Northeast Retailers Right on Target

“Don’t believe everything you see on TV.” For jewelry retailers in the Northeast, this popular phrase certainly has meaning as high-end retail stores from West Virginia to Maine don’t seem to be cracking under the pressure of a media-hyped recession.

While customers may be shopping a little more cautiously, it’s not stopping them from making purchases.

“[The recession] was definitely hitting us for a while,” says Laurel Wert of Nicholson & Ryan in Augusta, Maine, “but we pulled back ahead this quarter. We have seen a difference in the way people are shopping, though. There’s a little less traffic, but shoppers are not necessarily looking for lower price points.”

In fact, many retailers say business was hit the hardest in the fourth quarter of 2000, but that spirits seem to be rising again as 2001 progresses.

“The last quarter [of 2000] just kind of died for us,” says Gretchen Braunschweiger of Braunschweiger Jewelers in New Providence, N.J. “Now people are feeling a little better. Maybe it has stopped its slide. Things are much more stable now.”

Depending on the location of the store, some retailers didn’t feel the pinch at all.

“We live in an area where there are a lot of rank-and-file people who aren’t concerned about the stock market,” says Andrea Kosko of Fellin’s in Hazleton, Pa. “It’s still sort of an old-fashioned economy around here. We make sure that we offer a large variety of price points and styles so that we can cater to all types of people in all types of economic situations.”

One thing that northeastern retailers all agree on is that diamond sales have become increasingly more competitive over the past few years, due mainly to the plethora of diamond-related Web sites.

“The diamond business as become very competitive,” says Tim Ryan of Frank Adams Jewelers in Alban ,N.Y. “There’s a lot more price shopping d comparisons to Internet prices.”

Although comparison hopping on the Internet is high, most of the jewelers agree that purchasing diamonds is still done in the bricks-and-mortar stores. Customers are shopping on the Inter et to get the best prices and then leave it up to the retailers to match or beat those quotes. Usually, jewelers say, they are forced to exceed the competition or lose a potential customer.

The round brilliant cut comprises the majority of diamond purchases. Princess cuts are almost as popular, while others, such as the marquise and oval cuts, trail in a distant pack.

The fluctuating economy hasn’t necessarily affected purchase based on carat weight. Many retailers say the average carat weight for a diamond in an engagement ring today is one carat.

As far as other diamond issues are concerned, answers vary from store to store.

“We do a big business loose diamonds and blank mountings,” say Ryan. “Another big seller for us has been fancy-colored diamonds, such as fancy intense yellow. Also, the Pink Diamond collection from Suna Bros. has done immensely well.”

Ryan notes that his store does a special diamond promotion once year with spectacular results.

“It’s a one-day sale. We highlight colored diamonds and loose stones, and customers can even get jewels set one premises that day. We promote it direct-mail postcards and in-store [displays].”

This year, Suna Bros. d Craig Drake will both be on-site to get customers excited about diamonds.

Pearl sales also vary from store to store. While most say pearls are holding their own, there doesn’t seem to be an overwhelming trend toward pearl purchases.

Reports indicate pearl stud earrings and pendants are mainstays, especially in white cultured pearls. Strands, a trend now being promoted heavily by Mikimoto and seen on fashion runways, are hot in some regions and a no-sell in others.

“Pearls are starting to pick up for us,” says Wert. “It’s more of the smaller pieces and not strands that are going.”

Ryan disagrees. “There are a lot of customers asking for strand right now,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s because of the recent advertising or not, but Japanese akoyas in the 6 1/2mm to 7mm range are moving a lot quicker this year than they were last year. We’re also doing really well with our large collection of South Seas and Tahitians.”

Braunschweiger has a completely different outlook than both Ryan and Wert, noting that the more inexpensive pearl pieces are all that seem to be selling.

“It’s been very quiet in pearls, although it picked up slightly over the holidays,” she says. “We still sell a lot of the ‘Tin Cup’ style necklaces and the lower price point items. Customers are buying the most in saltwater cultured and some in freshwater.”

Kosko suggests augmenting inventory with add-a-pearl necklaces. They are one of her great sellers.

“Add-a-pearl necklaces are tremendous for us,” she says. “They are great gifts, and they keep the customers coming back for more pearls as the years go on.”

