By Cathleen McCarthy
Editor’s note: A version of this jewelry industry analysis story first appeared in the print edition of National Jeweler’s 2018 Retailer Hall of Fame issue with the headline “A Delicate Balance: Retailers and Suppliers.”

New York--The retailers we honored in the 2018 Retailer Hall of Fame issue spoke often of their relationships with family members, employees and customers.

In this story, we continue to explore connections, getting four other jewelers’ perspectives on one of the most delicate relationships in the industry today—the one between retailers and suppliers.

2018 RHOF article image insert
When we asked retailers what they can do to keep their suppliers happy, no one missed a beat. The first thing they all said was: pay our bills on time.

But in asking retailers what suppliers can do to make them happy, we got a more complicated response.

“The world has gotten smaller with the growth of the internet,” says John Green, CEO of Lux, Bond & Green, a six-store chain in New England founded in 1898. “So many suppliers sell directly to the customer. Some allow us to sell their products online. Some don’t. In general, the bigger the brand, the bigger the challenge.”

Successful retailers, including Green, see the ideal supplier relationship as a partnership.

When jewelers talk about this, it often sounds like they’re describing a marriage. Attraction is a good start, but then it’s all about transparency, reliability and common goals.

Perfect Partners
“A good supplier is someone who sees herself or himself as a partner in our business and our future,” says Lisa Bridge, president of Ben Bridge Jeweler and fifth generation of the Seattle-based family business, which has more than 100 stores.

She and her staff look for suppliers who share their expectations of quality, from stones to finishing.

“We’ve worked before with people we like and who have beautiful designs,” Bridge says. “But we found if that understanding of quality doesn’t come naturally to them, it just doesn’t work.”
“Any time [suppliers] don’t live up to their promises and we feel it’s not human error, we say ‘thanks, see you later.’ We’re done. Because there is no product you can’t get somewhere else.” —Steven Singer, Steven Singer Jewelers
Her team recently made a video celebrating a supplier’s 40th year in business and showed it at the Hong Kong International Jewellery Show in March.

“We were one of its earliest buyers and they were saying how appreciative they are of our long-term relationship,” Bridge says. “It works in both directions.”

What makes this vendor the perfect partner? Consistent supply and quality, she says, coupled with the respect and transparency embedded in a relationship built over time.

“It really epitomizes what we look for in a supplier,” Bridge says. “Somebody who sees the vision and wants to be part of our success; who understands our expectations in terms of quality, delivery and pricing; who wants to have a conversation and work through challenges together.”

Retailer Expectations
What can suppliers do to help retailers sell their product?

“They [can] do everything they say they’re going to do,” says Philadelphia jeweler Steven Singer. “And I’ll have confidence that everything is what they say it is—ethically sourced with proper carat weight. We test samples because we want to keep honest people honest, but we have a responsibility to our customers. Any time [suppliers] don’t live up to their promises and we feel it’s not human error, we say ‘thanks, see you later.’ We’re done. Because there is no product you can’t get somewhere else.”

Retailers who sell designer jewelry say having the designers talk to staff is vitally important, too.

“To become successful, designers have to win the hearts and minds of our people,” Bridge says. “They can have the most beautiful merchandise out there, but if our associates don’t understand or believe in it, they’re not going to sell it.”

Successful retailers today also do a lot of online marketing. That requires killer images, and lots of them.
“Supplied photography is great but co-op dollars are even more important. If we want to run a magazine ad or a billboard and we have a designer who is willing to do it with us, that’s very helpful.” —Matina Williams, Be On Park
Green says great photography is imperative but, unfortunately, not a lot of vendors have it. Exceptions include David Yurman, Ippolita, John Hardy and Marco Bicego, which is great for Lux Bond & Green’s social media as well as the retailer’s website.

He says the chain has to send jewelry out almost every week to have it reshot professionally, which is time-consuming and expensive, and a mark against suppliers.

“We have no choice, because the website is the No. 1 marketing tool of a company today,” Green says.

Owners of smaller, independent designer galleries appreciate help above and beyond photos.

“Supplied photography is great but co-op dollars are even more important,” says Matina Williams, co-owner of Be On Park in Winter Park, Florida. “If we want to run a magazine ad or a billboard and we have a designer who is willing to do it with us, that’s very helpful.”

