The Creative Class: 4 Innovators Staging Their Own Retail Revolution

Every month, we challenge ourselves to find an Innovative Retailer who meets our exacting criteria. And every month, the debate over those criteria begins anew. Does innovation need to be technological? (No.) Can something be interesting and new without truly being innovative? (Yes.) The four retailers profiled here accomplished a number of big, and very different, things to get our attention—writing a software program, opening a cutting-edge concept store. But the bottom line is they have all embraced forward-thinking changes to improve the retail experience in their markets, one customer at a time.

The Custom Videographer

Shant Dakessian
Simone & Son
Huntington Beach, Calif.

A funny thing happened on the way to look at a laser welder. Simone & Son co-owner Shant Dakessian stumbled upon computer-aided design (CAD).

In 2003, Dakessian asked a colleague if he knew anyone who had a laser welder he could look at to learn more about the technology. The colleague, in turn, recommended a manufacturer. During Dakessian’s visit, he discovered that what his colleague thought was a welder was actually a CAD machine. Intrigued, Dakessian began asking questions. The manufacturer took time to explain how the machine worked, and Dakessian was hooked. He returned to his parents at their then–25-year-old family store brimming with newfound knowledge and enthusiasm.  

“Me and my parents knew about CAD on a cursory level,” says ­Dakessian. “But even back then, we knew it would help expand the reach of our existing business model of creating ­fine-quality custom designs under my mother’s name, Jasmine D.”

After several years the family invested in a computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) system. Next came the laser welder; finally, additional fabrication equipment filled out the 1,000-square-foot shop in their 2,700-square-foot store. Dakessian and his father manage a team of nine people. Dakessian oversees the tech team of four, while father Simone manages the manufacturing team of five. Dakessian and his mother do almost all the design work.

Their collective creative skills fuel the nearly pure-custom business model. Roughly 75 percent of Simone & Son’s sales come from custom jewelry, and 95 percent of the finished jewelry that fills the store’s display cases is produced in-house.

But what separates Dakessian and his family from other custom shops is how they bring their work directly to the customers. In July, the store announced a new streaming video service that allows in- and out-of-market shoppers who request a screen-share service to watch the creative process at the ­jeweler’s bench.

“We’re one of the few retailers that allow custom jewelry customers to see their jewelry being made in real time, in the comfort of their home or at work,” says Dakessian. “It’s still a relatively new service for us, but so far response has been positive.” 

The same system that allows customers to see Dakessian’s mother, Jasmine, designing her jewelry live via the Internet also broadcasts her handiwork on large, high-definition flat-screen monitors throughout the store.

Relying on their in-house video production studio, Dakessian and his staff have shot and edited nearly 50 custom-jewelry videos, 20 of which have been posted on YouTube. “We plan to do more,” says Dakessian. Also in the works: how-to, FAQ, and educational videos.

Underscored by easy-listening acoustic guitar music, the custom videos—which spotlight design elements and offer information such as carat weight—occupy a majority of the Simone & Son YouTube channel. Some have a few hundred or even several thousand unique views; one custom halo-ring video boasts more than 11,000.

Upon request, Dakessian provides customers a free copy of the video burned to a CD-ROM or flash drive. Customers can also request a non-share link on YouTube or a shared link, which they are encouraged to post on Facebook or Twitter.

Going high tech has also made an impact on store marketing. Dakessian and his parents have completely dropped all print advertising. “Unless bolding your name in the Yellow Pages qualifies as a print campaign,” says Dakessian. —Paul Holewa

The Socially Responsible Jeweler

Lisa Krikawa
Krikawa Jewelry Designs
Tucson, Ariz.

Photograph by Steve Craft
Socially responsible jewelry will “slowly but surely become more of a consumer issue,” says Tucson, Ariz., retailer Lisa Krikawa.

Character is often defined as doing the right thing when no one is looking. For Lisa Krikawa, it’s about selling socially responsible ­jewels even when customers aren’t aware of it. 

Although Krikawa has always run Krikawa Jewelry Designs with an eye toward social and corporate consciousness, she has taken a more rigorous approach to store operations since joining the Responsible Jewellery Council in 2009. Founded in 2005, the RJC is an international nonprofit committed to creating an ethical diamond and gold supply chain to reinforce consumer confidence in the industry.

Krikawa worked with gem traders, manufacturers, and designers before launching her custom design business in 1998. But in tracing gems and minerals back to their countries of origin to assure her customers of the stones’ integrity, Krikawa realized that making a profit often meant exploiting the previous link in the supply chain. “There was always something unappealing about it,” she says.

