The Maestro of Merchandising

After more than 30 years in the jewelry business, David Norman has gained enough experience to launch several careers. Norman’s varied experience has included executive positions at major jewelry chains and small independents, promotional and guild retailers, and traditional brick-and-mortar stores and e-commerce sites.

For Norman, it all comes back to merchandising, where he is widely regarded as one of the best in the business. From 1973 to 1996, he was with Fox’s Jewelers, a chain of 44 stores based in Grand Rapids, Mich. Norman rose through the ranks at Fox’s, ultimately becoming executive vice president of merchandising and marketing until the company decided to sell its business to Fred Meyer Jewelers.

In July 1996, Norman became vice president of merchandising and marketing for Reeds Jewelers, a Wilmington, N.C., chain with nearly 100 stores. At Reeds, Norman was instrumental in boosting the company’s bridal business.

Eager to capitalize on the e-commerce boom of the late 1990s, Norman accepted a position as executive vice president of merchandising with ijewelry.com, a Web site in Troy, Mich., focused on selling high-quality fine jewelry at affordable prices.

Although the site was launched with much fanfare in 1999, it quickly became a victim of the “dot-com bomb” of 2000 and folded after less than a year of operation. Norman then made the move to Schwarzchild Jewelers, a prestigious, three-store guild chain based in Richmond, Va., where he served as president.

Enticed by Thomas Fox, his former boss at Fox’s Jewelers, to partner with him in a new jewelry-store venture, Norman left Schwarzchild in July 2001. Unfortunately, the partnership didn’t work out, and by January 2003, Norman had accepted the challenge of developing a Hispanic division for Crescent Jewelers, a chain of more than 100 stores based in Oakland, Calif.

Financial and legal problems at Crescent and its East Coast affiliate Friedman’s Jewelers put an end to the promising new Hispanic program. But Norman bounced back by starting his own consulting business, Retail Jewelry Consultants, based in Grand Rapids, Mich. His latest client is a new hybrid business-to-business/business-to-consumer e-commerce site, ediamondselect.com, which launched at this year’s JCK Show ~ Las Vegas.

In an exclusive interview with JCK, Norman discussed the varied turns his career has taken, and shared the invaluable experience he has learned at each position along the way.


JCK:

You were at Fox’s Jewelers for many years. How did that experience shape your career?

DN: Fox’s Jewelers was my first real job. I was there 23 years and went from a manager trainee to the executive vice president of the com-pany, in charge of merchandising and marketing. It was a real training ground for me—I managed stores and supervised staff, and later on I was in the home office making decisions on buying, merchandising, and distribution. At the time, I thought I would retire there.


JCK:

What made you decide to take a position with Reeds Jewelers, and how did this compare to your experience at Fox’s?

DN: I would probably still be at Fox’s if it hadn’t been sold to Fred Meyer [in 1997]. Fred Meyer closed the Fox’s home office and we were all out of jobs. I saw the handwriting on the wall and left just before this happened. I had an offer from Reeds to become vice president of merchandising and marketing, and I accepted it. It was a great opportunity; Reeds was about twice the size of Fox’s [about 100 stores for Reeds versus 44 for Fox’s]. I went from managing $20 million in inventory and two buyers at Fox’s to managing $40 million in inventory and four buyers at Reeds. My Reeds experience was very similar to my Fox’s experience, just more of it. One thing I was able to bring to Reeds from Fox’s was my experience in bridal merchandising. Fox’s was very strong in bridal; Reeds was weak in bridal back then. While at Reeds, I really beefed up their bridal division.


JCK:

What was it like jumping into e-commerce with ijewelry. com after more than 25 years in traditional brick-and-
mortar jewelry retailing?

DN: It was a very exhilarating experience. In August 1999, I got a call from Scott Segal, the original founder of ijewelry.com. He wanted me to join them and offered me a sweet deal of salary and stock. I was nervous about making the move, but the Internet was really booming at that time, and I became convinced that this was the way of the future and traditional retailers weren’t going to go after the Internet business. So I decided to join them as executive vice president of merchandising. It was an exciting time; we raised an initial $800,000 in venture capital, built the site up and got it running, and were working 18-hour days. It was fun to take ownership of something. It also was a great learning experience for me. I learned I couldn’t stay computer illiterate; I had to learn everything about the site and about Internet marketing from the ground up. But then the bottom dropped out of the market in February 2000. We couldn’t raise any more financing, and I realized that traditional people were going after the Internet business after all. So I made the jump out of there after about six months.


