Creative concepts drive the success of these mavericks
STORY BY EILEEN MCCLELLAND
In the mood to shake up your business? These seven retail risk-takers have gone out on a limb to create unique shopping experiences for clients. From (live!) scorpions in cases and taxidermy on the walls to completely private shopping experiences and virtual custom design, these entrepreneurs have tried all manner of experiments to thrive in today’s retail environment.
INTEGRATING CLICKS AND BRICKS
Green Lake Jewelry Works, Seattle and Bellevue, WA
Green Lake Jewelry Works’ entire business model represents a maverick approach. Owner Jim Tuttle has replaced traditional sales staff with artists who consult with clients to create custom engagement rings in store.
That design conversation sometimes begins and often continues online, where shoppers are invited to use a personal design page with a collection of notes, quotes, inspiration ideas and contact information for the designer with whom they worked. They can pick up where they left off the following week or even in the next year.
“None of our designers ever sits down and designs without our website open, so there’s a starting point for clients. We’re very much a bricks-and-clicks operation — they go together intimately,” Tuttle says.
To persuade website visitors to sign up for a design page, they incorporate live chat, reviews, engagement stories and a thorough explanation of the custom process into a digital presentation optimized for mobile display. The next step is to engage the customer through their design blog, staffed by artists. “It’s really that human element that turns these casual inquiries into gorgeous rings,” says Eric Robertson, creative director.
Both locations also employ full-time photographers to shoot finished goods, loose gems, wax models, sketches and stages of work, which can be shown to online and in-store clients.
Green Lake’s online-only business accounts for a third of the company’s total revenue. That category has grown 30 percent in volume over the past four years. Quick video sharing services like Vimeo and Instagram have enabled the Green Lake team to communicate ideas with a richer story than any static product shot could offer. “As a result, we’ve won numerous diamond sales from clients on the other side of the country just by showing the gems on an actual hand and in various lighting environments,” Robertson says.
A CONVERSATION PIECE
GOGO Jewelry, New Orleans, LA
A mounted taxidermy bobcat with a squirrel in its mouth might be the first clue that GOGO Jewelry has its own sense of style. But it’s certainly not the last.
Gogo Borgerding’s store is decorated with paint-by-number masterpieces and tchotchkes of all descriptions, her interior design sense inspired by her grandmother’s passion for garage sales.
But the thing that really sets GOGO Jewelry apart is the fact that the business is built on the captivating nature of Borgerding’s signature jewelry pieces — colorful sterling silver and anodized aluminum cuffs distinctive enough to spark conversations in far-flung locales.
Her career was strongly shaped by her education. At the Savannah College of Art & Design, Gogo’s senior thesis explored conversational jewelry — jewelry that would spark a dialog between people. At the same time, she had created a bold cuff bracelet for herself using a technique she had learned to anodize aluminum.
The cuff immediately began selling itself when observers found it as powerful a motif as she did. “I couldn’t go anywhere without someone making a comment about it,” she says.
Her jewelry secured her a booth at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where she quickly sold out of everything. In 2006, she opened a store in New Orleans with festival earnings.
She makes her jewelry in the back of her quirky retail space on New Orleans’ popular Magazine Street. “I describe it as if you’re walking into my house,” she says. Art from floor to ceiling; toys everywhere, sense of humor prominently displayed.
“I’ve been to a lot of jewelry stores that are sterile and clean, and I can totally understand why people want to have an emphasis on the jewelry, but I wanted to create an atmosphere where you could feel the personality of the person who owns the business,” she says.
“Everything is for sale except my lamps and my taxidermy. The taxidermy adds character and the lamps are actually functional.” Her taxidermy collection started with a deer head given to her by her dad and grew from there, with contributions from friends. “You never know what’s going to walk through those doors,” she says. “People know it’ll have a good home.”
She mentors fledgling jewelry artists, especially those who use offbeat materials, like stainless steel, rubber, nylon, formica and even 3D printing. Each artist’s name is spelled out in Scrabble letters. Prices are displayed on dice. Average prices for artists she represents are $60 to $80, while the sweet spot for her cuffs is about $250.
