Whose Voice?

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the need for the jewelry industry to be more unified, to speak with one voice on critical issues. Much of the talk is prompted by TV shows that have put the spotlight on dishonest, ignorant or incompetent sellers of jewelry who mislead consumers about quality or price. “We’ve got to tell consumers that if they shopped with a fine jeweler, they’d have nothing to worry about,” goes the argument.

The one-voice advocates include some industry associations. Matt Runci, the new head of Jewelers of America, is doing a remarkable job of setting fresh and vigorous goals for JA, one of which would be as an industry “unifier” and, by extension, a real voice for the industry. Lynn Ramsey, after about a year in office as president of the Jewelers Information Center, is waging a campaign to make JIC the industry voice, arguing that her extensive contacts with the consumer press put JIC in a strong position to get out the industry point of view to a wide audience.

Some veteran retailers also espouse the one-voice approach. Bob Green, who has just wound up a two-year stint as president of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee, said at the group’s annual meeting in February the industry must have a unified voice to address the ethical issues in which JVC is involved. But the audience he was addressing exemplifies perfectly the basic problem that one-voice believers face. Sitting within hailing distance of each other were representatives of independent jewelry stores, chains such as Zale and Sterling and non-traditional but powerful jewelry retailers such as Home Shopping Network, Wal-Mart and Service Merchandise.

Can one voice represent the needs and beliefs of such diverse retailers?

The question of who is a jeweler is likely to be one of the most contentious the industry faces over the next three to four years. Indications are the retail end of the industry will become even more diverse, with various segments having quite separate goals and strategies. Thus it will be next to impossible to synchronize the voice of the Main Street independent jeweler with that of a TV network or a mass-merchant discounter on most of the issues that can be a common cause for all independents, large or small.

JA is well aware of the tensions the industry’s retail diversity produces. Last fall it hired Organizational Futures of Rhode Island to help it prepare a strategic plan for development and growth. In a preliminary report to JA, the consultant says a key issue the association has to resolve soon is whether its membership should be “exclusive” and embrace only traditional jewelry independents and chains or be “inclusive” and embrace any entity that sells jewelry and “abides by professional standards.”

Organizational Futures’ findings, based on more than 60 interviews with people in all sections of the business, indicate fairly clearly that JA’s future will be with “the emerging breadth and diversity of the industry and not just the past definition of the industry.” Runci says it will be up to the board to decide how it wants JA to proceed. But at a press conference discussing the association’s new strategies, he appeared to favor the looking-to-the-future approach.

It really is the only way to go. Just a few weeks ago, the government finally released figures from the 1992 Business Census showing the traditional jeweler’s share of the total retail jewelry market had slipped below 50% for the first time. Our own studies last year, which we reported in the May issue, estimated this share of market is continuing to decline; a poll of industry leaders estimated a figure of 48% for 1994 and projected 42% for 1999.

If more than half of all jewelry sales are being made by retailers who do not meet the government’s definition of a jeweler (namely that at least 50% of all sales must be in jewelry-related items), then these non-traditional jewelers must have a voice on industry issues.

It’s fairly obvious there’s not going to be a unified voice on such matters as marketing, merchandise, service or pricing (the last named for antitrust reasons if no other). About the only common bond could be truth in dealing with the consumer. That’s an industry campaign well worth fighting. But I don’t know if one voice can get the message through. My guess is the more voices the better.