median 5% of total sales.

Why have jewelers surrendered a category they once dominated? One reason is a tougher retail environment. “The 1990s have not been gentle to the independent jewelry stores with regard to marketing tableware,” notes Anton C. Kusak III, president of Kusak Cut Glass Works Inc. in Seattle. “Competition has been tough and in some cases ruthless with the advent of factory stores and large discount chains.”

Also, tableware requires commitment on the part of the jeweler. To succeed, jewelers must devote the space, promote the products, and have informed salespeople. Yet in view of competition from department stores and other outlets, many jewelers consider it a waste of time and effort. “We used to carry tableware, but we got lazy,” says one West Coast jeweler. “We didn’t maintain it or designate a full-time person to do it. We just let the department stores take that business away from us.”

On the other hand, tableware suppliers – concerned more with high-volume and mass-market outlets – no longer cultivate the retail jeweler. At a recent conference of the National Tableware & Giftware Association (NTGA) that focused on ways to stimulate the market, there was much talk about specialty stores and department stores but not one word about jewelry stores as outlets for high-end tableware. “We haven’t had anyone [from tableware suppliers] come in to see us for years,” says the West Coast jeweler, who has dropped the category.

Opportunities. JCK’s poll found that one in three independent jewelers sells tableware. Some are doing suprisingly well, with sales accounting for up to 20% of total business. These jewelers are “targeting success in their unfriendly environments through service, quality, and the ability to know the customers’ individual needs,” says Kuzak. (See page 74 for examples of successful selling strategies.)

A jewelry store is a logical place to buy fine tableware because that’s where people buy their bridal jewelry and where friends and family purchase bridal gifts. Suppliers at the NTGA conference complained that fewer women are using computerized bridal registries in department stores because no one there provides personal service. Yet that’s one advantage jewelers have over department stores, and those who succeed with tabletops capitalize on it.

One such store is Gaines Jewelers in Lakeland, Fla. It has a computerized bridal registry but is also “very customer-oriented,” says manager Suzanne Gaines. “We work with a bride, or any tabletops customer, to help them coordinate colors and designs, create a mood, or maintain an air.”

“Jewelers always have the edge” as retailers of tabletop ware, says Tony Masi, editor of Giftware News. “Tabletops manufacturers have to be educated again to the value of jewelry stores [as sellers of tabletops], and jewelers have to be educated to the value of having a tabletops department in their stores.”

“Casual” tabletops. Like other tableware retailers, jewelers traditionally have catered to the bridal market. As much as 80% of all tableware sales is bridal-related, according to industry sources. JCK’s survey found that 51% of jewelers selling tableware sell it primarily as bridal gifts.

But jewelers don’t have to limit their tableware business to bridal couples and their friends. Changes in the tabletops market are creating new opportunities for high-end retailers.

The biggest change is the shift to so-called casual tabletops. Instead of buying separate tableware for formal and informal dining, today’s customers purchase sets to suit a variety of situations. At least one major retailer – Bloomingdale’s – has shifted its strategy from using tabletops as a only a bridal-gift item to promoting it as a year-round source of purchases.

Indeed, the “good china” is more likely to be used today in informal as well as formal settings. For example, Susan Gaines helps her customers “coordinate a table to suit their needs and lifestyle, rather than choosing something that will stay in the cabinet.”

As with apparel and watches, tabletop items – especially dinnerware and flatware – have become an expression of Americans’ casual lifestyle. There are even “designer-name” tabletops. Today there is more mixing and matching from “open inventory” as opposed to boxed sets. There are more floral colors in dinnerware design, and there’s more use of color with glassware.

New markets. The fact that consumers today prefer a more casual lifestyle doesn’t mean they prefer cheaper tableware. In a survey last year in Bride’s magazine, 76% of engaged women said that having a casual lifestyle didn’t mean they would buy less-expensive items.

In fact, the reverse is often true. The Baby Boomer generation, which accounts for 45% of household income, is increasingly affluent and spending more on upscale household items such as tableware. There is even a category called “upstairs casual” for more-expensive tableware, which accounted for about $420 million in sales last year, according to HFN’s study.

