Prospering In Paradise

When Marion Halfacre walks towards Traditional Jewelers in Newport Beach’s posh Fashion Island, he looks around and thinks, “Just another day in Paradise.”

Many jewelers would agree after viewing Traditional Jewelers and its surroundings. Fashion Island, an outdoor shopping center in one of the most affluent areas of Southern California, is very close to the Pacific Ocean; shoppers can watch the sun set over the sea while they stroll among such stores as Neiman Marcus, Bullock’s and Robinson’s-May. Decorative fountains spout water in unique patterns, palm trees sway nearby and a number of kiosks offer unusual merchandise.

The interior of the 4,000-sq.-ft. store would be paradise to most jewelers, too. Sunlight floods the premises through windows that surround the store in a 180¯ semi-circle, aisles are spacious, the ceiling soars nearly 40 feet high and a winding staircase leads to a private work area and office. Names such as Breitling, Bertolucci, Cartier, Cybis, Lladro and Lalique dot the showcases. Customers parade through the store constantly.

If Halfacre gets tired of looking at his Newport Beach paradise, he can always visit his other Traditional Jewelers stores. They’re located in Ritz Carlton Hotels in Laguna Niguel, down the coast from Newport Beach, and in Rancho Mirage, near Palm Springs.

All this is a long way from Jackson, Miss., where Halfacre opened a jewelry store named Traditional Jewelers with two partners in 1975. Though the family of one partner was in the jewelry industry, Halfacre had been selling hospital equipment. He took to jewelry very quickly, however, and in 1979 decided to head west with wife Lula, who then was 81/2 months pregnant. Once in California, they noticed an ad in JCK offering a store for sale in Newport Beach’s Newport Hills Center. They looked at the store on Friday, bought it on Sunday, returned to Jackson on Monday and became parents on Wednesday. “It was quite a week,” Lula recalls. “A new store and a new baby, all in one week.”

They took over the 1,200-sq.-ft. store in November 1979, and immediately experienced what Halfacre calls “cultural and business shock.” He quickly realized that they couldn’t make a living in a typical Southern California strip mall, just two blocks from Fashion Island, offering the same mix of jewelry they had sold in Mississippi.

“Clusters just wouldn’t sell in Newport Beach,” he says. The first year they did $60,000 in business and doubled that the next year, but it took five years to equal their volume in Mississippi. (Today, Traditional Jewelers has annual sales of $5 million-plus.)

To build business, Halfacre knew they needed to offer outstanding service and become involved with the community. “My community in volvement started when I was in college,” he says. “I always believed people should get involved in civic organizations and local charities.” Right after opening, they sponsored a Cystic Fibrosis Foundation tennis tournament; he joined the board and has been active ever since. They also have sponsored American Cancer Society programs with Nancy Reagan and former major league pitcher Dave Dravecky.

They started building brands because, says Marion, “We are in a market where we must appeal to the clientele.” They added Jaeger Le Coultre in 1981 and other top watch brands soon after. Watches now account for about 25% of sales. “It’s not an easy business,” he says, “but it’s profitable for us.”

In 1983 they started with Cartier; “We were probably the smallest opening in Cartier’s history,” he says. The association must have worked well, because the Halfacres were asked to open the first Cartier Corner in 1988. That same year they moved to a new location, doubling their size. And they began a custom of taking Fridays off to spend time with their children – son Eric, now 15, and daughter Natalie, 11. They also used Fridays to visit other stores to check out the competition and look for another location.

On the move: “If we were to be what we wanted to be, then we had to be in Fashion Island,” says Halfacre. “We kept looking at stores, saying, ‘That would be a good location'”- but not perfect. A jewelry store called Carlson & O’Brien, which carried a lot of giftware, increasingly appealed to them, however, so they set up an appointment and found the firm receptive to selling. The Halfacres took over in April 1991.

One of the first challenges was to retain the better lines of giftware, such as Lladro, Baccarat and Lalique. “We had to jump through hoops to keep them, but we managed to convince them we would do a good job,” Halfacre recalls. They changed the store layout to maximize floor space and filled the huge windows with shelves featuring giftware. “Crystal doesn’t fade,” notes Halfacre; “everything else does.”

The range of inventory is wide. “We have something at $40 and something at $140,000,” he says. “But we want to make certain that the $40 merchandise is the best $40 merchandise that we can sell.”

Traditional Jewelers’ clientele isn’t confined just to nearby affluent communities. “We draw customers from throughout Southern Orange County, and we get lots of tourists. There aren’t many stores with the kind of inventory we have, and none in Southern California, so people come here because they’ve heard about us. And when a customer from out of town visits the store and knows what we have, he’ll call and ask us to send something.” Halfacre complies by sending photos or a store catalog. One man from West Virginia hasn’t been in for six or seven years, but buys something every year.

