Many Americans are spending their days working from home in leggings and casualwear during the coronavirus pandemic. They have few, if any, parties or gatherings where they dress up — never mind show off a shiny bracelet or a new necklace.
Companies including Signet Jewelers, Tiffany & Co. and Kendra Scott will look to overcome those empty social calendars this holiday season and encourage jewelry purchases as a romantic gesture, a Zoom accessory or a way to add sparkle to a very challenging year.
"It's going to be up to the retailers to really coax and swoon the gifter to recognize that jewelry is the gift that's going to soothe all of the pain that we've had to endure," said Marshal Cohen, senior chief retail analyst at The NPD Group. "The feel-good. The 'I love you' part of that equation. That now has to become a bigger part than it's ever been before."
Jewelry sales have been one of the hard-hit categories during the pandemic. Sales of jewelry from March to October were down by about 30% year over year, according to data from The NPD Group. They have recovered somewhat in the past few months, the market researcher's data show, with sales flat in August, October and November.
Beth Goldstein, an industry analyst for fashion, footwear and accessories at NPD, said the holidays could give jewelers an opportunity to get back on track. About 30% of annual jewelry sales are typically made in November and December, according to historic data from NPD.
She predicted sales will improve over the holidays, with declines in the mid-single digits to low double digits.
Some people may see jewelry as a refreshing change as they grow tired of their sweatpants, Goldstein said. Fifty-four percent of consumers said they miss getting dressed up for events such as work, special occasions and social events, according to an NPD poll of about 1,000 people across the U.S. in September.
Plus, she said, a shiny bauble may be seen as an investment that they can use for social gatherings well into the future and can "tap into the things consumers are missing particularly around the holiday times."
Cohen said shoppers may also look to jewelry as an alternative to experiential gifting, which has fallen from favor as people can't go to a Broadway show or spend a day at the spa.
At Signet Jewelry's retail chains, including Jared, Kay Jewelers and Zales, more than 300 employees are now trained as virtual jewelry consultants. They can help couples pick out engagement rings or guide spouses toward a special gift without those customers stepping into the store.
This holiday season, Signet CEO Gina Drosos said the retailer will serve customers in those new ways and expects to sell more "gifts that have a story." She said during the pandemic, customers have sought out more personalized gifts and have gotten jewelry engraved with messages about how the pandemic has strengthened their love for a spouse or partner.
She pointed to one of the collections at Zales and Kay this holiday season, "Everything You Are," which has five unique diamonds to celebrate the many facets of a woman. She said that message may resonate at a time when women have had to juggle working from home with helping kids attend school virtually.
She said the company expects pandemic-fueled romance to buoy sales, too. Couples have accelerated moving in together and grown closer during the pandemic — and that may lead to more engagements, according to the company's internal research.
She said several sales associates have gotten ordained and officiated at about a dozen weddings in store or in the curbside pickup line during the pandemic.
Signet's same-store sales dropped by 31.3% in the second quarter, roughly in line with industry trends, but Drosos said sales have strengthened again with stores reopened and more people shopping for jewelry online. The company will report its third-quarter earnings next week.
She said it's increased capacity to fulfill five times as many e-commerce orders as last year. "We want to be the company that can deliver that wonderful, meaningful, romantic gift for this holiday season," she said.
On Tuesday, Tiffany reported that business is rebounding, too, as sales in China rose 70% and sales at home picked up in the third quarter. The U.S. jeweler, which is being bought by French luxury giant LVMH, said it will enter the gift-giving season on strong footing.
Tiffany CEO Alessandro Bogliolo said in a news release that the recent quarter "speaks volumes about the enduring strength of the Tiffany brand and gives us confidence as we enter the important holiday season."
At Kendra Scott, store employees have had to get creative to overcome pandemic-related challenges. The Austin, Texas-based jeweler is known for its dangly earrings and statement jewelry. It has more than 100 stores and its jewelry is sold by boutiques and major department stores, including Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Macy's-owned Bloomingdale's.
Each holiday season, customers typically line up outside of its stores and employees hand out champagne and cookies. This year, the line has grown longer because of store capacity limits, President Tom Nolan said.
Along with sanitizing stores, Nolan said employees have tried to put a pandemic-friendly spin on the customer experience. They've handed out "golden tickets" for free jewelry and had musicians perform outside of stores. To keep sales moving, stores have added curbside pickup and pre-box popular items.
Nolan said Kendra Scott has seen online sales jump significantly and expects online purchases to exceed brick-and-mortar sales this year. He declined to provide revenue figures for the privately held company, but said comparable sales are slightly up year over year — despite having to temporarily shutter.
He said the retailer has benefited from people having more discretionary income as they spend less in other areas, such as travel. Some have spent a little more on their purchases, such as upgrading to demi-fine jewelry that pairs gold- or silver-plated jewelry with semi-precious stones, or paying more to customize a bracelet.
And, he said, people still want to put on earrings and necklaces, even if they have no place to go.
"Even in the virtual world that we're living in, people are still doing a lot of Zoom calls and women and men are still wearing jewelry and getting dressed from the waist up for when they're on a Zoom call," he said. "That has served us well."
At Signet, Drosos said she's been surprised by the jump in sales of earrings and pendants as people look for "Zoom-worthy jewelry" to express themselves in "that little box on the screen."
Customers have gravitated more to colored stones, including engagement rings, she said.
"It's just been a bit of a dark time, and that's one of the ways that customers are bringing color and life and light back into their lives," she said.