Paul Holewa, a freelance writer for Southern and Mid-AmericaJewelry News, has worked as a trade journalist since 1995. For most of that time, he has learned about best retailer practices by networking with and interviewing top jewelry store owners and industry leaders. But since October 2013, he has added another method of expanding his jewelry retail sales knowledge, working full time as a jewelry sales associate.
As with most of Paul’s career opportunities, transitioning from writing retail to selling jewelry started with a story assignment. Local daily newspaper the Minneapolis StarTribune had a luxury lifestyle magazine called MARQ, a free bimonthly magazine distributed to affluent residents in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro areas and surrounding suburbs. For a Summer 2008 issue of MARQ magazine Paul wrote a story about leading jewelry trends and was asked to interview store owners and management at Wixon Jewelers, Continental Diamond and other jewelry stores in the Twin Cities.
During his visit to Wixon Jewelers Paul was asked to speak with then sales associate Susan McClain (she’s currently the store manager at Gruno’s Diamonds in Madison, WI). The two talked at length about jewelry trends for 2008 and selected pieces to be professionally photographed for the article. During the exchange, Susan asked Paul how he knew so much about colored stones and jewelry retail. Years of living in Bangkok, traveling to trade shows and gem centers, covering trade news stories and a decade-plus of interviewing leading retail jewelers gave him a uniquely rounded, mine-to-market grasp of the industry.
Susan asked Paul, “Have you ever considered working in a jewelry store?” Paul’s response at the time glossed over the question with a commitment to being a trade journalist. After that store visit, however, the idea of jewelry sales remained a recurring thought.
Paul and Susan remained in contact over the years, as both were members of the Twin Cities’ chapter of the Women’s Jewelry Association (WJA). They also met frequently at JCK Vegas Shows. When Susan became the general manager at Scheherazade Jewelers, a jewelry store based in a high-end lifestyle mall in the affluent Minneapolis suburb of Edina, she encouraged Paul to stop by and see the store in person.
During the 2012 holiday season, Paul was in the Galleria mall shopping for family members when he stopped in to see Susan at Scheherazade. She asked Paul why he hadn’t applied for seasonal sales that year and encouraged him to complete an application and interview for such a position the following year.
In August 2013, Paul submitted his resume for a seasonal sales position and later that month Susan interviewed him. The resume and the interview covered many qualities about his industry knowledge and passion for jewelry and gemstones. As the general manager tasked with rebuilding the store’s brand, Susan was considering hiring someone for a sales position who had never sold a piece of jewelry.
“People don’t buy goods and services, they buy relations, stories and magic,” says Susan. “That’s why I rolled the dice and took a chance on Paul.”
In September 2013, Paul was hired for seasonal sales and began working part time the following month. At the time he was working for Collected Concepts, a social media management company serving mainly retail jewelers. Paul made himself available for weeknight and weekend shifts. After a few hours of training on store essentials on his first day Paul was let go on the sales floor.
The first customer Paul approached on his first day was an elderly woman asking to have her ring cleaned. Having written about the benefits of cleaning jewelry for customers countless times, Paul stood there not knowing how to perform this basic task.
“In two decades I’ve done everything from tour ruby and sapphire mines in Mogok, Burma to paddling through pearl farms in Mainland China, walked the hallowed halls of De Beers’ headquarters in London, and spent 11 years in the heart of Bangkok’s gem and jewelry district,” says Paul. “All of that industry experience didn’t help me one bit when asked to clean this woman’s diamond ring.”
At that moment Paul realized that much practical sales skills and retail essentials needed to be learned through exposure to and experience with other sales associates and management. At the same time, Paul was assisting the store with its Facebook and social media content development. And, with Susan’s input, Paul started the store’s blog.
“He had a work ethic that all jewelers look for and the writing background was icing on the cake,” says Susan. “He is able to understand the storytelling jewelry requires with rich history and facts. Closing [sales] all the way through could now be put into action.”
After two months on the sales floor, Paul’s combined store responsibilities came together in time for an Oscar Heyman store event in early December 2013. A few days after writing a blog on the history of the esteemed design house, a customer asked Paul to show her an Oscar Heyman diamond necklace in the store’s exterior display facing the mall’s main hallway. With the designer’s history fresh in Paul’s mind from his recent blog posting, he told the Oscar Heyman story well enough to sell an $81,000 graduated diamond necklace.
“He had already built up the value of the diamond necklace with the customer and his wife but Paul needed a little help to close the sale, so I offered assistance to team sell,” says Susan. “Afterward, the wife’s husband, who is a CFO of a very large company in the Twin Cities, confided in me that Paul was most pleasant and informative and made his wife feel special. He thanked me for our great customer service and promised he only wanted to shop with us.”
It was a successful holiday selling season for Paul. After Valentine’s Day 2014, Paul was asked to work full time as a sales associate that would also help with social media content development and management as well as blog writing. For more than a year Paul enjoyed working in a mall-based jewelry store, but he wanted the challenge of working in a destination store. As INSTORE magazine’s managing editor, in June 2002 Paul interviewed Jimmy and Helain Pesis, owners of Continental Diamond, the second-place winners of America’s Coolest Store competition.
Paul kept in touch with Jimmy and Helain for news feature stories on best retailer practices based on the couple’s creative approaches to jewelry sales, social media marketing, event planning and promotions. After moving back to the Twin Cities in August 2006, Paul became a Continental Diamond customer, expanding his contacts there to include store manager Beth Kato, who sold Paul a tenth anniversary ring for his wife.
“Beth was really supportive and kept giving me genuine reassurances that I could buy the diamond ring my wife wanted on a tight budget,” says Paul. “I remember thinking her sincere approach to selling jewelry really made me feel at ease, and this store and its culture would be a good place to call home if I ever decided to sell retail.”
Years later, when Paul was ready to meet the retail sales challenge of a destination store, he interviewed with Beth. “We felt Paul could help us out with blogging and other social media initiatives based on his experience along with working the sales floor,” says Beth, who hired Paul in April 2015.
This month Paul celebrates his one-year anniversary with Continental Diamond. In looking back at his first year, he’s learned much in a larger, destination store. “I’m very blessed to be working with such incredible people, from sales associates with diamond grading and graduate gemology credentials to master goldsmiths working in the shop and, of course, back office support staff,” says Paul.
“Each day I learn so much new information from my co-workers. And, every day I develop a greater appreciation of how giving jewelry communicates feelings and commemorates milestone moments in the lives of customers. It’s powerful stuff!”
In looking ahead, Beth says: “The future for Paul is an open book. He has an incredible opportunity to help grow our social media presence along with increasing his sales by having the opportunity of being mentored from some of the best sales staff there is.”