Word of mouth is key, although her store is listed in a variety of travel books, such as the French language Fodor’s Guide to New Orleans.
Her only concession to marketing is funny and irreverent direct-mail postcards. “I use drag queens or theater friends of mine or something controversial,” she says. “I try to have fun with them and people put them on their refrigerators.”
BY INVITATION ONLY
Mayfair Privé, Syosset, NY
To move forward with their fourth-generation jewelry retail business, Lauren Kulchinsky Levison and her family closed their main store in August and reopened three miles away in September.
In the process, they fired customers. And began to cater exclusively to clients.
Gone is their traditional store, replaced by Mayfair Privé, an appointment-only enclave in a 4,000 square-foot former warehouse. New clients are welcome, but only by referral.
“We didn’t see the point of doing business behind a showcase anymore,” Kulchinsky Levison says. “It had to be a new location and a new concept. A client is someone who is not a price shopper, not someone who comes in every five years for a repair. Our die-hard, love-what-we-do, love-what-we’re-about client.”
Mayfair Privé is for them.
The Mayfair team offers private shopping in an upbeat environment. First sales, particularly of engagement rings, are too important to leave to chance and the vagaries of other customers’ moods. “If you sell someone an engagement ring, 99 percent of the time they are going to buy everything from you for the rest of their life,” Kulchinsky Levison says.
The new space has private salons, a piano, a full kitchen, great lighting and the ambience of a high-end spa lounge. At Mayfair Privé, the team will know how you take your coffee, if you drink coffee, or if you prefer champagne. The entire shopping experience is customizable for each client.
The majority of their business has been done by appointment for the past 10 years.
“Most of our clients wanted to shop with the store closed, without their neighbors seeing them shop. And most of my VIP clients came in on days we were closed, so we had to operate around their schedule.” This meant their old store was often closed to the public at odd hours, a source of consternation to their former landlord.
Mayfair Privé offers a tempting alternative to the choice of shopping online at home or venturing out into a potentially unpleasant retail environment. “The second an appointment is made, it’s like a sale,” she says. “People forget that privacy is a type of currency.”
It’s lifted everyone’s mood.
“I only want to be surrounded by happiness,” she says. “My father is 68, and for him, this has been his most incredible experience so far.”
Best of all, it’s working. They’re busier than ever, but now they can plan their days in advance, which makes the operation more efficient.
“Selling under glass is definitely in the past,” Kulchinsky Levison says. “You might as well be behind a computer screen and we know we don’t want that.”
IT’S PART OF THE PACKAGE
Honey Designs Jewelry, Cincinnati, OH
Chelsea Mead helps clients devise creative proposals as part of a package she offers, meeting with them in coffee shops or in her co-working office space.
“My client base is coming to me for that specific reason, a fully catered service,” Mead says. “It’s not for people who want to get the best deal and say, ‘See you later.’”
The package includes proposal coaching and photography along with the engagement ring. Photographers are “willing to sell their kidneys” to capture those proposals because they often lead to wedding work, she says.
About 75 percent of ring recipients are involved in the design process. “The girls are the lowest hanging fruit in my business,” Mead says. “If they are happy about the ring design, it’s like a guaranteed sale. I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but it shouldn’t be a complete surprise at this point in your relationship.”
After a styling appointment with the couple, Mead talks privately about the budget with the groom. “Guys go from being stressed to hugging me when they leave.” She even sets up preliminary design workshops with groups of women expecting to be engaged soon.
Mead helps plan the proposal to make it personal and retain some element of surprise, whether it’s simple or over-the-top. She recommends a lunchtime weekday proposal because it’s unexpected. Flowers are always a part of it. One creative proposal involved a scavenger hunt on the riverfront. “We coach them to avoid cliché situations or places,” she says.
THE WORLD’S MOST DANGEROUS JEWELER
South Lyon Custom Jewelry and Watch Repair, South Lyon, MI
The best $30 Scott Ward ever spent on advertising was the first time he incorporated live scorpions into his jewelry display cases.
