“He Went to Blue Nile!”
by Angie Ash, EVP
I have great news – my daughter is officially engaged! My future son in law asked for our blessing to marry Meredith about a month ago, and Matt and I both loved that he followed this tradition of sorts. Within the conversation, I mentioned that I was in the jewelry business and told him I would be happy to help him in his quest for the perfect ring. I should mention that he’s quite facially expressive and I could tell immediately that he had NO IDEA I was in the business. Oops. And then he dropped the fact that he had already purchased the ring and texted me a photo. It was very nice; a three-stone, brilliant-cut beauty. I could see there was engraving on it, and as I zoomed in, there it was. What every person in the industry working with independent retail jewelers does NOT want to see, Blue Nile.
It should go without saying that inquiring minds want to know why, and mine was working overtime. So, after a few weeks of obsessing, I took a deep breath and texted him. I asked if he would mind me asking him a few questions about his engagement ring purchasing decision. He obliged and my “few” turned into a literal game of 20 questions. And now, I’m going to share his answers with you. A few things to note. John is a 28-year old, very analytical engineer with a master’s degree and a few medical device patents to his name. He lives in a very nice condo and has good taste. Without further adieu, here we go.
- How did you go about researching local retailers and their ring offerings? Online? Word of mouth? Referral from a friend or family member?
There were two local retailers that I considered. One was Diamonds Direct and the other was Argo & Lehne. Blue Nile was the only online retailer I considered, although a lot of the marketing/articles I read mentioned James Allen as well. I heard about Diamonds Direct from a local radio station. They always advertised that their distribution network cut out the middle man and therefore their prices were lower. I heard about Argo & Lehne from a colleague. I looked some at their website, but it didn’t have much of a selection, so I didn’t actually go to their store. Blue Nile came up really often in a lot of the online articles that I was seeing. It also came up quickly in a Google Search. Their website was very polished, easy to navigate, and I loved being able to “build” my ring. The filters when selecting a diamond were awesome and definitely “spoke” to my engineering mindset.
When I told my brother, that I bought a ring, he surprised me back and said that he bought one too. He asked where I got it, and I told him Blue Nile. He laughed, saying that he got his at Blue Nile as well. He mentioned going to a brick and mortar place (unnamed) and mentioned that the prices were way better on Blue Nile, so that’s where he got it. I intentionally didn’t even try looking at the big box stores. I had no faith that they’d have very competitive pricing. From the engineering world, I understand how costs can add up between manufacturing, distributing, shipping, facility overhead, etc., so an online retailer that cuts out a ton of overhead makes sense to me.
- How long before you proposed did you start your research? Was it for a short period of time or several months?
I took about two weeks of calendar time between deciding to propose and buying the ring with probably 12 man-hours spent. In chronological order, the 12 hours are inclusive of:
- Familiarizing myself with ring buying terminology, guidance, best practices, etc.
- Poking around the websites of Diamond Direct, Argo & Lehne, and Blue Nile
- Determining budget expectations
- Visiting Diamonds Direct
- Price checking Diamonds Direct
- Realizing Blue Nile was a way better deal
- Building my ring on Blue Nile
- Ordering my ring
It took about a month from purchase to receiving the ring. That was one of the major downsides. However, Diamonds Direct mentioned that if I wanted to swap out the diamond, then they’d have to send it in and it’d be a few weeks. So, maybe it’s not unreasonable. The other downside to Blue Nile, while I could see pictures of the exact diamonds I was buying and what a representative setting looked like, I couldn’t see the actual diamonds in the setting. For example, I didn’t know what ring/carat size the representative picture was. After I ordered the ring, I saw some articles that talked about the “story” and “meaning” behind a 3-stone/trinity ring, but it didn’t sway me and kind of made me chuckle at the “cute” story/meaning of it.
- How many retailers did you visit?
In-person, one, Diamonds Direct. Online, two, Diamonds Direct and Blue Nile. I would have potentially visited more if COVID wasn’t a thing. I might have confirmed my suspicions that big-box retailers were over-priced. I didn’t feel like going, though.
- Did you ever consider purchasing a lab-grown diamond? Why or why not?
I knew they were a thing, but I never considered them. I don’t really have a good reason other than stigma. The price is great and my understanding (not that I’m an expert), is that they are largely similar in quality to natural diamonds. I guess at the end of the day, it came down to stigma.
- How were you greeted at the retailer locations? Do you feel you were ‘sized up’ when you went in?
I was greeted nicely and then they found someone to be my assigned sales rep. It was ok. They first asked what my budget was and then went from there. As for sizing up, it’s hard to say. I had done my research before going in, so I knew the 4 Cs, I knew how Diamonds Direct’s supply chain worked, etc. I didn’t show my cards though, as I was curious what they’d do. They gave me their spiel, and it was ok. They recommended cut as king which is what I had also learned from online. I also had already priced out a ring on Blue Nile that I was thinking of, so I was also seeing what they’d recommend for the same budget.
