By Shawna Kulpa
Elichai Fowler admits that he never wanted to be in the retail jewelry business.
That’s why it was nearly a no-brainer when, a little more than a year ago, he considered shuttering his two retail stores and meeting with custom clients by appointment only.
“Originally, I did custom,” explains Fowler. “I started out on my own, working at home and meeting clients at a coffee shop. I didn’t like retail, but everybody told me to do it since we were in a touristy area.”
As his business grew, he moved into a brick and mortar location, working alongside his wife. Over the course of the five years that he was in business, “we grew the business every year,” he notes. Despite his misgivings, Fowler eventually decided to dip his toe into the world of retail, buying a building in a high-traffic area of Livingston, Montana. He later went on to open a second retail location in the state, closer to his home in Billings.
Although his stores were successful, Fowler realized one day that he was no longer enjoying his job. “I found I was almost never on the bench,” he recalls, noting that much of his time was spent managing the stores and his staff. “I love the creative part [of my job]. I wanted to have more freedom to focus on what I love, but I couldn’t do that.”
Realizing that he was feeling burnt out, he sat down and took a hard look at the numbers, comparing the total inventory sales to the costs of maintaining a retail store. What he found was not a lot of profit compared to the amount of effort and drama that came along with maintaining two jewelry retail stores and their staffs. The double-digit annual growth that he had once seen when it was just him doing custom work had slowed down considerably.
“Retail is tough,” he says. “There’s so much online stuff to compete with, so many places that don’t even have to buy inventory. For me, I [had] to have money in the cases, I [couldn’t] just have a nice website.
“You take the cost of an item, and once you take the sales staff and everything entailed with that, it’s a ton of effort for very little return,” he explains. “And it pulled me away from what I loved—custom.”
Managing the business side of the stores was taking a toll on him, and his own abilities were starting to suffer as he spent less and less time at the bench. “My skills were actually going down,” he admits. “I was getting rusty and tired, and I wasn’t feeling creative. My excellence level was going down, and I did not like that. I was not in a good place.”
He realized that he couldn’t continue this way. “I was so busy with nitpicky management stuff and so worn out that I didn’t have time to eat well. I would come home late, and my family wasn’t happy.”
He determined that if he moved to a metropolitan area and focused on retail only, he could get the profit he needed because of more consistent demand and a larger population. But that would also mean no more custom. He would have to make a choice.
For Fowler, the choice was easy: custom.
He began by first deciding to close the retail aspect of his store in Billings in January 2018.
“I don’t like to say that we closed, people get the wrong idea,” he says. Although he laid off his retail sales staff, Fowler still maintains the same space in Billings, operating by appointment only. “We remodeled the space so it’s a bit like a living room. There’s a big couch and a coffee table. Lower lighting. It’s much more relaxed and has a more low-key feel.”
They did keep a few jewelry cases where Fowler sets up pieces on display for appointments. He notes that about 70 percent of the limited inventory is his work, with the rest comprising leftover pieces from his retail days.
“It will eventually just be our stuff,” he notes. “Little knickknacks that we have fun making or [with which] we’re experimenting with a new technique, such as enameling. We’ll put out a few pieces as examples.”
Another change he made was to switch to a four-day workweek. “It was an adjustment,” he admits, “but it went well. It reduced our entire staff’s stress level, and I felt that it was really healthy.”
So happy was he with the transition of his Billings location that he was soon eager to make the same change to his store in Livingston. By this time, that store location had only two retail sales staff members, a married couple who notified Fowler of their plans to relocate to Arizona later in the year. He held off on transitioning the store until the couple moved in September.
It’s been just over a year since Fowler began making the switch back to custom, and he hasn’t looked back since—especially since the change has proven to be good for business.
“Our custom sales went up in the number of sales and dollar amounts,” he says. “Our average custom sale before was maybe $3,000 to $5,000. Now it’s closer to $8,000 to $12,000. I spend the same amount of time working, but I make more money and have more satisfaction.” He attributes the shift to clearer communication of their services and a greater focus on custom and the customer experience. “We would do high-end jobs before, but just less concentration.”
Not only is Fowler happier with the change, so is his workshop staff.
“They love it,” he says. “They’re not being interrupted all the time for things like watch batteries. When you have craftsmen who enjoy building quality items getting interrupted, things take them longer than they should.”
Since the change, he notes that his staff’s production has gone up. And now that he no longer has to deal with the retail side of business, Fowler has more time to spend engaging with them in the shop. “We’re working as a much stronger team now.”
Another group that seems happy with the change are his clients. “Custom clients are happier,” he says. “They like the personal service. We invite them in and it’s just them. We can spend time getting to know them and their needs and desires.”
Not that there aren’t exceptions. “People who want to shop without an appointment aren’t too thrilled,” Fowler admits, “but they’re not my target client, which is a thoughtful, successful individual who will spend more to have something made that is more personal and of higher quality. You can never please everyone, so what do you do? You need to focus on you and your family and your top clients.”
Ultimately, he credits good communication as key in helping him make the successful transition back to custom. To help get the word out, Fowler made videos that he sent out through social media and e-mail. In addition, he reached out to his top clients through social media, over the phone, and at small parties he held for them. “You have to be proactive about communicating with customers,” he says. “There were rumors about us going out of business, but I didn’t close my stores. You have to be prepared to get the word out.”
While he still has to tend to routine business practices, such as paying bills and dealing with human resource issues, the company’s by-appointment-only schedule has given him the freedom to take more time off to feed his creative soul.
“It reduced our stress level,” he notes. “I’m becoming a better goldsmith and designer. I get to spend more quality time with my family. And I look forward to going into work again. Why be in business for yourself if you can’t focus on what you want to focus on and have a good quality of life?”