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The Secrets of Pearl Success


Pearls are beautiful, eye-catching product that, thanks to their versatility and variety can be exciting and fun to sell. But these precious orbs also often offer confounding challenges when it comes to increasing sales--including the need for extra education about sourcing and care; stereotypes about the product (only grandmothers wear pearls, pearls are too dressy, etc.); and advice on how to wear pearls with different styles. But jewelry retailers who succeed in the pearl category are the ones who take those challenges and work steadily to overcome them in a variety of ways.

SECRET #1: EYE-OPENING DISPLAYS

Karen Broome-Bischoff, manager at Earth Treasures Jewelers in Eatontown, New Jersey, says the pearl market has changed a good deal in recent years, so her store has evolved with the times. "Diamonds have become almost lackluster in a way, I think because of the economy, while pearls have become much more exciting," she says. "They've become a lot more important for us."

At Earth Treasures, a jaw-dropping selection and display takes the store's pearl sales to the next level. A couple of months ago, Broome-Bischoff explains, she and her staff moved the entire pearl collection into a much larger wall unit, about 15 feet long, that is also not set back away from customers anymore. "It offers a lot more exposure and customers can get closer to the pearls because it's all with glass doors," she says. "It's a great visual that shows all the different kinds of pearls we carry." The sheer variety is key. The store's collection includes Vietnamese akoyas, keshis, Tahitians in black, pistachios and chocolate, whites and goldens in the center, and then a whole freshwater multicolor section that she calls "multinationals."

Advertising slicks, including ones of celebrities wearing pearls, complete the look of the entire pearl showcase, she says. "They show stars wearing fabulous strands, so customers can get exposure to what people are wearing. They'll say, let me try that on. That's how I get a lot of people who develop a passion for pearls. Their interest is peaked and they just have fun with them."

Success in pearls at Earth Treasures, she points out, is not because of price point but a newfound desire on the part of customers for these gems. "A lot of people are just into pearls now instead of diamonds, and a lot of customers love color in general," she explains. "I think pearls are the new, refreshing and versatile pieces." The store creates many of their own designs. "I always say, if you get bored with this let's just restring it and make it into something else. That's the versatility, you're never done with this item."

SECRET #2: POWER PEARL TRADITIONS

For Tiny Jewel Box, a retailer in Washington, D.C., the conservative nature of the government environment means that customers tend to stick to the tried and true pearl styles instead of trying the latest fashion forward versions. But owner Jim Rosenheim has made that work in his favor.

"In a traditional, conservative market like Washington, pearls--strands as well as jewelry--are an essential," he says. "When you go out in the evening to a fancy party or gala in Washington you will see lots of pearls. So you can do extremely well--and frankly, having high-profile figures such as Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama being seen wearing pearls is not going to hurt our pearl business."

To that end, Tiny Jewel Box offers a wide range of pearls that fit the bill, everything from expensive strands of white and golden South Sea pearls and colorful freshwaters to popular designers such as David Yurman. The South Seas are mixed in with other high-end jewelry in the store, while the pearl designer jewelry lives with other pieces from the designer collections.

Training is also key at Tiny Jewel Box, as educating consumers about pearls is essential, says Rosenheim, who does the training himself at the store since he grew up learning about pearls from his mother and the pearl dealers she sourced from.

"My mother was a great pearl fancier. She had the equivalent of a shoebox worth of pearl necklaces," he recalls. "No one ever saw her without one. They were a passion for her. I used to watch my mother buy pearls from the pearl dealers. A lot of these guys took me under their wing and taught me their business."

SECRET #3: PEARLS FOR EVERY LIFESTYLE

For a jewelry store located on the casual beachfront in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Diamonds 'n Dunes owner Eileen Alexanian admits that selling pearls can sometimes be a challenge, since many prospective customers use words like "pearls are too dressy" or "I only would wear pearls to church." But as a pearl lover herself, she feels these attitudes are worth working to overcome.

