‘Only Diamonds’ Debuts

Veteran jewelry retailer Nathan R. Light has returned to the trade. This time, he’s trying out a retailing concept he hopes will revolutionize the sale and purchase of diamonds.

“Only Diamonds,” his new group of superstores, sells only diamonds and diamond jewelry. The Akron, Ohio-based LDC Group Inc., which Light founded and heads as chairman and chief executive officer, opened four in 1997 – in Cleveland, North Canton, Atlanta and Las Vegas. Light expects to open ten more this year, and another 50 in the next several years.

The free-standing stores, located adjacent to major malls, are 4,000 to 4,500 sq. ft. in size and employ about 15 full-time staff people each. They feature custom-designed interiors and showcases, specialized packaging and their own credit cards.

Stores which specialize in diamonds, or have their own packaging and credit cards, are not new. Neither are super stores which focus on one category of merchandise. What is new, says Light, is how his stores sell their diamond merchandise.

‘Lifelong dream.’ Light has more than 30 years’ experience in jewelry retailing, including 18 at Sterling Inc., the second largest jewelry retailer in the U.S. and parent firm of Kay Jewelers, J. B. Robinson Jewelers and the Jared jewelry super stores. During his tenure as chairman and CEO, Light built Sterling from 32 stores with $12 million in sales to more than 1,000 units with $1 billion in annual sales.

When he left Sterling in 1995, a non-compete agreement barred him from retailing for a year. Light used the time to form LDC and ponder how he could implement what he says was a lifelong dream: revolutionizing the way people buy diamonds.

His team includes wife Patricia A. Light, director of marketing and advertising, and David Dell’Aglio, director of loose diamonds; both were with him at Sterling. Starting with a blank piece of paper, they listed what diamond customers need and want, and what concerns them when buying diamonds. They relied heavily on focus groups, says Light, where shoppers discussed how they really feel about buying diamond jewelry in a typical jewelry store.

They learned that typical customers often feel uneasy, even fearful, about buying diamonds because they realize they don’t know enough about diamonds to make educated purchases. “Most people don’t know the difference between flawless and SI1, a marquise from a princess cut or a G color and a D color,” notes Light. Even worse, they’re not sure they can trust the jeweler or jewelry salespeople, who they think may take advantage of their uncertainties to pressure them into buying something they don’t want.

So, says Light, “our purpose became clear – take the fear and pressure out of the purchase!”

The result is a retailing concept built on customer education, state-of-the-art technology, professionally-trained salespeople who guide customers through their purchases, pressure-free buying and selling, and an extensive inventory.

Educating customers. To ease visitors’ uncertainty, Only Diamonds’ stores cultivate what Light calls “an educational atmosphere.”

The staff encourages customers to view gemstones in the store’s “Diamond Evaluation Center.” There, state-of-the-art gem equipment helps them understand and evaluate diamonds before they buy any. A colorimeter measures loose diamonds’ color value. “Gem Microvision,” a microscope/camera, digitizes a diamond’s image onto a computer screen to show clarity and anomalies. Customers can use “GemVision” to create jewelry designs or view digitized images of an existing piece of jewelry on the computer screen. “Brilliant Gem” scientifically measures the cut and proportion of a diamond, provides a printout and compares its characteristics to established benchmarks.

“We’re using our technology to remove the fear [of buying diamonds] and add credibility [to the jeweler],” says Jeff Lauro, director of the firm’s MIS department. “With the reports our computers provide, clients don’t have to take our word for it – they can see for themselves.”

Enhancing that educational experience for shoppers are an in-store diamond museum and library with private viewing areas and complimentary refreshments.

To eliminate pressure selling by salespeople (called “diamond consultants”), Only Diamonds does not use commissions. “So, their goal isn’t to see how much jewelry they can sell,” says Light. All diamond consultants are professionally trained by the Gemological Institute of America and are taught to provide “a genuine non-pressure experience” for customers, says Light.

The diamond difference. Supporting each store is “at least five times more” diamond merchandise than traditional jewelry stores carry, says Light. It includes stones ranging from a fifth of a carat to five carats; a broad selection of loose diamonds; more than 300 gold and platinum setting choices; more than 2,000 styles of diamond jewelry and retail prices ranging from $100 to $70,000.

Each store’s “Diamond Gift Boutique” displays popular diamond styles and executive gifts. Shoppers can register their jewelry wish lists in an interactive electronic “Diamond Dream Registry.”

The stores have such expected features as their own credit card, signature packaging and on-site jewelry design and repair. But Light has added features to set them apart. These include a life-time trade-in policy for any diamond weighing a fifth of a carat or more purchased from Only Diamonds; a 60-day money-back guarantee, no questions asked; and a complimentary insurance appraisal which Only Diamonds will update annually. Perhaps the most unusual feature is a partnership with the Disney Bridal Network, which enables engaged couples to plan a “fairy tale-style wedding” at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

Operations. Light’s intent to be different affects the stores themselves, which feature custom interiors and showcases created by Levine Design of New York City. Designer Pam Levine calls the Only Diamonds project “the most unique [one] we have done.”

A major goal was to draw customers’ attention to the product and hold it there. To do that, Light and his team worked with Levine to change concepts of display and presentation.

Instead of traditional square trays, for example, Levine created horizontal “ring bars” (on which the jewelry sits) in a variety of original shapes. These can be placed in different positions within the cases, which may hold up to 200 diamond pieces. There is little traditional about the cases themselves, either. They stand on very thin legs, with lots of air beneath them, except those in the center of the store, which are curved and rounded. The aim is to draw customers’ eyes and encourage them to walk through the store.

Mirrors, fabrics, display forms and signage also use “materials, colors and sizes to attract customers’ attention while creating a unique shopping experience,” says Levine.

All of Only Diamonds’ interior signage – and there is a lot of it – is made of glass in a variety of consistent shapes designed to be non-intrusive in appearance. “Signage can be a real sore spot,” says Levine, “especially when selling luxury items, if not done well graphically. You don’t want to see the signage before you see the product.”

Using glass “elevates everything. [The customer’s] attention is drawn to the product, not the sign, but you still convey information in an elegant way.”

Seemingly, no detail was too minor to be enhanced or redesigned. Even the ring plugs – usually ugly little cast-plastic items – are made of enamel and stylish. The store’s paper coffee cups carry the Only Diamonds logo. Packaging was produced in four different areas of the world, but all was dyed at Levine Design in New York to ensure consistent color and hue.

“They built [the concept of these stores] from the ground up, and the message [they communicate] is very clear,” says Levine.

The message is clear to employees, as well. The Only Diamonds home office in Akron communicates with each location via e-mail four times a day. Advanced point-of-sale systems and an extensive computer network help it capture client information, analyze various markets and quickly fill the jewelry needs of Only Diamonds stores around the country, say Light and his people.