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The New Face of Nuptials

With the pandemic, social justice movements and generational shifts changing the bridal market, retailers have to keep up if they want to stay relevant.

Oct 25, 2021 10:28 AM   By Lara Ewen
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RAPAPORT... The past few years have brought about extraordinary changes to the wedding and engagement jewelry industry. In addition to the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been significant social and political shifts, leading to both short- and long-term differences in the way retailers do business.

The lasting effects of the coronavirus

For Ken Black, Covid-19 caused a boom in bridal sales. “When it looked like the world was coming to an end, customers started looking at relationships more seriously and moving faster,” says Black, who co-owns Philadelphia Diamond Co. in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with his wife Nicole. “People were getting engaged, and people who were married for a while were doing upgrades. Travel expenses trickled down, and the malls were closed, and the big box stores couldn’t get employees in. So smaller stores thrived.”

The pandemic’s impact on consumer sentiment also led to bigger buys, says Ben Smithee, CEO of consumer consultancy The Smithee Group. “For bridal and engagement, we’ve seen larger purchases due to lack of opportunities [to spend] disposable income.”

Jenny Chung Seeger affirms this trend. The founder and owner of No. 3 Fine Jewelry in San Francisco, California, notes that her customers’ engagement ring budgets increased by approximately 10% over the past year.

Furthermore, the pandemic has impacted the channels people use to shop. “We see stores selling more of what they promote online,” says Smithee. “Marketing and advertising works. The amount of content people are consuming online is exponential, especially during Covid-19 — Instagram, second screening, TikTok, blogs. When you consume more content, it leads to an increase in purchases.”

Bigger budgets have led to more demanding clients, says Lisa Krikawa, CEO of Krikawa Custom Jewelers in Tucson, Arizona. “Every time there’s an economic shift, people want things their way. Money became so important during Covid-19, and if customers are going to spend it on something luxury, they want it to be money well spent. So by driving that process, they give that process meaning. They want it their way, and they’ll even put aside aesthetics.”

Making a statement

There has also been a new wave of political change and upheaval, and some retailers have used digital engagement to take a social stand.

“We’re vocal on social media,” says Chung Seeger. “We’re a female-owned and minority-owned business, and we’re sad about abortions being illegal, and we talk about Black Lives Matter.”

Being an independent business has helped her implement changes more easily than larger brands might. “We’re so much more nimble and flexible,” she says. “We can mandate masks, whether the city requires them or not. We don’t have to approach a board to talk about [issues]. Small stores can do that, and they should flex that when they can. Larger stores have [more] people that they answer to, and that’s where things get messy.”

Krikawa agrees. “We can turn on a dime,” she declares. “We can have a huge impact on our social media. I can change how things are done in a day. Bigger companies can’t do that. They’re too heavy and rooted.”

Customers are drawn to stores that align with their values, retailers say.

“Separating out racial justice, we very rarely get into pure politics,” comments Nicole Black. “But in terms of people looking for Black-owned businesses, [there’s been] a positive impact on our business. We’ve always had a very diverse clientele. But now people are speaking out and saying they want to look for Black-owned businesses, and on Instagram they’re curating lists and tagging us. It’s not just African Americans. It’s across the board. People are seeking to spend their dollars more consciously.”

In fact, adds her husband, 40,000 people search Google for “Black-owned jewelers” in his area each month. “It’s a popular search.”

Diversity and equity

Consumers are paying more attention to social issues, according to Chung Seeger. “Black Lives Matter amplified a lot of voices,” she says. “The more people who talk about it, the more people listen and want to talk about it. And Covid-19 [meant] we had a lot of time to sit with it.”

Yet she says the diamond industry has fallen short in terms of diversity. “The diamond industry is male-dominated. You walk into the diamond district as a young Asian female, and they want to charge you more. It needs to be overhauled and modernized, but there’s so much work to do.”

She believes the industry needs a more sincere commitment to change.

“It’s about putting diverse people in your Instagram feed and supporting designers who represent diversity, and hiring people in the communities that you’re targeting and marketing to,” she says — though she cautions that it can’t be just about visuals. “It’s all about authenticity. Until a business that only employs white, cis employees adds diversity to its staff and its designers and its diamond vendors, then it’s all one big closed circle.”

