Tapper’s Diamonds: Mega-Jeweler Stresses Mega-Service

The woman sitting at Steven Tapper’s desk fingers three antique diamond brooches. She wears well-cut wool trousers, a tweed sweater and about 12 carats of diamonds. Today, she’s thinking of buying a brooch to wear with a double strand of pearls she has at home. Tapper fetches a pearl necklace so she can see how a brooch would look with it. “You know what’s so nice about shopping here?” she asks a bystander. “When my grandmother needs her watch battery changed, they’re just as nice and patient with her as they are with me.”

Virtually any quality jeweler will say customer service is the cornerstone of success. But Tapper’s Diamonds and Fine Jewelry has carved a special customer-service niche in the Detroit area with a something-for-everyone merchandising approach, value pricing and no-hassle return policy. Tapper’s even takes antsy youngsters off parents’ hands while they shop.

Howard and Steven Tapper believe you can’t have too much of a good thing. Last April, the brothers moved the 18-year-old business into an 11,000-sq.-ft. store in the Orchard Mall in West Bloomfield, Mich. That size – virtually unheard of for independent jewelers not too long ago – puts Tapper’s in the company of such other king-size independents as Borsheim’s in Omaha, Neb.; Samuel Gordon Jewelers in Oklahoma City, Okla.; and the Albert Smythe Co. near Baltimore, Md.

The showroom accounts for a little over half the space at the new location, housing a much larger and broader scope of inventory than the old store. Just off the main selling floor is a children’s play area with toys, TV, VCR and current “kidvid” favorites. The Tappers know from experience it’s easier to shop without a bored child hanging on your leg. “I can’t tell you how many people have walked in and said what a great idea it is,” says Steven Tapper.

The rest of the space holds offices for appraisals and insurance replacements, shipping and fulfillment, training and graphic arts work, not to mention a walk-in vault, computer center and a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility that would make many jewelers envious. The manufacturing facility is put to good use because custom design is a key component of Tapper’s business. In-house designer James Pierowich heads this phase of the operation, creating everything from Tapper’s own design stock pieces (GemPiero Designs) to custom-carved gold house keys (see related story).

Pierowich, who’s been with the company nine years, hopes to take advantage of the manufacturing facilities by expanding into a wholesale business eventually. Meanwhile, Pierowich is gaining recognition outside of the Detroit area and won first prize in the 1995 JCK Retail Design Contest for a ring he designed to accommodate a customer’s European-cut diamond.

From cradle onward: The Tapper brothers have a long history of working side by side, from mowing neighbors’ lawns when they were kids to running their own business today (Howard is president, Steven is vice president). Their approach, says Steven, is to build lasting relationships with customers. This starts with commemorating the birth of a child with a pin or brooch and continues with attracting these children as they grow into teenagers.

Neale Stone, store manager, emphasizes the importance of making a good first impression on younger shoppers. “The teenagers who come in for their first jewelry will come back for special occasions all their lives,” he says. It’s also important, adds Steven, that mothers see their children following in their footsteps and that teenagers “can find something cool where Mom shops.”

To satisfy the tastes of this wide-ranging clientele, Tapper’s offers a variety of merchandise and price points. Take the delicate necklaces seen on some popular TV shows. Tapper’s

offers silver-and-bead versions retailing for $19.99 for teens as well as gold and gem versions for older, more sophisticated customers who want the same look. “We can barely keep them in stock,” says Laurie Harris, fine jewelry buyer.

The store is careful to stock a range of silver merchandise aimed at teenagers, women who can’t afford gold yet and women who just want a silver piece. The assortment ranges from classic to contemporary to outright funky, such as Rage Metalworks’ line. Judith Jack’s marcasite line is popular here.

For customers looking to spend more, designer jewelry comprises one of the store’s biggest areas of expansion, thanks to demand by the growing women’s self-purchase market. The store features works by Paul Klecka, Jose Hess, SeidenGang, Jane Bohan, Anne Besse-Shepherd, Lapponia, Charles Krypell, M&J Savitt, Lisa Jenks, John Hardy, Christian Bauer, Elizabeth Prior, Pascal Lacroix, John Atencio, David Worcester, Penny Preville, Charles Garnier, Di Lario, Gregg Ruth and Philippe Charriol. Tapper’s also makes it a point to support area designers Nancy Zausmer, Susan Fox Beznos, Marcy Feldman for Heartwear and Richard Caverley.

Tapper’s follows conventional wisdom in displaying designer jewelry (shown by collection with in-case signs and artist information). But it also breaks out of the mold by putting a lot of pieces in each showcase instead of just a few. Or it may augment a display with complementary non-branded jewelry; in the company of designer jewelry, even a simple gold chain seems more interesting. Tapper’s also uses displays and photos to show different ways jewelry can be worn.