"I present it in the sense that every woman should have some kind of pearls," she says. "And then it's about what is the right type of pearl for their lifestyles. If they're more bohemian, I'll suggest a double-strand of square green pearls for under $300." If the customer is more conservative, she might show them colored peach or lavender pearls.

One thing that definitely helps, she points out, is that she owns three strands of high-quality freshwater pearls herself and wears one nearly every day in the store, usually spiced up with a pearl enhancer. "It's important for you to wear your product. But don't wear stuff you don't carry in the store."

One showcase of pearls at Diamonds 'n Dunes is dedicated to pieces with gold findings, while another shows off funkier, less expensive pearls with silver findings. In addition, Alexanian likes to group color suites together, for instance, peach and lavender pearls will be displayed in a grouping. "It allows your eye to see things more clearly," she explains. "Your eye tends to be drawn to color and if you're into white, you're into white anyway."

Educating her customers about pearls is also essential, particularly in terms of the freshwater versus saltwater debate. "I'll have someone come in and say they only want cultured saltwater pearls and I'll explain that it will cost two to three times more and you'll hardly see the difference," she says. "They're pretty blown away by freshwater pearls. They're not rice krispies anymore."

Benchmark your pearl department

Modern Jeweler surveyed 223 jewelers on the sales, marketing, and merchandising of their pearl departments. We got a pretty good picture of how pearls are displayed in stores across America. Pearls are often displayed in one case of your store (55.5 percent), in mid store (61 percent). Counter space is most often 4 to 5 feet (30 percent) or more than 6 feet (30 percent), with a significant 40 percent having three feet or less.

Pearls are not emphasized in most marketing: Only 30 percent of retailers use images of pearls in their stores, 41 percent advertise and promote pearls, and 12 percent get co-op advertising support for the pearl category. But in most stores, pearl knowledge is valued: 71 percent offer pearl training to the staff. Pearls are still an important bridal recommendation: 74 percent of jewelers recommend pearls to the groom as the bridal gift and 79 percent recommend pearls for bridesmaid gifts.

What kind of pearl jewelry styles sell best? For 62 percent of the retailers, it's the classics. But that means a surprising 38 percent said pearl fashion sells better than the classics. Price points between $100 and $500 are most popular.

But the most interesting data was in turns and overall percentage of sales attributed to pearls. A surprising 43 percent of retailers surveyed get a two-time turn or better in their pearl department, significantly higher than the overall industry average. (Interesting that this percentage almost matches the percentage who say they promote pearls, isn't it?) And only 8 percent of retailers plan to decrease pearl purchases this year. In fact, 21 percent plan to increase them. -- Cheryl Kremkow





"Blu" collection necklace with 9-10mm freshwater baroque cultured pearls from IMPERIAL, suggested retail $285, (866) 899-5488, www.pearls.com.
Tin cup necklace in 14k yellow gold with 4-8mm natural color Vietnamese akoya baroque pearls from BAGGINS, suggested retail $600, (877) 33-PEARL, www.bagginspearls.com.
Dyed chocolate round freshwater cultured pearl strand of 10.8-11.8mm from KING’S RANSOM, suggested retail $800, (877) 331-2650, www.pearlgoddess.com.
Pure pearl drama in a multicolor strand. Model photo courtesy of the Cultured Pearl Association of America.
One-of-a-kind fancy shape baroque South Sea cultured pearl ring in 18k gold with 300 diamonds from EMIKO PEARLS INTERNATIONAL, suggested retail $15,000, (425) 646-0111, www.emikopearls.com.
Australian South Sea cultured pearl ring in 18k gold by ELIZABETH BLAIR FINE PEARLS, suggested retail $10,250, (231) 526-7500, www.elizabethblair.com.
Ring in 18k yellow gold with natural color 8-11mm freshwater pearls and 0.15 carats of diamonds by A&Z PEARLS, suggested retail $2,600, (213) 627-3030, www.azpearls.com.