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Rising Stronger: Valuable Lessons From the Pandemic

Much has been written about the impact of the global pandemic as well as the damage caused on businesses which, of course, then flowed through to people’s personal lives. And while the focus on the negative is important, what has often been lost is positive and beneficial examples of human endeavour.

While Australia’s jewellery buying groups are businesses in their own right, they are in a unique position because they each have many members that, while technically clients, are seen as part of a large family.

The groups, therefore, were not only on the business coalface of COVID-19, but they have seen first-hand the impact on people’s personal lives.

It also meant the groups witnessed the wonders of the human spirit and discovered that in periods of turmoil we can surprise each other.

One of the most pleasantly surprising things we’ve learned is that the concept of ‘local supports local’ is very much alive and well in Australian and New Zealand communities,” Jorge Joaquim, CFO Showcase Jewellers says.

“Like most people when the pandemic first unfolded, our head office team was initially apprehensive about what the future would hold for our business and personal lives, but we’ve found that in the uncertain climate surrounding global transactions, consumers have fallen back into a more traditional approach to spending, trusting and supporting their local jewellers as opposed to looking overseas to make a purchase,” he adds.

Josh Zarb CEO Independent Jewellers Collective (IJC) also notes the hardiness and how people worked together.

“I think the resilience of stores shone through for me and I am so proud to see how far many of our stores have grown their business despite all the uncertainty. The extended lockdowns were not fun for anyone, we don’t have a large number of stores in CBD locations so overall as a group, we still had a very strong year [2021] of trade,” Zarb says.

Claire Packett, head of category – jewellery at Leading Edge echoes Zarb’s observation: “People’s resilience and adaptability, in general, have been amazing. The past two years have been a rollercoaster of good and bad times, and our members have been able to ride the waves through this period of time.”

“Everyone is exhausted at the sheer effort that the past year has required to keep up with almost daily changes in rules and regulations, and now just keeping the doors open with staff shortages is the next challenge. Yet everyone has maintained their sense of humour and is now planning for a brighter future.”

Apart from the spirit and resilience of members, many other things caught people by surprise.

According to Colin Pocklington managing director Nationwide Jewellers, the substantial growth in jewellery sales from late 2020 through to June 2021 “was very surprising”.

“A lot of the money that consumers would normally spend on overseas trips was clearly being diverted to discretionary products such as jewellery. From late 2020, the demand for custom design/manufacture was particularly strong. Both diamond jewellery and gold and non-stone set jewellery were up 100 per cent on 2019 figures,” Pocklington says.

Some of this can be explained by a strong trend throughout government restrictions and lockdowns. Nicola Adams, COO Showcase Jewellers agrees that “local jewellers seemed to be rediscovered for their skill and quality products, especially with regard to custom pieces, and customers were happy to pay a higher price point for a better, local product.”

According to Adams, Showcase staff were pleasantly surprised with the nationalist approach to spending, and the support of each other, adopted by many Australian and New Zealand communities last year.

“In a time with ongoing restrictions on travel and recreational activities, it seems consumers’ discretionary income allowances refocused on retail spending rather than investing in experiences,” Adams says.

However, while the ‘Aussie spirit’ shone through during the tough times it should not be forgotten that not everyone coped well.

Erin Keller, membership manager Nationwide explains, “Having survived the 2020 lockdowns, most retailers weren’t expecting the additional and longer lockdowns in 2021. The impacts of these lockdowns on businesses and stress levels were profound. Recognising this, our management team provided additional support by personally checking in with over 200 impacted members.”

Lesson learned

A great many lessons have been learned since the early days of COVID. Indeed, many simply accelerated the pace of change that was happening ‘organically’ before the pandemic, while others are new insights into the future of retailing.

Pocklington says the most valuable lesson his group learned is to be flexible, innovative, and supportive.

“With the COVID-related cancellation of physical events such as conferences and trade fairs, we have learnt to adapt by running highly successful virtual events. These events incorporated a strong educational program, and merchandise offers from our preferred suppliers.”

He also believes members had time to review benefits the group offered and which members might not have previously used.

“Many more members utilised and now have a greater knowledge of the wide range of industry-specific free support services and expertise that we provide, thanks to our COVID webinar series.”

Zarb says, “The follow-on effects from COVID and lockdowns have forever changed the way many of us look at our overall business models. As a buying group, our life is interaction and communication and until early 2020 we had never used Zoom as a communication tool, now we don’t know how we ever lived without it.

“We are fortunate to have quite a young and progressive management team however; our members all have varying levels of experience in digital communication, but overall, I think they have also learned to use new software such as Zoom in their own business since the pandemic. Not only to interact with us at the head office but to conduct interviews for new staff and to interact with clients for designs and remakes, as well,” he adds.

