How Independent Jewelers Are Coping During COVID-19

IndependentsApr 02, 2020

How Independent Jewelers Are Coping During COVID-19

We combined the results of a recent Jewelers of America survey with interviews to paint a picture of how independent jewelers are handling the shutdown.

Last weekend, south Florida retailer J.R. Dunn Jewelers gave away 200 of these “Hope” bracelets to doctors and nurses on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic. The bracelets feature freshwater pearls from Honora in white or black (pictured here).

New York—As of this writing, 38 states have ordered the closure of all or most nonessential businesses, and governors in all but 13 states have issued some type of stay-at-home order, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

This has left streets and shopping malls empty nationwide and most businesses boarded up, except for those deemed essential, such as grocery stores, pharmacies and, to the delight of many, liquor stores.

When JA surveyed members the week of March 16, a little more than half reported they were closed (21 percent) while 32 percent said they were still open but with modified hours. Eleven percent chose “other,” with quite a few writing in that they were open on a by-appointment-only basis.

When asked why they closed their businesses, 47 percent of respondents said out of concern for staff health while the second most popular answer was being forced to close by state or local government mandate.

Three percent of respondents noted they did not have enough staff to remain open while 17 percent marked “other,” with a few people writing they felt morally obligated to close.

“It’s the right thing to do for humanity,” one survey-taker wrote.

Last week, National Jeweler caught up with three independent retailers—one in Pennsylvania, one in Florida and one in California.

All three were closed to the public but still working in their stores.

They talked about keeping in touch with customers and making the best possible use of this unexpected, and indeterminate, downtime.

Doing the To-Do List

At Fox Fine Jewelry in Ventura, California, Debbie Fox has had to furlough her 10 employees, leaving just her, her husband and their three daughters working in the store—all spread out, of course.

Fox said instead of focusing on making small sales—coming up, for example, with something like the necklace it created in the wake of the Thomas Fire in 2017—they are taking on long-standing projects.

“People are not in the mood to buy,” she said. “It’s just not worth it. I’d rather take that time and do these projects that we can do.”

Priority No. 1 is taking product pictures for the website.

Fox’s husband is tackling the chore of cleaning the store’s workshop, and organizing and categorizing all loose stones.

Using this time off, so to speak, to deep-clean and reorganize was a common refrain in the JA survey as well.

When asked to share tips for other businesses during this time, one respondent wrote:  “I told my staff this is like a hurricane direct hit, but instead of two to four days this is likely two to four months.

“We have taken the time to completely clean and prepare our store for when this lifts. Keep looking forward, not back.”

A second survey-taker said, “Take this time to clean your stores, to go over stale inventory [and] prepare to put it on sale, scrap it or sell it in line. Reinvent your store’s appearance,” while another simply noted: “It’s a great time to do those odd jobs you have been putting off for a long time.”

“We have what you need!” Calhoun Jewelers’ tongue-in-cheek window display features a gold bar and the hottest commodity on the market right now—toilet paper.

At Calhoun Jewelers in Royersford, Pennsylvania, owner Cathy Calhoun laid off her entire staff two weeks ago and they’re all collecting unemployment.

But she’s in the store, working on a new Facebook page and website for her recently opened second store in California, returning repairs to customers, and setting up a new window display showcasing current essentials—toilet paper and gold bars. The store might be closed, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t people still walking by.  

Calhoun’s also getting repairs back to customers.

She said she bags each repair with a receipt, finds out when the customer can come by, and then puts the repair in the mailbox behind the store—which she can monitor via video—and watches to make sure the correct person picks it up.

The jeweler also has been participating in videos with the American Gem Society on Zoom and hosted a watch party, also through Zoom, where members of The Calhoun Jewelers Carat Club—her best female customers—got to see professional dancer Maksim Chmerkovskiy teach the samba.

(She did a special event with “Maks” years ago and has been friends with him ever since.)

“New projects are coming out of this,” she said, while at the same time noting, “Money, I don’t know where it’s going to come from.”

JA survey-takers are wondering the same thing, with almost all respondents mentioning finances when asked, what is your greatest concern about COVID-19 as it pertains to your business?

RELATED CONTENT: 5 Things Retailers Should Know About the Stimulus Bill

They’re worried about paying their rent/mortgage, staff and suppliers, and then there’s the underlying concern of, how quickly will consumers get back to buying jewelry when this is all over?

“The volatility of the financial markets will impact our business now and in the foreseeable future. High-end luxury purchases are not on the top of the list as people recover from this disaster,” one person wrote.

Another said, “The long-term effects on the economy, between the stock market and unemployment, will make [demand for] luxury items in a small market like ours dry up for a long time to come.”

Others are worried all the online-only shopping right now will give e-tailers an edge over brick-and-mortar businesses in the future.

“Clients will be further trained to shop online, breaking down relationships we spent years developing,” one retailer wrote. “Once that occurs, it is a challenge to bring them back in store.”

Staying in Touch, and in Business

Sean Dunn, vice president of J.R. Dunn Jewelers located in Lighthouse Point, Florida, also is operating with a skeleton crew. Out of the store’s 40 employees, only 10 are working right now.

The people who are working are the ones who have said they want to be there and who need to work.

Dunn said his staff has been good about giving hours to people who they know need the money, while those who can afford to are taking unpaid vacation.

“Everyone is trying to give the person who needs it the chance … to earn that income. In an ideal world, that’s what we are trying to do, but nothing’s perfect,” he said.

“You’re just trying to navigate it the best you can because you’ve never done anything like this before.”

J.R. Dunn employees are manning the phones and processing orders placed on the store’s website, but are spread out around the 6,000-square-foot store.

RELATED CONTENT: 5 Tips on Public Relations During a Crisis From an Expert

Dunn is doing the dance so many small business owners are right now, mastering the steps between social responsibility—not putting customers, employees or others in the community at unnecessary risk—while not shuttering completely.

“People get concerned if you’re not there at least responding. Let’s face it: People are worried. Will the businesses reopen? Will they not?”

The store is using hand-written notes and social media to stay in touch with clients.  

Last week, the company gave out pearl “Hope” bracelets from Honora via Instagram and Facebook. It asked its followers to tag a nurse or doctor working on the frontlines to fight the pandemic, then sent the health-care workers one of the bracelets for free.

All 200 bracelets were gone, shipped out to south Florida doctors and nurses, in three days.

The store sold Breitling’s new “Top Time” limited-edition watch the day it went up on its Instagram page, and is selling smaller items to women buying for themselves online.

“I have people buying a lot of little pick-me-ups off our website,” Dunn said. “You can’t stop doing stuff that people may already be in the market for.”

On Facebook, the store directs its ads to people who already have purchased from J.R. Dunn.

Dunn said the most engaging post the store’s shared so far has been one that resonates right now—a picture of the store’s customer service specialist, Steve, trying to work from home while his kids are home too.

“We’re all kind of in that ship together,” Dunn said.

Michelle Graffis the editor-in-chief at National Jeweler, directing the publication’s coverage both online and in print.

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