December brings many seasonal rituals: Swilling eggnog, bopping to “Jingle Bell Rock” and, of course, seeing a gazillion Kay Jewelers ads on TV.
The chain is always out in force at this time of year, and for good reason: Jewelry stores, in general, generate a greater share of their annual sales during the holiday rush than many other retail segments.
On Thursday, investors learned that Kay’s corporate parent, Signet Jewelers Ltd., entered this important season in a bit better shape than analysts had expected. The company, which also includes the Zales and Jared jewelry chains, bumped up its full-year same-store sales guidance after it delivered a 1.6 percent increase in quarterly comparable sales over a year earlier, its second consecutive period of growth on this measure. Still, don’t count on shoppers giving the company the gift of a turnaround this holiday season.
Gina Drosos was named CEO last year and arguably took one of the toughest jobs in U.S. retail. She has to grapple with the same challenges faced by virtually every traditional chain, namely weak mall traffic and insurgent e-commerce competition. But she also inherited a company that was reeling from another kind of crisis: Under her predecessor, Mark Light, the company was accused of allowing a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination.
Drosos is emerging as a force for good at Signet. She has shored up the e-commerce side of the business and has been working to reduce unnecessary tasks for store employees so they can focus more on interacting with customers. She has discontinued some brands to make room for more exciting jewelry collections.
She is thinking pragmatically about the business of selling bling when people are getting married later and when wedding conventions are metamorphosing. She also is pushing the company to do better at appealing to women shoppers who are self-gifting or buying trinkets for their bridesmaids.
And yet the latest changes most likely still haven’t gone far enough to truly turn around Signet — which brings me back to those ubiquitous Kay ads.
This year, in one such commercial, an earnest guy is seen asking an off-camera person for permission to propose to someone named Julie. You assume he’s talking to her dad, and then the camera cuts to her son. This part of the ad is exactly what a revitalized Signet should be: more contemporary, more realistic.
And yet the ad doesn’t break fully from the Kay comfort zone. It still has the “Every Kiss Begins with Kay” tagline at the end, promptly transporting the viewer straight back to the 1990s.
That part reminds me that Signet, in some ways, is still playing it safe. For example, it is closing 200 stores — but it still has nearly 3,500 of them. I can’t imagine that is a sustainable portfolio as online shopping claims more consumer dollars.
And the company has other challenges that haven’t been addressed satisfactorily. Kay, Zales and Jared are essentially the same shopping experience under a different logo. Drosos knows that and has conducted customer research to identify specific target audiences for each. But, to my mind, the lines between the brands remain pretty fuzzy. In an earnings call in August, Drosos said that under new positioning, Kay customers “will feel loved and appreciated,” Zales customers “will feel known and stylish,” and Jared customers “will feel cherished and understood.” There’s a lot of overlap in those descriptions.
Drosos is not a yet a year into a three-year transformation plan that includes cost-cutting, bolstering employee engagement and offering fresh merchandise. She may yet make this retail bauble shine, but she’s got a ways to go.
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Sarah Halzack is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She was previously a national retail reporter for the Washington Post.
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