Vegas: The Starting Gate

Rounding the final corner! Down the home stretch! Hitting his stride! Photo finish!

I blame it on my birthday** but I’ve always appreciated horse racing metaphors. There’s something so universally appealing about them, so evocative of a brief but heart-pounding excitement shared by a crowd that seems to hold its collective breath until the race is over.

That’s a bit like how I feel about Jewelry Week, hosted annually in Sin City and attended by thousands of industry professionals in a business and social whirlwind. It’s a fast-paced week, requiring immense amounts of energy and serious willpower to both get stuff done and have fun doing it.

For those of us on the non-retail side of the booth, the connections and sales generated at this show can make or break an entire year’s worth of business (but y’know, no pressure). It’s an opportunity to meet with clients in person, announce new and exciting things (!!), and yes, scope out the competition.

Buyers who attend are also on a mission: spend well, spend wisely. The glitter of the show is an easy distraction for the spendthrift store buyer, as it washes everything in an enticing aura of beauty and incites a covetous round of gotta-have-it fever.

This is, of course, the point. Any show is only as successful as its revenue generation — in this case, not for the show itself, but for the sellers who attend it — so a careful eye is kept on the general mood throughout the week. Trends are spotted, new and innovative offerings are critiqued, and dollars are measured.

We’ve been hearing a lot about the changes facing the industry right now, including questions about what retailers in particular should do to attract consumers of all ages and levels. It makes me wonder: what can both buyers and sellers learn from this show? What makes it so successful as an event, and how do we generate that kind of madhouse, leave-your-inhibitions-at-the-door vibe in our own businesses?

Something else to consider: the show has added a new area to the already-crowded floor, dedicating a space to what was once “crossover” and is now called simply “bridge” jewelry. This category consists of sterling-and-gold pieces with fashion and trendy appeal, at prices intended to be higher than basic fashion jewelry but lower or just approaching that of the fine category. It’s the stuff millennials buy for themselves (in theory), and it’s a popular but ever-moving target.

I’m interested to see the category perform in its own arena and not as second fiddle to its bookend price points. I will also be curious to learn if this one-size-fits-most approach feels like a fresh idea that just might save the middle of the market, or simply a rehash of the “entry level” model we see in the housing and auto markets. The former inspires repeat business, self purchasing, and aspirational purchases down the road. The latter sets buyers up for disappointment and frustration, stalling momentum and causing sales to drop. We’ll see which side wins this coin toss.

And as usual, there will be a significant amount of M-word (Millennial) dropping in the exhibit halls. This ties in directly with the two ideas I just mentioned, and the prevalence of a heavy generational focus has helped me formulate a kind of consumer theory I’ve been kicking around: shifting the focus too far onto the fashion/bridge category could hinder the long-term, aspirational level sales, preventing sellers from converting the $500 spenders into $5K+ consumers. I have found that when someone is sold on “good enough,” it can be all the more challenging to grow them into larger or more frequent purchasers.

So as the flag is raised on this year’s show, I’ll be keeping in mind these questions (and other thoughts) to revisit after the fact. Here’s hoping it won’t be heavy going for attendees, and that everyone will have free rein to buy and sell and enjoy themselves. I know I’m chomping at the bit to be on my way!


**Kentucky Derby Day. Every year without fail, my father-in-law (a horse racing fanatic) asks me to name the winning horse, who also happened to be one of only three fillies to ever win the Derby.

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.

A Professional Opinion

Doctors. Law enforcement officers. Judges. Manicurists. These professions require a range of qualifications, but to practice them ethically (and legally, minus the manicures) the chief requirement is the ability to tell the truth. Always. Regardless of a person’s feelings, other wants and needs, or how that truth may impact the lives of others.

But for many other professions, telling the (whole) truth can be a risky business practice indeed. I’m not talking basic factual information here — yes it’s cashmere, no it isn’t leather, yes, it comes in green, etc. — but the part of a business transaction that involves an opinion.

From your hair stylist to your jeweler (hi there!) to the people who run those fun little wine-and-painting parties, they’re all still in business now because they’re able to walk a fine line between truth and a bit of stretched, um, fiction. The proverbial little white lie can be incredibly useful, when deployed with tact, diplomacy, and integrity.

Wait — integrity, you ask? Isn’t a lie of any kind, by definition, totally devoid of such a thing? Allow me to use an example straight from a day in my life.

Customer: What do you think of this bracelet? I’d like something to wear on special occasions.

