Quantum Leaps

Just when you think your business life is as full of challenges as you may ever want – flaming competition, unending change, scarcity of top employees – along comes a stock market nosedive. “Is this the Big One?” you ask yourself (and your broker, if he’ll come to the phone).

Well, there’s not much point trying to figure that one out. The fast answer is that no one knows. What we do know is that realists will accept the market swoon as one more challenge and get on with the job. There’s no reward for curling up and crying.

There is, however, a reward for going out and meeting challenges head on. A couple of very provocative and forceful speakers at the Pacific Jewelry Show conference program in August dealt at least tangentially with this concept. Barbara Duncan, a senior executive with the Disney organization, said that when her company is looking for leaders among its own staff, one of the characteristics it demands is courage. George Whalin, a California-based retail consultant who discussed what makes a great manager, identified one key characteristic as the ability to take “quantum leaps” in thinking how to deal with a particular issue.

Both speakers focused on traits and abilities that are critical for successful leaders. Any business needs people at the top who aren’t afraid to take calculated risks, to exhibit corporate bravery. It also needs people who are willing to look beyond the narrow confines of their own experience, who can widen their thinking horizons to a series of “What if…?” solutions to problems.

The time is ripe for such approaches. Retailing today is in a greater state of flux than at any time in history. This is especially true for jewelers. Today, it seems, there is no limit to the scope of competition. Jewelry is sold by discount and department stores, by travel agencies and museums, by flea markets and auction houses, by TV home shopping services and Web site operators. Even jewelers’ own suppliers have their own stores!

Can jewelry retailing become even more competitive and chaotic? Probably. Although some very knowledgeable industry seers believe the Internet will never supplant the fine jewelry store as a prime selling source – “the customer will always want the personal touch, to be able to feel the piece”– I think they may be indulging in wishful thinking. The years 2000 to 2010 are going to be very different from the ’90s, and a quantum leap from the ’60s and ’70s. The Web won’t replace jewelry stores, but it sure will give them a run for their money.

The jeweler who wants to prosper will need to do quantum-leap thinking. Let’s look at a single but common operational issue: opening a new or a branch store. The most obvious location choices are mall, strip center, or stand-alone. But other possibilities include choosing to operate a leased department in a non-jewelry store; to get rid of the staff and launch an upstairs, by-appointment business; or to whittle inventory down to a few specialist lines and become “the gold store” or “the emerald store.”

Suppose you take the thinking a step further. You join forces with a clothing boutique and a flower store or a small fine restaurant and become your own mini-shopping center. Or you dedicate all your efforts to corporate clients, specializing in gifts and awards.

The point, obviously, is that the relatively straightforward step of opening a new jewelry outlet can be as predictable or as far-out as you are willing to make it. This doesn’t mean that a step into the unusual should be any less well planned strategically and financially than one that is mere routine.

Involving the staff in finding answers to your questions undoubtedly will widen the choices you can make. Turning what seems impossible into working reality may be just the spur to lift your business to a new level – and there’s a good chance you and your staff will have a whale of a time getting there, even if there are some anxious moments.