Reading Reactions

Featured image is my father’s custom garnet ring, designed by Irene S. Sirois. Copyrighted design.

If I didn’t have to work, I would probably read. All day, most of the night, nonstop page-turning. Like most bibliophiles I have some preferred genres and authors, but if you put something with words on it in front of me, I’m going to read it before you’ve finished telling me not to (so please don’t). This means I have to practice extreme selectivity, because I simply don’t have time to read it all. In practice that translates to rationing my reading time, where my time currency is portioned out like my 8th grade allowance, with wild abandon sparingly and with great care.

So it might surprise you to know that I spend a daily allotment of what I lovingly call Industry Research Time poring over every blog, publication, article, Google Alert, LinkedIn Pulse, and Instagram post I can find. I take notes — actual, physical ones and purely mental ones — and attempt to connect the dots between what I’m reading and what I’m experiencing. I sift through opinions, corroborate facts, and weigh topics in an effort to determine what’s important, who’s talking about it, and how I think and feel about it all.

When you consume this much material, it’s inevitable to come across some things you simply don’t agree with. Most of the time this happens with op-eds and other opinion-based articles, and stems from having a very different perspective on the topic. Exactly such a case can be found in this article, published in the May 2016 MJSA Journal entitled “Is ‘Custom’ a Dirty Word?” which I encourage everyone to read.

The piece describes the challenges of defining what “custom jewelry” means — I subject I’ve discussed before — and goes on to describe how Lisa Krikawa of Krikawa Jewelry works around what she perceives as the extreme limitations of selling custom or customized jewelry. This workaround is to essentially remove the word custom from the conversation entirely, because she experiences the usual backlash of fear and distrust from clients who prefer to touch and try on their designs before purchasing.

To say that I sympathize with this position is an understatement, having sold both full custom and customized jewelry myself. And Krikawa’s actual conversations with clients reflect the realities of selling this type of product, in such a way that they feel heard and understood. This is exactly the right approach, and I couldn’t agree more with her process of offering examples from the showcase, hand sketches, and CAD models. It’s what I used to do, too, and it works.

In part, the solution to the touch me/feel me issue can be answered by the amazing technology I work with in my current profession. Using 3D printers to prototype quickly and cheaply gives the client a physical piece to touch and try on, even with temporarily seated gems so the full effect is present. Now the relevant questions — too tall? too thick? right size? in proportion? etc. — can be answered in real time, without the expense of fixing these issues after the fact.

My main argument with Krikawa’s approach is that by working so hard to eliminate a particular word from a client’s vocabulary, the opportunity to educate them about custom is lost. The process of qualifying a client for potential custom work does not need to turn them off or scare them away from a purchase; when handled with careful explanation, my nervous clients turned into my best evangelists for the custom process (hello, referrals!).

I have worked very hard to promote the idea of custom jewelry as the future on the industry, and feel that removing it from the conversation is counterproductive. I prefer to help the client understand and appreciate the opportunity, educate them as to the options, and explain how the risks are mitigated or eliminated.

There are few things I appreciate more than the people who expend serious time and energy making their clients happy, regardless of how they accomplish that feat. I hope the various opinions and theories about custom jewelry continue to expand and develop, especially as technology grows and offers more solutions to an often cumbersome process.

Please comment with your thoughts, I’d love to keep the conversation going!

MJSA Expo Recap: Spring Forward

Hello, NYC. We meet again! Your trains were under construction, your Ubers were late, and your weather threw a hissy fit… but your bagels are delicious, your architecture never fails to impress, and your impact on business was trending positive. So altogether, thanks again for confirming my love/hate affair.

This show was my second opportunity to stand on the other side of the counter, and I’m happy to report that it changes my love of trade shows not one bit. I managed to speak with some fascinating people, meet digital friends in real life, and even make progress in some personal goals — a successful outing by any standard.

One of my favorite things to do at shows is walk around a few times, sometimes stopping to say hello to old friends and make new ones, but often simply to observe how exhibitors and buyers are interacting. You catch some interesting things by casting a wide net, not seeking any particular insight.

