New York City. March 15, 2021. For the first time in 42 years, stone dealer John J. Bradshaw had to spend winter entirely at home in New Hampshire because there was no American Gem Trade Association (AGTA) GemFair Tucson fair to attend. Despite that fact, however, the specialist in rare stones (like benitoite and sphene), who runs an eponymous firm, still almost matched the monies he made at last year’s show. His savior? Internet sales.
“I was thinking if we could do 30 percent of what we did last year, that would be great,” he says about 2020 GemFair Tucson sales, which were his best in 40 years. “We did 90 percent of what we did last year, with top clients spending even more on Zoom than they did in person.”
Like all stone dealers this year who were without Tucson gem shows, Bradshaw was forced to find other means of making sales. (Besides the canceled AGTA event, there are roughly 40 other venues to shop during the same early February time period, many of which also didn’t occur.) Like many others—dealers, retailers, designers, and more—he turned to digital efforts to fill the void. From Instagram Live to Zoom, sales occurred in myriad ways, with many AGTA dealers getting creative in order to keep business happening. The upside of this dilemma? Innovative techniques that will amplify all sales efforts moving forward.
“This challenge made us work harder to develop other sales channels like ecommerce, and I don’t think that’s changing,” notes Raja Shah of Color First.
A Successful Event
Not surprisingly, Instagram Live played a role in sales for many dealers. Eric Braunwart of Columbia Gem House used both his @columbiagemhouse and @columbiagemhousetradeshow accounts with success. He held 13 events on Instagram over seven days, averaging about two Lives each day at 45 minutes apiece. The @columbiagemhouse account is open to anyone, and that’s where he held informational talks—no sales, as those occurred on the other handle. He covered sapphires in all colors, tourmaline, and green beryl, among other gems. “We also sold quite a bit of Sea of Cortez pearls, and we oversold moonstone by 10 times,” says Braunwart.
Complicating demand was his own Covid-19 status: positive on the third day of his digital sales series. Still, business continued. Four email accounts were set up to facilitate appointments, orders, and sales, with the bulk of purchases resulting from private Zoom calls. “Appointments are where a lot of our sales came from,” say Braunwart, who set up a broadcast room with dozens of trays of inventory, just like at a live Tucson show. To further help set the mood, a cactus poster was visible behind him on screen. He contacted clients through email, Instagram posts, his weekly e-newsletter, Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat. Clients could email to set up an appointment, and images of trays of stones could also be viewed at a Dropbox link. “People could scroll through it like a catalog,” he observes. The overall result? Pretty good. Braunwart isn’t yet done totaling up sales but is optimistic. “I think we’ll still be pretty close to Tucson’s number last year, and that was our best show in 20 years.”
Zooming for Sales
Many dealers relied on Zoom to show stones and close sales. Niveet Nagpal of Omi Prive held 12 calls on the platform to move Paraiba tourmaline and spinel, among other gems. He, too, set up trays of goods just as if he were at GemFair, and price points of sales were higher than he expected. “Clients who previously spent maybe $2,000 on a stone were spending $3,000 or $4,000,” he says.
Bradshaw, who typically brings upwards of 125 different types of gems to Tucson, had 11 Zooms over eight days, and seven of them were private with his biggest customers. Four group Zooms, meanwhile, allowed a multitude of shoppers to compete for stones; winners had only to type in “sold” first into chat to stake a claim. “It was a bit like herding cats but went really well,” he explains. “It took a couple of hours to download the chat and see who had made claims first.”
And though Jaimeen Shah of Prima Gems didn’t hold a Tucson event specifically, he did conduct a lot of virtual business meetings. “I’ve never had more 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. meetings in my life,” he maintains. The hours may be odd, but the impact of connecting a buyer, a sales agent, and a cutter on the same call is priceless. “It was amazing,” he says of his highly organized meetings. “At a show, a customer asks us about a variation, and then we have to ask the factory and get back to them, but all of those pivots were accomplished in one call,” he says.
For sure, Shah is hooked on Zoom; he’s held about 100 calls in the last six months. Not surprisingly, he had a paid account to hold calls longer than 45 minutes (allotted with free accounts) but eventually abandoned it for the free one—not because he’s cheap, but because it was better for business. “The meeting should end in 45 minutes,” he says. “Anything longer and you start digressing from the focus.”
Tips to Host Virtual Events
To organize your own successful digital events, AGTA dealers interviewed for this article offer these tips.
Plan early. Braunwart started planning four weeks ahead of time, and he wishes he’d started six weeks ahead. If he had, perhaps he would have hit his goal—selling every stone in inventory. “We didn’t sell every single one, but boy we were close!”
Be enthusiastic. Part of the fun of Tucson shows is connecting with friends over a shared passion. Nagpal suggests bringing that enthusiasm to each digital encounter. “We’re communicating about all our beautiful stones in different ways to create an overall excitement,” he says.
Analyze your strategy. Bradshaw thought that holding multiple events at different times for the same material would make sense for clients based all over the world, but he found that one time slot worked just fine. “My Japanese buyers stayed up late to see material first—they didn’t want to wait for a time convenient to them, they wanted first crack at the stones,” he says of events held during Eastern Daylight Time business hours.
Have good lighting. Ring lights and natural daylight are key to illuminating inventory. Tripods to hold phones or iPads help, too, should you need to steady your video source—if you are not using your laptop or desktop.
Focus on quality of buyer, not quantity. Connect with your best shoppers for private appointments. “So much information is being thrown at people right now since this is the only way to shop,” observes Shah. “You have to be focused and different.”
Helen Shull of Out of Our Mines took to the Internet, too, to reach clients in lieu of a live trade show. She showed a lot of new inventory, including calibrated sets and vintage coral, on her business’s Instagram account @outofourmines. Photographing inventory early helped, but moving forward, she would send out more emails ahead of time. “Trying to wing it is tough,” she says. Still, she’s grateful online marketing was an option at all. “[Virtual sales] aren’t a substitute for a live trade show, but thank goodness we can do them,” she says.
Montana sapphire from Prima Gems
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