Keeping Suppliers Happy
Along with paying bills on time, successful retailers strive to be responsive and transparent.

For a boutique retailer like Be On Park, this means every member of the store’s staff of 10 (13 including the owners) knows exactly what’s coming in and going out at all times.

Be On Park deals with a lot of goods on memo. This works because much of the jewelry is unique and handmade, and the staff responds quickly.

“If we’re working with a customer and they request something we don’t have, our designers are good about sending in something for us to show them,” Williams says. “Likewise, if a designer calls us at 4 to say they need a piece back, we get it to them. If we’ve sold a piece, we report that and pay them.”

20180518 Be On ParkThe exterior of Winter Park, Florida jewelry store Be On Park. Co-owner Matina Williams says her store loves co-op dollars, is OK with carrying designers who also sell direct to consumers and has a memo system that works for it.
Green puts a lot of stock in face-to-face contact with valued suppliers.

He brings vendors into his stores once a year to talk to sales staff and goes out of his way to meet with them in person, even when he’s not buying: “I go to more trade shows than I should,” he confesses.

He talks to suppliers about new work, quality and manufacturing, but also about what’s helping their sales with other jewelers, including social media best practices.

“We continue to learn,” Green says. “Sometimes, it’s just about the words we’re using. Things are changing so fast.”

Singer runs a different kind of jewelry business. There are no brands in his store except Steven Singer.

“I don’t believe in memo,” he says. “I don’t believe in having the vendor finance your business. They’re not in the banking business; they’re in the jewelry business. Profit margins are so thin and everything is so flat and transparent in today’s world, you really have to buy and pay for the goods and replace them quickly to be a good partner.”

Competing for Turf
Problems with sharing turf are almost always about e-commerce.

Jewelers large and small say competing with online sales, especially when vendors sell direct, is one of the biggest hurdles of the retailer-supplier relationship today. Many suppliers now sell direct and some big-name brands and designers exercise more control over e-commerce than others.

Many luxury watch brands, for example, prohibit jewelers from selling online but allow them to show the pieces on their websites to lure customers into the store.

There are also jewelry brands that restrict retailers from selling direct from their websites. A few brands allow select department stores to sell their products online but restrict independent jewelers from doing so, and sometimes won’t even allow them to show it online.

Shops that focus on less-established designers of unique goods have less of an issue with this.

Williams says most designers carried by Be On Park do not sell direct. If a customer in their area approaches Penny Preville or Elizabeth Locke directly, for example, they are directed by the supplier to Be On Park.
“If a vendor wants to be a retailer, God bless ‘em. They want to sell direct to the public? Let them. But you can’t do both.” —Steven Singer, Steven Singer Jewelers
But Be On Park also carries Roberto Coin, Ippolita, and David Yurman, all of which do sell direct.

It all comes down to exceptional customer service, Williams says.

She and co-owner Janice Blumberg work hard to make the shopping experience special, from the friendly, informed sales staff to beautifully wrapping every piece that leaves the store.

“It’s very hard to compete with online sales,” Williams says. “People are quick to check to see if they can get something online at a better price. Fortunately, many people still want to be able to touch things and try them on.”

Singer does not deal with suppliers who sell direct and if he discovers they are (sometimes under an alias), he drops them. As president of the Leading Jewelers Guild, he helped ensure that restriction made it into the buying group’s official guidelines.

“If a vendor wants to be a retailer, God bless ‘em. They want to sell direct to the public? Let them. But you can’t do both,” he says. “I don’t try to manufacture everything myself. I don’t want to become a diamond dealer. We know our place in the food chain.”

Ben Bridge’s Lisa Bridge agrees.

“Competing with vendors who sell direct is a tremendous challenge,” she says. “I think it takes total focus to be really successful in the retail environment. I don’t know the business of the supplier and I imagine most suppliers don’t know the retail business. We want people who want to be our partner. We don’t [need] people who want to be our competitor. We want to be playing for the same team.”

She believes any jeweler trying to land customers for life should be looking at suppliers the same way.

“Having a long-term relationship with our customers means we have to have long-term relationships with our suppliers,” Bridge says. “They are going to be there to take care of those customers when they come back. We need suppliers who see the big picture and want to join with us and build that success together.”

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