Make a Big Move
Visibility works both ways for the Yekos,
who broke out of the mall after 30 years
STORY BY EILEEN MCCLELLAND
After 30 years in a huge but windowless mall space, the Yeko family, ready to see the light, built a freestanding store with 270 degree views.
“Being in a mall for 30 years, we wanted a lot of windows because we hadn’t seen daylight in forever,” Steve Yeko Jr. says. “Now that we’re here, I can’t believe I did that as long as I did.” Even the weather was a revelation. During the mall days, he’d head to work when it was sunny and leave when it was dark. He was surprised to discover after escaping the mall just how rainy Janesville, WI, really is in the afternoon. When it snows, he feels like he’s inside a snow globe.
The Diamond Center
OWNERS: Steve Yeko, Heidi Yeko, Steve Yeko Jr., Holly Yeko (Steve Sr. and Steve Jr. pictured above)
OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2015
STORE DESIGNER: Leslie McGwire
AREA: 10,500-square-foot showroom
BUILDOUT COST: $5 million, including land
TOP BRANDS: Tag Heuer, Hearts on Fire, Pandora, Simon G, Scott Kay, Ritani
ONLINE PRESENCE: 5 Stars on theknot.com; 4.6 Stars on Yelp; 4.6 Stars on weddingwire.com
Back in the mall, the Yekos had worked in an attic office with 7-foot ceilings, cut off from customers as well as sunlight. “No one even knew we were up there,” Steve Jr. says. The Yeko family had added on to the mall space three times since 1992, leaving them with a sprawling 12,000 square feet, but no windows.
Since they could touch the ceilings in the old place, the Yekos decided to make such a thing completely impossible in the new place.
The new store has more than 2,000 square feet of glass curtain walls, with more than half of that glass tilted out to span a height of 24 feet, floor to ceiling. “When customers come in the first thing they do is look up at the ceiling,” Yeko notes. “There are lots of ‘WOWS’.”
The open-floor concept, inspired by Apple stores, provides unobstructed views of the sales floor, while also allowing a lot of open space to put customers at ease.
“We had a vision for the store’s interior, but our interior designer, Leslie McGwire, really helped us pull everything together,” Yeko says. “For example, her idea to use faceted beaded walls to cover the areas that we didn’t want customers to see, while also adding texture and being functional, was very creative.”
The design presented some technical challenges, including 262 spotlights, which had to be painstakingly positioned individually using a laser to ensure that each beam of light would hit the ideal spot in each case. “It was very important, when marking each light, to be perfect the first time because our ceiling is made of drywall, not your typical drop ceiling where lights could just be moved later,” Yeko says.
Cove lighting softly reflects the architectural design as it curves from one end of the store to the other. The curved glass showcase tunnels give customers a seamless flow that never gives them a reason to stop looking. A second-floor mezzanine, built with several feet of continuous curved glass, allows offices and a conference room plenty of daylight and a full view of the sales floor. The exterior monument sign was built with a large sparkling diamond on top and features two 45-square-foot digital boards to display product.
Steve Yeko Sr. launched his business in a freestanding store in 1982 in Antioch, IL, before moving with his wife, Heidi, into 1,300 square feet in the Janesville Mall in 1986. “At this time, malls were the place to be,” Yeko says. In 1992, Steve Jr. began working in the family business as a salesperson, and then his wife, Holly, joined the company to work in the office. In 2002, the family opened a 6,000-square-foot store in Madison, WI.
The Yekos might’ve made the break with the Janesville mall earlier, but in 2008, General Motors suddenly announced a plant closing for 4,000 employees in the town with a population of just 60,000. Over the next two years, business dropped 35 percent and they had to concentrate on rebuilding the business itself. By 2012, there had been enough improvement that they decided to build a freestanding location on a plot of land they’d had their eye on for years. Their timing was excellent. The new place opened in April 2015 and since then three restaurants have sprung up as neighbors.
Visibility works both ways. The Yekos can see out into the community and now the community can see them, too, in a better light.
“We wanted to expand our market share into the Illinois area, but you couldn’t see the mall from the interstate,” Yeko says. “Now, being right off the interstate, we’re more visible. We have customers who drive by and stop in. We also have a billboard with the image of the store.” Increased visibility has led to a focus on bigger-ticket items. “Before the move, no one knew about the capabilities we had,” Yeko says.
The average center stone is creeping toward 1 carat, which is significant in a store that sells engagement rings with diamonds as small as 10 or 15 points. “We cater to everyone,” he says. “We sell everything, so people aren’t intimidated.”
