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The State of the Jewelry Industry

Trends and challenges in 2017

By Shawna Kulpa

By the time you’re reading this article, the 2016 presidential election will be over. And if you’re anything like the folks we spoke with about the state of the jewelry industry, you too will be glad because it means that we can finally move on and start planning for the year ahead.

“There’s been uncertainty because of the election,” says Ruth Batson, CEO of the American Gem Society and AGS Laboratories in Las Vegas. “The industry is ready to move on to the selling season.”

But what should you plan for? Although no one is anticipating any large changes for 2017, several issues could have a profound effect on jewelry businesses. Read on to learn about what the jewelry industry could be facing in the coming year.


Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going

Things appear to be looking up for the U.S. economy.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the middle class in the U.S. finally saw incomes increase this past year, with median household income surging 5.2 percent to $56,516, marking the first increase in median income since 2007. While the median household income remains lower than its peak of $57,909 in 1999, economists seem positive that incomes will continue to gain ground in 2017.

This increase in household income could be one reason why the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index saw back-to-back monthly gains in 2016, reaching 103.5 in September, the highest level since the Great Recession of 2008. Although the index dipped to 98.6 in October, the Conference Board reports that the overall sentiment is the economy will continue to expand at a moderate pace in the near term.

“All of the fundamentals are in a good place, giving strength to consumers and leading us to believe that this will be a very positive holiday season,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said in a press release this fall. “This year hasn’t been perfect…but our forecast reflects the very realistic steady momentum of the economy and industry expectations. We remain optimistic that the pace of the economic activity will pick up in the near term.”

Marty Hurwitz, CEO of MVI Marketing in San Luis Obispo, California, shares the sentiment that things are looking promising for the economy in the coming year. “The good news is the Department of Labor reports that middle class jobs are growing for the first time since the recession,” he says. “We’re seeing a bit of a renaissance for middle-class salaries, which drives the bulk of jewelry buying. If this continues (and I’m optimistic that it will), it will be positive for jewelry retail.”

If it does, it will be a welcome development for the retail sector: Despite gains in consumer spending and a growing economy, the jewelry industry has seen an uptick in the number of store closings this year. According to the Jewelers Board of Trade, through the end of the second quarter of 2016, 825 jewelry businesses ceased operations or consolidated/merged, a 63 percent increase over the same time last year.

“We still have erosion in the jewelry store market,” says Harold Dupuy, FGA vice president strategic analysis of Stuller Inc. in Lafayette, Louisiana. “Jewelry store reduction is about 4 percent, when, historically, we’ve had about a 2 percent closure rate. I think this will continue for a while, as the jewelry market in the U.S. is overpopulated.”

Dupuy attributes the closings to a number of factors: retirements, consolidations, marginal businesses that cannot sustain themselves in difficult times, and retailers that continue to operate the way they did decades ago and haven’t kept up with the way today’s consumers shop.

Even with the uptick in jewelry store closings, jewelry sales have continued to grow, albeit at a slow pace. According to Dupuy, the industry is up 3.9 percent through September, with jewelry store sales up 1.2 percent through August. “The overall pie is growing at a slow rate,” he says.

While it could be easy to look at the number of store closings this year as a bad sign, this thinning of the herd could actually be a good thing for the industry. “It’s always talked about in a negative way, but the survivors will be doing more business,” says Dupuy, who believes the industry could expect sales to be up 1 to 3 percent in 2017.

Batson is quick to point out that, overall, retailers seem optimistic about the future. In a recent survey of AGS members, 57 percent reported that they expect to expand their business over the next five years. “This shows that there is still optimism out there long-term,” says Batson.

Part of this optimism may stem from the recent launch of a diamond marketing campaign by the Diamond Producers Association, a joint venture between several of the world’s leading diamond mining companies. Earlier this year the group revealed a new campaign platform that targets Millennials and focuses on redefining diamonds as symbols to celebrate “real” and “rare” human connections, rather than as gifts to be given for specific occasions.

The first “Real Is Rare” marketing campaign was just launched in October so its effects likely won’t be known until January. “It’s hard to predict,” says Ronnie VanderLinden, president of both Diamex Inc. in New York City and the Diamond Manufacturers and Importers Association of America. However, he is optimistic about the campaign. “It’s good for the industry, and I think next year things will improve.”