For example, it seems that companies who make it their business to fully educate and build relationships (real ones) with their clients have a much more welcoming atmosphere at the booth, even when they’re swamped with people. When I watch a sales rep turn to a lurker and tell them, “I will be happy to explain this further, and you’re welcome to listen to what I’m saying to Ms. Smith here, just please give me a few more moments with her” I see an immediate change in that lurker’s body language. They adjust from a defensive, stop-ignoring-me-you-idiot posture into a polite and attentive listener, willing to wait because they’ve been prioritized.

On the other hand,  I myself stood at a booth full of reps for 4 minutes (yep, I counted) before my presence was even acknowledged. My badge was not immediately visible, so they had no way of knowing if I was a buyer, a competitor, or someone lost on her way to the food court. When someone finally came over, I was reading a piece of literature and he planted himself directly in front of me, crossed his arms, and said (I kid you not), “is there something you want?”

I’m not sure how successful that is as a sales tactic, but you can bet it didn’t go over well with me.

Like I said, you learn a lot walking the show and observing. I felt the overall pace was upbeat and sustained, despite some sleepy eyes on Day 1 due to the nation-wide inexplicable loss of an hour’s sleep. In speaking with a few well-respected and longtime industry salespeople, I learned that interest in a new and improved approach to doing business continues to grow.

It’s always nice to see nodding heads when I talk about integrating updated technologies with time-tested techniques, but I’m starting to see designers and retailers walk the walk. Many visitors to our booth had at least two generations in attendance, and more than one “Jr.” could be heard emphatically arguing in favor of the latest CADsoftware and CAM instrument while “Sr.” looked a little worried, a little confused, and not a little proud.

Spring forward: yes, it was a good trip after all.

 

Red Light, Green Light

Ah, yuletide cheer. We in the retail business are supposed to be full of energy, joyfully helping each and every smiling customer who begs us for one last look in the box before we wrap up a special surprise.

Easier said than done.

There have been countless essays by workers across the whole spectrum of retail, each one detailing why they have it the worst. My usual non-sleep-deprived self would link to at least a few of them for you, but frankly, I just don’t have the time.

I prefer to believe that at this time of year, we’re all in this together. There is little if any energy to spare as it is, so we might as well expend what we have on a strong sense of solidarity.

Many customers are experiencing higher-than-normal demands and pressures at this point, with some inevitable temper flares and even a few tantrums. I find that this type of interaction can sometimes be avoided by deploying a mental game of the childhood favorite “Red Light, Green Light.”

It goes something like this: when a customer begins to react poorly to a situation (usually in response to not finding a desired item in stock), that’s a red light and it signals me to give that person some space. When he or she enters the red light frame of mind, no suggestion — no matter how utterly perfect and on budget — will be a success. That customer needs room to breathe, not another smiling associate clutching diamonds and pearls.

On the other hand, a customer gives the green light when he (sorry, it’s usually a he at this point) asks for suggestions, is willing to listen and respond to questions, and remains interested in a purchase even if the first item shown isn’t The One.

It is possible for a green light to turn red if he or she gets truly frustrated, but a seasoned sales person usually won’t let that happen. An angry red lighter often needs time and kid-gloved handling, but even they can be satisfied with a bit more charm and graceful interaction.

As 2015 winds its way to a close, please take this gentle reminder to keep kindness in your heart as you dash about on a mad chase for the last few gifts on your list. We — all of us — are here to serve you to the best of our abilities, and then finally make our way home to our own family gatherings. Besides, it’s a well known fact that red light customers rarely make the nice list!

Wishing my wonderful readers a happy holiday season, with warm wishes for a sparkling 2016.

Jewelry and the “F” Word: Fashion

In a conversation with a fellow industry professional last week, I made this comment about the attitudes of certain types of clientele:

“We work in fashion. Why should we expect them to treat their jewelry any differently than their shoes or handbags?”

Death stare.

“We don’t work in fashion, we sell real jewelry.” Meow.

To me, this attitude is wrong on several counts. First of all, jewelry by definition falls under the broad umbrella of fashion items, along with any other accessory or article of adornment. It’s also governed by the same basic tenets (brand focus, trend awareness, color and style aesthetic), follows seasonal cycles, and even maintains a demographic pattern heavily based in income and access. All of these are hallmarks of fashion, regardless of price point.

