2020 and its subsequent COVID-19 economic disruption threw a whole Sidchrome set of spanners in the works for businesses in the Australian jewellery industry. Here we spoke to businesses from several states plus one from New Zealand to learn how their businesses changed to fit the “new normal”, how they remained viable and even on a growth trajectory in the face of unprecedented economic circumstances.
Pandemic hits, what’s your first move?
Harken back to March last year when the magnitude of the pandemic was first realised, the owners and CEOs of the businesses we contacted had to quickly make strategic decisions for their business’ survival. Most took a very pragmatic approach like the CEO of well-known and respected Sydney-based sterling silver designer brand Najo Jo Tory whose first move was to negotiate a rent reduction from the landlord, and then to analyse all other costs.
Another business owner who looked at every aspect of their business was Simon Molnar, director of Sydney-based online jewellery retailer Ice Jewellery, who sought to find what was absolutely critical and what wasn’t. “We looked at every single dollar being spent,” he said.
“We found so many areas where we were wasting money and managed to completely overhaul the business into a much more profitable one.”
He wasn’t the only one who made radical changes to the ways their business operated in order to remain viable. Founder of Sydney based online personalised jewellery brand Belle Fever Sarah Saputra said last year they had to move everything online and have staff work remotely.
”We were always an online business but we did have some processes that were still in the office,” she said. “This was to ensure we could still operate even though lockdowns and restrictions were in place.”
Down in The Festival State, Scott and Kendall Langford from Hahndorf-based gem wholesaler and lapidary Langford Gems used wisdom and remained realistic about the situation in early 2020.
“(The) first decision was not a decision as such, but an affirmation – if we, as a business, could survive nine months without Scott able to provide lapidary and gem cutting services to the jewellery trade due to a cancer diagnosis, we could certainly survive a one-to two-month shutdown that Adelaide initially faced,” Kendall said. She said they maintained a positive attitude and applied wisdom not to stress about possible future events and take one day at a time.
Across the ditch, Roland Plank used similar wisdom in making decisions for his Auckland based jewellery designer, manufacturer and wholesaler Solar jewellery. He described how he sat down in what was then a quiet office with a cup of coffee, pen and paper and made notes of his thoughts as they came to mind of possible outcomes/strategies as New Zealand moved into full lockdown.
Director of Melbourne-based opal and opal jewellery business Lightning Ridge Opal Mines Jonas Le Souëfis said his first decision following the lockdown announcement was to increase social media presence and integrate online sales.
Managing business during and after lockdown.
Just because a state, region or city goes into lockdown, doesn’t mean consumer demand stops, or that communication with customers, retailers and suppliers ends, and last year our contributors had to find ways to continue to commerce as
normally as possible with the restrictions imposed. Jonas said the entire Lightning Ridge Opal Mines team worked from
home and had Zoom calls daily.
“Customer communication and service was delegated to various staff, so that each channel was properly serviced and
monitored,” he said. Since Najo is not a retail operation, Jo said they were able to keep functioning, supplying and shipping as normal albeit with a skeleton crew, with those able to work from home doing so.
“Initially, everyone went to a four-day week, taking the fifth day as holiday, however this did not last long,” she said. “Those that worked with stock and shipments were on roster so that there were no more than 2–3 staff in the office at any one time.” Similar staff adjustments occurred at Belle Fever, where Sarah said they had to restructure to make sure that wherever their staff lived was viable to have work sent from one part of the process to the next, which understandably caused delays and increased logistics costs.
“As we are online, our marketing and advertising ran as normal, the only difficulty was creating photoshoots or media content but it was a blessing in disguise as the raw photos were taken by myself seem to go well, I think our audience appreciated the authenticity and felt more personally connected to the brand,” she said. Langford Gems is fortunate to be a husband-wife team operating from a private workshop on their Hahndorf premises, relatively sheltered from the business disruption occurring for those in commercial premises or in the eastern states. Kendall said their biggest challenge was home-schooling their children while still working, but as a former teacher, she managed to do both. Plus, their children got the added benefit of learning gemstone processing and business sales skills along the way. In continuing to commerce, their strong online presence held them in good stead.
“We already had a well-established website with approximately 700 products online and we continued to communicate using digital and social media, emails and messages as we do as a daily practice,” Scott said. “As the majority of our clients are based Australia-wide, we continued to move our products with Australia Post and couriers as per normal, albeit, logistics were significantly slower and we allowed for longer approval and postage times.” Similarly at Ice Jewellery, Simon admits that their operations were never hit too hard. “Although there were slight delays with shipping, for the most part, our customers were extremely understanding an easy to work with,” he said. Roland said New Zealand’s lockdown meant that April 2020 ended with zero sales, but once it ended, Solar Jewellery was quickly able to shift back into manufacturing
mode by staff working split shifts so as to maintain social distancing among their staff. Their retailers also made good use of
their website in this time.
