GOING FOR DISCOUNTER GOLD

Byline: Wendy Hessen

NEW YORK--Gold jewelry, the bulk of fine jewelry business in discount stores, is big volume and growing, according to industry figures.
Recent visits to three prominent discounters here raised the question of how much bigger the business might be if all the stores provided adequate service.
Latest figures from the World Gold Council, a promotional and marketing organization for gold jewelry, gave discount stores an 11 percent share of the $9.6 billion volume in the classification in 1993. Discounters were the pacesetters in the business last year, with a 24.6 percent increase in dollar sales and a 17.5 percent hike in units, according to the Council.
"These increases continue the growth momentum which began four years ago, gaining one point of market share each year," the Council said in its 1993 report.
Discounters have built this volume on low prices, the report indicates. The average price for gold jewelry at discounters last year was $34, compared with $88 in all channels of distribution.
Nevertheless, while the opportunity for a bargain in fine jewelry might attract consumers to the mass market chains, finding a knowledgeable salesperson--or any salesperson--to show the merchandise proved to be daunting at two of the three discounters surveyed.
The type of merchandise displayed at Bradlees, Caldor and Kmart was fairly similar, but it was only at Kmart that service was up to professional standards. Unlike ready-to-wear, where strong trends trickle down to nearly every level of retailing, fine jewelry at the mass market level has little to do with trends in the higher-end market. Basics dominate, such as:
Gold chain necklaces, bracelets, anklets and pendants.
Gold earrings, rings and charms--some with semiprecious stone--diamond or cubic zirconia accents.
A smattering of sterling silver rings, earrings, necklaces, sometimes with stone accents.
Here, a look at what the mass merchants had to offer.

Bradlees
Although the strip center at the branch in Hackensack, N.J., was under major construction, the store was relatively busy during a weeknight visit.
According to the weekly sales flier, 14-karat gold earrings were reduced by 70 percent, at $7.99 to $37.49, and sterling silver by 50%, at $4.99 to $49.99.
The saleswoman in the department was busy chatting with someone and didn't pay much attention to customers who wandered in and out of the area.
Price tags revealed 8-inch, 14-karat gold chain bracelets were $199.99 and 16-inch, 14-karat gold necklaces were $74.99. Chain necklaces of 24-karat gold over sterling, some with charms or stones, were $39.99.Caldor
The Paramus, N.J., store was offering an unadvertised special, 70 percent off all gold chain necklaces and bracelets, bringing the price range down to $11.99 to $209.99, from $39.99 to $699.99. Lengths ranged from seven to 24 inches in herringbones, ropes and links. The sale was limited to store stock only, according to counter signs.
In addition, 14-karat gold earrings were reduced to $19.99 from $69.99, and 14-karat gold ankle bracelets were $29.99, down from $109.99.
In the department, four customers were arguing about who should be served first by the one saleswoman on duty. The saleswoman didn't seem to know exactly what was on sale, sparking a lively discussion with one customer, who insisted the necklace she had chosen was a sale item. During the debate, the other customers left.

Kmart
At the Ridgewood, N.J., branch of Kmart, not only was the service excellent, but the selection of diamonds was wider.
The store's fine jewelry department is just across from the customer service desk, and when the attendant there spotted a customer looking in the fine jewelry cases, she paged a manager to come to the otherwise-empty department. Help arrived promptly.
The manager explained the difference between 10-karat and 14-karat gold and showed the customer a ring on a black fabric pad, similar to those used in jewelry stores. When the customer didn't see the ring she had looked at several days earlier, the manager said it had been sold, but offered to special-order another piece.
Promotional merchandise was also prominent at Kmart, with 50 percent off all 14-karat gold, 20-inch chain necklaces with charms representing various professional sports teams, selling for $24.99 to $49.99. The store also offered 50 percent off on all 14-karat gold earrings and chains, which, with the discount, were $9.99 to $149.99.
Kmart's diamond selection offered prices ranging from $79.99 to $559.99 for multistone cocktail rings, necklaces and pendants.

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