By Ashley Davis
In the first of a 50-part series, National Jeweler is taking the pulse of the nation’s independent jewelers state by state, starting with Alabama.
Tuscaloosa, Ala.--Contemporary times pose challenges for the retail industry and the way stores nationwide do business.

New generations of shoppers have different attitudes and values, and the jewelry industry, which deals in product that’s best seen in person, must learn to communicate digitally.

The editorial team at National Jeweler wondered how these macro-trends have affected jewelers in disparate parts of the country.

Are the challenges affecting the retail jeweler in Florida as much of a concern to the jeweler in California, and does a store in Alaska rely on the same top-selling styles and brands as a store in Arkansas?

In a bid to answer these questions, National Jeweler decided to poll one jeweler in each of the 50 states.

We started with Hudson-Poole Fine Jewelers in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a college town where owner Gene Poole constantly adapts to millennial behaviors yet preserves his core service values.

20170423 50StatesAlabama headerHudson-Poole Fine Jewelers has one 8,700-square-foot store and 14 employees. It was founded in 1995 and is owned by Gene Poole.
National Jeweler: What’s the biggest challenge your store is facing?

Gene Poole: I think it’s twofold. I think one, the internet is a tremendous competitor, and I think having the right sales people is another big problem.

In our particular area, we’re in a little bubble; we’ve been at about 4.5 percent unemployment for the last 15 years. We’re very fortunate that we’re basically fully employed. In other words, if you want a job in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, you should be able to get a job.

So, therefore, the pool of workers is not tremendous and, being a smaller retailer jeweler, we require employees to work on Saturdays and a lot of people are not liking to work on Saturdays.

Millennials are a different breed. The millennial workforce is really cool but I think it’s a different group than past generations.

A big problem for my fellow independent jewelers today is a succession plan. I am very, very fortunate to have my son and daughter-in-law in the business with me. Also, my wife is three-quarters of my brain, and I could never have had a successful business without her. She is also the best jewelry buyer in the country. 

NJ: What’s the top-selling item or brand at your store?

GP: Our top-selling item is going to be bridal engagement rings, diamond engagement rings and wedding bands. Martin Flyer and Gabriel & Co. are two of our best-selling brands.

NJ: Describe your regional customer.

GP: We’re in a college town. The University of Alabama is located here. We get students from all over the United States. So our bridal market is primarily that market, not just the regular Tuscaloosa population.

We serve basically west Alabama and east Mississippi. We have Birmingham to the east of us so there are people in that area who don’t need to come this way, but we have a tremendous area in west Alabama that covers about six or eight counties that we serve, as well as eastern Mississippi.

NJ: What’s the most popular style of engagement ring with your clientele now?

GP: I guess I got to say it’s still the halo, but I am seeing a little pushback from that since it has been so popular. We’ve actually sold a couple of solitaires--basic four-prong, Tiffany-style solitaires--and I’m also seeing a great trend of yellow gold. It’s been years since we’ve sold yellow metal for bridal, but we’re seeing a little of that. (There is a) very, very slight trend toward rose gold. Mainly, if there’s anything other than white, it’s going to be yellow.

NJ: What about diamond shapes?

GP: Right now, we’re mainly selling round brilliant but I see a little popularity in oval and maybe a smidgen going back toward marquise … I haven’t seen the marquise in 15 years, but I’m seeing a little bit of interest in marquise now.

20170423 50StatesAlabama insertGene Poole, owner of Hudson-Poole Fine JewelersNJ: What’s your internet presence like?

GP: is our website. We’re not selling a tremendous amount online but we do sell online, especially in the holiday season. We carry some collegiate merchandise for the University of Alabama, so alumni across the United States will order that online. When they google “Alabama jewelry,” we come up pretty high.

I’m really amazed at the number of my longtime customers who will do their research online and then come in to buy. The other day I had a gentleman who had an anniversary and came in and showed us a picture of a tanzanite and diamond ring that we had online and said, “That’s what I want,” and we took it out of the case, wrapped it and handed it to him.

I see a huge amount of the millennial population come in and pull up a picture on their iPhone and say, “This is what she wants.” It makes my job a lot easier in that respect, that you can pull something out of the case, even if it’s not that particular brand the customer shows you, and you can compete.

My real agitation with the internet is sales tax. I can compete with diamond prices and I can compete with mounting prices, but I can’t compete with sales tax and I had a long discussion about this with the mayor of Tuscaloosa. They’re losing money on sales tax because so many people are shopping online, not just jewelry but apparel and housewares and everything.

Most cities in the South depend on sales tax as opposed to any other type of tax for road and bridges and infrastructure. I just saw Amazon came out and said they’re going to start collecting state sales tax. That’s fine, but it doesn’t help cities and counties. If I have a young man going online, I’m 9 percent non-competitive right off the bat because we have a 9 percent sales tax. Nine percent on a diamond engagement ring is enough to make you think, “‘Well, hell, I think I’ll buy it online,’ and I don’t like that.”

At some point, we have to level the playing field and Congress needs to get on board and the state governments need to get on board because it’s hurting the brick-and-mortar retailers of all types and it’s hurting the states, the cities and the counties for their infrastructure needs and education needs. It’s just crazy.

NJ: Of the social media accounts you’re using, which is the most important to Hudson-Poole?

GP: Instagram is really, really good for us. We have a lot of followers, and again I get people who will tell their husbands or significant others that they like a particular piece that we posted. We try to stay real fresh and real current on that. We do Facebook and it’s OK, but I think Instagram is better right now for us.

NJ: What’s the best piece of advice you’d offer to other independent jewelry stores?

GP: This is not anything new, but you still have to get customers into the store. I think online media is the way to do it. I spend money on Facebook and Instagram and advertise there. I also advertise on radio, TV, billboards, newspaper, direct mail, everything, but I do think that online is really significant. And I’m putting more and more dollars there.

But that’s basically getting the purchase on your website or getting them into the store. When they come into the store, you have to make sure your customer service is superior to anyone else’s.

So we try to make sure that we’ve read all of the articles and done all of the training and studying to make sure that our customer has a really good experience when they walk in the door at Hudson- Poole Jewelers.

They’re greeted within five seconds. They’re offered Coca-Cola, Diet Coke, Sprite, water. We do everything we can do to put them at ease and relax. We try to just talk and show jewelry; there’s no pressure. And it basically seems to work really good for us.

NJ: What’s a fun fact about you we can share with our readers?

GP: I’ve had three lives. I’m a retired military colonel, U.S. Army Special Forces. I still play oldies rock ‘n’ roll music--the drums--and I love the jewelry industry.

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Since 1906, National Jeweler has been the must-read news source for smart jewelry professionals--jewelry retailers, designers, buyers, manufacturers, and suppliers. From market analysis to emerging jewelry trends, we cover the important industry topics vital to the everyday success of jewelry professionals worldwide. National Jeweler delivers the most urgent jewelry news necessary for running your day-to-day jewelry business here, and via our daily e-newsletter, website and other specialty publications, such as "The State of the Majors." National Jeweler is published by Jewelers of America, the leading nonprofit jewelry association in the United States.