Opening your own business comes with enough challenges even in the best of times. Starting out as jewelry storeowners just weeks before a global pandemic, however, can make a difficult task nearly impossible. Bryan and April Rickel, co-owners of The Diamond Store, discovered this the hard way when the couple purchased a jewelry store on the eve of the COVID pandemic.
The Mitchell, SD-based couple was of a similar mindset to that of most Americans in late 2019. The then unknown but deadly virus was worse “over there” than here. But in early January of 2020, the Rickels had a direct line of COVID pandemic information. Their daughter was in Italy with her dance team.
“With our daughter in Italy we were pretty tuned in as to what was happening on a global level from Europe,” says April. “By the time she returned home from Italy, the ‘mysterious virus’ had a name and was all over the news – even local news outlets. As the nation was shutting down in response to the pandemic we were in the process of organizing inventory and setting up our store.”
Small-town-USA seems to be the last bastion of storybook tales to be told. Bryan and April’s evolution to becoming jewelry storeowners is one of those yarns. Bryan and April were born and raised in the Mitchell, South Dakota (population approximately 16,000).
“We’ve both have called Mitchell home our entire lives,” says Bryan. “We chose to stay in Mitchell and raise our family here for many reasons. It’s safe, we’re surrounded by lots of extended family, it’s a wonderful community, and Mitchell is big enough to have opportunities, yet small enough to call people by name.”
In his early twenties Bryan took an interest in working for Brad Jamison. The third generation family jeweler took a shine to Bryan and showed him the ins and outs of owning and operating a jewelry store.
Brad has industry certifications including bench work. Bryan, a young man from a farming community, liked the idea of working with his hands and took a quick liking to bench work while learning other aspects of day-to-day store operations.
April also took an interest in working at the jewelry store. Sales was her calling at first and then she took on back office work. This rounded out her knowledge of balancing the books, inventory management and vendor relations.
Years turned into decades, and the couple matured in a retail jewelry sales environment most of their adult lives. Brad was near retirement age. He had many conversations with Bryan about transitioning ownership over a period of years. In 2019, succession planning conversations became more detailed. The couple was assured they would have a few years to transition into ownership.
“Then one day in October 2019, Bryan received a call from Brad on a Sunday,” says April. “Brad decided to get out of the family business by the end of the year. Brad owned other businesses in town and didn’t want to deal with the litany of questions from customers and townsfolk.”
Fourth quarter for any retailer is busy. But handling a trying transition of ownership during a holiday season registered a 9.9 on the Stress-O-Meter for Bryan and April. The 90-day crunch was worth it. On January 2, 2020, they owned their own jewelry store.
“We purchased everything but the store name,” says Bryan. “It was a family name so we decided to name it The Diamond Store.”
The couple quickly fell back on their strengths, Bryan with his bench jeweler work and managerial skills and April with her sales, back office and vendor work. The couple also brought on Ryan, a bench jeweler that worked under the previous owner and alongside Bryan for many years.
Bryan and April’s start was like a toddler’s first steps – wobbly yet wondrous. The couple was getting some good initial traction in their first four to six weeks in business. Then COVID went into full pandemic mode all over the world, including South Dakota.
The Mount Rushmore State’s Governor Kristi Noem was one of the few US governors not to enact mandatory lockdowns. And, in the first few months of the pandemic there was no state-wide mask mandates. Still, in dealing with the unknowns, Mitchell residents pretty much stayed put.
“Great,” says April. “We buy a jewelry store then a global pandemic hits. Boy, this timing sucks. There were no customers.”
The couple’s anger and frustration was easily understood – justified even. True to their Midwestern roots Bryan and April turned adversity into opportunity with common sense, incremental business decisions starting with the application of a PPP loan.
“The staff were able to keep getting their paychecks and just stay home to avoid getting sick,” says Bryan.
The start of the pandemic in the formative months as newly minted jewelry storeowners was both a curse and a blessing. With salaries covered and a store empty, Bryan and April decided to implement some changes that would make The Diamond Store their store.
“We put up a feature wall, redid all the floors, painted, made built-in storage and shelving, and customized a coffee bar and customer service station,” says Bryan.
With the heavy lifting done it was time to consider ways to bring in revenue. “Since there was no actual lockdown, we went to social media and tried to reach our customers through that route,” says April. “We tried to offer limited store hours, curbside pickup, free delivery and private appointments. We did all of these things until our city put in a mask ordinance for all public places.”
The local mask mandate ordinance was met with mixed reactions from the good folks of Mitchell. The Diamond Store staff wore masks, set up sanitizing stations, and established protocols to promote safe shopping. Not all customers were on board with the new COVID-related procedures, but customers were back in the store.
“As soon as the mask ordinance went into place, our foot traffic instantly picked up,” says April. “We kept up with the masks and safety protocols and practices to get through our first Christmas. If one person got sick, we’d all get sick. We couldn’t take the chance.”
The hard work paid off. Christmas 2020 left them in the black. There was an uptick in sales at the start of 2021. (With vacations and family trips cancelled due to COVID, people spent more on jewelry.)
In June Bryan and April finally held their long-awaited grand opening event. The following month the couple attended their first trade show as storeowners where they networked and purchased new inventory. Things were getting back to normal.
“Looking back on the past year we give a ton of credit to our awesome team for being resilient, flexible, creative and committed,” says April. “When we have the occasional hard day we look at each other and say, ‘If we can survive a year in business during a global pandemic we can survive anything.’”