By Shawna Kulpa
Green Lake Jewelry Works, Seattle
A forward thinker, Jim Tuttle has long embraced the work-from-home concept. “We’ve always had a small crew working from home,” says the owner of Green Lake Jewelry Works, a custom studio with two locations in Washington State (Seattle and Bellevue). At any given time, Tuttle estimates he’s had five or fewer CAD modelers or designers working from home, primarily for flexibility, such as new mothers easing back into work or when a key employee spent a few years living in China. Because of that setup, they have had a computer system in place that allowed employees to view designs, track jobs, and review client communications from anywhere in the world.
That system was put to the test as the COVID-19 crisis began to build earlier this year.
“In early March, we had already expanded the list of people who could work from home,” he says, noting that he sent home “basically everyone we didn’t need in the shop.” Many of his jewelers already had bench setups at home either to work on their own projects or to bring work projects home so he helped them refresh their benches to make sure they had everything they would need to work from home.
“One jeweler took home a laser welder,”he says. “Other jewelers took stuff from their bench. CAD modelers took some equipment, such as extra monitors. And everyone has a VoIP phone so they can answer the phone as if they were [in the shop].”
About half of the Green Lake Jewelry Works staff is working from home during the COVID-19 crisis. To make things easy, Tuttle provided them with any tools or equipment they would need, such as bench supplies, extra computer monitors, and even a laser welder. (Four-legged assistants not included.)
Although the business has long used an appointment system, its doors were always open to the public. That changed in mid-March when the company began locking its doors and operating by appointment only. When the governor of Washington later ordered all businesses closed, Tuttle sent all but a skeleton crew of staff home. “[They’re] doing things to support our work-from-home people,” such as overseeing works in progress, coordinating the movement of jobs, and taking pictures of gemstones for clients.
Now when a client requests a custom design, someone in the shop creates a job ticket and adds the project to the CAD queue. A designer and a CAD modeler, both working remotely, will work on the design. Once the customer agrees to it, a 3-D model is grown (the printer can be started remotely), and an on-site worker will come in to unload the model. A member of the shop crew will then photograph the model and send the images to the designer and customer. The model can also be mailed to the client if needed. If the client is happy with the design, the piece is cast by in-house staff and then delivered to a jeweler working from home. When the piece is complete, it is sent back to one of the shops for a quality control check and for final photos to be taken before one of the on-site workers ships it to the customer.
However, not all of his employees have the ability or desire to work from home right now and Tuttle estimates that about half of the staff of his two store locations are currently on unemployment. He anticipates that most, if not all, of his staff will return when this crisis ends.
Like so many small businesses, the company has faced a number of challenges during this crisis.
Sourcing has been a problem. “It was really challenging for a couple of weeks,” says Tuttle, noting that about two-thirds of his normal suppliers have been shut down. “There was a lot of difficulty in getting gems, as most gem dealers were closed, especially early on.”
Although sourcing some supplies has been a hassle for the company, Tuttle notes that it’s resulting in the formation of new relationships. “We were able to complete a fairly large diamond sale by finding a diamond dealer in New York City who we had never worked with before,” he says.
Inevitably they’ve come across a few odds and ends, such as washers, that they haven’t been able to source. “Some we can make in-house,” he says, noting that for stuff they can’t make, they find a workaround. And luckily, despite the challenge, “we haven’t had any jobs where we couldn’t complete them.”
Another challenge the company has faced has been a loss of efficiency as a result of people working from different locations. Jobs just naturally take longer when supplies have to be shipped instead of just being walked down the hall. But that challenge has been somewhat mitigated by what Tuttle has identified as the biggest challenge they’ve faced: volume, and the lack there of it.
With his two locations closed to the public, Tuttle has had to rely on his website to make sales, which has never generated the bulk of the company’s business.
“We’ve always had an online business,”he says. “It’s been a growing, but modest, part of business. All we have is online now.”
As a result, Tuttle has ramped up his advertising, emphasizing that the company is continuing to work safely and remotely. He started back in March, just as the seriousness of the situation was being realized and walk-in traffic began to slow. “Interestingly, March was fabulous,” he says. “Even though local traffic slowed down, we did a lot of advertising and had the best March ever.”