The store also helped deliver a better customer experience. In the mall store, staff had to cover five different entrances, making it tough to determine who had just crossed what threshold. A central entrance helps sales staff to greet each customer properly.
“In a mall they just happened to pop into your store,” Yeko says. “You have no idea where they came from or why. There’s a little less traffic now, but the people who come through the door are real and they came here for a reason. So we better take good care of them.
“It’s actually easier to sell bigger diamonds because the store sells itself,” he says. “Our new store represents our mission; it matches who we are. When we were in the mall and people would look around and see dated showcases with carpet on them and we would say, ‘We’re the best!’ they would think ‘Really? I’m looking around and I don’t think so.’”
“Now it all comes together. There’s an immediate wow factor.”
PHOTO GALLERY (24 IMAGES)
Five Cool Things About The Diamond Center
1. Energy conservation. Trying to conserve energy in the old mall location was impossible. “It would be much like leaving all of your windows open at home during the summer, while having your AC running constantly to try to keep it cool,” Yeko says. When they moved, they researched the most efficient HVAC units, installed radiant in-floor heating, and used the latest in LED lighting inside and out, cutting energy use in half. It’s helped in other ways, too. “The mall had three different colors of light, if not four,” Yeko says. “Here, it’s very consistent. A diamond will look exactly the same anywhere in the building.”
2. A built-in brand billboard. With 70,000 passing vehicles per day, the Yekos wanted to make sure the store stood out, so they built a signature logo wall to serve as a billboard..
3. Providing privacy. When the Yekos were leasing 12,000 square feet in the Janesville mall, some customers were reluctant to shop right in front of so many passersby. Some would sneak in early in the morning. Now, with a destination store and diamond consulting rooms, it’s a lot more private.
4. Software pioneers. Their business began like many others — with no computers. So in 2002, the Yekos built a jewelry-certification card online application for jewelry items sold and appraised called “aGQa” (Accurate Grading Quality Assurance). Patented in 2008, the application can be used by other retailers and manufacturers. In 2003, they built a customer online vault for storing jewelry purchases called “AllinOneVault”. In 2010, they added a mobile phone application “ePS” for scanning products viewed by customers. This provides prices, a traffic counter, a salesman monitor, a CRM and a POS and gateway connection.
5. The HOF bridal bar. Theirs was one of two stores chosen to test a Hearts On Fire Bridal Bar in late 2015, which allowed customers to try on the real thing. The Bridal Bar is now being fine-tuned, based on the trial. When a customer picks up any ring, a built-in sensor tracks all data, including date, time and location. Customers can engage with a connected iPad to get details including price, carat weight and metal type. The technology led to better conversations with customers and also provided the chance for customers to shop for a while on their own if that’s what they prefer.
Five Questions With Steve Yeko Jr.
How did the recession affect your business?
It hit us a little harder than most; we lost General Motors, housing values plummeted. But after that we began to increase sales a bit each and every year. In the last two years, we had back to back record years, going all the way back to the good old days.
What was the story behind your land purchase for your destination store in Janesville, WI?
The property that we built on had been for sale for a long time. No one would build on it and it sat there for five or six years. I drove by it every day and thought `That's where I want my new store in the future.' We scooped it up at the last minute and once we built, two restaurants went in and another one is going up right now. Now, it's fully developed. The timing was perfect.
To what lengths did you go for your energy-efficient lighting?
The entire store is LED, the office lighting, downstairs, it's all the exact same Kelvin, to look like natural daylight. So day light is not competing with a different color of light. Where we would have once had 75 or 100 watt lights, they are now 17 watts a piece. The lighting we have in the office was brand new when we were looking Standard Kelvin was 3500 or 4000 and we wanted 5000 minimum. Phillips came out with new lighting for overhead fixtures and we had to special order them. It took several months to get here. We installed them at the last minute, which made everyone very nervous. It's very consistent, now. It will look exactly like it does upstairs (in the office) and downstairs (on the sales floor.)
Do you have a specialty?
We're very focused on bridal, but we do carry everything from pearls and colored stones of all sorts. You name it, we have it. We try to come across as a jewelry super store with a focus on bridal.
What inspired the design of the store?
I'm a big Apple fan. I also liked the more modern look of a W hotel, especially the W Hotel downtown in Manhattan, and that's what we wanted. That's what we were striving for.
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 edition of INSTORE.
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