To say that we are an industry apart implies that our buyers are not behaving in the same way as fashion buyers, and that is simply not the case. While some would like to think that selling a person on the sentiment or investment alone will close a sale, the simple reality is this: if buyers are convinced that one is enough, then repeat business is dead in the water.

The only way to build and maintain a healthy and growing industry is to encourage the idea that no purchase need be the last. You bought a wedding band? That’s wonderful, meaningful, and special — but what about another one for the other side, say for your anniversary? I’m tickled pink that you love your favorite dress watch, but wouldn’t you like something a little more casual — but no less beautiful — to wear every day? And wouldn’t those classic diamond studs look marvelous this evening when they’re dressed up with a set of diamond and sapphire enhancers? Of course they would!

My customers don’t own one pair of shoes, one bag, or one coat (especially in New England. Come on people, we have seasons!). Leave your arguments about consumerism, conspicuous consumption, and class divisions at the door: our entire industry — beauty and yes, fashion — relies on convincing the customer that he or she should have at least one more. Ten dollars or ten thousand (ten million and up, too), there is no time for semantic distinctions between your branch of the tree and mine.

 

Brain Freeze

Well, here we go again. It’s been ten days since my last post, and I don’t expect this one to do much in the way of readership generation.

There is a simple fact I must face: during the holiday season, I go into survival mode. All extraneous brain activity ceases, including the portion that comes up with catchy titles and useful content.

Other bloggers seem to successfully navigate this time of year, but perhaps many of them don’t work the retail frontlines. And perhaps they have a normal working schedule, enabling them to surround themselves with family and friends when they’re not actually at work.

Anyway, this is more of an apologetic post than anything particularly useful or even entertaining for my readers (both of them). I love the joy on a customer’s face when we find just the right gift for someone special, and I cling to those moments to guide me through this exhausting, stress-ridden season.

So my dear customers, you’d better not shout. You’d better not cry. Santa and Hanukkah Harry are watching — and so am I.

 

Fine Lines and How to Walk Them

If a person is referred to as “walking a fine line,” it’s up to context to determine if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. The tiptoe between genius and insanity? Probably good. A skilled diplomat? Definitely a compliment. But dancing on a knife edge… odds are not in your favor.

Given the opportunity, any sales person will regale you with plenty of stories about near misses: almost spoiling a surprise, almost missing a deadline, almost not double-checking. He or she might even admit to occasions of “foot-in-mouth disease,” wherein an innocent comment caused all kinds of embarrassing havoc, though of course not enough to lose the sale. We like those tales of disaster averted, because it reinforces the human aspect of what we do.

I would argue that anyone working under the umbrella of fashion — clothing, jewelry, accessories, cosmetics, etc. — is intimately familiar with the often necessary kid-gloved handling of a customer. It’s tough to avoid, really, considering the emphasis this industry places on aesthetics and personal appearance; one wrinkled nose or ill-timed hesitation could derail a sale simply by conveying anything less than supportive appreciation.

This focus on looks not only dehumanizes the entire process of sales (and buying), it creates an atmosphere of artificiality — that fine line has been crossed, and it is increasingly difficult to bring a client back to the real meaning (romance) and purpose (celebration) of the moment.

My promise to myself and my clients this season is to muster up my former dancer’s grace, and remain firmly in balance between the beauty of what I’m selling and the reasons I’m selling it.

 

A Few Words On Your Jewelry

I’d like to take a moment to talk about you. Well, you and your jewelry.

I want to address your apologetic, embarrassed smile when I ask if your bracelet has a special significance. And the way you step back, away from me and the counter, when you compare the ring you’re contemplating with the one already on your finger. Or perhaps I’ll address your lament that you never see your rings clean, and that you certainly don’t want me to see them so filthy — not even when I offer to clean them for you.

You may feel society’s pressure to acknowledge that you and your spouse were “just a couple of kids” when you married, which explains the (supposedly) small size of your diamond engagement ring. You may feel it culturally appropriate to blame your (supposedly) “ugly” hands on age, arthritis, and a penchant for gardening without gloves, which of course is why you’d never try to wear a beautiful ring.

