Mixed Messages

When basketball star Kobe Bryant gave his wife, Vanessa, a $4 million diamond ring after publicly admitting to infidelity, it was a great topic of conversation among friends and family of some JCK staffers. We must be happy to hear he bought such an impressive jewel, they said.

From a commercial perspective, I’m happy anytime a piece of jewelry sells. And if studies reporting that one-fourth to one-third of American spouses have strayed are correct, and those folks—both male and female—also decide to buy jewelry as a guilt offering, we could see some serious commercial benefit.

But what kind of message does Vanessa Bryant’s 8-ct. ring convey? Does it say, “I’m so very sorry,” or does it—considering the publicity surrounding the giving of it—imply that enough money can buy forgiveness?

A billboard that once overlooked the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia advertised a florist. It showed three flower arrangements—a single bud in a vase, a medium-sized bunch, and an enormous topiary—and asked, “How mad is she?”

It’s not our place to moralize or sit in judgment of Kobe Bryant or anyone else, because we’ve all done things we regret. Whether it’s a minor faux pas or a major trust-breaking transgression, everyone has had to apologize to someone at some point, and everyone can appreciate the humor of the florist’s billboard. So while the reason for a purchase of a piece of jewelry is none of our business, it’s still unsettling to try to reconcile such a public statement of jewelry with the message of love and sentiment that we as an industry try to convey in all our advertising and selling strategies. And one might well imagine that Vanessa Bryant would probably have greatly preferred to receive a much smaller ring, anonymously—and for any other reason.

Separately, it’s time to climb on my service soapbox for another tale of good stores gone bad. The day before writing this editorial, my mom tried to buy a new watch, an inexpensive everyday timepiece she could wear while cleaning and gardening.

We went to the fashion jewelry counter of a local department store and selected a watch from a carousel display. The counter was busy, so we went to the fine-jewelry counter where there were no customers—just one lone sales associate leaning against the wall with her arms folded, doing nothing. We handed her the watch and some money, to which she replied, “I can’t ring that up here. You’ll have to take it over there,” indicating the busy counter we’d just left.

“I can’t ring that up here.” In a retail store. If you can’t ring it up there, where can you ring it up? Shall we take it to the restaurant next door so they can ring it up? Surely a store such as this—a May Co. affiliate—must have a computerized cashier system. Even if the fine-jewelry counter was a leased department, surely retail technology has come far enough that the computer can read the bar code and assign the profits to the correct department!

Obviously the perpetual sale strategy of many big retail chains works to build traffic. But the poor customer service that results from cutting corners to make margins doesn’t ensure repeat business. A price customer will never be a loyal customer anyway, but a service customer—who would become a loyal customer—won’t return to an environment where they’re not being served. And, for sure, they’re not going to go back to a store that can’t even be bothered to take the customer’s money at the “wrong” counter.

Just imagine—what if the jeweler from whom Kobe Bryant bought his wife’s $4 million ring had said, “Sorry, I can’t ring that up here?”

hschupak@reedbusiness.com