By Michelle Graff
Michelle-blogTotal U.S. jewelry sales—including specialty jewelers, merchants like Walmart, Costco, J.C. Penney, etc., and online-only retailers—have been declining a little bit each month since October, including the key (are they still key?) months of November and December.

Sales were down 0.8 percent year-over-year in November, fell 2 percent in December and were down 4 percent in January, Commerce Department data shows.

When we talked to independents during and after the holiday season, we found sales results to be mixed. Some retailers reported their season got off to a very fast start only to stall, while others experience strong traffic throughout or had a slow season overall. The same held true for Valentine’s Day.

So what, then, separates the winners from the losers, so to speak?

Is it a simple matter of having a store vs. not? On one hand, you read that online-only retailers have their problems, here and here. Or, wait, is it brick-and-mortar retailers that are doomed?

The fact is, it’s neither. It’s not a winner-take-all scenario where brick-and-mortar jewelers are eventually going to crush the likes of Blue Nile, or everybody is going to start buying their diamonds at Costco, never to set foot in a mall jewelry store again.

It’s retailers that have figured out the right product mix and know how to reach today’s consumers that are doing well and taking market share from those they haven’t, which really hurts in an environment with fewer discretionary dollars to go around.

It’s those that are doing a few key things well that will last.

They have a strong online presence and a physical touch point. As noted in both the articles about online-only retailers that I linked to above, e-tailers are coming to the conclusion that they need to have a physical presence, a place where the public can see, touch and feel their product or, at the very least, pick up or return something they bought online.

The example most germane to this industry is, of course, Blue Nile.

The Seattle-based e-tailer started out by putting a few showcases of its rings in two Nordstrom stores. It didn’t sell in either of these stores; people still had to go online to make a purchase. Recently, Blue Nile announced plans to open its own storefront in a still-unnamed major American mall. The new store will operate by the same set of rules—you can look but you can’t buy.

On the other hand, brick-and-mortar retailers need to, at the very least, have a modern-looking website that contains professional images of the jewelry they sell.

I am not 100 percent convinced that everybody needs to be selling online, only because I am a proponent of tackling fewer projects but doing them well, rather than trying to do everything with poor results. If you don’t have the staff to properly maintain and operate an e-commerce site, than don’t do it. Concentrate instead on having a nice website, a great in-store experience and a strong social media presence.

Your social media priorities should be: 1) Instagram; 2) Facebook; 3) Pinterest and 4) Twitter. Don’t have the personnel to do them all? Eliminate Twitter first and go from there. And forget Google+. It’s not worth it.

Retailers that will last also have a defined brand presence that customers, both potential and current, can understand.

Branding is important, but it isn’t limited to simply filling a store with well-known names. Retailers also can be their own brand, which means sending a cohesive message that resonates across their merchandise mix, employees’ attitude and dress, and in their store logo and social media interactions.

Are you the hip spot that carries cutting-edge designers, the fifth-generation family-owned business that endears yourself to each new generation of customers or the local destination for those big-name brands?  What is the story of your store? Why are you in business?

There’s no right answer to any of these questions. Whatever you do decide, though, you just need to figure it out and go with it.

As a person who has a hard time making decisions (you have no idea how many times I’ve just rewritten these couple paragraphs), I recently was struck by this interview in Rolling Stone with a young, successful musician who said she lives by the creed, “first thought, best thought.”

While it’s never a bad idea to think things out when you’re running a business, it’s usually the case that one’s first instinct turns out to be correct. You know what your store is about, so be it.

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