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Inside a Jared store. Photo: Signet Jewelers
Inside a Jared store. Photo: Signet Jewelers

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Kay, Zales, and Marketing Diamonds to the Middle-Class Man

Inside Signet, the largest specialty jewelry company in America.

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A few weeks ago, over breakfast at New York City's Waldorf Astoria hotel, executives from Signet Jewelers laid out a strategic plan for expansion. While Signet is not a name you're familiar with, it is the largest specialty jewelry company in America. Its portfolio of brands includes Kay Jewelers, Jared, and as of last year, Zales, with an annual $5.7 billion in sales and some 3,600 stores across the country.

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To a packed room of investors, Signet's chief executive officer Mark Light spoke of the company's "Vision 2020 plan" to increase its already-ubiquitous presence. In the next five years, Signet wants to grow its visibility in the jewelry market and hit specific goals like "be regarded as best in bridal."

Edward Hrabak, the president of Signet's Sterling Regional Brands division, eventually shifted the conversation to address the company's strengths. He asked the crowd to direct its attention to a screen where a commercial advertising Kay's new Miracle Links collection played.

In the clip, there's soft music and a cooing voice that asks, "How do you celebrate a miracle?" Cut to a scene of a woman with a baby in her lap receiving a necklace from her husband. "Introducing the Miracle Links jewelry collection. Each link you add represents the miracles in your own life. Celebrate the moment your life changed forever."

"You can see the emotion involved in it," said Hrabak, explaining that the circles "symbolize and commemorate the unique connection and unbreakable bond between a mother and her child."

The Kay commercial is certainly cheesy — and the jewelry itself, a gimmicky play on the "circle of life" — but like most of Signet's marketing efforts, it's effective. "Miracle Links was tested this spring in both our mall and jewelry locations with very strong results," Hrabak noted. "It will be further expanded this fall."

Signet's brands may not have the same cachet as other players in the industry, but at a time when even the most coveted jewelry brands are struggling with sales, the company only continues to thrive.

Originally known as the Ratner Group, London-based Signet has been around since 1949. Its influence first began to grow when it made a series of acquisitions starting in 1987, buying up Kay, as well as Osterman, Westhall, Weisfeld, and the Sterling Jewelers group of brands. Signet introduced Jared in 1993, making its then-large footprint even more significant. After purchasing its biggest competitor, Zale Corporation (which includes Zales, Peoples, and Piercing Pagoda), for $1.4 billion last year, Signet's hold on the market became undeniable. It currently has stores in the US, UK, and Canada, and its sales are growing at an annual rate of 12 percent.

Margins might be higher in luxury jewelry, but Signet has found success in targeting the midmarket jewelry segment, which encompasses items that sell for between $100 and $10,000. According to Light, 95 percent of Signet's sales fall in this price range. American shoppers spend $41.2 billion on midmarket jewelry each year, and Light told investors at the June breakfast that the company would continue to hone in on this sector because it's where they anticipate long-term growth.

"They know their shopper is in the middle class with an income of $35,000 to $100,000, and they've figured out how to serve them."

"They have a sweet spot in what their positioning is," says Kosha Gada, a retail and media strategist with A.T Kearney. "They know their shopper is in the middle class with an income of $35,000 to $100,000, and they've figured out how to serve them."

Jared is considered Signet's upscale brand, known for its diamonds and pricier fine jewelry; Kay and Zales sell plenty of sterling silver and items with semi-precious stones alongside their diamond offerings. All three stores have a wide variety of pieces with different price points, making them accessible to nearly every customer that walks through the door. Signet has also invested in designer collaborations to elevate the midmarket experience, with Zales enlisting Vera Wang and both Jared and Kay stocking Neil Lane.

Signet further caters to its middle-income consumer base by offering in-house credit lines that customers can apply for. According to Light, 75 percent of bridal jewelry purchases made at Signet stores are bought on credit. Ken Gassman, an independent jewelry industry analyst, adds that 50 percent of all Signet purchases are bought on credit.

