There’s no denying that the retail industry has experienced seismic change throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. And independent retailers have, perhaps, been on the wildest ride. When the world shut down, major retailers had the resources to bolster IT teams and furlough employees, while small firms were forced to get creative—and make tough decisions—just to survive.
Though COVID-19 marches on, the indie jewelers that made it through those many months of lockdowns and quarantines are now capitalizing on the mass spending spree that’s been energizing fine jewelry (among other consumer categories) in the U.S. for over 18 months. Which is obviously excellent for the industry as a whole.
But what’s around the bend for jewelry retailers? We’re asking some of our favorite retailers about the challenges and triumphs they anticipate in the coming months, and year. First up in this new series: Jennifer Gandia, co-owner of New York City’s Greenwich St. Jewelers, which (news flash!) is opening a second location, in NYC’s Tribeca neighborhood, in mid-2022.
The Zing Report: In what major ways has jewelry retailing changed for you since the pandemic began?
Jennifer Gandia: Of course, the pivot to much stronger online and social selling is a phenomenon I’d put at the top of that list. When it came to jewelry, you had certain people who had a certain amount of comfort buying [expensive jewelry] online. But I think the majority didn’t. We hadn’t quite hit that critical mass yet. This was the tipping point that pushed people over the edge to get way more comfortable buying higher price points online.
For us, that meant beginning to sell engagement rings through very low-touch experiences; for example, they put the $10,000 engagement ring in the basket and buy it! They don’t need any help, and have no questions. We always had a modern website and always sold online, but we never saw that so much. Now those changes are permanent, I think…We also started doing more volume in our online sales. And the other thing we’ve noticed is an increase in hybrid shopping—customers starting their [sales journey] in person in the store, then finishing it up virtually.
What are the new challenges for fine jewelry retailers, as you see them?
I do think some of the challenges are people challenges. We’re all in this pandemic, everyone has fear and grief and pandemic fatigue. So being mindful of our staff and their needs is important to us; basically really staying attuned with what’s happening in our own house. We are conditioned as business owners to make a profit, make a profit, and a lot of it is this old programming we’ve been conditioned to. Now we have to take into consideration what’s changed in the world and think of new ways to approach profit. For example, we felt we had to bring someone on in a support role this year, whose job it was to support our sales team and take some of the administrative tasks off their plate.
How have the global supply chain disruptions impacted your store?
Everyone is operating at a slower pace, which his neither good nor bad. Everyone has had to adjust. Production times with designers have slowed and people aren’t holding on to inventory, so sometimes we and our consumers have to wait. But demand is very high right now, and that’s good for all of us.
What channels do you see consumers being pulled to most strongly? Where are they going in the future to buy their jewelry, say, five years from now?
I think social selling for us has become such a big part of our business and I really feel like consumers are going to continue to go that way. We are constantly talking about what we should be doing as the 20-30-year-old jewelry buyer begins to age up a little. They will bring their tech expectations with them, but it will be interesting to see what they expect from their jewelers when they’re 35. If your customer is someone who’s 50-60, they don’t have those demands, they may watch a Facebook Live… But think about Gen Z—will they be asking if they can have a virtual party with their friends on your website with you showing them all the new jewelry you have? It could happen!
How has the in-person jeweler role evolved in the past two years and where do you see it going?
I never think things are going to be just one way. I do think that people want personal experiences – they will still want that connection with you and want to come in and try on jewelry. The big difference is that people are not just shopping just one way anymore. Even old clients I’ve had that I’ve been working with for years wanted to buy online this year. But there will always be a place for in-person.
What professional issues or worries keep you up at night?
Staffing. Getting people who are a good fit. We’re really trying hard to have an environment that feels really good for everyone. That’s very important to us. We always find staffing a challenge, and I’m not sure it’s because of the [labor shortages]. Finding the right people is so important, and keeping them happy is incredibly important.
What have been the silver linings for your business during the pandemic?
We have grown close to our team, going through the kind of year we had last year really caused us to become more grateful for the people we have with us. We had to take care of each other in a different way than we had before. There were things we didn’t necessarily bring up us with an employee in the past—like asking about their mental health and what they need. We had people who lost people to COVID, so there’s a different level of closeness now; it kind of broke down the barriers between us. This is a family, we know, and keeping those barriers up wasn’t really helping anyone. Now we have more fun, and we feel closer.
Top photo: Inside Greenwich St. Jewelers (all photos courtesy Greenwich St. Jewelers)