Tapping Into the Power of Positive Thinking

Times might be tough, but don’t tell that to Laurie Harris, fine-jewelry buyer for Tapper’s Diamonds and Fine Jewelry. Nonsense, she’ll tell you with a firm shake of her head. Bad times are no excuse for bad business.

Tapper’s, based in West Bloomfield, Mich., is not only flourishing but also expanding. Founded in 1977 by husband-and-wife team Howard and Susan Tapper, the jeweler celebrated its 30-year anniversary by hosting a blowout charity bash and opening a second store last fall. At a time when much of the rest of the country watched holiday sales plummet, Tapper’s new store surpassed all its projections for its first three months and continues to do so. Both its stores are in the shadow of one of the nation’s most depressed cities.

“Detroit’s in the tank,” president Howard Tapper says bluntly. Everybody else is only now getting a taste of what his firm has been dealing with for more than five years. While the rest of the United States enjoyed prosperous boom times, Detroit—indeed, much of Michigan—has long been suffering the kind of malaise that’s now hitting the rest of the country.

But the Tappers refused to give in to it. “If I wake up in a bad mood, I give myself an attitude adjustment before I get to work,” says Steven Tapper, Howard’s brother and the firm’s vice president. “Yes, there’s a piece gone from the [local economic] pie. But the pie is still there. People are still working. They may not be working locally, but they’re working.”

His official title is vice president, but Steven Tapper’s job description includes general manager, relationship manager, lead salesperson, custom designer, and, occasionally, psychologist. Steven also is the creative idea man behind many of Tapper’s famously innovative promotions. For example, it was he who years ago took a case of merchandise to a local pancake house. He bought breakfast for all the patrons—one of whom happened to be the first vice president of the local office of UBS Bank who will be working with Tapper’s to sponsor a private Chopard event. Steven also got the idea to partner with Crain’s Detroit Business magazine for annual 40 Under 40 business awards. It wasn’t rocket science—he just provided gifts for the winners—cufflinks for men and Jay Strongwater gift items for women, plus a Tapper’s gift certificate for future shopping and a handwritten congratulatory note from Steven. But the bags—with the Tapper’s logo—lined the stage, and Steven got to shake hands with each of the winners as they received their award. As for the psychology part, Steven says jewelers, like hairdressers, are unpaid therapists. Many a tale of family drama has come to his ears, requiring listening skills, patience, and, at times, Solomonic wisdom. He tells of a woman whose mother had recently died, leaving behind a diamond ring with round and baguette stones. The woman’s sister wanted the ring broken apart and the stones divided between them, but the woman—who had taken care of the mother in her final illness—was angry and resented the fact that her sister had done little to help. Steven convinced her to give the ring, intact, to her sister. “I told her she got the greater gift—to spend time with her mother before she passed.”

Howard and Susan Tapper are first-generation jewelers. Howard had worked for a catalog showroom—literally sweeping floors at first, eventually working his way up through sales to diamond buyer—but otherwise had no other ties to the industry. In 1977, they sold the car, borrowed some money, and started with a 1,000-square-foot space in Southfield, Mich., and a simple philosophy: Customers could return anything at any time, with a full money-back guarantee. That, combined with the warm, homey atmosphere the Tapper family exudes, made the little store a safe environment to shop.

Howard and Susan were joined in the business by Steven, a former schoolteacher, and Howard and Steven’s sister, Barbara, who works in operations and inventory control.

The original store in Southfield occupied a former racquetball court. Southfield was at the edge of the Jewish community, and Tapper’s quickly became one of the top jewelers serving it. As the Jewish population, along with other upwardly mobile groups, began moving farther out from Detroit’s borders, Tapper’s expanded in 1994 to its current location, a 15,000-square-foot facility in West Bloomfield. The store is one of the main tenants of the Orchard Mall, a small enclosed shopping center of mostly independent retailers. “It’s a very diverse area,” says Laurie Harris. “Along with the Jewish community, there’s a Chaldean community (Christian Iraqis), a large Indian community, and the biggest Arab community outside of the Middle East.”

But statistical research on customers within a 10-mile radius of the store showed a whole area that Tapper’s wasn’t serving, going southwest toward Ann Arbor, so Tapper’s decided the time was ripe to open another store, this time in the Twelve Oaks Mall in Novi. “We looked at many locations, but we didn’t feel any of them were right,” says Howard Tapper. “But in this mall, because Nordstrom is anchoring a new wing, we felt a synergy.” Tapper’s did indeed snag an outstanding location—a corner on the second level of a court area, next to a Starbucks, across from a Williams-Sonoma, 50 yards from the entrance of Nordstrom, and, at the top of an escalator, also clearly visible from the lower level. Tapper’s and Nordstrom opened the same day in late September 2007.

Howard Tapper again emphasizes that some of the best opportunities come during down times. “People said, How could I be so crazy to take such a risk in this market? Well, you have to recognize an opportunity. Opportunity doesn’t come along in peak times, and if Detroit weren’t so depressed, I doubt this space would have been available.”