Packett says that resilience and adaptability are paramount to being able to survive and thrive.

“The convenience of online [transactions] has certainly grown [during the pandemic] as more and more people were pushed to shop this way during the pandemic. The e-commerce boom has also been matched by growth in omni-channel market tactics to attract new customers.

“All of this has made it particularly challenging for small, independent retailers reliant on foot traffic to help generate brand awareness, and with limited resources, capabilities, and budget to compete with larger stores to drive awareness online. For small retail businesses to survive and thrive, and retain the diversity of our main streets, we have learned the importance of being clearly visible and discoverable online, now more than ever before."

Two-way street

The groups also found that members were supporting each other, offering tips and advice during a period where the rules changed on a daily basis.

“Our closed Facebook networking group provided focus for some during these difficult trading conditions and allowed members to support each other through some challenging times. With 306 members across Australia and New Zealand in the Facebook group, there is a huge amount of industry-specific knowledge being shared every day,” Keller says.

Adaption became a keyword throughout 2020 and 2021.

“Navigating a pandemic with lockdowns and restrictions that directly impacted the business operations of the Showcase head office and Showcase stores has meant many adaptations over time, including implementing working from home arrangements for our staff and increasing digital access for our members,” Adams says.

“Some of our members have utilised our website services to create a digital commerce platform as a means to navigate unpredictable in-store operations over the past two years, while others have increased their digital presence on social as a means of facilitating online awareness until in-store operations were once again steady.”

Perhaps the most important business lesson learned from the pandemic is that while strength in numbers is a great start, it means little without loyalty, and while it can be hard to find, it has shone through the jewellery industry for two years.

Nationwide general manager Glen Pocklington echoes these observations: “We found that where possible, our members continued to trade during lockdowns via their websites and social pages with Click and Collect options. Quite a few members were highly successful with digital promotions, utilising social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

“Many shared their success stories on the Nationwide discussion/networking group, offering inspiration and support to others during these difficult trading conditions”

Glen also points to a continuing strong trend: “It is clear that the growth and demand for custom-designed jewellery are not going to abate, and one of the challenges for jewellers over the next 12 months will be how to take on more business, with existing manpower and resources.

We are working on a cloud-based design solution that provides the ability to undertake significantly more manufacturing jobs. Following several years of research and development, we are planning to launch this new resource mid-year.”

Perhaps the most important business lesson learned from the pandemic is that while strength in numbers is a great start, it means little without loyalty, and while it can be hard to find, it has shone through the jewellery industry for two years.*

 

 

WHAT'S IN STORE

Group strength during the pandemic: real life examples

If there was ever going to be a time that the value of being a member of a buying group was on display, then COVID-19 was it. One of the main reasons for joining a group is strength in numbers. Jeweller asked the groups to provide examples of how they helped specific members, and how members benefited in the past two years of the pandemic..

 

We have provided more than 100 members with personalised email responses to their landlords who were reluctant to provide the correct rent relief under the code issued by the National Cabinet.

In fact, we recently had a member whose lease expired during the rent relief period, and the landlord required them to enter into a new lease at a higher rental. We provided a letter, with references to the appropriate sections of the legislation, pointing out that the existing lease term had been automatically extended by the number of months of rent deferral.

With varying compliance issues from each state and country, we have guided members with significant HR concerns and assisted in resolving these situations.

The impact of COVID reduced a few members from breakeven trading levels to a loss situation. Using our industry-specific trading and benchmarking system, we identified that the best course of action for this member was to close the business and move to a more profitable location. We also provided free support and advice for this member and helped establish the new store location with free marketing and promotional assistance.

One of our newer members who weren’t able to travel to Antwerp because of COVID was still able to participate in our Antwerp Diamond Broker program ‘virtually’. They were successful in pre-selling more than $40,000 of Antwerp diamonds and also achieved a significant increase in their overall diamond sales, which they would not have been able to achieve otherwise.

Our marketing team provided several members with free marketing material for their stores and digital platforms, providing advantageous promotion for the business during these difficult times. This included our Powerpoint customer presentation on ‘The Path of Diamonds’, to assist our members in establishing themselves as the expert on diamonds within their community.

 

We’ve distributed approximately $3 million in cash flow to members over the past two years to support Showcase stores amidst the challenges of operating a small business during a pandemicinduced economic downturn.

Some of our members have experienced struggles related to rent negotiations and reductions made necessary from lockdown effects on business operations. Showcase has been involved in this process with several members, bringing about a positive outcome in many cases.