Martin Rapaport, chairman of the Rapaport Group, also believes this joint marketing campaign will benefit the industry. “I think the advertising will have some effect this year, but a greater effect in 2017, especially during the 2017 holiday season,” he says.

However, VanderLinden stresses that diamond advertising needs to be focused on more than just the typical bridal consumer. “The inevitable engagement ring is still there, still happening. People are going to continue to get married and buy jewelry to celebrate,” he says. “It’s the earrings, bracelets, necklaces fashion side of the industry that we need to promote more.”

It’s also important to note that this marketing campaign could affect a variety of jewelry businesses beyond just those carrying diamond jewelry, as it has the potential to spark new interest in jewelry among consumers. However, Andrea Hill of StrategyWerx in Chicago warns that companies should not count on it as part of their marketing strategy.

“We are a diverse culture now,” she explains, pointing out that there are many more advertising avenues than there were when previous industry-wide campaigns were launched, making it more difficult to reach large swaths of consumers. “Companies need to be doing more relevant marketing relative to their niches. They can’t rely on others to bail them out with marketing. We all have to invest in it.”


A Time for Change

The idea of doing things differently as an industry will be key in the coming year. While Hill believes that jewelry across all sectors will continue to do well, she’s concerned about a potential shake-up of the industry that she believes is coming.

“We’ve been stuck as an industry, not wanting to innovate, not knowing how to innovate,” she says. “We’re stuck waiting for things to return to the way they were before.” And it’s an issue that’s affecting all areas of the industry.

For jewelry designers and manufacturers, it’s a matter of both marketing and design innovation. When it comes to product design, “consumers are bored with the current bread-and-butter jewelry looks that are everywhere,” she says. She acknowledges that there’s always room for bread-and-butter jewelry, but she believes there is currently too much of it: “Manufacturers need to be looking for ways of presenting jewelry that doesn’t look like everyone else’s.”

As part of this product innovation, manufacturers also have to recognize the role they play in creating demand for their products. Hill cites the fashion industry as an example of how manufacturing marketing works well, with fashion designers promoting their products and brands even though they may not sell directly to consumers.

“We don’t have the big designer brand names [of the fashion industry], but we still need to have the same effort to drive consumers to buy jewelry,” she says. “Manufacturers need to be doing more effective marketing online to drive consumers into stores.”

Retailers face a similar problem with their marketing, which Hill feels is still stuck in the past. “Before, if you owned a fine jewelry store, you were the place to go,” she explains. “There was no Costco, no Walmart, no Blue Nile. If consumers wanted fine jewelry for most of the 20th century, they had to go to a jewelry store. That’s not true anymore.” Jewelers got too used to having customers come to them without much effort on their part.

The lack of strong omni-channel marketing on the part of jewelry retailers could be partly responsible for the drop in market share independent jewelry stores have seen. “In 2000, jewelers had a 51 percent market share; today, it’s around 40 percent,” says Dupuy. Slowly eating away at the jewelry sales have been other retail channels that now sell fine jewelry, including the internet, department stores, warehouse clubs, and apparel stores.

Just as consumers don’t shop the same way anymore, retailers can’t market to them the same. To reach today’s consumers, you have to go to where they go to consume information and buy products: online. “Even if retailers have a brick-and-mortar store, they need to have a much stronger marketing presence online to engage with customers and get them into the store,” says Hill. (To learn more about identifying and targeting today’s consumers, click here.)

Another area where jewelers may need to change is in how they finance their businesses. Banks have been slowly pulling back their support of the jewelry industry over the past years, leaving many companies unable to secure the capital they need to grow and sustain their businesses. “They’re not extending the credit the way they used to…and I don’t see this trend changing for the better, but instead continuing into the new year,” says Ann Arnold, chief strategy officer at Buyers Intelligence Group in Napa, California.

For companies bracing for a tough year or looking to fund growth in the coming year, banks will still be an option, provided you can offer them proof of the soundness of your company’s finances. One way to do that is with a certified audit conducted by a reputable firm. It can be more expensive to obtain than a review (which relies more on management’s representation of a company’s financial picture). However, the audit may be more likely to pass muster with banks, provided you have sound finances.

