What will it take for Tiffany to regain its cool quotient?
That is the key question in the fallout from Sunday’s announcement that the jewelry firm’s chief executive officer, Frederic Cumenal, had been pushed out.
The decisive move came two weeks after a similar coup involving design director Francesca Amfitheatrof. She was succeeded by former Coach executive creative director Reed Krakoff.
Both departures have left the legendary brand in a state of unprecedented flux.
“It seems to us that the board was displeased with the lack of financial improvement under his [Cumenal’s] leadership even though it sounds like they agree with his strategy,” said Betty Chen, an analyst at Mizuho Securities USA Inc., of the Sunday announcement, made just hours before a Super Bowl media blitz.
Indeed, Tiffany itself made that clear in revealing Cumenal’s departure. In its announcement, chairman Michael J. Kowalski — Cumenal’s predecessor as ceo, who will return to that post on an interim basis until a permanent successor is found — said: “The board is committed to our current core business strategies, but has been disappointed by recent financial results. The board believes that accelerating execution of those strategies is necessary to compete more effectively in today’s global luxury market and improve performance.”
As stated in a research note issued by Nomura on Monday: “The reality is, at least in our opinion, that the management vacancy at Tiffany is among the most compelling retail openings in some time, likely to draw high-caliber external candidates.”
But Tiffany is only the latest leading brand or retailer to see a shakeup. Last week alone saw the exits of Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy (he is said to be heading to Versace); Stefan Larsson at Ralph Lauren Corp., and Mark Lee at Barneys New York, who was succeeded by Daniella Vitale as ceo.
Tiffany’s next ceo will be tasked with addressing a stiff cocktail of challenges that plague not only that retailer but the luxury sector overall. According to industry experts, brand pillars including store design, product design, price points and marketing campaigns require a redress in order to make Tiffany more attractive to Millennial consumers.
As previously reported by WWD, Tiffany may now be looking to refocus its efforts on the under-$500 category, a market already flush with Millennial-friendly upstart brands.
The company has found itself in the same bind as many of its luxury competitors — all struggling to adapt their heritage and brand laurels to suit new consumer behaviors and attitudes. “I think as a category in general, luxury has been struggling,” said consultant and Kirna Zabête cofounder Sarah Easley. “There are so many different options now for the client to get a high level of design at a more competitive price point.
“People today are less label conscious and just want design and affordability and quality. The Tiffany hardware is beautiful, but there is hardly anything less than $2,000. I think people care about heritage [labels] less and less; they want relevant design,” she added.
During Amfitheatrof’s tenure, Tiffany redesigned the Return to Tiffany range and attempted to market it to younger age groups with Snapchat filters. One of her last projects for the brand — the HardWear collection — ironically made its debut in a Super Bowl commercial Sunday featuring Lady Gaga, only hours after Cumenal’s exit was revealed.
Throughout Cumenal’s 21-month tenure, Tiffany was hesitant to have him do press interviews to discuss strategy — rendering Amfitheatrof as the firm’s public face. He was, however, able to begin building a brand “innovation lab” in downtown Manhattan — a Tiffany think-tank of sorts. A representative for Tiffany said the lab’s development will continue following the ceo’s exit.
While these efforts initiated minor progress in lifting the brand’s cachet, they did not catapult Tiffany to the forefront of Millennials’ minds. The company has continued to struggle, especially in the U.S., with declining comparable-store sales and overall revenues that are flat compared with 2014.
Said Mizuho Securities’ Chen: “It’s a very difficult thing to do…balancing both [young and old] demographics without alienating one. They are trying to update the store environment, to make it more elevated and comfortable at the same time — but the challenge is, how do they get someone slightly younger to go inside in the first place? With more competition and macro conditions in the U.S., the Americas have been a disappointing region for them.”
Added Easley: “You have to find the right balance between inspiring and exciting and feeling like you have to put on lipstick and heels to walk into a store. For 17 years, I owned a luxury store and was always very aware to let people know it was OK to come in wearing workout clothes, to bring their dog — don’t feel like just because we are selling expensive clothes, you have to wear them to shop.
“From the inside out, Tiffany needs to rebrand itself: starting with design, product, quality and the flagship store experience. It’s not just exclusive to them — this goes across the board for luxury.”
In the late-Nineties and early-Aughts, Tiffany had a firm grip on then-fledging Millennials with its sterling silver assortment. At that time, the Return to Tiffany tag jewelry and Elsa Peretti bean line topped bat mitzvah, graduation, birthday and Christmas wish lists of American teens nationwide.
That generation — now matured to their 20s and early 30s — is well exposed to the Tiffany brand. But new players have since emerged in the entry-fine jewelry category — heralding a shift in Millennials’ finicky loyalties.
The retailers and jewelers successful with Millennials — such as Brooklyn’s Catbird — offer snug, twee shopping environs with delicate designs and a sense of individual pursuit. Catbird’s 225-square-foot store (the brand’s only brick-and-mortar location) is in direct contrast to Tiffany’s large, hushed retail concept. Sixty-one percent of Catbird’s business is done online — rendering its lone store a branding exercise of sorts. The strong response to Catbird, and similar labels such as Wwake, Kataoka and even Shinola’s debut jewelry line designed by Pamela Love (much of which sold out), demonstrates that Millennials are still keen to buy jewelry.
While an infinitely smaller operation than Tiffany, Catbird owner Rony Elka Vardi claims that shoppers have flocked to the brand — founded in 2004 — for its sense of “authenticity.”
“We don’t work on a marketing strategy, we are very thoughtful, but not strategic in the marketing sense. I do think bigger brands spend a lot of effort on marketing and a lot of younger people respond more to authenticity. People want to feel that they have a voice in their own decisions and have agency over their own taste-making decisions. I think that not [deliberately] trying to be authentic, and just following our own way has gotten us to where we are,” Vardi said.
Said Wwake’s founder Wing Yau, whose four-year-old fine jewelry line is sold at 60 retailers, including Nordstrom and Net-a-porter: “I think Millennials come to us for design first and foremost. For them, it’s about a change in scale with our use of traditional materials — gold, diamonds, semiprecious stones — and seeing them contextualized as something that is the antithesis of what they would recognize as their parents’ or grandparents’ jewels.” Yau said that 80 percent of Wwake’s consumers are Millennials.
One element that could stand in Tiffany’s favor — design-wise — is an emerging shift in fashion away from gold-tone jewelry toward sterling silver. Gold’s steadily escalating costs (now $1,231 an ounce) make it nearly impossible to create entry-level-priced gold jewelry with heft and design impact.
As a result, Millennials have begun giving sterling jewelry another look. The cost-friendly metal ($17.93 an ounce) lends itself to the kinds of layered, sculptural jewelry designs recently shown on the runways of Céline, Lanvin and J.W. Anderson.
As Tiffany strategizes how to deal with the challenges ahead, investors seemed somewhat rattled by its management shakeup. Tiffany’s shares fell 2.5 percent Monday to close at $78.49 a share.