By Michelle Graff
Michelle-blogSo, what has characterized the year so far? I think, undoubtedly, it has been a tale of companies joining forces in an increasingly competitive retail environment.

Let’s start by looking at some activity that began late last year.

In October, Hudson’s Bay Company, which owns Lord & Taylor along with a couple of Canadian chains, won shareholder approval for its purchase of Saks Inc. (Around this same time, another high-end department store chain, Neiman Marcus, also changed hands but it was not to merge with another retailer. The chain was sold to a different private equity firm.)

Then New Year’s Eve, and Day, came and went. I learned yet another valuable lesson about drinking too much champagne, a lesson I apparently enjoy relearning every couple of years.

January passed quietly. A few weeks into February, however, news broke that Signet Jewelers Ltd. planned to acquire Zale Corp. in a $1.4 billion deal. It was, as I later observed, the culmination of consolidation in the jewelry industry. These are the two biggest jewelry retailers in the United States, and their union will create a chain of more than 3,600 stores in three countries.

Their merger spoke volumes about the state of the majors today. There simply isn’t room in the market for two retailers of this size anymore, given Internet competition and today’s increasingly shrewd consumers, who need a heavy amount of convincing in order to part with their money and almost always expect a deal or added value when they do.

After some back and forth with various shareholder groups, the dust settled on the Signet-Zale deal, with Zale’s shareholders voting yes on the merger in late May, while the bulk of the industry was in Las Vegas for market week.

I managed to avoid additional painful champagne lessons in Las Vegas this year and returned home in relatively decent shape.

Less than a month after I got back, more big news broke: Chinese retailer Chow Tai Fook, which rivals the new Signet-Zale in size, is planning to buy Boston-based diamond brand Hearts on Fire for $150 million.

The proposed acquisition is a huge boost to both parties involved. It gives Hearts on Fire the entryway into the Chinese market it has long sought and the backing of one of the world’s largest jewelry retailers. It gives Chow Tai Fook possession of a well-established brand, a very powerful tool in today’s market.

All of this, of course, comes on the heels of the early 2013 announcement that the Swatch Group was buying the Harry Winston name and its network of retail stores nationwide. The transaction provided Biel/Bienne, Switzerland-based Swatch, which already owns a number of high-end watch brands, a foothold in the luxury jewelry market.

All of this activity, for me at least, begs the question: What’s next, in this ultra-competitive, post-recession retail landscape?

The possible acquisition of Tiffany & Co. by one of the large luxury goods conglomerates, such as Kering (formerly PPR) or LVMH, is something that’s been talked about for years.

What about other brands, such as David Yurman, Scott Kay and John Hardy? John Hardy was making headlines late last year, with buyout firms allegedly vying to acquire the Hong Kong-based brand, though the rumblings about this deal have quieted as of late. I was told by a source in Las Vegas that the buyout isn’t happening.

I don’t know what will be the next big breaking news story that keeps me here late at night, but I am sure of two things: The industry will witness another big deal go down before the end of the year, and I haven’t yet learned my lesson about champagne.

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