Market conditions aside, Tapper’s also is a lone independent in a sea of national retailers there. Twelve Oaks, one of Taubman Centers’ largest super-regional malls, has five department-store anchors (J.C. Penney, Lord & Taylor, Macy’s, Nordstrom, and Sears), and more than 100 specialty retailers and 22 restaurants—almost all of which are national chains. And then there’s Tapper’s. “It really changed the paradigm of a mall jewelry store,” says Howard Tapper. “We have customers coming in here thanking us for being here!” adds Laurie Harris. There are other jewelers in the mall, but none of Tapper’s caliber, she adds.

Mall executives agree. Peggy Hayes, marketing and sponsorship director for the mall, told the Web site MLive.com that Tapper’s “is a huge one. We haven’t really seen a very high-end jewelry store here, so this is a great addition.”

“We’ve exceeded all our projections,” says Howard Tapper. Mall customers don’t all buy. They come to be entertained. “We have to entertain them so next time when they’re ready to buy, they come to Tapper’s.”

Yet it’s not cannibalizing the West Bloomfield store in the least, he says. The demographics are totally different. Novi is more affluent than West Bloomfield, but a mall customer is out for a social experience, whereas the West Bloomfield store is a destination location. Tapper’s gets some browsers there, but not many, he says. The mall store is all about browsers. Mall customers don’t necessarily want to be engaged with a salesperson, either. At the West Bloomfield store, customers feel—and act—like they’re going to a friend’s house, he says, but at the mall they’re much more guarded.

Top sellers also differ by location. In Novi, diamond engagement rings and watches are the best sellers; in West Bloomfield, it’s designers. “We differentiated this business many years ago by focusing on designers,” explains Harris. Its showcases boast names like Cartier, Charles Krypell, David Yurman, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Jay Strongwater, John Hardy, Kwiat, Marco Bicego, Mikimoto, Panerai, Penny Preville, Wolf Designs, and more. In the engagement department, customers can find Hearts On Fire, Martin Flyer, Precision Set, Ritani, and Scott Kay, among others. Harris hand-selects the designer lines, and, whereas many merchants won’t buy anything that doesn’t repeatedly turn, she buys in limited quantities and rarely repeats designer pieces. When a piece is gone, it’s gone. That way, customers can be assured they have something unique.

The Tappers discovered that many of their mall customers had never been to the West Bloomfield store, so it is necessary to build trust. One thing all customers love, however, is the firm’s bridal events, held twice a year in the original store. It’s a catered event, all their bridal vendors come in for it, and customers who buy a ring also get a special package with discount coupons from a local restaurant, a bridal shop, and other wedding-related businesses. “One guy came in and said he wasn’t leaving till he got a ring. He got one, and I suggested he use the restaurant package to propose,” laughs Harris. They’re hoping the events will draw new customers who have to date only seen the Novi store.

The typical bridal sale at Tapper’s is between $5,000 and $7,000. “We don’t sell many small stones,” says Harris. In 2007, the firm sold 168 rounds, mostly 1.00 to 2.00 cts.; it saw a spike in 0.75 ct. stones, and a drop-off in stones above 3.00 cts. The jeweler will go a bit lower on diamond quality than some independents do, but their goal is to help those customers make an informed decision, whatever their choice.

Donine Drouare, G.G., is Tapper’s diamond bridal buyer. “In engagement rings, I try not to go below an I color, though a J is OK if it faces up nicely,” she says. She’ll go to an SI2 clarity. The firm gets lots of customers who come in asking for specifics of color and clarity, and that’s where the store’s rigorous training program helps associates. Drouare wrote up talking sheets for the salespeople to answer customers’ diamond questions, and help explain that maybe they don’t need an F/VVS1—and why they were quoted such a “great” price on an M/VS2.

GUIDANCE AND GIVING

Though the business was sound, recently Howard hired a strategic consultant to help determine a long-range plan for growing the business, especially as the second generation is coming on board: Howard and Susan’s daughter, Marla Tapper Young, is responsible for training and associate career learning, as well as building a clientele of younger customers through her work in the community. Howard and Susan’s son, Mark, is currently pursuing an MBA at Harvard; he hasn’t yet joined the executive team.

One point the consultant hammered home, says Howard, is that you’re in it to make a profit. “Even though things might feel tight, you have to make a certain profit. It’s OK, and honorable, to make a profit.” That, he said, really helped them in how they sell. Everyone wants to give good service, he says, but Tapper’s focuses on giving unparalleled service. The formula he relies on—developing friendships with clients, listening, understanding their needs, being proactive about staying in touch with clients, community involvement, making the store seem like a home—isn’t rocket science and isn’t anything most independent jewelers haven’t already professed to do.

But something is different about this store. There’s a Yiddish word that perfectly describes Tapper’s: haimische, which, loosely translated, means “homey.” Without question, Tapper’s is a luxury jeweler—the names in its cases are bastions of the upper-crust jeweler—but there’s no snobbishness here, and there’s plenty of affordable jewelry for sale, too. Even if the Kwiat goodies are out of reach, there’s fashionable silver and pearl jewelry that starts at under $100, and even a case of fun, fashionable bridge goods. And, like any good Jewish home, you’re going to get fed. (Diet spoiler alert: There’s a huge candy station, along with soda, water, and coffee.)