Me: I think that piece can certainly be dressed up. The gold accents and high polish finish already give it a more formal look.

Customer: Yes, I think so too. And I really love it. But… (she turns to face me straight on) I really want to know what you think about it. Does it look right? Isn’t it gorgeous?

You all know what I said here. You know I told her that she loves it, it fits her description of what she wanted, and it’s a versatile piece she’ll wear often. You also know that I uttered not one peep about whether I personally think it’s gorgeous, but that it’s gorgeous on her. And of course she purchased the item, because everything I said was true.

What I didn’t say was that I think the bracelet is gaudy and clunky, and that I’m so glad she loves it because it’s been in the store for what feels like forever and I’m sick of looking at it. That’s a personal opinion that is totally irrelevant to both my customers in general and that sale in particular, and it has no business getting in the way of… business.

The fine jewelry industry has long been plagued with what I’ll call the bad apples. There are still places and people who are only out for the buck, and would happily sell a professional rockclimber an emerald eternity band to wear as an “everyday ring” just because they could. This kind of practice has no place in this business because it only comes back to harm the integrity of the industry as a whole, and I categorically condemn any business that allows or encourages used-car-salesman tactics. Those bad apples are telling lies — harmful untruths that stem from laziness, a total lack of integrity or ethics, and that ultimately serve to undermine the trusting relationship the good apples work so hard to build.

Our job is to educate consumers and help them navigate a highly emotional, mostly blind purchase. My professional opinion gets time in the spotlight when asked if a ring is too big, a setting is loose, or a chain is too light. It stays tightly locked behind my teeth in most other situations.

Yes, those earrings are very pretty. No m’am, I don’t think those galoshes make your calves look too big. That will be an interesting 10-page-paper topic, Jimmy. Your engagement ring is beautiful. Honey, this chicken tastes great!

Ducky Weather

Blech. Ick. Blah. How many onomatopoeic words can I find that accurately describe this week’s weather? Rain, a chill wind, and wet leaves all mix together to create general misery for anyone unfortunate enough to be outside. Even my umbrella seems to have given up — I felt a distinct lack of enthusiasm as I tried to snap it open this morning.

I once read an article written for salespeople and retail workers that cautioned against using the weather as a talking point with customers. The author claimed that discussing something as banal and commonplace as the weather was uninteresting, unoriginal, and ultimately a huge turn-off for consumers who are already overloaded with extraneous information. Why waste one more precious second of their day?

On the surface, I agree with his premise. Why bore your customer with a useless conversation that distracts them from their real purpose — hopefully, of course, buying something. (I would probably get a little annoyed if my barista attempted a full-fledged conversation about the heat index if it delayed my iced coffee for the duration of our talk.)

On the other hand, I have a feeling that author is not a resident — or even frequent visitor — to New England. Around here, the weather as a subject of conversation can lead to very serious (and interesting) revelations about your customer. We have Weather with a capital “W” that can change in an instant, and it influences everything from what we wear and how we drive to whom we vote for (really).

When working for my former Big Guys company — a purveyor of outdoor gear/clothing and very well known around here — the weather was prime material for figuring out just what a customer needed and wanted. In jewelry retail, I would argue that the weather shapes the type of jewelry we wear and sell. Short chains and chokers do well when the weather is warm enough to warrant an appropriate neckline for them, but long dangly earrings are likely to get caught in scarves and hoods. A bracelet is a beautiful accessory at any time of year, but perhaps the one with the dainty clasp should be left at home when jackets and gloves are removed all day long. And I defy anyone to sell an anklet, no matter how beautiful, in the middle of winter.**

I helped a customer select a chain for her new pendant just a few weeks ago, and one of my first questions was, “do you plan to wear this necklace with a turtleneck?” The woman paused for a moment and said, “you know, I was planning to wear it for my niece’s wedding next month with a dress I love, but I do normally wear high-neck shirts and sweaters when it’s cold out. What should I do?”

Simple solution: 16″-18″ adjustable chain. Sold!

If I hadn’t considered the weather and how a customer might dress for it, her original choice might just have ended up back in our stock. I’ve lost count of how many potential returns we’ve avoided just by asking whether the recipient has long or short hair — it matters, gents! — and showing merchandise accordingly.

It’s chilly and rainy out there today, but I have high hopes for tomorrow (music cue…).

**Okay, if that person is lucky enough to be headed for a tropical island, MAYBE they’d buy an anklet. But I still doubt it.