Jay Jackson
Lafayette, La.--A classified advertisement in The Wall Street Journal brought Jay Jackson from Chicago to Lafayette in 1996. He quit his job at Sears to work as the vice president of sales for a jewelry supplier and manufacturer called Stuller.

Seventeen years later, Jackson finds himself at the head of the company but, also, at the end of his full-time career.

On Dec. 27, the 69-year-old will retire, about four months shy of his 70th birthday. He said his original plan was to retire in 2009 at the age of 65, but company founder and Chairman Matt Stuller asked him to become chief operating officer, and he committed to the position for five years. In early 2011, he was promoted to president and CEO.

Jackson began his career in retail at Sears in the late 1960s after growing up on Okinawa, where his dad worked in as civilian judge in the post-World War II era and, later, returning to the U.S. to attend Duke University. 

On the eve of his retirement, Jackson spoke to National Jeweler about retail then, now and down the road.

He’s said he’s grateful for the opportunity Matt Stuller extended to him 17 years ago.

“It’s been a real trip,” Jackson said. “It’s been a journey. And as I’ve said, there’s been some good times and some bad times but, at the end of the day, even the bad times were good.”

National Jeweler: Your career in retail has spanned nearly 50 years. What made you decide to retire now?

Jay Jackson: There are always mixed emotions but I decided long ago that I’d rather leave a year too soon than say a year too late and I think we got it just right.

NJ: Describe the retail environment when you got into the business at Sears in the late 1960s.

JJ: About the time I started full-time, I think it was around 1968, Sears became the No. 1 retailer in America. We were so customer service focused. Nobody in the Sears stores had the authority to say no to a customer except the store manager. It was still that first premise of taking care of the customer and then the profits and everything else resulted from that.

I remember chasing a customer down the hallway and saying, come back, and I’d take care of them. You just did not want the customer to feel compelled that he had to go higher.

NJ: Do you think that level of customer service still exists today?

JJ: There are some stores out there in the retail world that work very, very hard to maintain them. Nordstrom comes to mind. I don’t think it’s as prevalent as it was with Sears back in the 50s and 60s. (Their high level of customer service is) one of the things that impressed me about Stuller.

NJ: What drew you to Stuller in 1996? Why not just finish out your career with Sears?

JJ: (I saw) a blind advertisement in The Wall Street Journal. It had a skill set that I thought was very compatible with my background.

I had just gotten my MBA and I thought it was a good time to start looking. Sears was (downsizing) in the home office.

The human resources director for Stuller called me and told me about the business model. I went into a jewelry store and pretended to be looking for something I didn’t think they’d have. Sure enough, she pulled out the Stuller mountings book. And that impressed me.

I hadn’t heard of the company and I wasn’t sure how much of the jewelry industry had either, quite frankly. And the fact that she pulled out the Stuller catalog was a good sign.

Then the bench jeweler came in and we started talking. He had his own shop in Bailey Banks & Biddle but he did the repair work for all five stores in the mall. And he said, let me sum up Stuller like this. I’ve been doing business with them for 15 years and I’ve never had to disappoint one of my customers because Stuller let me down. And that just blew me away because that was what Sears was like in my early days. Not letting a customer down was paramount to who we were and what we represented.

NJ: What was it like transitioning from the Chicago area to Louisiana?

JJ: I’d been in Memphis, Tenn. for six years before going to Chicago. Lafayette was part of my area; I used to travel to Lafayette twice a year. This was like coming home in some respects, coming to the South. The ad did say “willing to relocate to the South,” which was attractive.

NJ: What has been the biggest change in the needs of your retail customers during your time at Stuller?

JJ: The advent of the Internet and the availability of goods; a retail store, any kind of brick-and-mortar store has a hard time competing with the Internet on assortment. You can’t compete with them on price.

They (brick-and-mortar retailers) really had to struggle to come up with a unique and compelling shopping experience, a reason why a customer would want to come into the store.

There’s a guy who wrote a book called Jump Start Your Business Brain (and said that) you better be meaningfully unique or you better be cheaper. In a retail store you can’t be cheap enough to compete with the Internet … so you’ve got to find a way to be meaningful and unique. They have to come up with a compelling reason for you to go to their store. And that’s been a struggle.

The old days of having inventory … just won’t create a sustainable business model anymore.
The retailer has to create something that is meaningful. Too often they say, I’ve got to have an exclusive brand name. That helps, but it’s more about the atmosphere of the store and the whole ambience.

They’ve got to utilize technology whether it’s a connection to a powerful website or the ability to (create exactly what a customer wants). People want something just for me. I don’t care if you go into a baseball cap store or a luggage store, even automobiles today. The idea is, I don’t want something off the showroom floor.  I want something made just for me.

If you don’t offer that capability the chances of you surviving the next 10 years are very small.

NJ: What advice would you give to retailers going forward? What can they do today to ensure a successful future? 

JJ: They need to transform the retail experience in their store to make it that unique. They need to separate themselves not with brands necessarily but with the whole atmosphere.

They need to re-do the way they’ve done their showcases for years. People find shopping for jewelry intimidating and they really don’t like to do it. Women would rather shop for books and shoes and clothing. Even though they love wearing the jewelry the experience of acquiring it is not something they find that attractive.

(In addition) a major sea change in the retail environment is the need for the retailer to customize. They need to partner with Stuller. They need to have the ability in the store. They don’t need to make it but they need to be able to quickly design and let the customer participate in the design, whether it’s CounterSketch Studio or another computer-aided design (program).
I would recommend that they attend a Stuller Bridge event at the earliest possible time that’s convenient for them. It’s designed to provide the framework whereby they can answer their questions themselves. The answer is going to be different in one store versus another store.

NJ: What might people be surprised to know about you?

JJ: I returned to Okinawa 11 years after I graduated from high school. I was so excited to be returning home. But when I got there the places were the same, all the physical stuff was still there, but none of the people were.  It left a really hollow feeling.

Twenty-eight years later, they organized a reunion. It was held in Vegas one weekend and 750 people showed up. It was like the 28 years never happened.

It really brings home to you that it is the people that make the place. And it’s the people that make a company. It’s the people that make this great industry what it is. There are great people in this industry. There’s a passion for the work that they do that you don’t find in most industries.

NJ: So is that what will you miss most, the people?

JJ: Absolutely, absolutely; I’ll be staying on at Stuller as a consultant. But it won’t be the same level of intensity that I’ve been doing for the last 17 years. 

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