On the Road Again

During the course of the past few months I’ve been on the road traveling to different parts of the country where I have interviewed retail jewelers for a consulting assignment. It has been an interesting experience because, frankly, it’s been a long time since I’ve actually called on retailers in their stores or their headquarters.

The truth is that while there has been lots of contact with retailers during the past few years, the point of contact has been at trade shows, at other industry functions, by telephone, or by e-mail. While each of these communications opportunities has its place and has value, especially in our time-crunched business lives, the fact remains that you cannot appreciate the challenges a particular retailer faces until you see the operation in person. Nor do you get the opportunity to talk about that retailer’s business in such a focused manner.

The situation reminds me of that old United Airlines commercial where the boss hands out airline tickets to his staff after losing a long-term, important client. The objective of the exercise is to assure that more clients don’t bolt to the competition as a result of the more efficient, less personal methods of communication. At the end of the scene, the boss is left with one remaining ticket in his hand. One of the staff asks who the remaining ticket is for and the boss responds that it is his. He is going to personally visit the recently lost account, underscoring the need for personal contact with clients where they do their business.

Today, we are told by some pundits that road sales forces are a thing of the past. We are told that there are more efficient ways of doing business. The reality is that personal selling is as important today as ever. Listening to retailers talk about their businesses also provides real insight into the character of today’s retail jewelers. You come away convinced that they are fully aware of the challenges they face and, more importantly, that they are effectively meeting these situations head-on. There is a great deal of talent out there.

What is on the mind of retail jewelers today? It’s the usual … competition, product differentiation, pricing, merchandise presentation, sales training, enhancing the professional skills of the sales staff. These are just some of the topics that were part of the discussions.

What was interesting for me was the sense that while there are significant situations these jewelers face every day—whether it is the threat of dealing with conflict diamonds or the competitive threat of Internet sellers—the retail jewelry segment is captained by many thoughtful, competent, effective, and resourceful leaders.

I have for a long time believed that the jewelry business is unique because of the importance of relationships, trust involved in transactions, and the dominance of the retail segment of the business. These visits only confirmed the accuracy of these impressions.