Men’s jewelry is another big-seller at Tapper’s, especially cuff links and studs. The store offers conservative styles as well as dramatic designer styles by Elizabeth Prior, SeidenGang, Jane Bohan and John Hardy.

Tapper’s sells its share of bridal jewelry, too, but doesn’t emphasize it in advertising. Because of the store’s fashion approach to jewelry, says Laurie Harris, many of its bridal customers are interested in unique designer pieces.

As for watches, Tapper’s disagrees with the common notion that demand and profit are too low. The store devotes about a third of its selling space to 17 watch lines, including Tag-Heuer, Omega, Ebel, Concord, Raymond Weil, Philippe Charriol, Hamilton and Movado. It also offers some Swatch watches, which department manager Steven Smith says stimulate teen purchases and impulse buying. Watch brand names are prominently displayed in each showcase, with interesting poster-sized art to draw the eye.

Smith reports a definite increase in high-end watch sales in the past three years. “It’s incredible how many people are buying $10,000 watches and up,” he says. Some of the store’s watch buyers are collectors, especially one who owns 20 Tag-Heuers.

Watch marketing is central to Tapper’s overall ad campaigns. One of Tapper’s major ads, for example, features a full page of watches. Smith says the brand recognition of fine watch lines in ads and in the store helps to reinforce Tapper’s image.

Once a customer picks a piece of jewelry or watch, he or she chooses from about 10 wrapping paper designs and then the wrapped box is placed in a high-gloss shopping bag with multicolored tissue paper peeking out. Matching ribbons and bows are piled up like a confetti party.

By design: These business philosophies pushed Tapper’s growth almost to the breaking point. More than a year ago, the brothers knew they were getting so much business they had to move to a larger store. Like many metropolitan areas, suburban Detroit is expanding as affluent residents move farther away from the city. The Tappers decided to move along with them and chose an 11,000-sq.-ft. space in the Orchard Mall, a small enclosed shopping center in West Bloomfield which is easily accessible and has extensive parking. The center is unusual in that tenants are family-owned and -operated stores. Tapper’s closest retail neighbor in the mall is a women’s dress boutique.

“We saw a unique opportunity to take the store a step ahead of what most independent jewelry retailers do,” says Howard. “Lots of corporations try to do the superstore concept, but not a lot of independents do.” Steven likens it to the movie Field of Dreams, where the hero is convinced that if he builds a baseball stadium, fans will come. “If we build it, we can fill it!” Steven says with laugh.

The Tappers hired JGA of Southfield, Mich., to design the store. “Tapper’s main concern was the need to be bigger,” says June Lester, senior designer at JGA. “They’d delayed moving for fear of how it would affect their business, but they really had to move.”

They agreed the store should be welcoming, not intimidating. Hence, a big, wide-open front entrance. They also agreed the ambience should be homey and friendly. “We chose warm, pale wood tones and a higher light level than many jewelry stores would normally have,” says Lester. “It had to be fairly bright to keep up the atmosphere. Tapper’s is such a social place.” The effect was achieved with some subtle fluorescent lighting to boost overall illumination, incandescent downlighting and additional lighting in showcases to make the jewelry shine.

Cabinetry and wall cases are designed like cupboards with a warm turn-of-the-century feel. The cases are arranged to guide shoppers through the various departments. Colorful ceiling and murals are inspired by Dutch artist Gustav Klimt’s work (without his nudes!).

The result is pleasing to customers and to the staff members who spend all day there. “We always remember that we have two sets of customers,” says Steven. “One is external, the other is internal and works here. If the internal customer isn’t happy, the external customer won’t be taken care of properly.”

ADVANCING TECHNOLOGY

Technology is important in Tapper’s day-to-day operations. The store uses the ASC system of computerized inventory control, billing, imaging and tracking, and just initiated a bar-coding system to go with it.

Each piece that comes into the store is now photographed on computer, inspected, logged and tagged. The computer system can instantly tell a salesperson what pieces a customer bought previously (with photos) and all about the person’s preferences, birthday, anniversary and credit.

Stations around the store allow salespeople to stay on the floor with the customer while they’re searching for information.

TAPPER’S GETS ALL KEYED UP

James Pierowich has suddenly developed a reputation for being in key, as it were.

A couple came to Tapper’s Diamonds and Fine Jewelry and asked if he could cast a replica of their in-laws’ house in gold on a house key.

“Why not?” asked Pierowich, an easygoing artist with a willing-to-try-anything-once attitude. The couple produced a picture, and Pierowich sat down with his wax carving tools and went to work. He replicated the house front in wax, then cast it in gold. He cut off the original key top, replaced it with the house, put a gold backing on it and soldered the whole thing together. Voilà!

Since then, he’s had similar requests, including recreating a man’s Harley Davidson motorcycle on a ring and making a pendant from a picture of a woman’s white cat.

(Note: Pierowich has just left to open his own store after 11 years with Tapper’s.)