Black agrees that making statements isn’t enough.

The Washington Post did a story revisiting corporate America’s pledge [to increase diversity], and it really hasn’t panned out,” she comments. “C-suites and corporate-owned chains are not diverse at all, and independent stores are family-owned and generational, which also comes with some biases. The jewelry industry has done a poor job and hasn’t been encouraged to do better.”

Diversity in marketing can also backfire, she adds, if consumers sense it’s only being used as a selling tool. “You can tell that LVMH has done quite a bit to incorporate people of color, at the C-suite level as well, and they tapped Beyoncé and Jay-Z [for a recent Tiffany & Co. ad]. But I don’t know how well it’s played. Some people celebrated it, and some did not, because the brand didn’t seem authentic, and it seemed like they were using this as a marketing ploy.”

Krikawa echoes that sentiment: “If a company is scrambling to [make a statement] right now, then that’s not good.”

She, too, suggests that brands struggling with diversity start by looking at the makeup of their own staff. Her own company has “a diverse employee base and a diverse customer base. My business partner is Black and a woman, and my staff members are LGBTQ+.”

Still, she says, there’s a long way to go. “When the industry stops being prejudiced, then we’ve done enough.”

LGBTQ+ couples

Equity in wedding and engagement jewelry also means serving same-sex, transgender and nonbinary clients.

“How often are we posting images of same-sex couples?” asks Chung Seeger. “How much are we excited for them? How much are we scared we’re going to turn away cis couples? LGBTQ+ couples may know they’re welcome, but you have to talk about them. It’s not just putting a sticker in your window. You have to really believe it, and it has to come from a place of authenticity.”

One way to make the experience more welcoming is to change the language, suggests Smithee. “One easy step is, let’s stop calling it bridal, and let’s call it ‘engagement.’ If a gay man is getting engaged to another gay man, he’s probably not calling him his bride. ‘Bridal’ is an industry term, but they’re engagement rings. It matters. If I were not a straight man, the word ‘bridal’ would not speak to me.”

What’s next?

While Black sees change coming, she doesn’t see it coming quickly. “Gen Y and Gen Z go where their parents go,” she observes. “This is still an institution driven by trust. There’s a certain level of consciousness, but I don’t think it’s changed a whole generation.”

She says she still experiences a lot of bias. “I didn’t go to JCK [Las Vegas] this year, but when I go, what I find is that there’s a stereotype and a bias. [Vendors] say, ‘This is great for your clientele,’ and ‘bling bling,’ and they make assumptions. Jewelers try to market that way, and they’re unbelievably offensive. They have no one on their staff who knows the community. They only want to talk to African American customers when they have ‘no credit down.’ They assume the higher-end clientele is a white, straight man. But our store targets a psychographic, not a demographic, and that cuts across all races and all lines: doctors, nurses, engineers.”

Chung Seeger says business owners need to speak to the communities they serve. “You’re making money off your community. So how are you contributing? It’s about who you’re sourcing and who your suppliers are. It’s about how important the younger generation of shopper is to you. Remember that you’re not just selling rings, you’re selling a business ethos.”

Businesses that don’t reflect diverse populations risk becoming obsolete, warns Smithee. “The racial-injustice calls from last year caused some people to increase diversity in their media, but largely, that hasn’t been the case. [So] diversify your marketing. Make the effort to have a diverse team. Show variable skin tones on your website. For the next generation of consumers, it matters. It’s inconvenient to do a new photo shoot and hire five models instead of two, but it’s also inconvenient to go out of business because you’re not relevant.”

Black believes that a better understanding of the industry’s makeup could help. “This industry is lacking data,” she says. “How many African American jewelers are there? How many first-generation jewelers are there? Those stats don’t exist. That kind of large quantitative survey is important. There are real statistics out there, and sometimes statistics can drive action and change.”

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

Image: Bill Diadato/Stock Gallery.
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Tags: Bridal, COVID-19, diversity, Jewelry, Lara Ewen, marriage, retail, social justice, Weddings
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