While walking into Tapper’s isn’t a religious experience, the firm’s core values are rooted in Jewish law. “We live by the Golden Rule,” says Steven. “Treat others the way you want to be treated. It’s real family values—caring for other people.”

The Talmud also teaches the importance of tzedakah, or “charity,” and responsibility to society, says Steven Tapper. “My responsibility is to model a behavior that employees can say, ‘If Steve can do this, I can do this.’ We were able to raise gross profit margins because what we give customers goes way beyond money.” It’s not just about the money, chimes in Laurie Harris. “The dollars will come,” she says confidently. “We are taught that every human being is responsible for the other, and that if you save one life, it is as though you saved the world,” adds Howard Tapper.

Giving is a very big business at Tapper’s. All employees are given a copy of Tapper’s mission cards to carry and all are encouraged to be involved in the community, whether religious or secular. “The essence of everything comes from the heart,” says Steven Tapper. For example, the store has held a coat drive for the past 16 years, partnering with various community organizations. This year’s drive benefited children in one particularly poverty-stricken Detroit school.

But in celebration of its 30th anniversary, with gratitude for its 30 years of success, the store has set a truly lofty goal: to give back $300,000 to Precious Lives, Precious Metals, a charitable initiative it created to benefit the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project (MAPP) and YouthAIDS.

Why AIDS? It grew out of a conversation with one of Tapper’s bridal vendors. Bruce Pucciarello, president of Novell, had taken a trip to South Africa with the Platinum Guild International (see “A South African Platinum Odyssey,” JCK, April 2007, p. 92). What he saw there had a profound effect on him, and he has since raised many issues of humanity that the jewelry industry could—and should—be addressing. One such is the devastation that AIDS has wrought throughout the African continent, source of so many of the raw materials that ultimately become beautiful jewelry.

“South Africa is intrinsically tied to the jewelry industry—almost 80 percent of the world’s platinum is found there. Nearly 12 percent of South Africa’s platinum miners succumb to AIDS each year,” reads Tapper’s invitation to its gala 30th anniversary celebration benefit. YouthAIDS, one of the beneficiaries of Precious Lives, Precious Metals, will use the money to support its AIDS education and prevention programs in South Africa. At the same time, the Tappers also believe charity begins at home, so the other beneficiary, MAPP, is a statewide organization that provides HIV/AIDS education programs in Michigan. Donations from the event were earmarked for its prevention education for teens and young adults in the state.

The benefit, held Dec. 1, 2007, in a blinding snowstorm, was a huge success despite the weather. Only 425 people showed up, but they stayed till 1 a.m., and the Tappers are confident many more would have been in attendance if not for the blizzard. Tickets to the event were $130, which included a $30 gift certificate to Tapper’s. All proceeds went to benefit Precious Lives, Precious Metals. The store partnered with the Matt Prentice Restaurant Group, the area’s top caterer, the Simone Vitale Band, another top Detroit draw, and Emerald City Designs, the region’s top party planner. Tapper’s took over the Orchard Mall, draping the entry hall with black velvet. There were food stations along both walls, and the band set up at the end of the hall. Vendors, along with the owner of the mall, made donations to an “Experience of a Lifetime” auction that evening. Roberto Coin, for example, donated a trip to Italy to visit his facility, and Charriol donated a trip to visit some of its boutiques. One wealthy customer, who got to know Steven while working with him to custom-design a Tahitian pearl and pink sapphire pendant, was so impressed with the Tappers’ efforts that, along with the necklace, she wrote a check for $10,000 to Precious Lives, Precious Metals.

The event also resulted in tremendous publicity, with follow-up coverage in the newspaper, online, on local radio and television stations, and Crain’s Detroit Business.

“It was everything you could ask for,” said Steven Tapper. The initiative continued with the firm’s “Give $30, Get $30” program, in which customers who donated at least $30 to the Precious Lives, Precious Metals charity through March 31 received a $30 gift certificate in return.

Tapper’s contributes to many other causes, both local and global. Locally, the store designed a dog-tag pendant in sterling silver with diamonds, with the motto, “Live Day by Day.” The motto was developed by a young woman customer who has multiple sclerosis. It describes how she copes with her illness. The pendants, modeled after the one she asked Steven Tapper to design for her, sell for $149; $49 from each goes to the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Tapper’s also sells dog-tag necklaces to benefit a charity called One Village, One World. The sterling silver pendant bears cutouts of a peace sign, a heart, and the continent of Africa. At $50 apiece, the proceeds from every 1,000 pendants sold allow the organization to provide a working ambulance to a poor village in Africa.

“I still consider us a little guy,” says Steven Tapper. “I approach every day one customer at a time. We started with 1,000 square feet, minimal experience in the industry, and the passion to succeed. We treat every customer like they’re the first customer of the day. If you don’t feel 100 percent, then step off the floor, because I don’t want you representing me.

“It’s no secret. What we do, anyone in any community can do.”

In essence, say the Tappers and their team, quit whining. “Life in general isn’t easy. People have personal issues, health issues. You can do one of two things. You can stand in a corner, or you can go make it happen.”