Even more important, perhaps, is to work with a bank and listen to what it wants. In many cases, communicating with your loan officer can help you to understand what is truly important to your banking relationship.

“I always found that treating my bankers as business partners paid big dividends,” says David W. Cochran, MJSA’s president/CEO, who, prior to leading the association, ran several large jewelry-manufacturing firms. “I invited my loan officers to meetings so they knew my management team and understood our strengths and challenges. I even had them meet some key customers and gave them insight into our product development process. I found by bringing them into the tent, they grew more comfortable with the relationship, enabling them to better represent the company to their credit committee. Communication is key…bankers hate surprises!”

Another area that should be of interest in the coming year is the collection and analysis of big data to help identify new business opportunities. Big data collection is nothing new, but technology has allowed for this data to be collected and aggregated faster than ever before, permitting companies to work faster and stay agile—a must in today’s world where everything is done at lightning speed.

Data needs to be compiled from all aspects of a business, from in-store sales, inventory, and customer habits to online purchases and social media hits. When it comes to compiling online data, companies need to be able to track not only what customers are buying, but also what they’re looking at, how they’ve navigated a website, and how much they’ve been influenced by special promotions and offers. “Every part of your business needs to be analyzed,” says John Green, president and CEO of Lux, Bond & Green in West Hartford, Connecticut.

This collection of big data is a big undertaking, one that Green feels most companies are going to need to make a full-time job to both oversee the collection of data and analyze what it means for the company. There are also resources available for small companies that can’t dedicate the time or people to this in-house. Companies such as The NPD Group and the Buyers Intelligence Group can help aggregate data as well as provide big picture analytics for your business.

One final area that the industry as a whole should be looking to change is the way that employees are treated, especially if it hopes to attract more young people.

“People have to start learning to be real employers with great HR policies,” says Hill. She points out that Millennials especially are known for being particular about what it wants in a workplace. “Millennials expect their managers to be effective. Just being ‘the boss’ doesn’t cut it with this generation. Dysfunctional managers will find their employees walking out the door, looking for a better place to work.

“Millennials also expect their work environment to make sense,” she continues. They want to have some input in their schedules as well as the flexibility to trade shifts. “Millennials greatly value their personal time and seek balance between life and work. Allowing for schedule flexibility, some work-at-home time, and other perks (as long as business needs are met) will create more loyalty among employees than just about anything else. Businesses will only be able to attract and keep the best talent if they create strong, positive cultures that empower their employees to make meaningful contributions and respect them for it.”


Trends to Monitor

Lab Grown Diamonds

One of several issues that the industry is buzzing about is lab-grown diamonds. As more companies begin creating them, there’s concern on many sides about the overall effect these manufactured stones could have on the industry, especially now that the cat is out of the bag with consumers.

“Consumers are asking for them all over the country,” says Hurwitz. “There’s no marketing yet telling consumers to look for this, but they’re organically beginning to ask about them anyway.”

The appeal of lab-grown diamonds goes beyond their being priced 20 to 30 percent cheaper at retail than mined diamonds. Consumers are drawn to them because they don’t contribute to the destruction of the environment and no one is harmed in their creation—two big considerations that tie into the “responsible sourcing” movement that’s gaining traction among consumers, particularly Millennials.

And while Hurwitz reports that no national retailers are carrying them yet, he feels that it’s just a matter of time.

“They’re a freight train coming down the track,” he says. “If you’re a manufacturer, you should be thinking about incorporating fully disclosed lab-grown diamonds into your line, as consumers are going to continue asking about them.”

However, this isn’t an indicator that traditional diamonds are going away anytime soon (especially if the “Rare Is Real” campaign catches on). “Some people are saying [lab-grown diamonds] are going to take away from the diamond industry,” says VanderLinden. “And it may take away from a certain segment, but natural diamonds will continue to have their place, and prices aren’t going to drop. These lab-grown stones are just another avenue that the industry can take advantage of.”

Rapaport agrees: “Synthetics are not a threat since they’re inherently flawed by not having natural scarcity. There will always be a quest for a personal stone of value.”

Yet while they may not be a threat to natural diamonds, lab-grown diamonds have raised concerns. Designer Joel McFadden of JMD Jewelry in Red Bank, New Jersey, captures the industry’s dueling opinions: While he believes there is a market for these lab-grown stones, he’s worried about unethical jewelers not disclosing them properly.

