While most jewelers look to increase business through expansion, Dean Thomas has found that bigger isn’t always better. Thomas, owner of Village Jewelers in Du Quoin, Ill., recently sold his building and moved to a smaller stand-alone location down the block to focus solely on jewelry. Village Jewelers specializes in custom jewelry, diamond fashion rings, and colored stone jewelry. Thomas discussed with JCK his decision to downsize and how the strategy has positioned him to grow.
What made you decide to downsize?
This is a depressed area. We’ve had six coal mines close related to acid rain issues. Then last year, plants started closing all over. Several jewelers have closed, and I’m the county’s only jeweler left. Also, at my previous location, I had a big building that included jewelry, a tanning salon, beauty shop, and rental apartments. I was running those other businesses, too, and it was taking up too much of my time. My first passion is jewelry, and, at 60 years old, I wanted to get back to basics.
What have been the advantages of downsizing?
I went down in jewelry space from 1,000 square feet to about 500 square feet, but I was able to keep the same number of cases and stock, because it’s more efficiently arranged. I also didn’t have to let anyone go, which was important. The move has reduced my overhead to one-fourth or one-fifth the level I had. I also was able to increase the size and capabilities of the shop, which is a big plus, as I was really cramped for space in the old building. Everyone that comes in is impressed with the look and layout of the new store. When you do it from the ground up like I did, you get everything the way you want it. It’s a much better situation for me now. If I decide to go into semiretirement in five to seven years, I’ve got this all set up so I can let someone else go in, and I can scale back.
What challenges have you faced?
The biggest challenge has been getting people to find the new location. I’ve even had customers call me sitting in the old parking lot, asking me: “Where did you go?” I tell them: “Just look in your rearview mirror.” This is a small town of about 6,600, and there initially was some negative talk that I had gone out of business. This was complicated by the fact that there’s a store 45 minutes away in Marion, Ill., called The Village Jeweler. We’re Village Jewelers, and a lot of people thought we were the same place, or that I owned the other store, too. The owner of that store is retiring and was running a big going-out-of-business sale right after I moved. I had to push more advertising on TV to get people to know it wasn’t me, and I’m still fighting it. It’s been a real test of persistence.
Has the move changed your customer base?
I have picked up a lot of new customers since the move. The main goal has been to get our existing customers and new ones to know where we’ve moved to, so I’ve really increased my advertising. I had competition from three big mall jewelry stores 20 miles south in Carbondale, Ill., and they’ve all closed since last year. I ran an ad that says “Some jewelry stores come and go, but we’re here to take care of you for a lifetime.” This has pulled in some new customers. We’ve seen about a 20 percent increase in traffic since moving to our new location, and a slight increase in sales as well. We expect business to increase further now that people know me and know where I am, and will be coming back.
What are your greatest opportunities for growth?
I’m going to expand to selling online. I’m also pushing more on bridal and will start to advertise to build my bridal business. There’s less competition in the market for it now, and I’ve barely gotten started in the category. Also, now that I have more space in the back, I want to bring in another bench jeweler to expand my custom-jewelry business from its current level of 20 percent of sales. I’m also talking to my watchmaker to get his bench set up in here. Having him on-site makes a statement. Being the only jeweler in town, I’m really getting swamped with repair work, as people here have nowhere else to go.