By year’s end, Krikawa—one of 11 independent U.S. retailers among the RJC’s ranks—will be able to claim the same RJC certification as retail heavyweights Fred Meyer Jewelers, Littman Jewelers, and ­Signet Jewelers, not to mention Tiffany & Co., Cartier, and Chanel.

But the store owner still has work to do to complete her assessment and certification. One of the biggest tasks is finding like-minded vendors. The closer her vendor partners can trace their socially responsible business practices to the source, the better: Proving that their gemstones are mined in an environmentally responsible and sustainable manner, revealing how the miners are paid, even enumerating the medical benefits they receive—all these things are part of the RJC’s considerations for compliance.

Krikawa began the process early this year and is obligated to finish her certification by December. “The complete process will take a tremendous amount of energy and time for me and my staff, but it’s something we all believe in,” she maintains. 

Her commitment has nothing to do with short-term gains. Krikawa is the first to admit that only a small fraction of customers ask about social responsibility issues during a sales presentation.

“Typically, a custom jewelry sales presentation takes about two hours,” she says. “In that time we’re throwing a lot of information at the customer, and RJC principles or fair-trade practices only add to an already lengthy discussion.” 

Her policy: If the customer doesn’t ask about it, the topic isn’t brought up; or, as she likes to say, “Education on demand.” Among the many issues surrounding social responsibility in the jewelry trade, the issue of conflict diamonds has received the most attention. After that, the little-known yet politicized issues that matter to Krikawa include fair-trade gemstones, recycled metals, “dirty gold,” the ban on Burmese rubies and jade, fair labor, and child labor.

Krikawa realizes that being RJC-compliant won’t have an immediate impact on her bottom line, but she also knows that transparency is the key to the long-term success of her socially responsible business model. News and information on the mining and production processes that move raw materials from the mine to the market are becoming increasingly available in the industry, and eventually these issues will garner more mainstream attention. When local news outlets come calling, Krikawa will be ready.

“Jewelry made in a socially responsible manner will slowly but surely become more of a consumer issue,” says Krikawa. “When that happens, we will have a broad understanding of the topic and be fully invested in it when others are just getting started.” 

Another benefit of RJC membership: staff retention. High turnover is a huge problem for jewelry retailers. “By being RJC-­compliant, my staff knows they work for a company that has integrity,” says ­Krikawa. “That’s something they are proud to be a part of.” —PH

Counter Intelligence Man

Jim Seuss
New York City

Photograph by Andrew Kist
Tourneau CEO Jim Seuss (in his new Manhattan concept store) is a man on a mission: to help people “discover watches.”

Jim Seuss loves a challenge. He’s helped launch Tiffany & Co. stores in Asia, introduced the now-famous designer Stella McCartney for Gucci, developed Harry Winston’s wholesale business, and formed a partnership with tennis darling Maria Sharapova at Cole Haan. 

Now Seuss wants to undermine conventional wisdom about the ­jewelry business, toppling the notion that stores are stodgy and intimidate rather than welcome customers. Since taking the helm of Tourneau, the world’s largest watch retailer, in March 2010, the CEO has set his sights on rebuilding the brand, beginning with operations. Chief on his list of things to reinvent: the traditional in-store environment, where counters separate shoppers from salespeople.

“As a company, we are looking to modernize the experience of watch purchasing by using new technologies and ways of engagement to shape the customer’s experience,” Seuss told the press at the June launch of Tourneau’s new concept store in Manhattan on Madison Avenue at 53rd Street, a 2,215-square-foot museum-inspired space with 20-foot-tall ceilings.

“Tourneau’s mission is to help people discover watches,” he tells JCK a few weeks later. The discovery process begins with the displays: Two rows of approachable-from-all-sides tables each contain a curated selection of 80 watches (there are eight cases in total, including one filled with pre-owned pieces), and another 64 in drawers located beneath the displays. In total, the store showcases up to 30 brands and as many as 1,300 different models.

At the end of each aisle are chairs and a table where buyer and seller can sit and talk—the idea being that watch shopping should be interactive and accessible. Tourneau experts carry iPads that they show to customers and fulfill purchases on the spot—so no standing in line to pay at the register up front. (In fact, there isn’t a cash register in sight!) A service department and a private consultation room are stationed to the rear.

“After 111 years in business, Tourneau knows that buying a watch is a significant investment and requires a retail experience to match,” Seuss says simply. He believes one of the store’s coolest experiences is the Discovery Wall at the rear. Behind sliding glass doors hangs an ever-changing series of presentations about eight up-and-coming or of-the-moment designers/artists. At press time, watches from ­Vulcain and world-class designer Marc Newson were on display. “Our goal was to transform all of our customers into watch collectors, but also to show existing collectors timepieces they had never seen before,” Seuss explains.