“Some people don’t care; they just want to make money,” he says. “For every ethical jeweler, there could be 35 who would sell someone a man-made diamond but not tell him it’s man-made.”

To support his point, he cites the rollout of simulated birthstones during the 1960s, when the Federal Trade Commission didn’t require disclosure. “Jewelers assumed customers knew they were man-made stones,” McFadden explains. “I’m worried that there are people who won’t be ethical about these stones, and it’s going to result in consumers losing more trust and faith in the jewelry industry.”

To help jewelers, industry labs, such as GIA and AGS, have invested in equipment capable of detecting lab-grown diamonds, allowing jewelers to send in stones for testing.

“Random testing done in an ongoing and consistent manner is going to have to become a part of how we do business,” says Jeffrey Fischer, president of Fischer Diamonds Inc. in New York City. “There is more and more equipment available to identify synthetic diamonds, and it’s important that the industry embrace these technologies and use them more fully than they do right now.”

Although he admits that much of the equipment currently available for detecting lab-grown diamonds is too expensive for typical jewelers, he doesn’t think that will remain the case for too much longer. “It’s a competitive marketplace,” he says. “There will be evolving technology and competitive forces that will drive the price down.”

For anyone worried that these lab-grown diamonds will lead to additional regulations, Cecilia Gardner of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee (JVC) in New York City says these diamonds are governed by the same rules as synthetic stones. “Synthetic and lab-grown are the same; the rules are the same,” she says. “You have to disclose that they are lab-grown or lab-created. You can use a brand name to say they’re manufactured, but they can’t be sold as natural diamonds without any type of qualification.”

To combat potential dishonest suppliers, Gardner encourages jewelers to implement quality assurance programs in their businesses. “People think they can rely on what their supplier is telling them,” she says. “But that’s not going to help you if you sell a synthetic diamond without disclosing it.” (The JVC offers a guide to help jewelers implement a quality assurance program that complies with the law on its website, jvclegal.org.)


Responsible sourcing

As shown with the growing interest in lab-grown diamonds, the issue of responsible sourcing of all materials—diamonds, colored stones, metals—continues to gain traction. No longer are consumers turning a blind eye to the way the materials in their jewelry are sourced. They not only want to know their origins, but also to make sure that the sourcing of these materials did not cause harm to the planet or its people.

It’s a concern that’s here to stay, says Fischer. “The genie is out of the bottle. When you raise certain issues, they can’t be ignored. Procedures and policies need to be put into place to manage the supply chain.”

“It’s here; people get it,” confirms Hill. “Consumers are not going to go away with this issue. The jewelry industry is finally getting that.”

With responsible sourcing finally getting traction, Dupuy notes that the industry needs a plan to be able to talk about it and answer consumers’ questions. “It’s more about a way-of-life issue now,” he says.

“There’s no question that the ongoing growth of consumer recognition and purchase intent due to a company’s transparency about [its] social correctness is important,” says Mark Hanna, chief marketing officer of Richline Group Inc. in New York City. He cites that other industries, including electronics, have already made this a priority, and that the jewelry industry needs to follow suit.

“This will be a major consumer issue,” he says. “People are going to need to invest in understanding their supply chain. What’s underestimated is over the next 5 to 10 years, how important this is and will be. Millennial shoppers want to be responsible shoppers.”

While larger companies, such as Signet and Richline Group, are noted for having done a great job of making this issue a priority and implementing policies to ensure their materials are responsibly sourced, smaller retailers don’t have the same power to force their suppliers to prioritize this issue.

“For small retailers, you have to throw your weight on your vendors,” says Hurwitz. “It’s going to be challenging because it falls on your vendors to prove it.”

“Most of what is being discussed can be done and works for large organizations,” confirms Hill. “Small companies don’t have the leverage to get suppliers to do what they want.”

Making things more difficult is that there is no centralized list of organizations that have been certified as responsible. Hill says that, while it’s easy to find some good options for metals, there isn’t much out there for other supplies, such as colored stones. Many of these companies are left walking a trade show, not knowing who’s contributing to the destruction of the environment or using slave or child labor. “We have to figure out a way to address this for small businesses,” says Hill.

One way is to do a better job of getting the word out, both to the industry as well as to consumers.