You do not need to apologize to me for your jewelry, and the faults in it that only you can see. Certainly you shouldn’t feel that your precious pieces, each representing a particular moment in your life, are in any way more humble than the shiny new things in my cases.

The ring out of round and prongs worn down to nothing — those represent a lifetime of wear, and they can be fixed. The bracelet links so fragile they feel like frayed cotton threads — they lasted through two wars and a cross-country move, and they can be fixed. And oh, the damn clasp that you can just never do up yourself, so you leave the necklace on all the time even though it’s uncomfortable — your fingers ache, and a bigger clasp would help, and that can be fixed.

You come in, defensive and vulnerable, exposing your beloved memories to a young woman whom you think can’t possibly understand, or won’t even try. You don’t have any expectation of compassion or respect, because you’ve been turned away so many times with a shrug and a callous “just buy a new one!”

You may even hear the same advice from me, eventually. But from me, it comes after all other options have been considered. It comes with an understanding that to you, the idea of taking apart this and making it into that will have to simmer for a while, and that if you’re ready — when you’re ready — you’ll know.

Your life, your memories, lie in the bits and pieces laid out on the counter. To share them with a stranger takes a certain kind of courage, especially when the fear of harsh judgement or offhand hauteur makes you want to quickly snatch your pieces back before I can look more closely.

But I have learned, from the best of role models, to understand you. I have learned how to sense your fears, your frustrations, and those apologies spoken and unspoken. And I can only hope that when it’s my turn to lay my life’s treasures in front of someone else, that they have sensed my hesitations and questions, and will respond with their own compassion.

Follow Up: Good. vs. Goods, The Other Guy’s Perspective

Well, this is convenient. Hard on the heels of my recent editorial on the current state of marketing in the jewelry industry, a features writer over at Racked (a fashion/lifestyle headline-style site) took on the issue from Signet Jewelers’ perspective — you know, the largest monopoly conglomerate covering such household names as Kay, Zales, and Jared.

The article is worth a read, especially if such figures as “$5.7 billion in annual sales” and “3600 stores” pique your interest. But free advertising and product placement aside, what does Signet try to say about their products and their massive share of the industry? They’re all about the (straight, middle class) man.

Women react to their marketing — all 10+ channels of it — with opinions ranging from “cheesy” and “gimmicky” all the way to feeling downright offended by the way the ads portray women and their relationships with men. The fairytale gifting scenarios and mass-appeal life event celebrations ring hollow for most, as is clearly removes any sense of responsibility on the part of the gifter to make an effort and understand a woman’s unique style. The emphasis is all on a come-hither ease of use, rather than any real meaning, romance, or sentiment.

The idea is to make the experience so comfortable, so ridiculously easy for the (straight, middle class) male shopper that he loses all ability to reason and simply buys what he sees the girl on the TV screen loving and crying about, with no consideration for his (ahem, or her) giftee’s desires and needs.

And this is how those poorly-chosen gifts end up here with us. They need broken delicate chains replaced with something sturdier to stand up to a tugging toddler. A watch strap that actually fits him. Three diamonds replaced in the micropave shank because she’s a hairdresser and they keep falling out. A setting lowered or swapped because the latex gloves she wears to the hospital every day are getting shredded by the prongs.

I appreciate the need for mass-market appeal, as I mentioned in my earlier post, because I believe it helps romance the whole idea of jewelry and not just that particular piece from that particular store. But this… is not what I mean. Offending an entire gender with patronization and general lack of nuance is not helpful. Convincing men to enter a store at holiday time and stand in line, zombie-like, to receive this year’s version of last year’s hit, is not the kind of experience this industry stands for.

My soapbox is starting to bend under the weight of my heavy disdain for these tactics, so I’ll leave you with this thought (from the article) for now: “Every time I see [one of their ads] on TV, I want to throw something at the screen… [t]hey are infuriating because they are an insult to my intelligence and emotions! I am not that easy to buy and gift-giving just isn’t that magical.”

A Little Reminder

One of my primary roles here at work is to manage the inventory: accurate entry, tags, pricing, photographs, re-orders, show orders, invoice processing, etc. It’s a job that can be tedious from time to time (ahem, the Popular Bead Bracelet Brand era) but is usually rather interesting because it appeals to my inquisitive, detail-oriented brain and allows me to get my hands on every single piece of merchandise in the store as it arrives.