“I did that as a display idea when I first opened,” he says. “I had lost my job and couldn’t find work as a full-time bench jeweler, so I started doing trade work. I opened a little shop. When I got my first showcase, I did a Southwestern display, filled it with sand, went to a pet shop and I remember seeing these huge black scorpions in there.”
The finished display cases looked like a desert tableau. It led to a lot of publicity, including a call from Good Morning America. It also made the store an attraction of sorts. He started calling himself the world’s most dangerous jeweler.
He also has a honey bear named Lucy living in the store, which has a bit of a rainforest theme. Honey bears, also known as kindajous, are rainforest mammals with a lifespan of 23 years in captivity. Ward and his staff are dedicated to keeping her comfortable and well cared for. “Everyone is used to Lucy; they bring her marshmallows and stop by to see her.”
Quirky attractions — along with a focus on custom work — have helped Ward make a name for himself in a small town dominated by big box players and mall stores. Now his son has joined him in the business.
And, yes, he does bring back the scorpions from time to time. With a diet of crickets, they can live for several months.
Employees are trained to hold the scorpions to avoid being stung or pinched. “Stay alert, stay alive; that’s our store motto,” he says.
Mint DIAMONDS, HOUston, TX
Jewelry designer Nick Miller specializes in custom engagement rings for guys without much of a clue. Often, all they do know is that they want an awesome ring that won’t blow their budget — and they’d rather shop online.
Miller narrows down what they want with a questionnaire followed by as much handholding as they’d like through the design and manufacture process, usually by phone or Skype. Although he has a showroom in Houston, 90 percent of customers don’t visit, and only about 20 percent are local.
“Usually, they’ll find us through a referral, or social media or marketing,” he says. “I point them in the direction of the questionnaire with basic information, like ‘What shape?’ ‘What budget?’ and a few other questions, and I design the ring for free and show them digital renders usually within three days.”
Then he sends the digital rendering of the ring as well as a quote and a GIA certificate for a diamond he thinks would be a good fit. “Usually,” he says, “they like the first one I design, and about four weeks later, we are delivering the ring.”
Most customers are spending $5,000 to $6,000 and choosing a 1- to 1.2-carat center stone. The rings are made in Houston by a small group of craftsmen. “We’re bringing the best value and design to our customers without the huge overhead,” he says. Average production is five to six rings per week and Miller wants to keep growth manageable. Mint offers a 30-day, no questions-asked refund policy.
IT’S ALL UNDER ONE ROOF
The Smithery, Columbus, OH
For years, Columbus jewelry artists Anne Holman and Jen Townsend found themselves wearing too many hats.
Holman had been selling her own jewelry at art festivals for years before opening a store became even a thought. “I was teaching and traveling and doing art shows and changing hats every day,” she says, while Townsend dreamed about giving up her day job in retail management to work full time in jewelry.
When Holman and Townsend, both graduates of the Columbus College of Art and Design, began sharing a studio, they talked about the concept of teaching workshops, selling and making jewelry all under one roof.
After creating a business plan and securing a modest loan, they opened the Smithery in 2014, the only jewelry store in the area that contains workshop space for the public, exhibition space and studios for themselves. Finally, they could hang up those figurative hats in one spot.
While Columbus has a vibrant art community, metalsmithing and art jewelry venues have been few. “We were anxious to bring the field we love to a greater presence in our city,” Townsend says.
Holman and Townsend each have their own line of jewelry and collaborate on a collection as well. They also represent 95 other artists. They’re rearranging the space to allow for temporary exhibitions of edgier, avant-garde collections.
They engage in social media, offer an e-commerce website and enjoy pedestrian traffic. Most important, perhaps, they encourage an interactive experience with their clients, including beginner friendly, project-based workshops that provide all of the tools and materials needed. “They’re often amazed they can make something and have so much pride that they made it with their own hands,” Townsend says. “People now see us as a place to go to experience a fun event with friends and family.”
Children’s workshops have included a make-and-take metal-stamping class for all ages. “A 5-year-old made a bunch of pieces for the whole family,” Townsend says. “You never know when you’re going to make a big impact on someone, a young budding artist who has a first experience working with metal at The Smithery.”
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