We are thrilled to see our members’ businesses not only survive but prosper in these unprecedented times, with many members recording some of their strongest growth in many years despite the pressures presented by restrictions and lockdowns.

  

Over the past two years, we have brought stores together via clever communication and have hosted monthly Zoom sessions from ‘day one’ of the pandemic.

Industry experts were introduced to the group relevant to what was happening in the industry at the time.

We then recorded the sessions and sent them to all stores as a video record with notes and attachments and we have also conducted staff interviews for stores and sat in as advisors on many aspects of their business.

IJC subscribes to several retail management networks and have provided our stores with key updates during every phase of the pandemic and introduced experts in leasing, marketing, customer journey and HR to assist stores.

We also work closely with members ‘behind the scenes’ to review their expenses, overheads and stock-ranging and are continuously assisting them to maintain a healthy bottom line.

We produced several marketing campaigns for the stores to use as they see fit and we have a very strong digital marketing team, that have set up all stores with eCommerce, Social Media support and Database Communication strategies.

 

One of the biggest challenges during the pandemic has been supply and delivery issues. Leading Edge has been able to use our stock warehouse to support members over the past two years when required.

Consignment stock always helps when cash is a little scarce, so this has been a great benefit for some of our members to alleviate some of the pressure.

We have had the ability to draw advice and experience from many different retail categories and deliver savings and opportunities to members, which can’t be found elsewhere.

This, alongside being able to offer a product that supports all the basic stock requirements of a store, is unique in the market.

Our team also ensured personalised support to all members throughout the pandemic as we tried to work with them on their specific needs to maximise their sales - whether it be sourcing specific products for them to creating billboards to help sell their items.

The marketing team created close to 100 local and national campaigns over the past 12 months to support members through this time, and our IT department has worked one-on-one with stores to optimise their websites and ensure their e-commerce platforms are performing optimally.

 


 

WHAT'S IN STORE

BUYING GROUP MEMBER ACTIVITIES FOR 2022

Following two years of disruption and – in some cases, upheaval – 2022 should be the year that the buying groups can again gather together with their members. Many educational and management activities were lost during 2020 and 2021, at least on a face-to-face basis. Below is a snapshot of the plans and activities by the four buying groups during the year:

 

Nationwide will commence its 2022 program at the new (…) March jewellery fair in Sydney, which will include free diamond training for members and staff, one-on-one consultations, and its six-month interest-free finance.

Its Retail Jewellery Business Management course has been revamped and will focus on the daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual business tasks in order to achieve Industry Best Practices.

Nationwide’s ‘It’s Time Out’ conference at the 5 Star W hotel in Brisbane is scheduled for May. The conference package, valued at $1,800 is free for all reward members. The keynote speaker will discuss the seven most important trends impacting small businesses. Nationwide will also use the conference to celebrate its belated 30th anniversary.

The group will maintain the International Jewellery & Watch Fair in August as its major annual event. Its traditional large and extensive lounge area enables the group to provide member seminars, workshops, individual consultations, and various merchandise and marketing opportunities.

 

Leading Edge is launching a national initiative titled ‘Local Like U’s’.

The initiative focuses on providing members with tangible support to attract and retain customers by leveraging its community and the group’s status as a “trusted and recognised Australian brand”.

A national conference at the Gold Coast is scheduled.

From a product perspective, Leading Edge will work with suppliers to offer members innovative and fashionable fast-moving lines, including its Argyle range.

  

Independent Jewellers Collective is introducing several new marketing initiatives in early 2022 that will support stores in the design, repair, and remake area, which will provide members with digital and print content.

Conferences and training workshops will be conducted throughout the year, while the monthly Zoom catch-ups with expert guest presenters that were started during COVID, will be maintained.

A mid-year training conference is planned to include the latest information from business advisors and mentors to ensure members most current up-to-date business advice.

And finally, IJC is working with several local supply partners on exclusive product ranges.

 

Showcase has created a strategic plan to unveil a new series of member services in 2022, including leasing, legal, taxation and training services, to name a few.

Alongside these new services, the group plans to continue and expand existing service offerings, including members’ access to the Retail Edge stock management and ordering system; and Showcase’s partnerships with key international and national stock suppliers.

It will unveil also new product ranges for its exclusive brands - Dreamtime Diamonds and Passion8 Diamonds.

Showcase’s marketing department has expanded further into digital marketing support and assistance to help members to create a professional digital offering.

Showcase’s 40th Anniversary Conference was postponed for the safety of staff and members but the group is optimistic that the new August 2022 dates will proceed and be worth the wait.

 

 

 

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