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How to Operate as an Online-Only Store

As e-commerce gains momentum, jeweler Esther Fortunoff explains the pluses and pitfalls of ditching brick-and-mortar.

Feb 9, 2021 9:59 AM   By Leah Meirovich
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RAPAPORT... Esther Fortunoff’s store has been through a lot in the nearly 100 years it’s been in business. Her grandparents Max and Clara Fortunoff opened the shop in 1922 as a New York-based housewares store, but it segued to include jewelry in 1957. In 2005, the family sold the majority share in the then-20-store Fortunoff chain to two private-equity firms, which filed for Chapter 11 a few years later. That led Esther and her brother David to reacquire the business and relaunch it online as Fortunoffjewelry.com.

It remained an e-commerce venture until 2014, when she opened a boutique in Westbury, New York, in response to customer demand to touch and see the product. Now she has taken the store back to its digital roots, closing the physical location at the beginning of January. Here, she explains the reasons behind the move.

What made you decide to move back to an online-only format?
It seems that customers these days really prefer that in a sense. Not everyone loves to have to go to a store and be there in close contact with other people, and younger people seem to like to be left alone. There are parts of the store experience that not everyone loves, and it seems more and more people enjoy browsing online or researching online and then making a decision. So it was a decision I made for a lot of different reasons — not really because of Covid-19, but certainly that helped it along the way. People seem to like looking at the images and being able to go at their own pace, and then they will often go into the chat feature on the site and ask a question, or call, or send an email.

Did you see your online sales growing more rapidly than in-store sales?
Yes, they have been. I mean, there’s no question that this past year, our online sales grew a lot, and in-store didn’t. But even before Covid-19, our online sales were growing faster than in-store, so the theme I would say is: “Follow the customers and embrace the next thing that people really want.”

In 2014, you told National Jeweler that your customers were clamoring for you to come back to having a physical store, saying e-commerce wasn’t good enough. How have things changed?
Good question. I think there are still people who really want to shop in a physical store, so I can’t say that all those people have changed their minds, because that wouldn’t be the case. But a lot of those people who prefer shopping in a physical store may not be at the time of their life where they’re buying much jewelry.

We certainly cater to a middle-to-older customer, and a lot of those people really do like being in the store, but what I’ve noticed is, over the past six years, certainly in the past two years, even the older customers would pre-shop online. And luckily, we have a trustworthy brand that in certain cases people have grown up with their whole lives, and so it seems they can make that leap from [pre-]shopping online to being comfortable buying online.

For those who don’t want to shop online, or who like to pre-shop online but buy in-store, how will you fulfill their desire to see and touch the jewelry?
I think that in certain cases, we’ll find a way to meet in person by appointment. In other cases, I will probably do some pop-ups where people who must see a live piece in person can schedule or just come in. I also may be able to collaborate with another store and set up some merchandise in that store. But already, people are making appointments where I will be able to meet them in a safe space and be able to help them with a big purchase like an engagement ring.

Have you updated your website to accommodate the shift to online-only sales?
We have instituted a more robust chat feature, and we’re trying to schedule more Zoom calls with people, but the website itself is always changing. I’m trying to update it and add models so the jewelry is featured on people [and so] customers can get a sense of scale, because it’s hard to understand dimensions or how something might look without seeing it on a person.

What were the most challenging aspects of moving fully online?
Well, we were actually fortunate, because we were a pioneer in going online back in the ’90s. Our basic challenges were just photographing every item, describing them and merchandising them in a way that people would find interesting.

There are a lot of sites where you can see a ton of merchandise, but that’s not really what we are about. We have a different aesthetic, with a curated selection of jewelry from all over the world. We’re more about telling a story, putting it together the way a customer would wear it, sort of like Ikea. I’d rather see the way the room is set up than just a million couches.

What practical steps did you have to take to close your store? Did you face any unexpected issues?
We didn’t have any issues with suppliers. They all understood and are supportive and wishing us well. Our biggest issue was with customers who still wanted the physical store and were not only unhappy, but angry and upset. That was really grounding.

What did the change mean for your staff?
Most of my staff will continue working with me — in certain cases, part time. Others took the opportunity to retire. But I feel like everyone who works for me wears several hats, and so certainly we will have to train to become more tech-savvy. But all of us will be in learning mode and will learn new things.

Now that you don’t have a physical location, where do you intend to keep all your stock?
I’m renting out some warehouse space, and I have a safe-deposit box. I don’t want to turn into a website that only [sources goods to fill] customer orders.

How do you feel about not being in direct contact with your customers?
That’s probably the hardest part, in a way. But I feel like we will be in touch. I mean, even just in the past week, I’ve been interacting with customers who want a special gift. I think between email, phone, the website [and] Zoom, it’s not so hard to be in touch with people. Certainly it’s different, and there has to be some planning involved, but in the current world, you can stay in touch with people pretty easily.

What new opportunities has Fortunoffjewelry.com opened up for you?
The main opportunities are those for collaboration, perhaps with designers. I’m also interested in art, and I have friends who are photographers and sculptors, and I know someone who has a beautiful line of books that she produces. There may be a different way to have more than one point of view on the website, possibly showing things that are not jewelry, but I’m still exploring that.

Do you think online is the future of retail?
It is certainly going to be a bigger part of the pie. I’m hoping that people will be able to get together and meet in the future, but I do think this is going to be a permanent change. I think this [pandemic] has changed people’s habits for the foreseeable future, because people will have adapted to using online.

This article was first published in the February 2021 issue of Rapaport Magazine.

Image: Esther Fortunoff.
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Tags: Esther Fortunoff, Fortunoffjewelry.com, Leah Meirovich, national jeweler, Online only, Rapaport Magazine
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