By Ashley Davis
John Henne is the owner of Pittsburgh’s Henne Jewelers, which recently secured a Paycheck Protection Program loan to help employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pittsburgh—In a webinar earlier this week, fourth-generation jeweler John Henne offered insights on how Henne Jewelers is operating in light of the coronavirus.

Henne spoke in conversation with National Jeweler Editor-in-Chief Michelle Graff as part of a new webinar series from Jewelers of America and National Jeweler called “My Next Question.”

The next episode of “My Next Question” will be Tuesday, May 5 at 2 p.m. EDT and feature Sherry and Peter Smith. Registration is available here.

WATCH: The Recording of “My Next Question” with John Henne

Located in Pittsburgh, Henne Jewelers entered its reduced operational mode on March 16 in accordance with county guidelines.

Henne offered a few key takeaways to making it work during the pandemic.

Nonessential Is the Word
Even before nonessential businesses closed in his area, Henne began evaluating what was nonessential to his own business.

As soon as reports of coronavirus cases in Washington state hit the news, Henne asked his marketing director to cut $150,000 of the budget. Out went, radio, print and television ads.

Henne’s team began negotiating their billboard ad accounts, but deemed its digital marketing budget essential.

Henne said he “looked at every line item” on his budget, cutting whatever he could.

Support Your Employees
Henne said the most difficult challenge his company faced during this period was furloughing employees.

When the store was forced to stop serving customers in person, Henne had no choice but to let go of his 30-plus employees. To make the situation less painful, he advanced employees their last two weeks’ salary so they could file immediately for unemployment.

Since then he’s been working with a “skeleton crew” to fulfill basic operations and ecommerce and phone orders.

Employees volunteered if they wanted to continue working, with two to three people per floor (Henne Jewelers owns their building), spaced at least 20 feet apart.

Employees clean the store each morning and enter with masks on, removing them once they are in their isolated work spaces.

Henne said he’s been busier than ever obtaining the Paycheck Protection Program loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

He received funds April 14 and his furloughed staff was able to begin working from home the following Monday, April 20.

No, Really Support Them
While the PPP loan stipulates employers may reduce staff salaries by up to 25 percent with the loan remaining forgivable, Henne is paying his staff their full salaries.

In fact, he’s paying them more than their weekly checks to make up for their lost commissions as sales suffer during quarantine.

While the store’s skeleton crew—Henne included—have more than enough tasks to keep them busy, Henne is finding work for his new work-from-home unit by letting them decide how to best use their time, rather than micromanaging.

Employees are working within teams, each with its own leader, and taking advantage of the available industry education, as well as upping their knowledge of essential business programs in which they might be lacking, like the Microsoft suite.

Now Is the Time to Build on Established Relationships
Just as some Henne Jewelers clients have been purchasing gift cards or ordered that special piece they’ve had their eye on to support the store, Henne wants to provide as much help to his vendors as possible.

He’s doing that by treating each relationship differently, working with each vendor to meet his and their needs. There’s “no-one-size-fits-all,” policy, he explained.

One cash-strapped vendor might need some advance payment, for instance, while another will be willing to offset this burden for Henne Jewelers by allowing later payments than normal for the time being.

“Figure out what you can do for each brand case by case,” Henne explained, noting he will focus on “deepening existing relationships” in the months ahead, rather than meeting and taking on any new vendors.

He also doesn’t foresee any staff travel for shows or conferences in the next six months.

Go With the Flow
Jewelers have many questions. Post-coronavirus, how will they provide a luxury retail experience with masks and gloves in play? How will they handle customers wearing masks from a security standpoint?

Henne is going to play it by ear, looking into various options now, while remaining open to a changed way of business.

“All of us are navigating it so freshly together,” he said, so there’s no need to worry about foregoing the handshake or hug to a favorite customer when they’re allowed back in the store. Everyone will be accepting of a new normal.

Whatever measures need to be taken to keep staff and customers safe—new cleaning protocols for jewelry entering the store, or a security system in which customers must remove their masks upon entry for three to four seconds so the camera can capture their face—Henne will implement them.

Most importantly, he’s remaining open-minded to whatever the official guidance will be as businesses open back up, approaching any potential changes to how he sells jewelry with customer service in mind.

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