DALLAS — Price-oriented chains such as Costco and Wal-Mart might move huge quantities of gold and diamonds, but they don’t often make a big effort to romance the stone.
It seems that the more budget-oriented the store, the less a shopper can expect to talk to a knowledgeable salesperson. During informal visits by WWD to Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club and Costco, sales associates did not know the term “eternity ring,” and only the Costco associate knew the meaning of a diamond certification.
“We teach [sales associates] some things about the products they are selling, be it watches or fine stones, but generally speaking, it is a self-service type of environment,” said Jim Sinegal, president of Costco Wholesale Corp.
A Wal-Mart spokeswoman, meanwhile, claimed the chain teaches associates about its jewelry offerings.
“A jewelry associate has all the same training as associates in other departments,” she said. “They all receive information about general Wal-Mart policies and salesmanship, and in particular there is a jewelry associate program where they concentrate on gemstones, diamonds, silver and gold and watches.”
Yet a sales associate behind the jewelry counter at a Wal-Mart Superstore in Irving, Texas, knew little about the products. When asked the meaning of the International Gemological Institute certificate displayed with a diamond ring, she said: “It means it’s a real diamond.”
Queried regarding the meaning of the I color and I2 clarity grades on the certificate, she said, “I’m sorry, I don’t remember.”
The associate indicated that a shopper was in the vicinity who could answer those questions, but the person was not summoned and did not appear.
An associate at another Dallas area Wal-Mart said jewelry was guaranteed long term until a manager corrected her and said the retailer will repair defective merchandise for up to one year with a receipt. Wal-Mart handles the repairs itself and opened a second jewelry repair facility this year. It does a staggering volume in them: close to 1 million ring sizings each year, the spokeswoman noted.
A sales associate went to greater effort at Wal-Mart’s sibling, Sam’s Club. No one was at the jewelry counter and a nearby associate who was flagged down by a customer admitted knowing little about the merchandise. She assured a shopper that a trained staff member was normally on duty during weekdays, but that person happened to be off. That said, the associate tried to help, pulling out a laminated card that described diamond grading and attempting to use it to explain the IGI certificates shown with various pieces. She also managed to find a loupe when a shopper asked to examine the stones on a 5-carat diamond and white gold tennis bracelet selling for $1,830.Sam’s gives out small cards that invite shoppers to compare its prices with other stores by making notes on a chart that lists the attributes of diamonds, gemstones, wedding bands and gold and sterling silver. The warehouse club also tops its jewelry counters with an eight-page brochure that depicts its Regal Elegance Collection of diamond jewelry. The booklet emphasizes that the collection offers only ideal-cut stones, but does not detail grades of color or clarity. The store gives a 90-day guarantee and invites customers to buy a two-year extended warranty.
Costco associates also attend jewelry training conferences once a year. Still, the chain relies largely on educating customers through a glossy handout that explains the four Cs — color, clarity, cut and carat weight — differences in gold karat purity and types of pearls. Like Wal-Mart, Costco often displays a diamond’s IGI certificate next to the piece in the display case.
Sinegal said Costco sold more than 65,000 carats of diamonds last year, partly because it has built a reputation for selling high-quality stones.
“It takes having a very good customer first of all, and secondly someone who knows and trusts Costco,” Sinegal said. “We have great values and the merchandise speaks for itself. Someone has to know and understand the quality issues because you can find a 1-carat diamond from $1,500 to $5,000, so you have to know what you are talking about.”
Costco promises that its jewelry will appraise at twice its price and deals in some large stones. Earlier this year, the Austin store sold a 6-carat radiant cut G VS1 diamond for $73,000 that was appraised at more than $140,000, asserted Mario Omoss, vice president and regional manager.
“The people who buy expensive diamonds have done their research,” he said. “They’ve gone to local jewelers and compared prices.”
Shoppers typically come in more than once before they buy, he noted. Costco guarantees its jewelry and watches without requiring purchase of a maintenance contract. The company, which carries several high-end watch brands such as Tag Heuer, operates a repair facility at its headquarters for jewelry and watches.
The chain positions itself as a more upscale warehouse club — selling madeleine pastries and exotic tropical flowers — and luxury cars are a common sight in its parking lots.J.C. Penney has made training and service a higher priority in its jewelry department. Two years ago, Penney’s hired Beryl Raff, the former chairman and chief executive officer at Zale Corp., to be its senior vice president and general merchandise manager for fine jewelry.
“It is very important in making a sale, and our goal is to develop and train a very professional selling organization,” said Raff when asked about service at the chain. “You have to hire the right people…because you can’t teach somebody to be nice.”
The most important skill for associates is the ability to make people feel comfortable, she said.
“It’s an expensive purchase and the customer is more nervous,” Raff said. “They want to feel that what they are buying is right and that they’re going to be happy. It’s more emotional than it is technical. They do want to know what it is they are getting, but if it were all about the four Cs you have just taken all the emotion out of the fact that someone is getting married.”
Penney’s starts new associates with online training and then moves them into situational role-playing to teach how to sell and build a relationship with a customer. Thereafter, associates have sales meetings several times a week inside the store and get information from corporate trainers on a monthly basis. The company’s storewide video teleconferencing system comes into play for broadcasting role-playing, as well as introducing new products, such as right-hand rings.
The company offers a 90-day guarantee and sells a two-year extended warranty plan.
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