A LATIN BEAT FOR FINE JEWELRY

Byline: Wendy Hessen

MIAMI — Fine jewelry designers looking to expand their reach into Latin America got an initial taste of some of the issues to consider at the first Couture Collection & Conference (CCC) geared specifically for that market.
While the CCC, a division of the Miller Freeman Jewelry Group of trade shows, has another edition that takes place annually in late May, this was the company’s first attempt at bringing together jewelry makers with key Latin American retailers. Show organizers for the invitation-only event said 120 buyers from the Caribbean and Central and South America registered to shop 91 exhibitors at the Sheraton Bal Harbour Beach Resort.
Besides actually viewing merchandise, the four-day show, which ended on Sept. 24, was filled with seminars and evening cocktail parties and dinners. There, whether talking about trends in fashion or business, speakers repeatedly stressed several strategies that are new to many of the region’s retailers. Most notably:
Store owners should no longer think of themselves as just jewelers, but as luxury retailers. They ought to devote more time and attention to carrying and promoting branded and designer collections from around the world, and presenting them in a more sophisticated manner, through the use of brand advertising and merchandising support materials.
The stores should market themselves to the upper income, professional and modernizing elite customer base that is emerging throughout many of these countries.
The retailers should target the rising numbers of females purchasing fine jewelry for themselves, and alter their assortments to include all-day, every-day jewelry looks in the $2,000-to-$10,000 price range.
Since service is more important than ever, store owners need to make changes to accommodate time-pressed and value-conscious consumers.
Antonio Villamil, former Undersecretary of Commerce for Latin America during the Bush administration, addressed an audience of retailers and vendors in his keynote speech just prior to the opening of the show floor. He cited several good reasons for beginning to do business in the region.
“There is great optimism for growth in many Latin American countries now,” Villamil said. “Especially given the growth levels in various countries, the rise in strategic partnerships between countries and the increasing numbers of urban, professional and educated consumers. In addition, inflation rates have lowered, equaling greater purchasing power. In Latin America and the Caribbean, that power reached $1 trillion in 1996.”
He also pointed to the increasing role of women in management roles, the rising numbers of travel-oriented consumers and a new ease when dealing with technology as other factors that will effect how well a company does when entering the area.
“Women are becoming the decision makers where many major purchases are concerned, and these new consumers are more sophisticated in terms of where they have traveled and what technology they have been exposed to. They are aware of brand and designer names and want to be able to buy them in their homeland now rather than just when they are traveling for business or on vacation. These factors should be taken into consideration when developing marketing strategies and assortments.”
Still, there are obstacles. The most commonly mentioned were the heavy import taxes which make it hard for retailers to carry imported goods in some countries. The tax rate in Costa Rica, for example, is upward of 103 percent. Such impediments force retailers to raise prices or slice margins to the bone — or to circumvent the laws by shipping money or merchandise through other channels, and personally bring goods in piecemeal. To avoid the government’s watchful eye, many stores don’t advertise the big European brands they carry. There are also the same complaints about exclusivity that are heard in many parts of the world.
For some vendors new to dealing with such issues and the region as a whole, the show was less than productive.
“It’s an untapped market that needs an incredible amount of nurturing by each respective government before it will be a legitimate source for many manufacturers,” said one source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Other vendors complained that the retailers were more interested in soaking up the sun and shopping at the nearby Bal Harbour mall than the show floor.
Brian Sobie, a principal at exhibitor Simon Sobie, described the show pace as “tortuous.”
But not everyone was so discouraged.
Exhibitor Robert Cepek, vice president, wholesale at Tiffany & Co. said he was pleased with the quality of buyer turnout. The company has established stores in Argentina and Paraguay and will open an 800-square-foot boutique in the Mexico City branch of El Placiode de Hierro department store on Oct. 30.
He acknowledged the difficulties of working through high tax levels in some countries, but said Tiffany’s remains committed to expanding in the region.
“Its a slow but sure strategy,” Cepek said. “We will wait for the right tax and duty conditions before entering a market. We will also wait until we can secure the location for a strong presence in any given market.”
Dirce Zamora, owner of Sao Paulo, Brazil-based Mona Lisa Joias, a four-unit retail chain, and Forum Romano, a wholesale fine-jewelry firm, said she came to the show to search for new looks, which she found.
Through an interpreter, she said she found plenty of new horse motifs, which are strong for her customers, and was able to easily secure deliveries in time for Christmas. She chose pieces from Carrera y Carrera and “H” watches from Hermes and also picked up yellow gold and colored stone pieces featuring citrine, yellow sapphire, peridot or tourmaline, which have been driving her business lately. She said her business was up about 20 percent over last year, with most growth coming in pieces selling for around $1,000.
Rosa Mari Charana, owner of nine-month-old Tiara Jewelers, San Juan, Puerto Rico, said she was “looking for collections to grow along with us.”
Gregg Ruth, Orlanda Olsen and Ramon were among the lines she added to her assortment, which also features antique coins set into jewelry. A former Exxon executive, she said business was trending 36 percent ahead of plan, which she credited to hiring a highly educated, multilingual staff and instituting programs to advertise to both local women’s organizations and the stream of cruise ship passengers that arrive in San Juan every week.
“We really focus on investments you can wear all the time,” said Charana. “My customers are primarily working women, even if they are on vacation.”
Trendwise, exhibitors said that while buyers were interested in seeing the latest looks featuring scaled-down sizing and white metal frequently trimmed with diamonds, many said the Latin and South American market remains heavily interested in yellow gold, although there were some requests for yellow gold mixed with white gold.

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