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Curiosity Saves the Cat

Curiosity is best embodied in childrenI’m giving myself a subscription to Code4 Startup this year. Why? Because I need to learn a new programming language. Of course, I employ excellent programmers, and I don’t need to personally perform any coding for my job. So why am I doing it? For the same reason I learned to make patterns and sew when I ran an apparel company, and why I pursued goldsmith training when I ran a large jewelry manufacturer; because understanding the customer (business customer and end consumer) experience of any business is essential to business success, and I am very curious.

More than 70% of small businesses fail within the first five years, and that staggering statistic owes a lot to the failure to understand what customers need, how they need it, and why they want it. In other words, our economy loses a massive amount of capital due to a dreadful lack of curiosity.

I recently interviewed a fellow who had purchased a Seven Eleven franchise in a hot urban market, only to have the store taken back by Seven Eleven corporate after two years. I certainly felt bad for the guy, but there was no doubt he suffered from a significant customer-awareness failure. His reason for the business failure was that a QuikTrip had opened down the street and the competition killed him. But in that densely populated urban area there was more than enough market share for both businesses. The real reason for the failure was that the QuikTrip was new, bright, clean, and felt better to the shoppers. The Seven Eleven owner had failed to shop the competitor, see the difference through the eyes of his customers, feel the difference for himself, and take the simple – and relatively inexpensive – measures to brighten and freshen up his store.

What can we in the jewelry industry do to vigilantly pursue awareness of what our customers experience relative to our products and services? Fortunately, quite a bit!

The first level of awareness – usage of our own products – the jewelry industry excels at. Designers and manufacturers wear their own jewelry and retail store staff put on goods from the cases each day when they arrive at work.

An area that could benefit from more curiosity, however, is how the consumer feels and what the consumer needs from the buying experience. The last time this aspect of consumer awareness was explored at an industry level was nearly a half century ago when DeBeers initiated the 4Cs movement. For the most part, all jewelry industry consumer awareness training since that time has focused on some derivative of 4Cs knowledge.

But consumers need much more than diamond knowledge when buying fine jewelry. I regularly observe consumers in jewelry retail stores. They tend to be slightly intimidated, they are unable to experience the jewelry without help, and they lack visual cues to help them interpret the different things they are seeing. One of the reasons fashion magazines are so popular with consumers is that the vast majority of women feel insecure about their ability to put together a fashionable outfit without some guidance. That fashion magazine guidance is carried through to the clothing stores with mannequins and posters. In contrast, the jewelry store experience provides static displays of jewelry in a sterile environment. No wonder so many jewelry buyers end up at Macy’s or Kohl’s with all their department-store prowess at merchandising display! If you are in the business of putting jewelry into retail stores, you might want to consider ways to supplement your jewelry with in-case display elements that support the buying decision. Do things that inspire curiosity and engagement in your customers. I know this isn’t easy – retail store display requirements can be pretty rigid – but the manufacturers and designers who find ways to mitigate this problem are most likely to win at the sales register.

Speaking of putting jewelry into jewelry stores, if you are a designer, how much curiosity do you have about what it means to work in the retail store? Have you worked behind a counter? Have you set up and torn down display cases each day? Have you spent hours answering customer questions and helping consumers find meaningful jewelry? Working a trunk show doesn’t count; if you want to build awareness of the retail store staff’s experience, you need to get in there and do it yourself. Ask one of your retail clients to let you shadow their sales staff for a few days. You’ll be surprised at all the important things you learn that will help you do a better job providing marketing collateral, training materials, and display elements to your retail clients. Are you worried that nobody will let you shadow? Well, some won’t. When I first wanted to learn about jewelry retail I had to ask eight or nine different store owners before someone said yes. Just keep asking.

Learning the building blocks of jewelry business is a never-ending pursuit. To date I have learned every aspect of jewelry business from rough diamonds to retail selling. In my consulting role, technology is one of the essential building blocks of all modern business, and JAVA is a technology I haven’t added to my knowledge base. I won’t become a master in it any more than my goldsmith training made me into a master goldsmith. But I will have a clearer understanding of how to deliver the tools my customers need and greater empathy for my employees engaged in delivering it, and that deeper knowledge will continue to distinguish me from my competitors. Now it’s your turn to figure out how to do the same for your business.

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