High-end luxury watches remain strong for the Northeast, with Rolex leading the pack. But that is certainly not the end of the story. More and more, retailers are selling a signature brand of watches that feature their name on the dial, which holds a certain amount of recognition for their loyal customers.

“Our signature brand does really well for us,” says Kosko. “Bel Air Watch Co. in New Jersey makes them for us and then they have our name on the face. They’ve incorporated a lot of fashion styles into their collection, which is great. Our biggest sellers are jewelry-style watches, such as white metal, bracelet or cuff styles.”

At Frank Adams Jewelers, Ryan says the combination of high-end, well-known brands and their own signature style, also made by Bel Air, has served them well.

“We sell four lines: Rolex, Maurice Lacroix, Raymond Weil and our own line. The all-yellow look is hot, especially in Rolex. We sold more yellow gold Rolex watches from November through March than we ever sold before.”

As far as what sells in metals, the Northeast again varies by location. Gold has seen a lot of strength in the designer lines, while yellow gold seems to be the color of choice.

“We’re very surprised by the success of our designer collections.” says Ryan. “We just started selling Orlando Orlandini. We sold through every piece that we ordered at Couture last year and then had to reorder at Christmas. People weren’t really coming in looking for the yellow gold look, but we directed them toward it. Customers really responded to it, especially men who wanted to buy it for their wives and girlfriends.”

The bulk of fashion gold jewelry sales are in 14-karat, while higher price point sales are often in 18-karat.

Platinum is still the big winner in bridal, according to retailers. They say the customer is becoming increasingly educated about the white metal’s virtues and understands that quality comes with a higher price tag.

“In bridal, platinum is becoming a lot more than it was,” says Braunschweiger. “It’s almost the No. 1 choice whether the woman wears yellow gold jewelry or not.”

Ryan agrees: “Our platinum bridal business is close to 50% now. Customers are coming in and demanding platinum, maybe due to all the advertising going on out there.”

Although platinum is hot in bridal, it doesn’t necessarily generate profits in fashion jewelry. Retailers claim the higher price point for platinum is a major deterrent for customers choosing between white gold and platinum. While the white look is still a trend, customers are often choosing gold in the end.

Color was in fashion’s forecast for the past year, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to the world of fine jewelry. Some stores still rely on the Big Three–emeralds, rabies and sapphires–while others gravitate toward the less conventional tanzanites, iolites and peridots.

“Color isn’t as strong as a year ago,” says Ryan. “We are selling more ruby and sapphire, but we don’t see the same demand for tanzanite as were.”

Braunschweiger’s spectrum differs strongly. “Tanzanite, iolite and peridot are still pretty good, unlike 10 years ago when they didn’t sell at all. Pinks haven’t panned out as much as we thought, except for pink sapphires. We thought that pink tourmalines would be better. Men tend to shy away from color as gifts except for the Big Three stones.”

Wert, like many others, points to the demand for sapphires. From the traditional blue to the variety of popular pastels, sapphires have been a strong seller in recent months.

In-store promotions are a significant part of many of the retailers’ year-long plans. From parties to trunk shows, these events are a way to get customers involved with the store in an intimate and friendly way.

Kosko explains that Fellin’s does heavy holiday promotions during the year. From the more traditional gift-giving Valentine’s Day to St. Patrick’s Day, Kosko feels there is a piece of jewelry for every sentiment.

“We’ve really been trying to sell Easter as a jewelry-giving holiday,” she says. “We sell a variety of religious items, and we also do a display room with different Easter eggs [made out of materials] such as enamel, marble and Waterford crystal. Customers come back year after year to add to their collections. It’s good to find a jewelry and gift angle for special days of the year. We give people a reason to come into the store, and they can find anything from a $25 item to a $1,500 item.”

In addition to Easter, Kosko’s promotes claddaugh jewelry for St. Patrick’s Day and pocket watches for Father’s Day. The holiday themes are promoted with creative advertising materials sent out locally.

Both Braunschweiger Jewelers and Nicholson & Ryan have an annual estate sale, something that has proved successful for both the store and its customers.

All in all, response in the Northeast was optimistic. While the end of 2000 signaled a lapse in jewelry buying, 2001 50 far has not lived up to the hype of a hopeless economy.

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