By Michelle Graff
Kay Jewelers is one of the chain operated by Signet Jewelers Ltd., which saw it same-store and total sales decline 2 percent last year.
Akron, Ohio--Signet Jewelers Ltd.’s quarterly earnings call began with an unusual occurrence: a statement from board Chairman Todd Stitzer.

And he immediately addressed the elephant in the room: the waves of negative publicity that have pounded Signet since The Washington Post published a story in late February detailing past accounts of sexual harassment and mistreatment of female employees at the company.

The report was based on more than 1,300 pages of recently unsealed documents filed as part of the ongoing class-action arbitration in which women allege they were passed over for promotions and paid less than men.

On Thursday, Stitzer reiterated the point made by a company spokesman immediately after the Post story ran: that the ongoing class-action case contains no allegations of sexual harassment and that the allegations are not an accurate reflection of the company’s culture. They were made by a small group of women and relate to incidences that happened in the 1990s through 2005, he said.

“We have a culture in which capable women thrive professionally and advance,” he said, pointing to the fact that 34 percent of Signet’s C-level executives are women, as are more than 60 percent of store managers.

And Stitzer announced that the company is taking a number of additional steps to “reaffirm” its commitment to equal opportunity, including the formation of a new board committee comprised entirely of women that will focus on workplace respect and advancement of female employees.

The Post report was the latest in a line of blows for Signet, which saw sales decline last year as it grappled with the fallout from allegations of stone-swapping at Kay Jewelers stores--which Stitzer called “categorically false”--and had to address questions about the quality of its credit program.

Stitzer admitted in his remarks Thursday morning that in light of all the controversies and declining sales, he has been asked about the quality of the management team and about the 2014 appointment of Mark Light, who was mentioned by name in the Post’s story, as CEO in light of the ongoing arbitration.

He said the board took all factors into account in deciding to appoint Light as CEO and pointed to the “consistent and high-quality growth” of the company delivered by the management team under Light’s leadership.

Stitzer acknowledged, however, that the company had a challenging fiscal 2017 due to its own “shortcomings” and a difficult retail environment for jewelry and noted that, “Our board is very focused on management’s performance.”

Signet’s same-store fourth quarter sales were down 5 percent while total sales also declined 5 percent to $2.27 billion.

E-commerce sales were down 3 percent due in part to the previously reported technical problems with the Kay Jewelers and Jared the Galleria of Jewelry websites.

For fiscal year 2017 ended Jan. 28, Signet’s same-store sales were down 2 percent year-over-year while total sales slid 2 percent to $6.4 billion.

Piercing Pagoda outperformed the rest of the company, posting a 6 percent increase in same-store sales in the fourth quarter and a 7 percent increase for the full year.

Product-wise, diamond earrings and bracelets were top performers, while the Ever Us and Vera Wang collections also did well for the company.

Light pointed to a confluence of factors as contributing to the retailer’s troubles, including a decline in mall traffic, a promotional retail environment, a decline in demand for fine jewelry overall and the technical problems.

He said the company is working to cut page load speeds for the Sterling division stores (Kay and Jared) by half in time for Mother’s Day shopping.

The company also is working on improving search engine optimization and increasing the amount of user-generated content on its websites.

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