Byline: Holly Haber

DALLAS — There has been a fast cleanup campaign in the fine jewelry department at J.C. Penney Co., which, like many retailers, is in the midst of preparing its stores for the crucial holiday selling season.
When she assumed the leadership of the retailer’s fine jewelry business five months ago, Beryl Raff found unfocused and poorly displayed assortments, which she attributed to the retailer’s former decentralized buying system.
Platinum and white gold — two key industry trends — were practically nonexistent; and diamonds were not graded according to the industry standard, but by Penney’s own system, which was inscrutable to consumers. Also, much of the signage was inconsistent and created a visual cacophony.
But Raff has a real passion for fine jewelry, a business that has consumed more than 20 years of her career. So by mid-November, all of Penney’s fine jewelry departments will have been radically overhauled.
“We were against the clock with Christmas,” said Raff, who is senior vice president and general merchandise manager for fine jewelry. “It was either make it or pass on holiday, and I won’t pass on holiday.”
Raff and her staff have worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, to clear out 30 to 50 percent of inventory and replace it with a coherent merchandise presentation and more alluring displays, which she hopes will all pay off for holiday. Still, this is just the beginning of her plan.
“We have much more to do,” Raff said. “But we have focused on taking some of the intimidation out of buying jewelry and have looked at it from the customer’s perspective. We have a key-item focus and a more complete range of price points, especially in diamonds. Our vision is to be the leading specialty jeweler in a department-store environment and to offer luxury and quality at an affordable price.”
All but 55 of Penney’s 1,080 stores offer fine jewelry, and all those departments are being restyled in the five weeks ending in mid-November.
The most critical element in renovating the business was editing out what wasn’t working and filling in holes in the inventory, so that each merchandise grouping, such as sapphires, presented a planned assortment of styles and prices.
“Before, we might have had six styles at $99, two at $199 and the next at $599,” Raff said. “So we had to fill in the gaps. Now, we offer good, better, best.”
Raff worked fast to bring in key items for holiday, such as diamond tennis bracelets with a gold “X” motif that retail for $499, $799 and $1,299. She added lots of diamond-studded heart pendant necklaces, since they are perennially top sellers, plus the horseshoe pendant inspired by a style worn by Sarah Jessica Parker on HBO’s hit show “Sex and the City.”
Raff has especially high expectations for rose-topped white porcelain boxes that contain necklaces or earrings in 10-karat gold and precious or semiprecious stones retailing for a mere $39.99. Such key items are displayed on blue mounts that flag the piece as a “Bright Buy” or “Best Buy” and list the price. All prices were hidden before.
“The prices, particularly in the holiday season, work as a silent salesperson,” Raff said during a tour of Penney’s at Valley View Center in Dallas, which was the first store to feature the new look, introduced on Oct. 10. “This morning, I asked every customer why they bought something, and one man said, ‘Those blue things made me buy it.”‘
Cases are now lined in bright white instead of the former dark gray. All countertop signs have a blue background that coordinates with the “Bright Buy” display mounts.
It’s no coincidence that the style resembles stores owned by Zale Corp., the nation’s largest fine jewelry chain. Raff served there for six years in top positions, most recently as chairman and chief executive officer. She left Zale to join Penney’s and is considered among the most talented jewelry executives in the country, having also spent time as a senior vice president of the jewelry business at Macy’s East.
Raff views the makeover of Penney’s fine jewelry business as a two- to four-year process. While she declined to give any sales projections or volume for the department, she said she plans to build the wedding business, which has been only slightly represented. She also noted an opportunity in pearls, especially 6- to 8-millimeter Chinese pearls, as well as platinum and cubic zirconium. The department will maintain its emphasis on gift-giving and slowly layer on higher price points.
“We can sell a $1,000 ticket here, and I think we can sell a $1,999 ticket without blinking,” Raff said.
Most of Penney’s jewelry is made with 10- or 14-karat gold. Diamonds are mostly round and graded G to J color and SI1 or SI2 quality. Raff also has added princess-cut diamonds for engagement rings and expanded the offerings of sapphires and other popular-colored stones, such as tanzanite.
Just don’t look for trendy fine jewelry at Penney’s, Raff said, “it’s the classics that really make things happen in this kind of business.”