Independent fine jewelry retail owners have been forced to navigate extreme shifts these past few years, including COVID-19’s lockdowns and the pendulum swing to online spending it catalyzed. Many jewelers are seeing a surge in sales, but as the world reopens from the pandemic, few expect sales to hold at current levels.
In this Future of Retail interview series, we’re talking to jewelry retailers around the country to discover how retail is evolving, and how proprietors can adapt to the topsy-turvy landscape.
This week, we sat down with Lauren Wolf, owner of bi-coastal fine jewelry retail business Esqueleto, which operates five outposts, with one store each in New York, Oakland, Echo Park, Los Feliz and San Diego. In addition to selling her own Lauren Wolf Jewelry collection, she stocks the stylish wares of 50 designers. Wolf is known for her good taste, eye for emerging talent and retail business savvy:
The Zing Report: How do you feel the jewelry retail business has changed in recent years?
Lauren Wolf: When COVID hit, we were driving our then 6-year-old in the car just to get out of the house. We passed a neighbor and started chatting with her. She’s old-school retail and she said, “Retail is dead. It’s done.”
That was in March 2020 when we were locked at home, and everything was unpredictable. It was pretty grim at the beginning. We had an e-comm business, so we had the avenue to reach our customers. But, at that time, we were a 70 percent brick-and-mortar business, not an online business. We were a weird dinosaur. People wanted to come in and touch it and feel it and try it on.
Then it suddenly reversed. Our team shrank. That year ended up being a big focus on our online business, which grew by 10 to 15 percent. We knew that getting our online platform more [established] was going to be important. We had a stay-at-home sale, we had curbside pickup. Our small team dialed up marketing and social media. And we were able to continue selling. People did not want to come in person even in 2021. The majority of our sales still come from brick and mortar. But now, our online business is better and provides a personalized experience for the customer.
Have new challenges arisen as a result of the pandemic?
When the worst of the lockdowns were over, staffing was a big challenge. There was so much influx. Between the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), unemployment benefits, and the psychological attitudes in the workplace, many people didn’t want to get back to work. I feel like the attitude toward small business and retail changed in that respect. We still had people applying. But there were fewer applicants. The upside is that we are way more selective now. We’ll take more time in hiring now, to find the right person. It was just a really good learning lesson as a small business owner and employer.
Now that vaccines and boosters are available, has foot traffic returned to stores?
I don’t know how much foot traffic is tied to the vaccine. Before vaccines were available, we had a mask policy and limited capacity in our stores. The majority of 2020 was pretty much all appointments. We don’t have to limit capacity anymore. It was a slow rebuild from 2020 but we’re back to pre-pandemic normal. People still make appointments. But now it’s more for engagement help and reference. It’s not as popular as it was.
What business issues worry you now?
I’m concerned about inflation. There’s been a lot of money pumped into the economy over the past two years. I’m waiting for the ball to drop. Lately, our sales have been really strong and it’s hard to know what supports that. I do like to approach that cautiously. So, I’m trying to be more conservative in 2022. Maybe we should scale back our buy budget this year and our general expenses. Because we’re back to full speed. But it feels more fragile and unpredictable.
What’s been the biggest shift in jewelry retail?
I think the biggest shift in jewelry retail is that you’re seeing small fine jewelry stores choose the direct-to-consumer business model. That’s basically what I did. But I think there’s an over-saturation. I think that’s going to eventually affect jewelry retail as we’ve known it in the past and force some big changes.
Where do you see retail going in the future?
It’s going to be challenging in the future. What will be important is to differentiate yourself. We focus on customer experience. That currently sets us apart. Creativity is going to be a strong factor in how retail stays afloat in the future. —Kristin Young
All photos courtesy of Esqueleto