Hing Wa Lee Jewelers caters to the Chinese luxury market in Southern California.
By Joyce Kauf
The lunar Year of the Horse brought good fortune to customers at Hing Wa Lee Jewelers in Walnut and San Gabriel in Southern California. Envelopes in red and gold — colors symbolizing prosperity for the New Year — hung from the branches of a money tree positioned at each store’s main entrance. After making a purchase, shoppers would pick an envelope that was filled with money or gift certificates.
“It’s a way of wishing each other luck,” explains David S. K. Lee, president and chief executive officer (CEO). However, Lee did not leave his retail success to chance. Determined to focus on the Chinese market, he developed a business strategy that combines traditional marketing with elements of feng shui, an ancient Chinese philosophy that uses the placement of objects to create a harmonious environment and encourage the flow of positive energy.
Lee knows that atmosphere and ambience are essential to luxury marketing. Prior to launching his first store in the old city of San Gabriel in 1993, he visited jewelry stores throughout the world to pick out the best design elements. While the contemporary sophistication of retailing establishments in Hong Kong is reflected in his stores’ modern design, the feng shui influence is seen in the interior layout of the stores, which Lee describes as “a bag holding water.” The opening of the bag is small, while the body of the bag is large. “Water — representing prosperity — will fill the opening and remain inside,” continues Lee.
“San Gabriel was the epicenter of where I wanted us to be since it had a high concentration of Asians, primarily Chinese,” says Lee, describing his reasons for selecting this Los Angeles County location for his first store. The original 3,000-square- foot store opened in San Gabriel Square in 1993. In 2013, Lee, who is also chairman and CEO of Hing Wa Lee Group’s Real Estate Commercial Development Company, relocated the store as the almost 12,000-square-foot anchor of Hing Wa Lee Plaza in San Gabriel, a mixed-use luxury commercial and residential space. In 2003, Lee opened the two-story, approximately 11,000-square-foot flagship store of the Hing Wa Lee Plaza in Walnut. In addition to jewelry and watches, both stores carry crystal, art sculptures, leather goods and accessories.
Lee is carrying on a family tradition. His father, Hing Wa Lee, was a master gemstone carver in Hong Kong, who helped restore antique Chinese carvings at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He later opened a wholesale jade and gemstone business in Los Angeles. The San Gabriel and Walnut stores are named in his honor.
“The Chinese customer is not attracted by the value of a brand name in jewelry,” notes Lee. Diamonds are an important category, as is jade. The preferred setting for the stones is 24-karat gold.
“In general, our Chinese clientele prefer pieces that show more gemstone than metal. They like designs that tend to be more petite, rather than exaggerated in size or style,” Lee explains. “A great deal of our jewelry is made in Asia and we also do custom work,” he goes on to say, stressing that quality and value are critical components, especially within a given price point. For Lee’s customers, G color in VS clarity represents the minimum quality of diamonds. However, he notes the marked shift in attitude in the watch category, where brand recognition becomes one of the top criteria in making a purchase. Rolex, Audemars Piguet, Tag Heuer, Vacheron Constantin and Cartier are among the brands that Lee offers.
“We want to showcase the products but not distract from the jewelry,” says Lee, citing the use of custom-built display cases designed with a minimal use of wood. Displays are arranged by a dominant theme determined by the gemstone — diamonds, pearls or jade. “We usually segregate by color, but we will often mix white, gold and black pearls within the same case,” Lee notes. In the watch selling areas, brand identity is emphasized through the use of furniture and signage provided by individual watch companies.
Technology plays an important role in merchandising at the new San Gabriel store. Oversized LED screens illuminate the exterior windows and feature rotating images, easily visible to customers. The display cases were designed to be portable so that the interior can be transformed into an event space, complete with an intimate concert hall and banquet facility for over 150 guests.
While Lee has identified the Asian-Chinese community as his primary market, he emphasizes that the stores’ product mix has “universal appeal” across a “culturally diverse clientele.” To better serve a wide range of customers, the combined sales staff is fluent in ten different languages.
Lee is very active in the community and believes this sets an important example to existing and potential customers. “Unlike a corporate entity, I’m the face of the company. They see what I do and want to buy from us,” Lee explains. And as he prepares to mark the family’s fiftieth year in business in 2015, Lee says that this reciprocal relationship with the local community inspires him to succeed.
Article from the Rapaport Magazine - March 2014. To subscribe click here.