Meanwhile, a video tower—a bank of digital screens on the walls—is the only place in the store for brand messaging.

The architects Eight Inc., the firm behind the iconic Apple stores, designed the space with technical features in mind, but also considered a consumer’s perspective on buying and servicing a fine timepiece. What excited Tourneau was Eight Inc.’s “innovative knowledge of how to transform a retail space to create a customer experience,” says Seuss.

One big departure from the Apple format, however, is the use of walnut wood to make the space warmer, along with matte-­finished and brushed nickel veneers, Venetian plaster, and leather. Last but not least is the adjacent and traditionally designed Rolex shop—of which Seuss is particularly proud because it’s the “first freestanding Rolex boutique in the city.” (At an impressive 920 square feet, it’s nearly half the size of the rest of the store.)

Wilhelm Oehl, principal of Eight Inc., tells JCK that the store offers the watch industry a way “to bring the customer back as the center of the experience.” It also, says Oehl, “lets Tourneau be the authority.”

Seuss has no qualms about the concept’s success. “We expect to inspire other luxury goods experiences,” he says of the new format. “The retail landscape is evolving alongside technology, and this concept store is a direct response to that.” —Jennifer Heebner

The D.I.Y. Guy

Ryan Knox
Knox Jewelers

Photograph by John Noltner
First Ryan Knox built his own POS system. Then he added RFID, synched it with the Knox Jewelers website…who knows what bells and whistles he’ll add next?

Ryan Knox couldn’t find a point-of-sale system that met his complicated needs. So he built one himself.

As a teenager working in his parents’ jewelry store in Minneapolis in the early 1990s, Ryan Knox eschewed the sales floor—where most kids start out emptying trash and cleaning display cases—in favor of the back office, where he immediately began tinkering with the first version of FileMaker on his dad’s old Macintosh SE.

The tinkering paid off. One of the first things the younger Knox contributed to Knox Jewelers—his father, Brian, opened the store in 1984 and works there to this day—was the ability to build databases, create data-specific customer lists, and print labels for direct mailers.

Later, using more advanced computers and upgraded versions of FileMaker, Knox became more adept at tech support, a development that paralleled the store’s growth as a custom-jewelry specialist.

The increase in custom orders, however, brought a fresh set of challenges. These process-intensive projects require increased customer interaction—meaning service was paramount in every step, from conception to fabrication. To keep pace with the many daily tasks Knox and his staff had to perform in growing this portion of their business, he needed to integrate a staff task-management system into the store’s existing POS system.

“The goal then, as it is now, is to keep workers working on work,” says Knox, now the store manager.

In 2006, Knox assessed two of the industry’s leading POS software packages. Although fine products, neither could meet Knox’s staff task-management needs.

Knox’s ideal POS system needed to be easily accessible on a shared network. It also had to be complex enough to support multiple databases behind the scenes, yet simple enough for customers to view and understand using dual monitors at the store’s workstations.

Faced with a lack of options, in 2007, Knox spent roughly 700 hours creating the POS system of his dreams. The two functions he deemed essential to its success were inventory management and CRM (customer relationship management) systems. Given his mainly self-taught technical background, this was the easiest part.

The real work was writing the correct script to allow the database modules to interface, or “talk” to each other. This first hurdle became the skeletal structure for his homemade POS system. The next big task: creating the task-management system, which would bring the entire POS system together. “In the first three months of this part, I felt like I was running a marathon,” says Knox.

By fall 2007, the POS system was done. Bugs and quirks were resolved by Christmas. From early to mid-2008, employees received 40 hours of individual training on a beta version. By early 2009, Knox’s system was exactly where he wanted it: a fully functional, stand-alone, in-house POS system that could be updated at any time.

Since then, Knox has continued to create and integrate new modules, giving his system loads of cutting-edge features, such as a clock to accurately record the time bench jewelers spend on individual jobs. Last year, he added RFID (radio frequency identification) inventory management capabilities. He also synchronized the store’s website to the system, so he could conduct daily updates of the store’s online diamond and colored stone inventory and prices for its e-commerce customers.

Given the vast number of custom pieces the store has created—more than 9,000, by Knox’s estimate—he is working on a searchable image library for his system. Also in the works: an automated email notification to remind customers to upload photos of their recently completed jewelry items on Facebook and an incoming caller ID system. “It would be great to have staff members answer a customer call with the customer profile open on a [computer] monitor and ready to assist them,” says Knox.

But for all the power, functionality, and greater appeal of Knox’s POS system, he has no intention of packaging and selling it. (He hasn’t even given it an official name.) “I created the POS system exclusively for our store, to give us a competitive edge in our market,” says Knox. “It works for us and our business model, and that’s all that matters to me.” —PH

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