By Deborah Sanders
To be in business for over 60 years in the same location, you must be doing something right. To hear Norman “Brad” Bradford tell the story, he makes it sound easy but, if you think about it, jewelry is not required for sustenance (well maybe for some!). In other words, customers are probably not shopping there as frequently as they might at a grocery store for example. So how has Brad been able to do it? By insisting on attentive customer service.
He has built longevity into his business that others might envy. “I take care of my employees. We do not pay on a commission basis so we avoid high-pressure sales. They are paid the same if they sell an engagement ring or replace a watch battery. Because we provide benefits and vacations, employees are inclined to stay. They are secure here. Some of them have been with us for 35 years.” he explains.
Of course, it does help that nearly half the employees are family members – starting with his wife, Cathy; his daughter, Tari and two sons Andrew and Gregory. Employee attrition is practically non-existent. Everyone has assigned responsibilities but also helps with sales. (That includes modeling merchandise.) Cathy has an accounting and insurance background, so she keeps track of books, all advertising, and some office work. She grew up locally, so knowing people in the area is an asset for any retail business when helping on the sales floor.
Tari started working at King’s at almost the same age as her father did — when she was 20 years old. Tari says her favorite part of working there is when customers come back to the store to tell the joyful stories of getting engaged with the ring they bought at King’s.
There are six additional sales people and two jewelry designers. Most have been working there long enough to be considered family. A friendly staff and no sales pressure helps create an atmosphere where customers feel comfortable.
(see sidebar about the craft of making jewelry).
But Brad did not start his sales career selling jewelry. At age 19, he was working part-time after school at Cannon Shoe store next door when the jewelry store owner, Moritz Bier, came in and asked his boss if he would be interested in buying the business. His employer was not interested, so Brad spoke up. Mr. Bier said, “Well, if you cut your hair and get a suit, you’ve got the job,” he recounts. Brad’s pay rose by $10 a week.
At that time, the jewelry store sold small household electronics like irons and radios. “In 1963, when President Kennedy was shot, we sold out of radios instantly.”
Day by day, Mr. Bier taught Brad the family jewelry business and eventually Brad took over the enterprise to run it for himself.
Since he bought the business in 1978, it has evolved into jewelry and high-end gifts. When Brad first became owner, he realized the inventory was outdated so he sold it and upgraded the stock to what he knew he loved to sell: high-quality merchandise.
In 1985, he bought the building from the owners who had held the property in their family for decades. The tradition continues. At first, the landlord did not want to sell but Brad got an appraisal and showed it to him. The owner agreed the numbers were accurate but insisted he had to consult his family so Brad offered him double the value to purchase it. Didn’t take long for that decision: “SOLD” was the answer.
Today the King Street site in Old Town Alexandria is a premier location and a landmark. When Brad bought the building, he was most interested in preventing an increase in rent. By owning it, he guaranteed that.
With long-term employees and working in the same location for over five decades; continuity goes a long way to preserving institutional memory—read that as data base par excellence!
Inside the Store
This long slender store—once a movie theater– has been remodeled to allow more room for jewelry cases. King’s Jewelry is also one of the few authorized retailers for Rolex watches in the US. “Getting that franchise is one of the first things I started working on when I bought the business,” Brad explains.
King’s Jewelry has made a point of being full service – selling diamonds, pearls, gemstones and watches; replacing watch batteries; providing jewelry appraisals; buying estate jewelry and redesigning older pieces into a “fresher” design.
Vendors often ask what is King’s #1 seller. Brad tells them he doesn’t know because he is accommodating customers, not just pushing trendy items. “We offer every price range so there is something for everyone’s budget.”
To keep inventory fresh, Brad and Cathy go to the annual jewelry show in Las Vegas. They spend five days going up and down convention hall aisles with their jewelry loops to be certain of scrutinizing unique items that pass Brad’s personal litmus test in this order: 1) beautiful 2) quality—of the stones 3) integrity –will setting hold up and 4) value. Everything must be well priced.
It is always a challenge to buy in June for December. Trends in the market can change. But this is when their deep roots in the community pay off; In 50 years, you know a lot about your clients and what they prefer. We have a lot of repeat customers including generations of families. Word of mouth is the best kind of advertising. One reviewer exclaimed, “If I can’t get it at King’s, I won’t go anywhere else!”
Brad believes that “being able to provide long-term service to our customers also minimizes any potential threat of jewelry being bought on the internet…we are insulated from it.” he says. “They want to see what they are buying with expertise. With the internet, that’s impossible.”
Having designers on staff indicates there is a strong market for custom design and the re-make and repair of older pieces. It also establishes a reputation for higher-end specialized jewelry. “I hire people with credentials, these guys have been in business for over 20 years,” says Brad.
Marcos Smythe is a sculptor as well as a jewelry designer. After sketching the design, he uses the old world method of making wax models of the design, then crafting it into the gold or silver metal product or a setting to hold the stones. Catherine uses computer-aided-design (CAD) technology to draft a 3D model; Both methods work for the visualization of the custom creation. They love to use the expression “We can make your fantasy a reality!”
Now the next generation of Bradfords are raising King’s Jewelry expertise to a new level: oldest of two sons, Andrew, is getting his gemologist certifications from the Gemological Institute of America; Gregory has just started in the business. Building the long-term relationships is already a part of the sons’ practice; one person commented in a review that he bought a hard-to-find watch which King’s had in stock; it was because of Andrew’s specialized product expertise.
Brad’s daughter, Tari, works in sales and assists in managing when Brad is gone. Tari is fond of telling the story when Andrew was a young boy, age 5 or 6 years old: “I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up.” He wasted no time in responding, “I want to be your Boss! Who knew after all these years, we would be working side by side and sharing an office!”
While Gregory is just starting in the business, he loves the feeling when he tells people he works at King’s. “When they find out that I am Brad and Cathy’s son, they always tell me how much they love my parents. The compliments are never-ending.”
Mr. Bier’s early training cemented the sensibility of a family business on Brad, the ambitious salesman. Others have mentioned King’s Jewelry has a “hometown feel”. “That is what we want,” says Brad. “We are a family business and we want to maintain the family tradition through generations.”
Brad does have bragging rights: “Not often can you sell someone their engagement ring and be around to attend their 50th Anniversary celebration.” This is what legends are made of!
Among the items that survive across multiple generations are charms for bracelets. Mothers start the tradition for their daughters. Baby gifts being engraved is another. Cathy observed that many customers come in to buy for a happy occasion. They work hard to set the mood. Even when you call the store, there is upbeat jazz playing when you are on hold. One long-time customer says she can always find something: housewarming gifts, Christmas ornaments or hostess gifts. Now her whole office staff shops at King’s. “Brad knows me and knows my style of jewelry,” claims another.
As a matter of fact, those who have shopped there for a long time refer to it as “Brad’s”, just as if it is their favorite corner grocery store.