Selling diamonds online

(A version of this article appeared in LiveMint on March the 4th, 2016.)

“You must have done some good deeds to have earned living here,” quipped a friend visiting me in Switzerland many years ago. Switzerland was wonderful but in my city, only two stores sold books in English and the choice was limited. Amazon swiftly became my go-to store way back in the late 1990s. Fast forward to 2016, I have not stepped into a grocery store for over seven years. My grocery comes to me from one of the UK’s largest grocers. Further, it has been years since I went into a clothing store.

In other words, I live off the web.

Except when it comes to jewellery.

This personal quirk became a business challenge, when I co-founded a fine jewellery business in London.

Fine and high jewellery is a tough sell online, for both purveyors and customers.

Like all good businesses, jewellers too put their customer at the centre of the design of the online store. It is challenging to deliver a satisfying customer experience, especially given the differences between the web and physical space. All decisions must be made remembering the high standards of a typical customer of fine and high jewellery.

As a customer, I expect to see a jeweller’s full range of products online. A business has complex choices. Do we put all our jewellery pieces online, or just some of them? The latter was not really an option for us because we did not have a retail presence. If some, do we showcase our bestsellers, new products or classics?

As a customer, I want to be moved and enticed. As a business, do we present products qua products, or do we showcase them on a human model, who can show the product realistically to the customers? How many photographs per product? Do our photographs really pluck at the customer’s heart strings, because that is where the sale is first made? This is the toughest one to crack. The logic is not very different from those who insist on telling me that they cannot buy their fruit without touching and smelling it. The cost implications of these decisions are notable. As a customer, I want the product photographs to dazzle me. As a business, we wonder if our photographs present the real fire and brilliance of our diamonds, and the true colours of our gemstones. Jewellery photography is notoriously hard and not for everyone wielding a digital camera.

Let’s say the business sells a fabulous piece of jewellery online. More decisions follow.

The essential last mile problem in shipping, for instance, is not simple. Few couriers may take on goods worth thousands of pounds, with appropriate insurance. Further, in countries with distance selling regulations, returns must be made easy and safe too. As a customer, I want assurance on both counts.

Further, the business can’t be certain the transaction won’t get called out as fraudulent after the product has been shipped. Jewellery is a new category for e-commerce, and payment processors just don’t have enough transaction data. It is a catch-22 because until more jewellery sells online, actuaries won’t have data to build the risk model. This is why many fine and high jewellers do not let a customer complete a transaction above a certain value online, typically £5000 in the UK, and will instead telephone the customer to verify details. So much for selling jewellery online!

Selling jewellery is much easier in a retail store.

In a store, the jeweller can deliver the right ambience, with champagne and macarons, or a lungo made perfectly, as well as handheld and full length mirrors to enable the customer to see how the jewellery works for her. As a customer, I delight in the sensuality of that experience. Experienced jewellery sales people in a store can assess a customer’s intent, interest and budget; they can then help with information, offer alternative products, and address customer doubts. For the customer, this helps bridge the chasm between the heart and the head, and leads to an actual purchase. The interaction is between two humans which means there is an opportunity to up-sell or cross-sell products by listening to and working with the customer, the first steps in that elusive process of clientelling.

Will techology be a saviour?

Both as a customer and a jeweller, I watch technology closely. Solutions are emerging to
approximate the physical experience online. But not fast enough.

For now, diamonds shine brightest when moving gently under the right lighting. Just like Charlize Theron’s dazzling Harry Winston necklace at the recently concluded Oscars!

Guess what? You can’t buy that online.

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