Columnists Amy Minnick The silver lining to the 2008 holiday season

The silver lining to the 2008 holiday season


You've heard the news. You've seen the stats. The 2008 holiday retail season will go down as one of the worst in three decades. With a 2.8% decline in sales, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF), retailers across the country suffered through the loss of an astronomical $13 billion.

Jewelry, or luxury items, took an especially hard hit. In October 2008 MasterCard SpendingPulse reported a 20% drop in luxury sales over the previous year before the official holiday season even began. By the first week in December SpendingPulse reported luxury sales dropping a staggering 34.5% from the previous year. It is not surprising that many jewelry retailers reported double-digit declines in post-holiday stats.

But all was not doom and gloom. There were glimmers of hope displayed by some retail jewelers. Several independent retailers reported maintaining or increasing sales for 2008. These so-called ‘anomalies' beg the question... How did they do it?

Here are a few success stories from fellow retailers across the country.

Steve Morris, Helm's Jewelers, Rockingham, NC:
"I am happy to say we were up for December and for year-end 2008. We are in a small community and saw two competitors close their doors. That helped drive a little traffic our way, but I really attribute our increase to aggressive marketing. We knew during a down economy that it was more important than ever to stay in touch with our current customers. We also worked very hard, concentrating on the promotions that had been successful for us in the past. Overall, we feel very blessed. The Lord has been good to us."

Jon Mervis, Mervis Diamonds, Tysons Corner, VA:
"About our holiday sales, we find the best way to understand our numbers is to separate the bridal business from the gift business. Our gift business took a substantial hit, but we were pleasantly surprised that our bridal business remained strong through the holidays. Traditions and human sociology don't change because of a bad economy. With that said, customers are opting for lower price points than in past years. The number of tickets we wrote was consistent with previous years, only the dollar value of each transaction was lower.

"Customers are certainly shopping around more, asking more questions, and really challenging us to be on our game. It's times like these where independents across the country can show their true passion for the business and, I believe, this will be the key to survival. A power-house like Zales might have buying power that we don't, but we have muscles to flex too. We have real people with real knowledge. Customers appreciate that and they prove it with their credit cards."

Rex Solomon, Houston Jewelers, Houston, TX:
"We were up 23% for December 2008 and finished the year up. That's pretty good since we were forced to close for an entire month due to the hurricane. I attribute our success to the daily grass roots marketing program we implemented. We ran an ad in the local paper every day. We hired 14 men and one woman to dress as Santa and stand outside our store along the main street of town. During the holiday season they would sing, dance and wave to people while holding our signs. We hired people throughout the year to dress up in theme according to the holiday and stand outside holding our signs. Our customers love it."


So where is jewelry retail now?

Regardless of whether you made money or not, the trend for the season was low price point, and it is likely to remain there for some time. Amazon, which many consider to be the online price point leader, reported their best retail season ever with more than a 17% increase on its busiest day, according to Kristen A. Lee, AP Business writer - an increase which occurred amid a 2.3% drop for online sales in general. Likewise, Wal-Mart was one of the few traditional retailers who saw increased revenue numbers for the holiday season.

With holiday sales typically accounting for 30% - 50% of a retailer's annual total, a large swing one way or the other has tremendous impact on the bottom line. Jewelry retailers whose financial stability was fragile before the holiday season are now at a make or break point for their business.

Although reduced consumer spending accounts for a large portion of the retail recession, banking woes put the nail in the coffin. There is no doubt that the survival rate of smaller retail businesses would have increased if the banking industry had been more stable. With banks reevaluating lines of credit and pulling the purse strings tighter, retailers were faced with smaller lines of credit on top of drastically reduced sales and, in some cases, were forced to make up the difference.

Bob Epstein, with Silverman Consultants out of Charleston, SC, puts it in perspective: "People really need help out there. They are calling us to help them generate extra cash either through liquidation, bankruptcy or clearance sales. Banking concerns are causing loan advancements to tighten. The advance rate has dropped and retailers have less available funds today than they did six months ago. Many of our clients are holding clearance sales to generate cash to put toward those reduced lines of credit."

According to the Jewelers Board of Trade 2008 year end report, retail jewelry bankruptcies increased 21.1% in 2008. Even more indicative of the economic climate is the drastic impact on wholesalers. Wholesale bankruptcies increased by 80%.

"Everyone in the industry is being affected. Manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers are looking to streamline," states Epstein. "Companies with several locations are looking to eliminate the least effective ones. They are identifying the poor performers and even looking at the number of employees they have. People are reacting to the economy."

Despite consumer confidence being at an all-time low, small independent jewelers have an opportunity. At a time when the American people desperately need someone to put their trust in, the small independent jeweler is poised to provide that and then some. They can be the stable, trustworthy entity that is not swayed by economic or political upheaval.

"Mom and Pop stores will survive if they create a niche in their community," states A.G. Becker, owner of Becker Jewelry in Breese, IL. "Local people are looking for jewelers who take pride in what they do and who put their life in their business."

Rex Solomon adds: "Mom and Pop stores will weather this economy better than larger chains because strong independents have a lower cost structure and are more responsive to the market. They have greater flexibility and can buy gold directly from the public. Independents also have wholesalers and manufacturers backing them."

Jewelry may be a luxury item, but it runs close to the heart of everyone. It is tied to emotion and tradition and, at the end of the day, to happiness - and happiness is a necessity.


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