Jewelry Shoppers: The Next Generation

Award-winning jewelry designer Genevieve Yang, who’s 23, recalls the time she took some friends to see jewelry at a high-end department store. “They’re like crawling out of their skin because of the attitude that’s portrayed,” she says of the treatment she and her friends received from snooty sales personnel.

Yang, of Santa Rosa, Calif., worries that independent jewelry stores, with their aura of exclusivity, also could be turning off people in her generation. “The intimidation factor is huge,” she says. “That’s why people buy online. There’s no intimidation to buy from Blue Nile.”

Yang’s generation—known as Generation Y, Millennials, and Echo Boomers—will have a profound impact on retailing. Born roughly between 1978 and 2000, they outnumber the baby boom generation 84 million to 78 million, and they’re already making their presence felt as consumers.

In their 2009 book Gen BuY: How Tweens, Teens, and Twenty-Somethings Are Revolutionizing Retail, authors Kit Yarrow and Jayne O’Donnell note that, as teenagers, “Gen Y shoppers spend five times more than their parents did at the same age.”

Yarrow and O’Donnell describe a generation that’s fast paced, confident, connected (through social networks like Facebook and their ever-present cell phones), and blessed with more options than any generation in history.

JCK spoke with a number of retailers who are making efforts to attract Generation Y. All agree the Internet is crucial. “A lot of young people use the Internet to search but then go to a retailer who carries what they like,” says Darren Blum, gemologist for Coffrin Jewelers, in Sarasota, Fla. “We do get quite a few young bridal customers who find us through the Web—and we carry what they like—who contact us.”

Brian Franklin, co-owner with his father, Kelly, of Generation Jewelers, Peoria, Ariz., had Millennials in mind when he created the Glitz Boutique, a 400-square-foot store-in-store that sells accessories such as handbags, clothing, and affordable jewelry and watches. (See FirstRead Retail, JCK, January 2010, page 28.) “The boutique was definitely intended to attract a young clientele that we could cultivate into bridal customers, and then create customers for life,” Franklin says.

David Kodner, owner of David Kodner Personal Jewelers, in St. Louis, believes the intimidation factor tends to drive younger shoppers to mall jewelers “where they can blend in with every other shopper.” But he also believes independents have an advantage—if they can persuade Millennials to set foot inside their stores. “They find they get educated, and it’s not as frightening as they thought,” Kodner says of younger shoppers. “Once you get them in the door, they will almost always become a customer rather than a mall customer. They just don’t know any different unless we teach them.”

Dan Gordon, of Samuel Gordon Jewelers, in Oklahoma City, thinks jewelers need to be more transparent. “Our industry is so guarded, so trying to hide everything,” he says. “We’ve got to let it all out there, not continue to hide stuff, which the industry has always been about. You’ve got to give everything away for free as far as intellectual property—you have to give it all away. As a result, people will trust you.”

Following are 10 ways to appeal to Generation Y consumers.

  1. Have a great Web site. “You have to have a strong Web presence with that age group, or they will simply think you’re outdated and could not meet their needs,” says Kodner. “Our Facebook and new Web site is geared to that group, although we still have more 30- to 45-year-olds utilizing it.”
    Make your Web site a resource by including plenty of information, but make educational pages strictly informative, not promotional. Consider an “Ask the Jeweler” or “Ask the Gemologist” page, but be prepared to respond to questions immediately.

  2. Use social media. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are second nature to Gen Y. Franklin uses Facebook to get the word out about the Glitz Boutique, which has its own page. “The Facebook page gets added to every day,” he says. “They may not all be in the store yet, but they’re getting our updates.”
    Coffrin Jewelers also relies on social networking. “We have a lot of young customers who are active with us on Facebook,” says Blum. “I can’t say they found us on Facebook, but once they come into the store, then they become active on Facebook.”
    Kodner held a design contest last November, with the winner determined by votes received on the store’s Facebook fan page. “We achieved over 900 new fans on our Facebook page, and the contest was promoted on over 15 jewelry blogs and Web sites,” he says. (See “Innovation Nation,” page 90.)

  3. Hire a Millennial. This will help with Nos. 1 and 2. “Many Millennials have had experience in retail already,” notes Jan Ferri-Reed, coauthor of Keeping the Millennials: Why Companies Are Losing Billions of Dollars in Turnover to This Generation and What to Do About It. “It tends to be the industry where they go for part-time jobs.” (See “Gen Y on the Job,” FirstRead Retail, page 39.)

