By Michelle Graff
Michelle-blogIt’s not about being right but, rather, about confusing the readers. I hate to think that we’re not doing our job, which is simply this: to provide jewelry store owners with news, information and analysis that helps them run their businesses.

You will understand why, then, my blood pressure rose last week when we printed this report on jewelry sales being “weak” based on the latest U.S. government data and then, a few days later, reports emerged from the Global Retailing Conference in Tucson citing MasterCard data that claimed 25 straight months of year-over-year growth for jewelry sales.

This contradicts with what the U.S. Commerce Department has been saying for the past five months: that jewelry sales are down compared with a year ago.

So, what’s the real story?

To begin with, I think we need to look at the well from which each source is drawing its data.

The government uses data derived from samples and it’s measuring sales of jewelry at tens of thousands stores nationwide, including specialty jewelry retailers (stores that sell jewelry and little or nothing else) as well as at multi-line retailers (places like Walmart, J.C. Penney, Kohl’s, etc.) and online-only retailers (Blue Nile, etc.).

Ken Gassman, a longtime source of mine who follows and tracks data on the jewelry industry more closely than anyone else I know of, said he considers this data from the government to be the most reliable, as it tracks very closely to proprietary numbers he sees from independents jewelers as well as the numbers from the big public companies.

MasterCard’s data, meanwhile, is a combination of MasterCard transactions and other payment forms that the company puts together and, like the government data, is intended to paint a picture of total retail spend in specific categories.

Or, as MasterCard explains it, “MasterCard SpendingPulse deploys a proprietary methodology that takes our aggregated and anonymous transaction data and uses additional data and algorithms to deliver total retail spend—across credit and debit cards, cash and check, both online and offline.”

Now, one of the reasons for the discrepancies in the data that Gassman suggested was that today’s jewelers, specifically independents, don’t offer store credit as widely as their predecessors did, so more consumers are financing their purchases using other means, including MasterCard.

In addition, there are also fewer independents out there today and the Commerce Department data shows us that those that are in business are losing market share to other retailers. Perhaps shoppers today are just less loyal overall, and prefer just to use MasterCard or Visa to shop wherever they like. Maybe they buy their towels and sheets from Macy’s, but turn Anthropologie for their clothing, DSW for their shoes, and buy some jewelry online and some from their neighborhood retailer, all the while making their shopping a mix of online and in-store browsing and buying.

In an effort to test Gassman’s theory, I asked MasterCard if they could give me their data related to MasterCard spending alone, without the “additional data and algorithms” used to deliver total retail spend, so we could see just how much of the spending on jewelry relates to more use of MasterCards vs. more spending on jewelry as a whole. But a spokeswoman for the company—which, after having my request all week, got back to me at 4:45 p.m. on Thursday, just under the buzzer!—said they don’t release that data.

So, in conclusion, I am not saying that there necessarily is anything wrong with the MasterCard data.

I am just pointing out that it is not necessarily painting an accurate picture of U.S. jewelry sales but could, in fact, be telling us something different: What we may well be seeing is not an increase in jewelry sales but a shift in how consumers are paying when they do buy jewelry.

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