Beware of opportunistic hackers
As the lockdowns occurred across the country, more businesses than ever became dependent on online marketing, communication and sales. While this did allow businesses greater connection, flexibility and long-term viability, all
this increased activity also opened up the door to opportunistic hackers.
No one knows this better than Catherine Pevy-Trewartha, founder of Gold Coast-based online jewellery store and physical store My Jewellery Shop which recently fell victim to a cyber-attack. Her business is heavily reliant on Facebook, having used the My Jewellery Shop Facebook page to organically grow their followers for over nine years by posting quality content, hosting regular competitions and utilizing a small paid ad campaign.
It was all jeopardized back in March 1 of this year when her private Facebook account was hacked at 2am, and by the time she woke up and saw the Facebook notification with the 2-factor authentication code, the hackers were able to override the 2-FA and lock her out of her private account and business page account. “Even though I had activated the Two Factor Authentication, I did not have face ID on the Lastpass App activated for this account so they were able to hack this,” she
said. At time of writing, she said the hackers still have access to her personal account, friends, groups, photos, memories,
and numerous other content stored on Facebook.
“As I am the primary administrator of My Jewellery Shop, they have also added themselves as primary contacts, and my staff
are now only editors on the account, so they can post content but nothing else. “The hackers also had access to our ad’s
account and therefore the company credit card for a few hours, so this had to be cancelled and in turn caused a lot of
disruption cancelling the card on all the accounts that are automatic charges such as the shop utilities.” She described the most upsetting thing about this experience is the feeling of someone violating your personal information, being
denied access to your own digital property, and access to the modern digital town square. “The worst part is that you have absolutely no control over the situation.”
As advice to others, Catherine recommends business owners immediately make sure that they have a paid subscription to a password managing program such as Lastpass, and also make sure they have downloaded their Authenticator App and activate Two Factor Authentication on all your accounts with Face ID. “Get online and make sure you have this done
asap as it will save you a lot of stress.”
Looking after staff during lockdown
While we know 2020 was brutal for employers, CEOs and company directors trying to remain afloat, it was also difficult for
employees being furloughed, having their job security stripped, or being in constant fear of such outcomes happening. Fortunately most of our contributors were able to keep their employees’ jobs secure. As mentioned above, Langford Gems is a 2-person army, and Najo briefly trialled a 4-day working week for their employees. Jo also said they were lucky in that Najo never experienced a downturn in sales over all of 2020, so revenue remained stable and all Najo staff were secure in their positions.
The employees at Ice Jewellery were reassured of their job security, as Simon assured them that management would do
what they needed to do to on their end to ensure this. “I don’t think at any point did anyone feel like their jobs were in jeopardy,” he said. Roland made good use of modified rosters and the New Zealand government subsidies in order to look after his staff at Solar Jewellery.
“Due to the COVID contact distancing restrictions at levels 2 and 3, we implemented split shifts to reduce the amount of contact,” he said. “Wage subsidies saw that incomes were maintained even though we were only 70 percent productive in manufacturing.” At Belle Fever, Sarah said they made sure that they cut down on services and other parts of the business before even thinking about cutting down on staff or staff hours. “Thankfully we were blessed to be able to keep all our staff and able to operate while still keeping them employed.”
Jonas said his team at Lightning Ridge Opal Mines tried to continue open and honest levels of communication and constantly checked in with their staff in regards to their mental health and wellbeing.
Striking gold with lockdown and post-lockdown sales
An unforeseen benefit of lockdowns and travel restrictions is that many individuals and family had pent-up cash ready to spend once the restrictions were lifted. This was certainly the story at Solar Jewellery where Roland described sales taking off just a month after lockdown ended in New Zealand. “People had money to spend having been in lockdown for 6 weeks, plus overseas travel was no longer possible,” he said. “Falling metal prices have seen the momentum continue… currently our sales are up some 40 percent on the previous year.”
Similarly at Najo, Jo described the first few months of 2020 as being very ordinary before sales picked up in May and have continued to grow since then. For Sarah, the increased sales at Belle Fever didn’t start post-lockdown, but during lockdown itself. “As soon as full lockdown happened, we noticed an increase in sales and more than doubled business, so a lot of structural changes were required as we were not only coping with the restrictions and operating changes, but we were also coping with growth as a result of the demand,” she said.
By contrast the outlook looks grim at Lightning Ridge Opal Mines. Jonas said that sales have been flat and will continue to remain so until international travel comes back, as the opal industry is still very tied to the success of tourism. Simon admits that post-lockdown growth is difficult to gauge because Ice Jewellery launched a new website in the middle of peak Covid. “…so it’s difficult to know what was due to Covid and what was due to the new website, but we saw an increase almost immediately,” he said. “People who were able to continue working from home but had no avenue to spend disposable income were shopping more.”