"This is great for Signet because when you have your own credit operation and sales are slow, you can extend a little bit more," says Gassman. "That's what helped Signet stay ahead during the recession in 2008 and 2009. They had low interest rates, so credit was being extended marginally to customers. They made the right bet."

Signet's powerful presence in the industry means it can purchase wholesale materials  at a lower price than anyone else in the business, explains Gassman. Signet, which would not provide comment for this story, employs aggressive negotiating tactics to ensure deep discounts with vendors.

Neil Lane for Kay Jewelers. Photo: Getty Images

"They get terms from suppliers that no one else gets simply because of the volume," he says. "If a diamond supplier in Israel has a choice between stocking with a chain store that has 15 locations or selling to Kay with all their stores, they are going to choose Kay. Even it if means lowering the price, it's still a better profit. These vendors look for a steady supply. The pipeline, going to Signet, is large and steady."

"When you're small in their eyes, you're under their thumb because you can't afford to lose a client like Zales."

An associate with a wholesale diamond distributor, who wished to remain anonymous, says that a company like Signet is able to increase its margins by insisting on terms that are disadvantageous to vendors, like being able to send back items that don't sell.

"We want them as a customer because we want volume," he says. "But that means that you are at their disposal when it comes to pricing or even something like returns. Sometimes you're put in a position where you need them more than they need you, and they've managed to set up relationships with their vendors where that's often the case. When you're small in their eyes, you are under their thumb because you can't afford to lose a client like Zales."

Location is another incredibly important factor in the company's success, says Angie Ash, executive vice president of jewelry marketing firm Fruchtman Marketing. Stores for Signet's three largest brands (Kay, Jared, and Zales, which make up 41, 21, and 14 percent of the brand's sales, respectively) are strategically placed. Most Kay and Zales storefronts are located in suburban malls populated with shoppers, while Jared storefronts are "normally free-standing sites with high visibility and traffic flow, positioned close to major roads within shopping developments," as per the company's 2015 annual report.

This emphasis on location not only correlates to sales, it also helps build brand recognition among shoppers.

"Jewelry is a discretionary purchase," says Howard Feller, a partner at investment bank MMG Advisors. "It's not an easy thing for a customer to turn to, so shoppers are always looking for a trust factor and a differentiation. They will only buy from people they trust and from brands they feel familiar with."

Echoes Ash, "A customer that walks past the same mall jewelry brand every single week is going to eventually feel comfortable enough going when he's ready to buy something. These mall jewelers also don't have many barriers. They are an open storefront where people can go right up there and talk to an employee. In most cases, they also have price tags so shoppers can easily look at the items and see what they can afford."

Signet has what it calls "sector-leading advertising," which is why you know that "every kiss begins with Kay," even if you've never set foot inside a Kay Jewelers store. While small jewelry companies spend less than 3 percent of their budgets on advertising, Signet spends a whopping $333 million on advertising each year. "It's all about consumer impressions, and no one can beat Signet," says Gassman.

According to its annual report, Signet employs its most aggressive marketing tactics during the shopping seasons leading up to Christmas, Valentine's Day, and Mother's Day. It fires on all cylinders: "television, digital media (desktop, mobile and social), radio, print, catalog, direct mail, telephone marketing, point of sale signage, and in-store displays, as well as coupon books and outdoor signage for the outlet channels." Yes, Signet still employs telemarketing.

As the company posits, branding and marketing are particularly important "in the jewelry industry, where the majority of merchandise is unbranded." Signet prides itself on differentiating its stores and ranges, as well as deeply understanding its customers.

At the investors' meeting in June, Light broke down the company's shoppers into five categories: the Sentimentalist ("likes high-quality jewelry with sentimental value and looks for timeless pieces that last"), the Gifter ("usually does not know much about jewelry and quite frankly doesn't even enjoy the shopping experience"), the Influencer ("uses jewelry to show status and cares very much about brands"), the Stylish Shopper ("likes the extra bling from jewelry and thinks about it as a part of their outfit"), and the Practical Shopper ("a low-key purchaser who likes inexpensive jewelry").

Consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow notes that Signet's aggressive advertising most heavily targets straight male shoppers. A simple analysis of its brands' television commercials, which account for the largest portion of its ad spend, make the company's motives obvious. Take the Kay clips: a stepfather gifting his stepdaughter a necklace while they sit on a swing set, a new dad presenting his wife a watch from under the Christmas tree, a boyfriend giving his girlfriend a necklace while they huddle during a loud storm.

"Most jewelry stores try to go for the feeling of luxurious, aspirational," Yarrow says. "But for male shoppers, they try to make it feel comfortable and familiar, enough so for the shoppers to buy something."

Seventy-five percent of jewelry purchases in the US are made by men for women, according to Gassman. It makes sense then that Signet relies on that "every kiss begins with Kay" tagline and slogans like "he went to Jared." Signet's advertisements are full of heteronormative depictions of love and romance.

At Kay's New York City location in Penn Station one recent morning, female shoppers expressed their frustration with Signet's male-targeted commercials. "Every time I see one on TV, I want to throw something at the screen," said Chloe Layman. "They are infuriating because they are an insult to my intelligence and emotions! I am not that easy to buy and gift-giving just isn't that magical."

A customer at a Zales store in Maine. Photo: Getty Images

Mike Siro, who was shopping for his wife's "push present," argued otherwise: "I think they are moving. I just hope my wife has the same reaction the girls always have!"

Thomai Serdari, a luxury marketing professor at NYU, says Signet's play for the male consumer is also apparent in where and when its ads are placed: the company spends millions to air commercials during sporting events.

"Their branding goes hand-in-hand with how the average American consumer equates relationship milestones with jewelry," she says. "Signet tries to stay on top of the mind of the consumer who will watch a football game, see an ad on TV, and equate that brand with the next gift he needs to buy his wife."

Serdari says that the only other industry that aggressively targets men this way is the car industry, and it's easy to compare their psychological strategies ("Pay half now!" "Put only 30 percent down!").

"There's complexity in this category, because the shoppers are usually not buying for themselves," A.T. Kearney's Gada adds. "Simple messages with emotion will work in mass advertising, especially for men. Their ads can be cheesy, but they add a lot of recall."

Despite Signet's strong e-commerce presence — each of the company's brand sites are fully shoppable, and Signet's online sales increased 20 percent last year — it does have considerable competition as of late, particularly online. Analysts list brands like Pandora and Alex and Ani as viable threats, though its most notable competitor is jewelry website Blue Nile, which launched in 1999 and pulls in an annual $474 million in sales.

While Light told investors Signet was optimizing its e-comm experience, the company sees its sites as primarily as destinations for education and first impressions. Physical stores "will always be the most important element" of its strategy because, as Signet sees it, brick-and-mortar far outweighs digital in jewelry sales, even among young consumers.

"What we find is the millennials who might buy from us online, they actually ship to a store to go see it, actively touch it," says Zales CEO George Murray. "They're not just buying everything online through mobile, no human contact, social media activity that's going on. It is a very, very physical world."

To that end, Signet's store expansion plan is just gearing up. Over the next three years, it will roll out 100 more locations, most of which will be located in malls. Gada says that Signet's ability to swipe cheap real estate at a time when mall brands are struggling will ultimately help the company continue to grow. In fact, Signet may be part of the bigger mall retail solution.

"There's a lot of talk out there about ‘the death of the mall,' but if you look at the numbers, it's much more nuanced than malls going out of business," she says. "Signet is one of those companies that can help a surrounding retail atmosphere because they operate so successfully. Ultimately, I think they are going help the broader landscape of malls."

Editor: Julia Rubin
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