But those orders began drying up in April. “It’s our worst April in at least a decade,” he says. Though they’re still writing jobs, Tuttle notes that the company had 45 percent of its normal cash flow volume in April, and he assumes it’ll be worse in May.
Despite the lack of new custom jobs right now, Tuttle has been turning down repair work. “We’ve had people reach out, but we said no, not right now,” says Tuttle. The company doesn’t want to start a job that it might not be able to finish due to a problem, such as an issue with sourcing supplies for it, just in case anyone wanted their stuff back. “It’s been tempting, but no.”
While bridal has always made up about 80 percent of the company’s jobs, Tuttle notes that that sector’s percentage has skyrocketed. He estimates that 98 percent of the jobs they’ve gotten since this crisis began has been bridal.
“It’s not surprising; it’s human nature,” he says. “[They] look around and say ‘it’s going to be tough for a while but maybe we should do it; we love each other anyway.’ People are going to get married, no matter what.”
Tuttle has been using this time since the shutdown to pull together different plans on what re-emerging from this crisis might look like for his business.
Initially, he plans on keeping as many employees working from home as possible. “People who come in will be voluntary,” he says. He’s grouped his employees by their willingness to come back to work in the shop right away. “Some want to come back to work, even if they could work from home.” Others have expressed interest in being part of the last group to come back to work on-site.
While no re-opening guidelines have yet been laid out by the state of Washington, Tuttle expects that there will initially be rules on maximum occupancy. But even with those limitations, Tuttle already has plans to align with current social distancing and minimal contact guidelines.
“We’ve ordered some Plexiglas counter barriers to experiment with,” he explains. Most staff will also be wearing masks, though at this point they “haven’t settled on whether it’s optional or not.”
Prior to shutting down, the company had already begun taking social distancing steps, having spaced out or moved designers, who would normally sit elbow-to-elbow in a row, into different rooms and work areas. They’ll continue with that setup for the foreseeable future. “Between scheduling and location, they’ll always be one workstation away from each other,” he says.
When the company does reopen its locations, Tuttle says that they’ll be operating by appointment only, at least for a short time. And they’ll include that in all of their marketing. “We already do a lot of work by appointment,” says Tuttle. “It won’tbe that surprising [to our customers].”
They’ll also continue to market their online business, recognizing that many consumers may be leery of visiting retail locations right away. Tuttle notes that he’s fortunate to be where he is, with Amazon and Microsoft in his backyard. “Folks here are used to doing business online,” he says. “It’s normal for them to handle transactions that way.”
Since his business relies so heavily on custom bridal, Tuttle is confident that business will rebound, although not likely right away.
“It’s going to be a tough year,” he admits. “There’s very little chance of it being anything but a tough year. 2021, if some [COVID-19] therapy comes along, isn’t so bad. Anything could happen. But I expect volume to be less than normal for the next two years.”
His focus is on doing what he needs to support his team. “If the profitability of the company is diminished for a few years, it’s not a big deal. My focus is on full employment. If I can keep my team employed and busy, [it’s a] great job to have.”
He also admits that as a custom jeweler, he’s likely had it easier than traditional jewelry retailers during this crisis.
“In traditional jewelry, if you close your stores, you’re done,” he says. “You’re not going to sell a ton online. It’s harder to call up clients and ask them to look at a necklace. A lot of custom is conversations with clients.”
But even custom jewelers will have it tough as the nation recovers. For custom jewelers worried about surviving, Tuttle recommends expanding the kinds of jobs they’re willing to take.
“There are times we’ve avoided modest custom jobs,” he admits. For example, “we don’t do class rings, but we would now.
“The key is to expand your offering,” he continues. “You need to be willing to make something for $1,000.”
This is especially pertinent given the current situation where even folks who have money might be cutting back on their discretionary purchases. “If you’re used to doing $5,000 to $10,000 jobs, those clients don’t want to look ostentatious. They will pare back. The upmarket will always be there, but it dries up during tough times.
“You don’t want to be the jeweler saying ‘we don’t take those cheapo jobs’ because [customers will] say that about you,” he warns. “Don’t be too good for that job.”