It’s all part of what Amy Stavis, editor of Tableware Today, calls the “fortessing” of the American family home. “People aren’t going out as much,” she says. “They’re staying home more and putting more money into home accessories and furnishings, like tabletops, that reflect their lifestyles.” That’s one reason, for example, for the growth in stylish sterling silver items for the table and bar.

Meanwhile, several profitable non-bridal marketing opportunities are growing, according to the NTGA study:

  • Family celebrants. Birthdays, especially, are one of the few times when all the family is together – and when special tableware is used.

  • Collectors. Just as the watch and pen industries now create items specifically for collectors, so does the tableware industry. Collectors represent an important market segment. The JCK survey found that it’s the primary source of tableware sales for one in 10 jewelers. A few, such as C.A. Jensen of La Salle, Ill., set entire walls aside for it.

  • Repeat buyers. J.E. Caldwell Jewelers in Philadelphia has “a lot of add-on business [from] people who have been married for a while and want to add some settings or who come in to buy accessories from our open inventory,” says John K. Hunter, president of the upscale six-store chain. Gaines notes that many wives who have grown tired of their tableware are now “coming in to choose new patterns or new wine goblets or crystal.”

  • Impulse buyers. Some people don’t need an occasion to buy tableware; they act on impluse. O’Brien’s Jewelers in Peoria, Ill., for example, recently sold an $11,000 set to a man who had grown tired of his old tableware and wanted to replace it before moving.

  • Men. Though not a big niche, sales to men are growing. Men are also getting more involved in buying tabletops with their wives. The Bride’s magazine study reported that 78% of women said their fiancés helped determine the registry.

To increase sales and make the public aware of tableware retailers, NGTA has designated April 1999 as National Tabletops Month. Jewelers can tie in with it to promote their own tabletops departments. For more information, contact the National Tabletops & Giftware Association at 355 Lexington Ave., New York, NY 10017; (212) 270-9047.

Do you sell tableware?

Yes 37%
No 63%
(Includes dinnerware, flatware, glassware, and crystal but not giftware)

Do you sell giftware?

Yes 38%
No 62%

Do you sell tableware and giftware?

Yes 48%
No 52%

Which of these tabletops categories do you carry?

Category % carrying
Dinnerware 23%
Flatware 23%
Glassware 19%
Crystal 38%
Carry all 22%
Adds up to more than 100% because of multiple answers by respondents

What is the primary reason for customers’ tabletops purchases?

Category % of those who carry tabletops
Bridal gift 51%
Holiday gift 27%
Birthday gift 17%
Gift for self 17%
Impulse purchase 14%
Collectors 10%
Adds up to more than 100% because of multiple answers by respondents

Four Who Succeed with Tableware

Jewelers who do a thriving tabletops business succeed thanks to creative promotions and advertising, Web sites, designated areas in their stores, exclusive product lines, and knowledgeable salespeople. Tableware is “labor-intensive, requiring time, money, and commitment to every aspect of that department,” says John K. Hunter, president of the six-store J.E. Caldwell & Co. jewelry chain in Philadelphia. But, he says, “the results are worth it. It draws customers in and brings us business all the time.”

Here are four jewelers who report that tabletops sales are an important part of their business.

J.E. Caldwell & Co. This upscale company does up to 35% of its business in tableware at the two stores that carry these products. “We go after uniqueness in choosing the tabletops we carry,” says Hunter. “We look for dinnerware you can’t find in department or specialty stores.”

Another factor in its success is creative promotions. Caldwell holds two tabletops shows a year, usually with a theme, to support a local organization or charity. One theme was “Digging for Diamonds.” For a donation to the charity, customers used spoon-sized shovels to sift through sand to find mêlée in a bowl.

Another theme was “All Aboard,” in which customers were each handed a train ticket. The ticket was punched as they went from table to table, each set with tabletops and jewelry evocative of different countries. The “Irish Pub” table, for example, featured Irish linen, dark-green dinnerware, and Waterford crystal, while the “Japan” table included square plates with gold edges and pearl jewelry. Customers could use the punched tickets for discounts on tableware or jewelry.