“A number of larger companies have developed initiatives for responsible mining and chains of custody, but few of them have been presented to the consumer,” says Hurwitz. “They have the policies in place, but they’re not using it as a marketing pitch for consumers. But as it becomes a growing issue for consumers, and they start asking about, companies will start marketing it.”

“More companies are going to have to join organizations or do things within their own companies that will tell consumers that they’re doing things to protect the world,” says Green.

Retailers, in particular, need to stay on top of this issue in the coming year because they are the public face of the jewelry industry, and the ones most likely to feel the wrath of the public if it feels misled about the source of the materials in its jewelry.

“Ultimately, the burden of responsible sourcing falls on the shoulders of the retailer,” says Batson. “They need to make sure there is transparency in the pipeline of products. It is a question that consumers are going to continue to ask retailers going forward.”

Luckily, reports Batson, many organizations are talking about this matter with their members. “Awareness is up, and retailers are considering this issue when they bring on a new manufacturer, asking questions about the origins of their goods.” While she admits that the industry still has a long way to go, she says, “We’re getting better, and will continue to get better.”

But what if earth-loving Millennials aren’t your customer base? You should still embrace the concept because there’s a story involved. “What is so compelling about the responsible sourcing of material is that there is a storytelling aspect to it,” says designer Vicente Agor of San Francisco and president emeritus of the Contemporary Jewelry Design Group. “As you describe the process, you can use that story to captivate the consumer to take them to that place. It’s a great story, and it can help move away from the idea of getting something for less online. When you have these stories to fascinate a customer, you can get them to stay in your store and eventually make a purchase.”


Omni-channel selling

Whether you’re selling fully disclosed lab-grown diamonds or 100 percent ethically sourced jewelry, the products won’t do your business any good if you’re not marketing and selling them in the right way for today’s (and tomorrow’s) consumers. And for next year, that means omni-channel selling.

Omni-channel selling is the idea of providing a seamless shopping experience, whether customers are shopping in a store, from a computer, over the telephone, or on their smartphones. Consumers have multiple channels to shop through so retailers need to be prepared to handle all of them.

And so far, this is something at which the industry seems to be failing, as it continues to treat its offline and online sales differently. Jewelers need to offer their customers the ability to shop how and when they want. To achieve this, companies should focus on integrating their point-of-sale and inventory control systems with their websites so consumers have up-to-the-minute information regarding inventory levels whether they’re shopping online or in the store. In addition, jewelers need to stay on top of the preferences of online consumers, such as offering customers the option of having the item shipped directly to them or being able to pick it up at the store.

As proof that the industry is lagging in this regard, Hurwitz cites the attrition that has plagued the industry this year. “Retailers are going out of business to the tune of 750 to 1,000 a year,” he says. While a portion of those closings is the result of retirements, many others are due to the refusal to change with the times. “The biggest problem facing retailers is struggling to capture the newest consumers. They’re still selling to older consumers and haven’t figured out how to sell to the next generation.” And that starts with marketing.

“Online business continues to grow, and the majority of smaller jewelers aren’t web aggressive,” says Hanna. “I think the whole online channel world has changed a lot in terms of marketing strategies, and companies have to realize that it’s likely that they and their products are going to be researched online prior [to a consumer making] a decision. Addressing that is incredibly important and becoming more so.”

Because of this, Hurwitz recommends that manufacturers focus on creating and building a brand, something consumers can lock into and trust when faced with the myriad choices found online. Hanna backs this belief, noting that branded goods have been an area of strength.

“The branding and naming of goods has become more and more important due to the omni-channel needs of consumers,” he says. Because it allows consumers to easily compare apples to apples, “branding helps consumers research and buy online.”

Once you’ve created your brand, you should “use digital platforms to capture consumer interest, not trade interest,” advises Hurwitz. “Market to the consumer, even if you’re selling through retailers.”

One of the best ways to reach today’s consumers is through social media, as research has shown that shoppers rely heavily on social media when making purchasing decisions.

“Have a presence on social media and a current website,” advises Dupuy. “Getting involved in your community is still important, but you won’t find the new consumers at the local Kiwanis Club. Marketing has gotten more complex, so you need to pay closer attention to it.”

But it isn’t just a matter of having a presence on social media—you have to make sure you’re approaching it the right way.