- Did the salesperson attempt to get to know you, ask what you did for a living, ask questions about Meredith and what she was like, etc.?
Yep. They asked how we met, what we did (i.e. my guess was so that they can estimate salary), what her name was, etc. During, they kept talking about how Meredith would love it and how cute our story was. I’m not one for sales tricks/haggling/etc., so I kind of chuckled at what they were doing. It was polite nonetheless, so the “getting to know you” wouldn’t have negatively impacted my decision to buy with them.
- Where did you go to get your diamond knowledge? – i.e. website name
DiamondPro. They ironically have affiliate status with Blue Nile. I really liked their practical approach. They didn’t necessarily focus on the “feelings” of buying it. A lot of their resources focused on getting the best value (which I appreciated). Here’s what I garnered from them:
Clarity – Focus on “eye-clean” specimens that don’t have cloudiness nor any dark black occlusions (particularly in the center) since, without magnification, nobody will be able to tell. I knew where the defects were from Blue Niles magnified images, and I still couldn’t find the defects even though I was trying.
Color – They recommended focusing around the near-colorless range, as unless you’re comparing them to another, higher-color diamond, you won’t be able to tell.
Cut – Cut was king, and the round brilliance cut had the most sparkle mathematically based on the facets.
I didn’t do a ton of searching for the best online knowledge resource but I did talk to several friends. One recommended Argo & Lehne. One gave me this advice (a lot of which I had heard elsewhere): Whatever nominal carat size you’re targeting, shoot slightly below that target (especially the 1-carat target) for the best value since 10 points wouldn’t have a visual impact on diamond size but it’d be significantly cheaper. Color doesn’t matter that much since most look fine until compared side by side with other diamonds. Don’t overspend, as after about the first month and after the wedding, people won’t be looking at the ring that closely, and the novelty wears off.
- Did you ever feel pressured to buy at a retail location?
Absolutely. It’s ultimately why I refused to go back in person. I had been upfront when I walked in that I just wanted to look and get ideas, what I could get for my budget, etc. However, in the end, I was pressured to buy. When I said no, they wanted me to put a small amount down to save the particular diamonds/ring that I saw that day. I didn’t care if that exact diamond was there in a week. I’m sure they could’ve found something similar that they would’ve sold me. I kept asking for the GIA certs (so that I could better compare online after I left), and she wouldn’t give me those. When I finally left, I got a voicemail about 15 minutes later saying how her manager wanted to know why I left, and how after they talked, they could knock a certain dollar amount off my price. It amounted to a little less than 10%. That kind of made me mad. I’m not one to buy on emotion or under pressure. I don’t like hard sales tactics. I was polite and responded via email to her, saying that I was still debating and then I also linked her to the diamonds/setting that I was considering on Blue Nile, and asked if she could price match. She gave some answers that really sidestepped it a lot and she was trying to get me back into the store in person so she could talk, but after everything else and then her not giving me a straight answer, I was done.
- What ultimately led you to buy on Blue Nile?
The lower price and the experience above.
- Talk to me more about price matching.
Diamonds Direct did say that they will price match if everything is exact (4Cs plus fluorescence, polish, etc.) With many retail stores, I price match all of the time. It’s the same exact product, so why not price match? In those cases, I’m too lazy to wait for it to ship. When applicable, I often go to the store in person to look at a display model but then price match it if possible, or just go buy it online where it’s cheaper. Clothes are the exception because of how it fits and feels. With the diamonds, because of the certs, I had no brand loyalty, so if they’re certified the same, why not go with the lower price?
If I didn’t have to mess with sales tactics and the prices were the same as online, I would’ve bought in person. Because of all of the specs/qualifications, it would’ve just been too difficult to mess with trying to price match when the lead time between Diamonds Direct and Blue Nile were comparable. My thought was, “Why spend the extra effort to price match when I could just not go through that effort and buy it online where the price is already cheaper?”
- Did the retailer ever talk to you about their point of differentiation? i.e. offer insurance, financing, free cleaning for life, any other special offer?
Diamonds Direct mentioned financing, but I didn’t care because I bought it in cash. They mentioned their supply chain differentiation (and they tout that a ton on the radio). I think they mentioned free cleaning or resizing. From the ship date, Blue Nile has a 30-day no questions asked refund policy and free resizing after the first year. They had free shipping, finance options, options to save money with a bank wire instead of a credit card, 24/7 assistance, free appraisal, and a diamond upgrade program. So, I was plenty happy with the additional perks.