If the store has a weakness, it’s in the sale of bridal sets. “We’re working on building that business,” Halfacre says. “There aren’t too many young people in this area, and those who are, usually go to South Coast Plaza [a large shopping mall just a few miles away].” But 1994 was the biggest diamond year in Traditional Jewelers’ history; it also had a great year with platinum.

Branching out: In 1992, Traditional Jewelers was asked to take over a small jewelry store located in the Rancho Mirage Ritz Carlton. Halfacre agreed and did so well that 11/2 years later he took on the store in the Laguna Niguel Ritz Carlton. “Both have been fabulous,” he says.

The Rancho Mirage store often refers customers to the Newport Beach location, which has much more inventory, but Halfacre sends items to both hotel stores when customers request it. Rancho Mirage is less than two hours away, with Laguna Niguel about 30 minutes away.

Halfacre visits each branch “maybe once every two months. I don’t need to go often because I have good people there.” The firm employs 20 people (including two jewelers, both women) in Newport Beach, plus two people in each hotel store.

This is definitely a family affair. Lula Halfacre, vice president in charge of advertising and business operations, is involved in all promotions and works closely with Marion on charitable activities. Halfacre’s sister and brother-in-law also work in the store.

Going after business: Promotions have been the key to Traditional Jewelers’ success. Some examples:

Halfacre hosts groups of 12-15 customers at evening seminars in an upstairs area at the Newport Beach store. “We had one on diamonds. We talked about diamonds, gave them a history and showed them a video, then let them look at a diamond through a scope. It made them feel comfortable. As a result, we’ve sold a few diamonds and have had people bring in jewelry to re-make.”

Halfacre tied in with the Platinum Guild USA to stage the Ultimate Platinum Party; several platinum sales resulted. A collection of Argyle pink diamonds also was available that evening; two of the stones were sold.

He invited hotel guests and local residents to a watch show at the Laguna Niguel store; 350 people came. “The store is so small it holds only about 20 people maximum,” he laughs. “It was pretty crowded.

We served champagne and hors d’oeuvres, and we sold a lot of watches, both big and small sales.”

Bertolucci recently installed a clock tower in front of Traditional Jewelers during a ceremony for invited guests, including Ms. Lou Parker, the current Miss USA, and David Marold, general manager of Bertolucci in the U.S. The only other such tower in the world is in the town square in Neuchatel, Switzerland, Bertolucci’s home. Local media covered the event heavily.

Hot cider and cookies are served throughout the day between Thanks-giving and Christmas. “It’s all part of making shopping a pleasant experience. People drink cider and write checks.” Do the refreshments boost traffic? About 1,200 people came through the store on Dec. 23, 1994, and 1,000 on Dec. 24, resulting in a 25% increase in holiday business.

Halfacre also has conducted promotions with athletes, including tennis stars Jimmy Connors, Martina Navratilova and Bjorn Borg. David Wheaton and Richey Reneberg put on a tennis clinic for customers in a tie-in with Bertolucci; everyone who participated received a tennis racket and autographed racket cover.

Few customers expected to see the Harley Davidson motorcycle recently parked outside Traditional Jewelers, along with a sign saying, “Free with a $30,000 ring and pendant.” “We didn’t give it away,” laughs Halfacre, “but we had about 1,000 people come in to look.”

The store also benefited from the World Cup competition held in Southern California last year. “Several teams trained nearby, and they brought a lot of fans with them,” Halfacre recalls. “Fashion Island conducted a big promotion. People from all over the world came, they bought and it was cash business.”

Halfacre profited from another Fashion Island promotion. Isuzu Motors held a sales meeting for its dealers in Newport Beach last December and paid $1.3 million in bonuses in Fashion Island dollars, spendable only at stores in the shopping center. Halfacre sent catalogs to each attendee and put a jar of jewelry cleaner, a bag of candy and a key in each hotel room. The auto dealers were invited to bring in the keys to see if they would open the padlock that fastened a chain around a box holding $5,000 in jewelry. Many did so; “They spent about 10% of the total Fashion Island dollars with us,” he says.

Working hard: Halfacre credits more than promotions for his success (sales have increased 25%-30% each year since he opened – except 1989 and 1990, when growth was slower). “It’s a lot of hard work, too,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about the business when I started in Jackson, so I learned. I studied through GIA courses. I attended meetings and seminars. I learned bench work so I would know what I’m working with. I’m always reading.

“We will be 20 years old this year, but I still don’t know what we can really do,” he said. “Our growth is infinite. We’re very pleased with what we have. We have a store on an island, one in the desert and one on the coast. We will continue to improve and grow and maintain our high quality. We want to be the best in the community.”

Tennessee-born Marion Halfacre calls himself a “Little Ol’ Country Boy” and a sign in his office reads, “Just A Little Ol’ Country Store.” Customers and competitors more likely would agree with his other description of the store: “Just another day in Paradise.”