“You have to have an everyday presence on social media,” says Dupuy. “I see a lot of jewelers just beginning to use social media, and they use it to try to sell versus connecting as a community.”

Today’s consumers aren’t interested in being sold to, but they are interested in being communicated with. Agor stresses the importance of analyzing what people post and why.

“Examine consumer behavior,” he recommends. “What makes them want to share something with the rest of the world, regardless of what it is? If we can tap into those behaviors, we can turn around and know the type of content to share on Facebook so it can be shared. Maybe even go viral! You’ve probably been on Instagram for two or three years. How are your customers reacting to yet another picture of pretty jewelry after three years? Ask yourself: Why are we motivated to put things up and share? What are our target customers’ motivations? Do your answers to these two questions align?”

Since there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, it’s important to experiment and try new tactics. “People are afraid to make mistakes in our industry, and so they hold off on things,” says Green. “You can’t. You have to throw stuff at the wall and see if it sticks. You have to explore the world of social media. As an industry, we have to become relevant. Businesses need to evolve. There are great opportunities if your eyes are wide open. Embrace change because you can’t resist it.”

But social media marketing is just one part of the selling process. Your marketing will help attract customers, but how you sell to them is equally important. And as with social media, much of it will be happening online.

“Consumers online looking at jewelry want a good experience,” says Batson. “In order to be competitive, every company needs a robust online presence.”

“If retailers aren’t selling online, they need to take their websites more seriously,” advises Hill. “They need to make more of a link between in-store and online purchases, such as offering in-store pickups of online orders. Stop thinking of things as offline or online. Consumers want you available to how they want to shop you.”

Just as companies now need to embrace omni-channel selling, they will also need to make sure their websites are optimized for omni-channel viewing. According to the National Retail Federation, smartphone traffic is expected to increase tenfold from 2014 to 2019, and mobile economy already accounts for 4.2 percent of global GDP. As consumers’ dependence on smartphones has grown, mobile communication has become the starting point for digital engagement.  

During the recent Retail’s Digital Summit, Facebook Director of Product Marketing Maz Sharafi shared some statistics, including that a whopping 90 percent of consumers access a mobile device while shopping, 74 percent of Millennials take action after being influenced by a mobile post, and 49 percent of store purchases are influenced first by digital interactions. These statistics support his belief that retailers must have a mobile-first mindset.

For retailers with a brick-and-mortar store, there are ways to mesh an online presence with a physical location to make both more appealing to consumers.

“Look at banks and ask yourself when was the last time you went into a bank branch,” says Agor. “Most of your transactions have probably been online or at an ATM. So what are the people at bank branches doing to try and bring in customers? Other industries are experiencing the same thing. We’re not a dying industry, but we are part of a huge cultural shift. We need to find a way to integrate the internet experience into a physical store.”

An easy way to do this is by observing customer behavior. “When I’m standing in line at a store, I’m not looking around the store, I’m looking at my phone,” says Agor. If customers aren’t looking around, jewelers can use technology to stay in front of their eyes. “There are technologies out there that would enable you to identify where in the store a customer is and then point out that something the customer has been searching for is located just a few feet away.”

And not all of your efforts need to be concentrated on selling to a customer. Sometimes, just being a good person will be enough to keep you top of mind with responsible-minded potential consumers.

“Is there anything worse than being out shopping and noticing that your phone is down to five percent?” asks Agor. “If you don’t have your charger, where are you going to go? I’m going to go to the Apple store to plug in, and while I’m waiting for my phone to charge, I’m going to look around. What stops a retailer from offering a recharge bar and promoting it? Customers can come in and spend a good 15 or 20 minutes looking around while they charge their phones. And the longer they’re there, the more opportunity they have to look at merchandise. Maybe a sale will occur, maybe it won’t, but either way consumers will remember the kindness. It’s not always about immediate transactions.” 

“Unless you’re running your company as a business, you may not be able to survive,” says Green. “You can’t be seat of the pants anymore, and doing okay isn’t good enough. Sophistication and capital investment in technology are the future of the industry. We’re all going to become technology companies that sell things. The consumer is changing, and that’s not a bad thing; it’s just different. We need to keep learning and getting smarter. So much of the business will be driven by technology and data. It’s exciting, but scary.”


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