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  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.”
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.”
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.”
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.*