Cover Story: A Beautiful Marriage
Buying an engagement ring ranks as one of the biggest purchases a consumer will ever make, both in terms of a sentimental and financial investment. Now imagine going through this entire process online — browsing a website to create the exact ring your future spouse will love, making sure it's sized just right and then paying for it via an e-commerce checkout page. Ritani is trying to make this experience the norm rather than the exception … with a healthy assist from traditional brick-and-mortar storefronts.
Leading Ritani's efforts at transforming the traditional retail jewelry store model is Brian Watkins, the company's president. Watkins has extensive experience both in the retail and, more specifically, jewelry industries. Prior to being named Ritani's president in December 2011, Watkins spent over eight years as the vice president of merchandising at online jewelry retailer Blue Nile. He also spent nearly a year as the director of strategy for Nordstrom.
Bridging the Digital Divide
What differentiates Ritani from other jewelry retailers is its hybrid selling model. This is embodied in the company's free in-store preview program. Here's how it works: Consumers begin their shopping experience by browsing Ritani's website, selecting two loose diamonds and settings, which are then handcrafted into rings at Ritani's manufacturing facility in New York City (they can also choose two made-to-order rings). The rings are then shipped to a local jewelry store affiliate of Ritani, where the consumer can preview them for free with no obligation to buy.
"Integrated online/offline is truly the Holy Grail of retail today," says Watkins. "We're able to bridge online and offline, giving the consumer exactly what they're asking for — time to get to know the brand online and then transition to an expert in a local store. We think that value proposition, all the way from online to your local Main Street, is what makes Ritani unique."
Ritani counts upwards of 125 retail partners across the U.S. These partners not only receive a commission on every Ritani purchase that occurs in their store, but they also get exposure on every page of Ritani's website and the chance to interact with quality leads. That said, it wasn't easy getting them on board initially.
"The retailers at first looked at us as competition," Watkins admits. "We spent a lot of time working through that. I think they fully understand now that we're not the competition. We're doing everything possible to introduce and integrate their retail store experience to that consumer. When you land that first engagement ring customer, the lifetime value of that customer, especially for higher-end stores, is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"We're sharing a part of our proceeds back to that retailer, and then we almost become a lead-gen engine for them. That customer just bought a platinum engagement ring for $10,000. The very next thing any sales associate should do is show them the matching wedding band that's in the display case or start talking to them about other gifts they want to start thinking about. There's a natural flow to this process that allows them to be the trusted retailer along with Ritani in making that sale successful."
A First-Rate Website and Education
As a brand that's selling high-end merchandise online, it's imperative that Ritani's website be modern, sleek and feature rich. High-definition product images and videos, 360-degree product views, and live chat are prominent on the retailer's site. In fact, Ritani has a patent on its method for showing highly detailed diamond imagery via the web.
The company's e-commerce team has worked hard to create an online shopping experience that's comparable to the offline retail stores it works with.
"Our local presence is with some of the highest-end jewelers in the country," notes Kevin Flaherty, Ritani's vice president of marketing. "Our online shopping experience has to be as good as their in-store experience in order for our model to work."
In addition to expertly designing a clean, easily navigable website that showcases Ritani's merchandise, the retailer often plays the role of educator. Ritani is almost always dealing with first-time customers when it comes to the purchase of diamonds, and therefore needs to educate shoppers on the process — e.g., the different cuts of diamond, the price of the product depending on the size, the four C's (cut, color, clarity and carat weight).
Ritani offers site visitors free consultations with professional gemologists, who review with the shopper each of the diamonds they've selected. This service is in addition to the educational content Ritani has posted on its website, from defining the four C's to a section on the differences between ring settings.
"We spend an inordinate amount of time on the educational process associated with buying a diamond or an engagement ring," Flaherty says. "This is a trust-based purchase. If they trust the brand and jeweler, they're more likely to buy. Education is the doorway into that trusting relationship. Of all the content on our website, I'd say 70 percent of it's education oriented."
Ritani's 'Social Commerce'
Ritani is active in social media, interacting with consumers on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Google+. While the retailer has a different purpose for each social site — e.g., Pinterest is used to showcase Ritani's merchandise; Facebook is a forum to promote the company's latest news as well as ask and answer questions; and Twitter serves as a customer service tool — its overall social strategy is about building trust with consumers. And with that trust comes sales opportunities.
"I'm pretty bullish on it," says Flaherty in regards to social commerce. "We have a very long purchase cycle, and I go back to that trust factor. I don't think there's a single consumer that's bought from us that hasn't checked out our Facebook page or Pinterest site to make sure we're legitimate. It may not be the one impetus for purchase, but it's certainly among the many credibility factors that people are looking for. They want to know if the brand is there and is going to respond or is this some fly-by-night organization. Social is very important to that."
Primed for Growth
With the jewelry industry a $180 billion market worldwide ($60 billion in the U.S.), Ritani has begun to look internationally for growth. Working with global e-commerce and international logistics solutions provider Borderfree, Ritani went from shipping only in the U.S. to shipping to over 50 countries worldwide in their local currencies within nine months.
International customers get free shipping and free returns on all purchases, just as U.S.-based customers get. All Ritani shipments, including returns, are fully insured at zero cost to the customer. In addition to selling internationally online, Ritani will soon be launching its free in-store preview program in Canada.
"We find that it's a very compelling proposition in a retail environment that's unique and different than the U.S.," says Watkins about Ritani's in-store preview program coming to Canada. "We think this online component, given the distribution of Canada's population, has great appeal."
Ritani also recently signed a multi-year agreement with GE Capital Retail Bank for a branded private label credit card program. With a 25-year-old to 35-year-old target demographic, Watkins believes this move is a differentiator for Ritani on two levels.
"One, that credibility that we get from our customers and retailers in working with a company like GE Capital," he says. "More importantly, financing is a key part of the jewelry industry. From day one, we've had many consumers come to us and one of their first questions is, 'Do you offer financing?' We're really happy to now be able to say 'yes' to that question."