I also attempt what I call a self-inventory every so often, taking stock of my life and its various components and running down a list of places to improve, discard, or enhance. Recently my mind has been occupied with family, health, summer plans (golf lessons, new hiking boots), and of course my gemological studies. I tend to continue mulling over my educational material long after I’ve put it away for the day, which causes a disproportionate mental emphasis on the very technical details I’m currently learning. I end up totally engulfed in the bloodless and unromantic side of this industry, focusing all of my energy on numbers and figures and diagrams.

That’s great for test-taking and fundamental progress, but is ultimately useless in my day-to-day job until I work to distill it down into something I can use on the sales floor. I’ve been feeling waterlogged with minutiae, unable to climb onto solid ground from the watery bog of information overload.

So it was with genuine pleasure that I found myself on the business end of a diamond engagement ring sale just this week — and not a moment too soon.

The gentleman was polite and earnest; his female “helper” lived up to her job and was supportive but not pushy. We discussed settings & styles, diamond sizes & qualities, and priced out a few options. A brief lunch break on the sunny restaurant decks (them, not me) later, and a ring was born. Hooray!

This was not a “big” sale, or a tough one, or a thank-goodness-that’s-over interaction. The clean simplicity of selling a meaningful object to a happy and eager buyer was exactly the refreshing reminder I needed when terra firma seemed very far away. Clearly I required this experience in order to remember what we really do, what the purpose is behind all the numbers and calculations:

Joy. Happiness. Excitement. Love. Hope.

That’s our real business, our own small contribution to the betterment of the world. I am a facilitator, nothing more, as I gently nudge people toward an object that stands to represent all the best emotions we could ever want. And amidst the structure of carbon atoms and lengthy history of mining, I needed a little reminder about why I do it at all.

Why Not: The Rhetorical Question

Like every other (good) retailer, we aim to please. From goods to services, providing the very best we can to every customer is what keeps us in business.

Go ahead, say it. Duh. Of course that’s what keeps the doors open!

But what happens when we can’t — for whatever reason — satisfy a customer?

It seems to me that in an increasingly instant-gratification-focused consumer world, the inability to meet an immediate demand is an automatic black mark. Regardless of how difficult, unrealistic, or downright impossible the request may be, the potential provider’s perceived lack of ability becomes an issue.

It so happens that occasionally a customer comes in and asks for something we don’t have. We’ve never had it. It’s possible — though unlikely — we’ve never even heard of it. We can probably get it, or our fabulous designer/goldsmith can make it, but none of that is going to happen in the next 10 to 15 seconds. The customer huffs something to the effect of “Everywhere I go, they say the same thing. You don’t have it. Well, why not?”

There’s a brief pause, and a moment of silent mutual understanding arrives: they already know the answer. We know the answer, and they know we know. We don’t have it because the buyer(s) for the store didn’t buy it. The reasoning behind that decision is moot, because it won’t change the status of this customer’s elusive desire.

I was totally bewildered by my first Rhetorical Encounter. Did that customer really just get upset that I couldn’t show those white gold earrings in yellow, rose, and two-tone? Is she seriously asking for a reason why we don’t carry her favorite XYZ designer?

I’ve learned a few things since then, thank goodness. I learned that sometimes a customer has an objection or just wants an easy “out” of the sale or store, and isn’t capable of saying “no, thank you.” I had to learn that a customer insisting on one specific item is well aware that we won’t have it, and they really want some alternatives. I also figured out that some customers take pleasure in name-dropping to employees of stores that aren’t Big Names, either as a test (yes, we’ve heard of that Big Name) or to impress (yes, your Big Name watch is lovely).

I used to feel like a failure when I couldn’t produce, magician-like**, the exact white (gold) rabbit each customer wanted. Thankfully, through careful observation and a deeper understanding of the consumer, I have managed to overcome that feeling and learned to confidently represent the products and capabilities we do have. It’s a necessary skill in an on-demand world, and one I’m happy to say only improves with every Rhetorical Encounter I have.

** Okay, occasionally we’re like real magicians, coming up with brilliant plans with perfect execution for last-minute, do-or-die situations. That’s called… hard work and getting lucky.