- Did they offer you a beverage?
Yep. Water, pop, beer, or wine. I didn’t accept anything due to COVID. I was jealous that my brother got offered liquor, haha.
- How long did you spend at the retailer location(s)?
Maybe an hour total.
- Were you nervous going into a jewelry store?
Not necessarily. All of the extra security was a little weird.
- Did they talk to you about metals?
Yep. Knowing Meredith worked outside with her hands a lot, I asked about Platinum vs. 14k white gold (I already knew 18k was softer). They mentioned 14k white would be plenty fine.
- What do you think the retailer(s) could have done better to win the sale?
Not have had the sales tactics. The sales tactics actively turned me away. Had they been less slimy, I would’ve considered spending more time with them and maybe tried harder to price match.
- Did you have a certain ring style in mind?
I didn’t do too much research on the type of ring. Knowing Meredith, I knew she wouldn’t want some crazy, extravagant, or gaudy ring. So, I looked at rings more on the simple side. A solitaire setting was a little too plain, so I settled on the 3-stone. I also tried to find something that was a little lower profile because she works with her hands a lot.
- Did you ever consider a custom design, made just for Meredith vs. picking out diamonds and then choosing a setting? Did a retailer discuss a custom design with you?
I didn’t think about that, and nobody ever mentioned custom designs. Looking back, I wish I would’ve maybe had them price doing a lower profile version of what she has. I don’t know if they would have to make a new ring mold or if they can reshape it. I don’t know enough about the process.
- Did you ever consider going to at least one other family-owned store in the area with a good reputation, like Diamond Cellar or Leo Alfred?
I didn’t consider a “family-owned” store, partly because if you asked me which ones were family-owned, I wouldn’t know. Personally, I thought both Diamond Cellar and Leo Alfred were both big-name corporations. I don’t have anything against family-owned or local stores. However, and especially for big purchases, there becomes a point when cost factors against it, especially if there aren’t other intangibles.
- Did you determine budget expectations by something you saw online or did someone mention this to you?
This one was one of the awkward and difficult things to figure out. Nobody wants to say how much they spent to anyone else, but everyone I talked with (including myself), thought that the 3-month salary “rule” was insane. I did some googling, but depending on whether mean or median, the website, etc. it was anywhere from like $1500 to $7000. At the end of the day, I picked something that I was fiscally comfortable with, that wouldn’t affect my budgets/mortgage payments, and then a bogey that if I looked back 10 years from now, I wouldn’t worry about having under or overspent. Buying on Blue Nile did get me what I think is a lot for my money.
Retailers, here are my takeaways from this interview (besides, as a mom, wishing John was just a tad bit more romantic-minded and a little less technical and practical, sigh).
-John’s experience with the independent retailer should be a definite heads up to any that don’t have a good selection on their site. Even with a friend’s referral, they never got the chance for an in-store visit from him based on having a lack of inventory.
-John has no debt and makes good money, yet price was still very much what he considered despite that fact. He is the classic educated and savvy shopper who knows anything sold can be had for less money. Furthermore, he is willing to do his due diligence to find the best price, period. In fact, it’s clear he practically looks at shopping as a game that he can win. Understand, in his mind (and also verified by other friends and his brother) buying on Blue Nile doesn’t make him “cheap”, it makes him smart.
-Nobody talked to him about true custom design, and clearly, he didn’t realize it was even an option! How does this happen in the jewelry world today?
-Having a LOT of information on your website is key, and showing up in search is critical. He went into the experience prepared. And ultimately Blue Nile won out because they offered him all the online shopping bells and whistles, plus gave him confidence in his purchase. This was even with the few demerits he gave in his review of his experience!
-The one thing that honestly got to me the most in his answers was the remark about after the novelty of your ring wearing off. I would backhand his friend for saying that if I could! There is clearly an emotional disconnect here because I would call this a “Mars and Venus” insight. I know I’m not the only woman out there who looks at her ring constantly, even after 26 years of marriage. I think retailers could do a better job relaying the message to men across the counter and on websites that women want to love their engagement ring, regardless of the money spent on it. It is the one piece of jewelry they rarely take off and it’s the most significant piece of jewelry they own. It’s a symbol of the vows they will take or have taken. Oh, and I also check out other women’s jewelry all the time, but I did that even before I worked in the industry. I have a hunch I’m not alone in that respect either.
All this being said, I know there are plenty of engagement ring customers who walk through your door and perhaps aren’t there to feel like they’re playing a game. And that’s great. But what are you doing about all the Johns in the world? Are you willing to keep losing bridal sales to Blue Nile? What in your sales message can you improve upon to win that customer over? What can you offer that’s different and compelling? I urge you to focus on that in 2021.