Rapaport Magazine
Markets & Pricing

Jewelers adapt to pandemic norms

Store owners have learned to survive — and even thrive — amid coronavirus-related hurdles.

By Lara Ewen
As the 2021 holiday season wrapped up, the Omicron variant put a damper on seasonal cheer. Nevertheless, US store owners, who’d already endured two years of pandemic challenges, remained largely resolute. As the world moved into its third year of Covid-19, jewelers were as cautiously optimistic as ever.

Lessons from 2021

One of the things 2021 taught retailers was that when it comes to diamonds, size matters.

“What I learned is that women want size,” said Matt O’Desky, owner of The Diamond Room, which has private showrooms in Austin and Dallas, Texas. “That’s what’s driving lab-grown buying decisions, not because lab-grown is cheaper, but because they can get more for their money.”

Three-quarters of his clients have chosen lab-grown over mined in the past few years, he added. “[Lab-grown stones] have value to those of us who sell them,” he observed. “That’s where the business is now.”

Another important lesson from 2021 was that personal interactions are paramount.

“Customers became kinder and were happy that we were open and still in business, and so grateful to be with a family business,” said Gail Friedman, owner of Sarah Leonard Fine Jewelers in Los Angeles. “That was important.”

As her business pivoted from a walk-in store to an appointment-based one, Friedman said keeping in contact was key. “Now, especially with all the smash-and-grabs, we’re not ready to [publicly] open the doors just yet. But we’re always busy emailing customers, and we called customers throughout the year. We’re good at keeping in touch.”

The past year has also meant adapting. Tara Silberberg, owner of online jewelry store The Clay Pot, closed her brick-and-mortar location in Brooklyn, New York, in March 2019, and her Manhattan location in March 2020. The transition to digital-only was “kind of weird and kind of lovely,” she reflected. “I just wake up and there are a bunch of orders, and I pack them, and I ship them, and I do custom projects.”

Still, it was challenging to do it all by herself. “One thing I learned in 2021 is that having an employee helps,” she related. “I was running my business alone [after closing the brick-and-mortar stores], and then I hired somebody. Now I can finally take on some projects.”

Obstacles to overcome

O’Desky’s biggest hurdle for the coming year is staffing, he said. “[It’s a challenge] finding help, finding bench jewelers, and finding people with experience finishing out custom work. I had to learn to cast and 3D-print myself.”

Finding staff was also top of mind for Friedman, whose store will be celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2022.

“We’ll try and bring more activity, like trunk shows, but staff will be a challenge,” she affirmed. “Pre-pandemic, it was already very hard to find help. And now, [because of the pandemic,] it will be even worse. We just can’t get qualified new people. I need someone full-time for social media, and I don’t even know how to vet them.”

One of Silberberg’s biggest quandaries in 2022 will be deciding whether to open another physical location.

“I’m shipping all over the country, and I do all these Google ads, and I’m still trying to keep it relevant,” she explained. “But I don’t know how much longer I’d want to do this without having a [brick-and-mortar] store. I may do another pop-up store, but for me, it’s about whether I would make money if I reopened a store in Brooklyn, even for six weeks.”

Winning strategies

In the year to come, O’Desky is looking forward to opening a third location, also in Dallas, as well as launching both a Texas-themed lab-grown diamond line and a men’s jewelry collection.

“[For the men’s line], we’re starting with men’s rings, which no one designs,” he elaborated. “Then, moving into 2022, I’ll expand into belt buckles and bolo ties, incorporating our Texas-shaped lab-grown diamond into that.”

He’s also planning to capitalize on the demand for large lab-grown stones. “Size is status, and it’s a great way to celebrate your success.”

Continuing to stay close to clients is Friedman’s 2022 strategy.

“You can’t sit back and wait for customers to walk into the store,” she noted. “Most of our biggest sales are done by being proactive, so we touch base with customers, find out how they’re doing, how they’re feeling. The pandemic has made people really appreciate local businesses.”

By the numbers
  • Despite the rise of the Omicron variant, 2021 holiday sales could grow as much as 11.5% over 2020, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF).

  • Jewelry sales soared 78% year on year over the 2021 Thanksgiving weekend.

  • Consumers spent an average of $6,000 on engagement rings last year — a 9% jump from the $5,500 they spent in 2020, and 1.7% more than in 2019. Millennials spent about $6,700 per ring, while Gen Z-ers paid $4,100.

  • US e-commerce sales for Cyber Monday slipped 1.4% year on year to $10.7 billion — much lower than initial predictions of up to $11.3 billion. However, the day still ranked as the biggest of 2021 for online shopping.

  • US sales of platinum jewelry at retail partners of Platinum Guild International (PGI) rose 34% year on year by weight in the third quarter of 2021.

Sources: NRF, Mastercard SpendingPulse, The Knot, Adobe, PGI

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - January 2022. To subscribe click here.

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Tags: Lara Ewen