JCK:

You then made the move to Schwarzchild, a small, high-end regional chain. How did this compare to your previous middle-market jewelry
experience?

DN: I was recruited by the late Barrie Birks [owner of Schwarzchild’s] to go to Schwarzchild and became president of the company in March 2000. I accepted the position because it appealed to me on a number of levels: It gave me my first job as president of a company; I had the chance to take a three-store, $15 million operation and grow it significantly bigger; it was the chance to oversee operations as well as merchandising; and the money was very good! You have to understand that Schwarzchild was like the Tiffany’s of Richmond, Va. The company had been there for more than 100 years and was very prestigious. This position got me into a whole new arena and was another major education for me. I was dealing with Rolex and David Yurman and Lazare Kaplan and many other high-end designers, jewelry manufacturers, and watch lines. You couldn’t get these lines in your stores unless you were very exclusive in your area. Schwarzchild also gave me the opportunity to get back to my roots in terms of running stores and hiring and training store managers.


JCK:

Why did you decide to leave Schwarzchild’s after only 16 months with the company?

DN: I left Schwarzchild because Tom Fox talked me into going back to Michigan in July 2001 and opening a new store with him as a partner. He had sold out to Fred Meyer, and because they were no longer using the Fox name, he wanted to get it back out there. He bought a 5,000-square-foot location he had always had his eye on, and I was going to run the business, while he would finance it. I had acquired a taste for the guild business with Schwarzchild, and I wanted to build our store into a high-end operation. But I soon realized that’s not what Tom wanted. He was used to selling midpriced goods, and he didn’t like the high-end prices of the products I wanted to sell. We were better friends than partners, so I sold my part of the business to him, and we parted as friends in October 2002.


JCK:

How did you end up back in the mass market with Crescent Jewelers after you broke off your partnership with Tom Fox?

DN: Brad Stinn [former chief executive officer of Crescent and its affiliate, Friedman’s Jewelers] approached me. He had done an in-depth survey of the Hispanic market, and found that it was very underserved except for a few select jewelers like Don Roberto in Southern California. Brad wanted to start a new division targeted to this market, and he hired me as a consultant to launch it in January 2003. I didn’t know anything about the Hispanic market, but I knew merchandising. I hired a Hispanic consulting firm; shopped the Don Roberto stores; and ultimately chose El Paso, Texas, as our rollout market. We named the division Itza, an old Mayan name, and decided on five locations in this market. I was a one-man band, choosing sites, hiring store designers, negotiating leases for the locations, helping design the buildings, and merchandising 2,000 SKUs. We opened three of the stores in July 2003 and the other two in October 2003 [two in malls, three in strip centers]. We were negotiating for more leases in Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona, when Friedman’s and Crescent became embroiled in the SEC investigation, and Brad lost his job. They brought in a new CEO at Crescent, and he decided the company had its hands full with its legal issues and would only focus on current stores, so he decided to drop the program in March 2004.


JCK:

After Crescent, you decided to become a consultant. What services do you offer, and how does this relate to your previous experiences?

DN: After Crescent, I thought: “What should I do next?” I decided to start my own consulting business. Actually, our name is a misnomer. Retail Jewelry Consultants offers services for both retailers and manufacturers. On the retail side, I work with independents and chains on inventory control, margin improvement, getting rid of aged inventory, and sales training. On the manufacturing side, I help suppliers acquire new retail customers, using my contacts to serve as a deal broker. My clients include Charles & Colvard, United Brothers Jewelry, and Marshall’s Jewelers in Tucson. Ironically, I’m also going back into the Internet business. In early April, I was hired as a consultant by a company in Miami rolling out a new Internet business, ediamondselect.com. This site will have a business-to-business element in its loose-diamond program, as well as a business-to-consumer e-commerce element. We have hired a p.r. firm and have taken out full-page ads. (The site launched at The JCK Show ~ Las Vegas.) The site will have a networking element like Polygon and Rapaport, only bigger. It will offer a front-end solution for consumers, and a back-end solution for the industry. I am involved in merchandising, setting up diamond dealers, helping to build the navigation of the site, and getting the trade-show presentation organized. I also will be the site’s spokesperson at the show. It’s going to be a huge venture.