Caldwell also holds an annual bridal fair. “We pull out all the stops, with flowers, presentations on the bridal registry, gift selections, and five or six different [table] settings,” says Hunter. The company stages special in-store events displaying its tabletops. A recent reception for former Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Riccardo Muti, for example, featured tables decorated with a specific tableware or giftware item.

C.A. Jensen’s Jewelers. This 79-year-old, 6,500-sq.-ft. store in La Salle, Ill., carries more than 500 patterns of fine china, 3,000 collectors plates, and many figurines; it also has a bridal registry. Owner Robert Jensen keeps virtually all his tableware products in stock instead of just carrying samples. “You can’t just walk in and out of a department store [with a china pattern],” he says. “They sell out, but we stock in depth.” The store has become a Mecca for collectors who often travel long distances to find a special plate, a limited-edition figurine, or a fine porcelain or china pattern.

To succeed with tabletops, says Jensen, “you need real knowledge about tableware and its traditions, about the manufacturers and what they produce. Our people are very knowledgeable.” Jensen advertises discontinued patterns and is listed among manufacturers’ sources for these items. He also recently opened a site on the Internet (www.cajensenjewelers.com).

The tableware also boosts the jewelry business, he says. “We do quite a reasonable number of crossovers into jewelry.”

George L. Gaines Jeweler. This second-generation Lakeland, Fla., family store does 25% of its sales in tableware. “It is a traffic builder and our bread and butter,” says manager Suzanne Gaines.

The 5,000-sq.-ft. downtown store devotes its back third to bridal registry products. One 20-ft. wall is for fine china, while Waterford crystal and stemware are displayed on the opposite wall. The back wall holds display cases of giftware. Selected stemware and china are located throughout the store.

Tabletop sales had long been stagnant but revived several years ago when the store changed its image and advertising. “It was too stuffy,” Gaines says. “Now we have fun with our advertising. The store isn’t a ‘museum of fine things’ now, but more in line with what people want and use.”

The store advertises its tabletops and has a site on the Internet (www.glgaines.com). What’s more, Gaines does out-of-store promotions, such as place settings for charitable events or the dining rooms of homes on holiday house tours (with table cards displaying the store’s name).

Above all, she says, it’s important not only to “know your product but also know how to use it, how to read your customers and their needs, create an image for them, and coordinate a table that suits those needs.” The store’s clientele is affluent and sophisticated, so it stocks an array of quality tabletops including fine crystal and museum collection vases. Its success with these items has led to a new and unusual product category for a jewelry store: wine accessories such as wine-tasting stems, corkscrews, and wine racks.

O’Brien’s Jewelers. This two-store family business in Peoria and Champaign, Ill., reintroduced tableware last year after dropping it several years ago. The category now accounts for about 15% of its business. This time, though, owner Michael O’Brien is concentrating primarily on one brand of luxury tableware and flatware — Christofle of Paris. That gives him definite advantages over department stores, he says.

O’Brien’s is the exclusive distributor of Christofle in central Illinois. That brings in the clientele a jeweler covets. “By carrying Christofle, we’re not appealing to lower-income brackets but to people with sufficient disposable income to buy it on a whim,” he says. To cater to that market, O’Brien also stocks Waterford and Wedgwood.

Those names set him apart from department and specialty stores that sell tabletops products. “Those stores are good for outfitting a dorm room or a first apartment,” he says. “But they can’t compete on quality and price. They don’t carry fine imported bone china, Waterford crystal, or Wedgwood.”

The only advantage department stores have, he says, is convenience. “But they don’t have the product knowledge, education, or service a customer needs when buying fine tableware.”

O’Brien promotes his tableware beyond the bridal market. “We like to think of these as housewarming gifts, too, or something for the hostess,” he says. “We want to give the customers reasons to come back to the store besides jewelry.”

He actively promotes his tableware department. In-store displays include a table with the settings near the entrance, a window box, and a floor stand with tableware. O’Brien aired his first TV ad for tabletops last month. He plans to mail Christofle catalogs this fall to “mature” — and affluent — consumers in his community. A Web site (www.obriensjewelers.com) also promotes the store and Christofle tableware.