National Jeweler Network

Retail Profiles

About Retail: Life after the store

By Brecken Branstrator

November 19, 2013


Vicki and Howard Cunningham, left, closed Cunningham Fine Jewelry earlier this year and moved into a new office space in Tulsa this spring, right, to begin the next phase of their lives, an appraisal and custom order jewelry business.

Editor's Note: This story was updated on Nov. 19 to reflect that Vicki Cunningham's husband name is Howard Cunningham.

Tulsa, Okla.--Making the decision to shutter the business you’ve been running for more than 25 years is not one to be taken lightly.

But closing the store is what Vicki and Howard Cunningham, one-time owners of Tulsa-based Cunningham Fine Jewelry, ultimately decided to do earlier this year. Months later, the two are working to establish their newest venture, Cunningham Jewelry & Appraisal Services.

“Our business was on a slow decline, and we just felt it was the right time,” co-owner Vicki Cunningham said. “We knew we could wait and tough it out or just hold on to what we had. We wanted more free time while also being able to travel. And we wanted more time with our grandchildren. This year, I don’t have to work the day after Thanksgiving, and I’ve never been able to do that before.”

While Vicki and her husband Howard decided they were ready to put the retail business to rest, Cunningham said she knew she wasn’t ready to leave the jewelry industry or lose the connections they had established.

Since their previous business had grown organically, starting small in an office before establishing a full-scale retail store, they decided they would return to their roots.

Cunningham Fine Jewelry officially closed in February, and they opened the new business in March in an office space in Tulsa, where they do custom jewelry orders, appraisals, and repairs. Cunningham notes that with the business located in a smaller office, it’s hard for people to find them and it’s been a bit of a struggle to get it going.

“It hasn’t been as active as I thought it would be,” she said. “But each month it’s getting better. We do like it. We like the setup and the space.”

They’re also finding both positives and negatives to the business as they go--having less foot traffic can go both ways, Cunningham said.

With a removed office space and fewer people coming in, they have, at least for now, less business and at times it can be quiet. But the silver lining to that is that they, “don’t have to feel rushed or hurry the customers through when it gets busy,” Cunningham said.

In addition to the clients made through the former retail store and referrals, the couple is learning as they go about what the best methods are to raise awareness. Cunningham said direct mail has done better than anything else up to now.

They also send out emails to clients using the Constant Contact marketing program, which, in addition to getting their name in front of existing customers, allows the recipient to easily forward on the information for possible referrals and serves as a reminder of the information they got in the mail.

Additionally, the Cunninghams still travel to trade shows, and will head to the Las Vegas shows next year.

Another method the pair has adopted is giving gift cards to any nonprofit that calls for donations for an auction. The amount on the gift card can be applied to repairs, appraisals and custom work from the company.

Cunningham said that rather than giving a small amount, which tends to lead to customers making a small order, they make it a larger amount. Customers, they find, then place a much bigger order. She said one customer who came in with a $250 gift card applied it to a $3,500 remake of a piece.

It also helps get potential customers in their office for face-to-face interactions, which is needed to build a customer base.

Looking back at the transition process, one thing the Cunninghams learned that they would suggest to those who may be pondering closing their store is to preserve some inventory.

Cunningham Fine Jewelry held a going-out-of-business sale beginning late last year before the store finally closed. The event was planned in time for the holidays as thanks to the company’s clients and customers and to liquidate all inventory.

Cunningham said they later realized when they were establishing the new business that they should’ve kept a few pieces.

“We did some really good business with bridal sample lines. Without thinking, we sold them all at the sales at the end,” she said. “We should’ve kept them. If you don’t want your money tied up in inventory later, you really need those samples.”