“The half-carat is the new three-carat." Jewelers Dropping Like Flies.

Discussion in 'Wall St. News' started by ByLoSellHi, Jul 6, 2009.

  1. Green shits...err...shoots!

    But surf said New York retail is white hot, especially at the high end!



    Too Precious for a Recession

    A Fortunoff Store in Westbury, N.Y. that once sold hundreds of watches is now closed due to bankruptcy.

    Published: July 6, 2009

    In a different economy, Billy Mitchell and Nicole Drucker of San Francisco might have splurged on a $10,000 engagement ring. But Ms. Drucker is out of work and they need to save for a house. So in April, Mr. Mitchell got down on one knee on the Golden Gate Bridge and proposed with a $4,000 diamond ring he had bought on the Internet.

    “We had to decide, where do we want the money?” Mr. Mitchell said. “On her finger?”

    In this economy, many consumers would rather keep their money in their wallets than on their fingers, necks or ears. As people re-examine their budgets, jewelry is turning out to be one of the easiest places to cut back — or trade down.

    “The half-carat is the new three-carat,” explained Hayley Corwick, who writes under the pseudonym Lila Delilah for Madison Avenue Spy, a blog about designer sales.

    Yet the understandable penny-pinching by consumers is putting a painful squeeze on the jewelry industry.

    A diamond ring from Blue Nile, an online jeweler. The retailer also sells rings made with less expensive semiprecious stones.

    The new frugality has forced diamond mines to curtail production, led to deep discounting at jewelry chains, spurred hundreds of store closings and resulted in job cuts at boutiques and department stores. Because jewelry is expensive inventory that moves slowly even in better economic times, many stores are laden with debt — even though wholesale global prices of polished diamonds were down 15.4 percent in June compared with a year earlier.

    Experts say that when the shakeout is over, far fewer jewelers will be left standing. About 20 percent more American jewelers will go out of business this year than did last year, according to Kenneth Gassman, president of the Jewelry Industry Research Institute, an independent research practice.

    The jewelry chains that have filed for bankruptcy in the last year or so include Fortunoff, Whitehall Jewelers, Friedman’s, Christian Bernard and Ultra Stores (which operated jewelry departments inside Filene’s Basement and other chains).

    Still in business but posting losses, meanwhile, are big jewelry chains, both high end and low — from Harry Winston and Bulgari to Zales and Claire’s Stores.

    And while the venerable Tiffany & Company is still making money, sales have dropped 34 percent at its stores in this country that have been open at least a year.

    Major mass-market retailers including Wal-Mart, J. C. Penney, BJ’s Wholesale Club and Costco have cited jewelry as one of their worst-performing categories this year. Even online jewelry and watch sales are down, declining 7 percent in the first quarter, according to the Web analysis firm comScore.

    “You’re seeing the traffic fall off a cliff at all price points,” said Stacey Widlitz, a retailing analyst with Pali Research.

    Of the consumers still buying jewelry, many are trading down. Blue Nile, the giant online jeweler, said some people were opting for less costly engagement rings made of semiprecious stones instead of diamonds.

    And yet, sales of diamond rings and wedding bands seem to be holding up better than for other kinds of jewelry. Retailers and analysts say a decent engagement ring is still seen as a necessity for men hoping to get a yes to a marriage proposal.

    Even Mr. Mitchell, of San Francisco, who knew the outcome because his fiancée had collaborated in the planning, considered the ring to be “hugely” important. And he spent hours learning about diamonds on BlueNile.com. But “we knew that we only wanted to spend so much,” he said, “and this Web site really enabled you to get the best diamond for the dollar.”

    Many consumers still intent on expanding their jewelry collections are now doing so with costume and vintage pieces instead of new, fine jewelry.

    Megan Wishnow of Long Island City, Queens, trolls eBay for pieces. “It’s become a little bit gauche in a way to walk around, to flaunt, whether you have it or not,” said Ms. Wishnow, who sells vintage clothes on the Web after years of working in public relations for high-end fashion brands like Gucci. “I think women are definitely more conscious of how they come off. And everyone wants to be respectful of what’s going on, especially in New York City.”

    Instead of buying jewels, some people are even renting them by the week or month for glamorous events or for gallivanting around town, as one might do in a leased Mercedes. At Avelle, an online rental site for swanky goods, more and more consumers are signing up to rent jewelry by the likes of Chanel and Louis Vuitton, resulting in double-digit year-over-year growth in jewelry rentals, according to the company’s senior vice president of product management, Dana Palzkill.

    Some bargain hunters have taken to haggling — even at Tiffany. After all, consumers are loath to overpay in a down market.

    “I think everyone feels compelled to ask the question for fear of being, feeling foolish after the fact,” Michael J. Kowalski, chairman and chief executive of Tiffany, said last month at a Thomson Reuters luxury and retail industry conference in New York.

    Tiffany has lowered prices on diamond engagement rings, a core part of its business, by about 10 percent since the holiday season.

    “We’re not going to discount or run short-term sales,” Mark L. Aaron, vice president for investor relations at Tiffany, said in a telephone interview. “We’re simply going to take a little bit less gross margin in the engagement category. It was our gesture to a young couple. We just made it a little bit more affordable.”

    At Tiffany's, sales of high-end items have weakened.

    Tiffany hopes it is laying the groundwork for a lifelong relationship with the newly betrothed.

    Not surprisingly, the more expensive the jewelry, the greater the sales declines in the last year. In Tiffany’s most recent reporting period, sales of jewelry above $50,000 were softest.

    Even selling midpriced jewelry has been brutal for chains because the market is awash in marked-down goods from so many liquidation sales. “This is forcing luxury players to make one of two decisions,” said Ms. Widlitz of Pali Research. “You either chase the consumer downstream or you stay the course. Tiffany is staying the course.”

    As a result, Tiffany is among the jewelers expected to gain market share amid the industry shakeout.

    “Tiffany has the balance sheet to really withstand a prolonged period of weakened demand,” said Bob Drbul, a retailing analyst with Barclays Capital who tracks the company. The company’s stock price peaked around $56 in autumn 2007 and fell to about $17 this March before rebounding. The shares closed Monday at $24.70, up 41 cents.

    To weather the recession, many chains are slowing new store growth and making cuts to capital expenditures, inventory and their advertising budgets. Harry Winston, Tiffany, Zales and De Beers have collectively cut hundreds of jobs.

    In February, Finlay Enterprises — a major operator of licensed fine jewelry counters in department stores like Macy’s, Dillard’s and Lord & Taylor — said it would exit the department store business and close about 40 of its approximately 100 specialty jewelry stores, which include Bailey, Banks & Biddle.

    For the retailers the good news, relatively speaking, is that the chains say the rate of deceleration has slowed in the last three months. No one is declaring a recovery, or even that the market has reached a bottom. But Tiffany, which has been selling its signature six-pronged diamond solitaire engagement rings through booms and busts since 1886, is confident the sparkle will return once again.

    “We’re going through a business cycle,” said Mr. Aaron of Tiffany. “There will eventually again be a rising tide of affluence around the world.”