Slow Holiday No Surprise

The 2008 holiday season has been dubbed “the worst in decades” for retail, and jewelry was no exception. Luxury has been hard hit by the recession, and jewelry took a particular pounding.

Nevertheless, JCK‘s post-holiday survey found retailers that did better than expected. Jewelers in the Mountain region seemed best poised for the season.

Rian Robison, manager of Goldsmith Co. Jewelers, Provo, Utah, said, “We were on par with last year. Utah hasn’t been hit so hard with recession. We’re a college town; our bread and butter are wedding sets. That’s always great.”

Some retailers said December was down but the year was up. “Things weren’t great, but we got through it,” said Fred Peterson, general manager, Goldsmith Gallery Jewelers, Billings, Mont. “Down for the season [25 percent] and up for the year. We still did well with our bridal and engagement rings. No matter what the economy, people are still going to get married. We just didn’t get that big 50-, 60-grand sale. But January’s been good, and the week after Christmas was very good.”

Northeast jewelers reported the worst results, and Southern retailers reported declines, but there were pockets of resiliency in the Midwest and West Coast. Emily Vargas Smith, owner of Vargas Jewelers, Santa Barbara, Calif., said the holiday was better than expected. “It was saved by the last four or five days,” she said. She noted her store has a license to buy gold from the street. “We have a case full of estate jewelry, and we did very well with it. You have to diversify into other things.”

Ron Olsen, owner of Olsen and Son, Bellevue, Wash., called Christmas “OK,” but not his best. “Had we not brought in clearance items on consignment from a couple of vendors, we would not have done as well. People were looking for sales, and you had to give them a good sale.”

Sissy Jones, CEO of Sissy’s Log Cabin, Pine Bluff, Ark., said this was her best December ever, but she’s never worked harder for it. The store beefed up marketing, extended hours, and stayed open Sundays.

Personal contact with customers was the most effective sales tactic. Brad Hart, sales manager of Hauser’s Jewelers, Newport News, Va., said, “We were a lot more proactive with the phone calls, and that really paid off.”

Chalo Luna, owner of Bianca’s Fine Jewelry, Roseville, Calif., said, “More than anything it was a referral Christmas. There were not many walk-in customers.”

But Brenda Reichel, owner of Carats and Karats, Honolulu, reported “the worst Christmas in 21 years.” She said three local jewelers have closed in the last six months.

The weather also hurt some jewelers. Tom Madison, owner of Crown Jewelers, Clackamas, Ore., had to close for a few days because of a snowstorm. “Mail didn’t come, FedEx didn’t come, and it all happened right at Christmas,” he said. “We were hoping to do substantially more.”

Watches proved strong, particularly brands like Tag Heuer, Breitling, Cyma, and Rolex. Carl Carstens, owner of C.A. Schnack Jewelry Co., Alexandria, La., said, “Watches were our best seller, which is strange. We were up 27 percent in watches and up 24 percent in colored stones, and we got hammered everywhere else.”

Bridal jewelry did well, and many jewelers reported increases in lower-price merchandise and add-on jewelry like Pandora or Chamilia bracelets. Jeff Corey, president of Day’s Jewelers, a six-store chain in Maine, called his Chamilia line a blowout success. He ran a promotion giving away the silver bracelets, and customers lined up to get them, coming back later for the add-on beads. “The sales themselves were small, but they added up,” he said.

Despite the mixed results, jewelers remain cautiously optimistic. David Fineblit, owner of Pearson’s Inc., Manchester, N.H., said, “We’re going to get through this. We’re not going to stick our heads in the sand and cry that the sky is falling.”

“I think we’ve bottomed out,” said Brenda Reichel. “Things can only get better.”

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