  4. Let customers design. Mike Wisnosky, owner of Wisnosky Jewelers, Tunkhannock, Pa., took part in the launch of CounterSketch Studio, a joint venture of Stuller and Gemvision that allows customers to participate in jewelry design. Wisnosky thought the program, which uses a version of Gemvision’s computer-aided design software, would appeal to younger, technologically savvy customers. “That was our target initially, to look at the younger crowd to get them more interested,” Wisnosky says. “They are very attracted to the fact that it’s computerized and easy—click, click, click.”
    Wisnosky also got an unexpected bonus: “What’s interesting is that it’s appealing to all levels of ages, which has floored me,” Wisnosky says. “We get comments [about CounterSketch] from people in their 50s and 60s, so we’ve got both. It was a pleasant surprise.”

  5. Reevaluate marketing. “I think it’s imperative to start marketing to that group right out of high school,” says Kodner, who believes traditional marketing techniques are wasted on Millennials. “The younger generation is looking for substance, education, and value,” he says. “They have much more access to education about whatever they buy than any generation before them. So we as jewelers have to look beyond what we know traditionally worked and explore the new ways people communicate and shop.”
    “Advertising is dying,” says Gordon. “Sure, it’s still effective and has its place, but it needs to be you connecting with your market or community. Never say, Do you need this or need that. Just engage in conversation, find people with the same likes and interests, and the loyalty factor is 10-fold because you developed a human relationship.”

  6. Go green and engage in cause marketing. Yang, who often meets consumers at high-end craft shows, says social issues are important to her generation. “Conflict diamonds are on people’s minds, especially younger people, from what I’ve seen,” she says. “Not so much from older people.”
    Kodner uses cause marketing initiatives to appeal to Gen Y. “It goes with the store’s overall mission well, and it shows that you’re community-minded as well as a business,” he says. “I think that has become an increasingly important aspect to getting shoppers to come to you instead of buying online.”
    Gordon believes cause marketing can get results, but he cautions against insincerity: “If your mind thinks, If we help Haiti and so people will like us, that’s completely backwards. It will come if you put yourself second.”

  7. Refresh your store’s look and feel. “Most local stores don’t do a great job of looking hip,” says Yarrow. “They need more visual impact.” She cites the posters displayed in stores like Urban Outfitters and J.Crew, which show young people having fun with other young people. “They should show not just displays of jewelry but people wearing jewelry and having fun wearing jewelry,” she stresses. “Gen Y consumes messages through images. Show them it’s OK to wear jewelry doing something.”
    Wisnosky built a new design center for his store, with a large flat-screen TV, “cushy chairs,” and other Gen Y—friendly amenities. “The cases are open, and the salesperson and customer are both on the same side,” Wisnosky says. “It’s a totally different atmosphere.”

  8. Stock more-affordable jewelry. “Expensive jewelry for this crowd is not moving today,” says Franklin. “But they still want jewelry, which is why we brought in sterling with natural faceted stones. It’s still quality, but affordable quality.”
    “Everyone wants to have and experience luxury,” says Kodner. “By having merchandise that is very high quality, but inexpensive, you can sell to that group, and when they leave your store, they should have the same pride of achievement as if they had spent $10,000. If you can get them young, when they first buy jewelry of any kind, they will have high expectations of the jewelry they purchase and be fiercely loyal to your store.”
    Yang says some of her younger clients buy on layaway. “That doesn’t mean you won’t get the money in the end, so you shouldn’t blow them off,” she says. “I’ve never had a problem with it so far in three years.”

  9. Take note of trends. “The retailers need to be flexible,” says Yang. “They need to look at what people are wearing. Be aware of trends. Don’t just do gold because you’ve done it for the last 20 years, break out. Not completely, but add.”
    Jewelers should take advantage of “female self-purchasing in combination with fashion knowledge,” Yarrow advises. “The sorts of things that make an outfit, that make a statement that helps you express yourself, [young women] definitely will buy for themselves.”

  10. Tell a story. Yang says having a story is important to younger customers. “The story could be just saying I hand-make everything myself—these two hands make everything,” she says. “When I say I made this chain, sometimes younger people say, How is the chain normally made? Older customers don’t care.”
    Yarrow recommends that jewelers include information on gemstone history and lore on their Web sites. “Romanticize it. There’s a lot of majesty and mystery and intrigue with gems, so play that up.”