Joel McFadden sees bright future for independent jewelers
I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In those days, there were no malls or chain jewelry stores, certainly no online shopping! We had several jewelers on the main drag, King Street, and on the side streets. Each store was unique, and its specialty and image was built around the owner or expert within the store.
My grandfather was the town watchmaker. We focused on Rolex and Bulova sales. Micky Berg was the diamond expert. Dub Littaker was the custom jeweler and fabricator. Kerrison’s had the market on china and flatware. Croghan’s was the gift and estate store. I believe Croghan’s Jewel Box is the only survivor from those venerable storefronts.
In the late ‘70s the malls started opening and the chain stores came to town. With large and varied inventories including everything from cheaply made imports to multi-carat diamonds, they started the trend of boiling down jewelry purchasing to price comparison and discounting.
The response of our industry was to develop designer brands, but even those became commodities on the internet, open to customer bidding for the lowest price. A customer’s options to purchase jewelry went from “what can my local craftsman provide for me” to “what is available to me within a drivable distance” to “endless possibilities on the world wide web.”
Next day shipping has only increased the appeal of a seemingly limitless range of products available on an almost immediate basis. Many customers now purchase with price as their only motivating factor. Independent jewelers who relied on counter sales and branded inventory found themselves unable to compete, first with the ability of chain stores to carry vast and varied inventory, and then with the competitive and immediate nature of the internet, so they fell, and continue to fall, all across the nation.
So of all the stores that were on King Street in Charleston, only one survived. Yet in 1970 I would have bet against its survival. It was the strangest space - formerly a piazza or Charleston porch that was enclosed and built up. It was so small if you blinked you would miss it. What it had was an owner who loved her store and knew every customer who came in the door. That was and continues to be their “brand” and I maintain that it’s the reason they’ve survived. Why?
With all that the chain stores and the internet flaunt, the fact is, retail is inundated with images of sameness, and customers are bombarded with sales, that it’s all become just a lot of noise. Customers are looking for something new, or possibly something old, but mostly something different!
Jewelers are once again developing stores based on their particular personality or expertise, which becomes a “brand” that cannot be compared locally or online. In my New Jersey store we have nothing to sell. We custom make everything we sell and we build it to order in house. Walk into my store and you see jewelers benches and books filled with images of past creations, not cases full of inventory. This is our brand, and it’s powerful to the customers who want to see their ideas brought to life with a high level of skill.
Many consumers today are looking for what jewelers were in the ‘60s. They want to work with true experts. They want stores with personality and speciality, not a store that looks like everyone else. They want to talk to a jeweler with an apron and dirty fingers; a gemologist who will show them why one stone is more beautiful than another, a salesperson who has been trained to understand the subtleties of personal style. This is an experience and a niche.
Don’t let the inventory you have or the space you rent define your business. Let your expertise and the personality of your staff define your brand.
I think the future is bright for the independent jeweler again. Chain stores and mall stores must compete with online shopping and there isn’t anything appealing in that experience. So take a moment to examine your strengths as an owner or manager, and those of your staff. Work toward fine tuning your “brand” and encourage customers to see the real you. That will set you apart, and people will be happy to pay for you and your unique brand.