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Shifting Gears

In times of crisis, change is critical for survival

By Deborah A. Yonick

A lot can change in a month. In April, this trends column reported that business was rocking at the Tucson gem shows, with buyers “shopping ’til they dropped.” The COVID-19 coronavirus was barely a blip on the radars of most people attending the shows in early February. 

Cut to one month later and major jewelry industry trade shows, conferences, and events have either cancelled for the year or postponed with the hope that by fall things would be back to normal. 

Australian opal dealer Rod Griffin, owner of Boulder Opal in Silverado, California, was the rare person in Tucson to forecast a rocky road ahead for businesses. While he too reported a good show, he was worried that people were underestimating the impact the new virus could have on the world economy with community spread. At the time, the March Hong Kong jewelry shows had just been postponed to May, and people viewed it as a short-term challenge in China and neighboring Asian markets.

“The gem and jewelry industry is in for a big shake-up with this virus to where business practices are going to have to change,” Griffin said while exhibiting at the AGTA GemFair, one of the last major industry trade shows to take place this year. 

It appears that he was right. With the world seemingly changing overnight, the industry needs to adapt to a new way of doing business as well as to the lasting effect this crisis is likely to have on consumers and their shopping habits.

Digital Will Dominate

With disruptions to travel and large gatherings, and social distancing the protocol for the foreseeable future, never before has being able to do business electronically been so critical.

“Internet technology is becoming fully integrated in our lives now,” said Martin Rapaport of the Rapaport Group in a recent webinar. “As schools, businesses, [and] markets close, electronic ways of doing business are the only lifeline.”

The need to adapt quickly to this new world is critical, something Rapaport witnessed firsthand when, in the midst of an auction at the group’s Israeli office, they had to switch to an online sale because of travel and business restrictions, with the caveat that items would be sent to successful bidders to examine for approval before paying. 

And it doesn’t matter whether you’re a wholesaler or a retailer. Research by the customer-experience consulting firm Walker for its Customers 2020 Progress Report, found in 2019 high expectations for a fully individualized, wrap-around customer experience, from the research stage to purchase and beyond, with technology a big part of delivering that. Customers expect ease in connecting, communicating, and learning; and speed in real-time response to and proactive forecasting of their needs by the companies with whom they do business. 

“The shift to online from physical retail just caught a major tailwind,” Andrea Hill of the Hill Management Group shared in a recent webinar hosted by InStore. “This probably isn’t just for during the crisis because people are developing new habits, and many of them will stick. Start making a rational digital strategic plan now and be prepared to implement it over the next several months. It will be great when people start coming back into the stores, but your digital strategy is here to stay.”

According to Hill, everyone now needs to be a digital marketer, and she advised jewelers to fortify their online presence, especially their website. 

Echoing the same sentiment in the webinar, Sherry Smith, director of business development for The Edge Retail Academy, urged jewelers without e-commerce to add it to their website. Or, if they have a legacy website, to create a Shopify store to link to. She cited several ways to help facilitate digital sales, including web chats, Instagram swipe-and-buy posts, and e-mail, which still produces a good return on investment. 

It is important to innovate during times of chaos, says consumer research firm Trend Hunter. In March, it released its updated 100 “disruptive” ideas for 2020 and among the trends was digital technology, such as augmented reality in retail and e-commerce providing customized, interactive, opt-in experiences that are relationship building. Also mentioned were the use of QR codes for interactive engagement to retrieve information when viewing art, products, or an exhibition, and digital community-building apps, such as the lifestyle platform Mylivn that connects creative professionals to collaborate, network, and socialize. 

Focus on Relationships

Efforts at this time should not be focused on prospecting for new customers, Hill advised, but rather on nurturing existing customer relationships. Mail a handwritten note, make a personal call, send an e-mail or text, and post on social media. It’s the time to check in with customers. Have authentic conversations with them; be human. Share how your business is coping, what you are doing with your family, and inspiring human-interest stories.

Woman waving at laptop 

Rather than prospecting for new customers, jewelers should use this time to work on nurturing existing customer relationahips. Have authentic conversations with customers; be human.

Now is also the perfect time to review data and how it’s being used, as well as to update databases. Use this time to focus on gathering and managing intelligence that will help you create deeper relationships with your customers.

“When you really know your customers, you can curate products for them, things that they want, need, and love,” said Rapaport. Be an advocate for your customers, and use technology to target your message. 

Gauging Consumer Habits

When it comes to marketing, jewelers are advised to plan for potential long-term changes that this crisis may bring to their customers’ underlying psychology and the values underpinning their purchasing decisions. Although experts say assessing this is complicated. 

“In the short term, uncertainty is a barrier to discretionary shopping in general,” cites luxury market analyst Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing in Stevens, Pennsylvania. “Longer term, it may predispose people to make choices that are based on their underlying sense of identity. People may be more likely to choose environmentally conscious brands in the future, a trend we already see in the culture. [Or] it may predispose them to indulge in more luxury purchases as significant to their self-esteem.”

With so many unknowns, Hill advised jewelers to lead with their values. “Do a clear-eyed review of your values. During a crisis, your values will serve you like a port in a storm. Write them down if you must. From this point forward, you need to make every decision in harmony with your personal and business values. This isn’t just about being a good person. It’s about making good decisions. If you don’t have that centering device, you will make inconsistent decisions, second-guess yourself, and delay or avoid making decisions that must be made.”

Jennifer Dawes rings

Following the crisis, many consumers may seek more environmentally conscious choices. Jewelers are encouraged to share the eco-friendly and sustainable stories behind their products. (Rings by Jennifer Dawes)

In times of crisis, people tend to engage in comfort-seeking experiences that bring them a sense of control, such as buying things, says Danziger. She anticipates that consumption habits emerging from this crisis will push consumers toward healthier, environmentally conscious choices.

Trend Hunter agrees, and encourages brands to tell the stories of how they are eco-friendly, sustainable, ethically producing, fighting against climate change, reducing waste, recycling, and repurposing.

Trend Hunter also sees a healthy future for brands related to the wellness space. Among the brand case studies featured in its report was the Moment Pebble. Billed as a tool for modern mindfulness, it’s a rechargeable, light-up stone that fits in the palm of your hand. The content and community being built around the product is engaging. But imagine the stories you could tell with gemstones that boast centuries-old history as a talisman, and that happen to already be trending with Millennials for their metaphysical properties.

Jewelry always sells, reminded Hill, but the things that sell during crises and recessions tend to change. “In the 1930s and 1940s, most fine jewelry sales shifted to silver. During recessions, lower price points matter. Styles also change, typically getting simpler and smaller.” 

Given the fluid and dynamic nature of this unprecedented situation, Hill recommended jewelers remain flexible. “Assume that what was popular three weeks ago has suddenly changed,” she said, noting that people are reassessing weekly. “You can’t merchandise or market the way you always have.”

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