Vero Beach, FL—How many customers do you have right now? Likely hundreds, perhaps thousands. What if you had only 10? Could you survive? Be successful? How would that even work?
Matt Gaston of Gaston Private Jewelers, Vero Beach, FL has made that unusual and intriguing business model happen—successfully! According to Gaston, it started out as a usual business transaction. “I purchased a business about eight years ago with a decent customer list, and we moved to a nice location on the main drag” says Gaston. “In Vero Beach, there are seven independent jewelry stores, and it was difficult to compete. We were at that location for three years and wanted to move to an upstairs location.”
Gaston says the driving force behind the move was to spend more time with their customers. “We would talk with someone, they might be looking at engagement rings, and I’d have to stop to sign for a delivery or another customer would come in.” Gaston did not appreciate the interruptions that most normal businesses have and knew there was a better way to serve his customers.
“We wanted a good secure customer base to help find the product they wanted in a timely fashion and not be pressured.” In short, he wanted to offer his customers a better sales experience.
And there was also the small town factor. “Vero Beach is a small town. Everyone knows everyone else’s business. If someone sees you walking into a jewelry store, your spouse will have heard about it as well.” So much for surprises.
He began to envision a business where much of the product was delivered directly and no payment was made at the time of sale: customers would get a bill if the transaction was a success.
Gaston began by reaching out to those on his customer list, starting with 10 clients. Today that client base has grown to 50. “At our last location, we had a customer base of about 200. I wondered, if we sell to those 10 customers, can we survive? I felt we could so we did.”
Gaston also wanted the freedom to spend time with his customers. “Some of our interactions may be 4-5 hours. We might have lunch or bring in tea; we do things that are different.” Gaston notes that other stores do this type of personal service, but few solicit it. “I want it to be an experience for customer. People always remember when they receive great jewelry. We’re a personal jeweler; that’s our bailiwick.”
The season. If having a limited number of customers wasn’t enough of a challenge, Gaston also has only six months of the year to work with many of the locals.
“We have six months to do in-town business,” says Gaston of his tourist town. “In our retail location, from the beginning of June to the beginning of October, you can shoot a canon and not hit anyone. Vero Beach has the largest concentration of retired CEOs in the U.S.,” says Gaston. “More golf courses per capita than anywhere else. Vero Beach used to be the home of the Dodgers. They trained here. We have great beaches and a sleepy quiet town. Right now, there are maybe two people and a dog on the beach.”
“Our season is from Halloween through Mother’s day. That’s when people spend their time here.” Gaston believes people like Vero Beach because it’s not a big social scene, just a quiet town. And in the off months? “We do education. This is our opportunity to build our own knowledge.”
Payment. Gaston wasn’t kidding about the no payment at time of sale idea. He bills customers once a month and “we’ve never had any payment issues because we know who we are dealing with. So far, so good,” he says, citing a good economic climate as part of the reason.
Oh and there’s no return policy. “We’ll take it back,” says Gaston.
Word-of-mouth. Gaston’s original 10 clients have grown into 50 today. “A customer will say ‘my daughter is getting engaged, can her boyfriend call you?’” says Gaston, whose answers is always, “Of course!” He will travel to the customer. He’s been recently to Tallahassee, FL; Washington, DC, Laguna Niguel, CA; and Columbus, OH, among others.
“People call because of family or close relations that are already our very good customer. It’s easy. They are vetted through the 10 we already know.”
Location. Gaston does not feel he would be competitive in a traditional bricks and mortar location today with his current web status – no website. “We had to do things completely different.” Gaston’s customers are an older demographic and are not spending time on the web and social media. “Our customers are not there.”
The upstairs store (above) has worked well for Gaston too. “Why pay for primo real estate? We don’t need it.” He says that anyone can get to the business but not everyone does. “We have signage on the street and the locals knows where we are. We’re here daily or by appointment. We don’t want to get into a situation where we have traffic. We want our customers to have our undivided attention.”
Low overhead is important for Gaston. He currently advertises only to fulfill his previous contracts and those will soon be finished. He has no website for upkeep and his staffing needs are minimal. All these savings help this business model work.
Inventory. Gaston does have a fully stocked store with brands including Oscar Heyman, Monica Rich Kosann, Syna, A-Kink, Carelle, and Julius Klein, to name a few. Of that, only about 5% are memo goods.
“We open every day,” says Gaston. “We’re here from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. with two full showrooms. We’re right next to a trust so people can visit us both at the same time.” It's a regular jewelry store, despite the non-traditional business practices: the jewelers set up the store every day, even though most days they see no customers.
Staff. In his previous location, Gaston had up to seven employees. Today it’s two – Gaston and Lisa Servaites. “Clients don’t always call me. It’s like knowing the owner of the car dealership – you don’t really buy a car from them. Same sort of thing. Often they call me but when I’m out, Lisa takes great care of them. And the next time they just call her direct.”
And the customers. You might wonder what 10 or 50 customers can support a store. It’s a more reasonable proposition than you might think. “Most of our customers have a budget per event in the $15-20,000 range. Most spend more. And most do this for anniversary, Christmas and birthday each year.”
Gaston Private Jeweler has an average dollar sale of about $17,000. Their largest sale was $700,000.
And the backstory. “I didn’t inherit this business, I bought it,” said Gaston. He appreciates that the inventory always has value. He was in the surveillance business for years, both human and video. Perhaps that explains how he is comfortable vetting his customers.
“I owned a company that did background checks and we worked for insurance companies as well. I sold the business after being beat up one night in New Orleans. I went home to my very pregnant wife and said ‘that’s it.’ I sold the business to my partner and moved to Vero Beach. I sat around for a while but was bored. I started looking for a new business and my dad suggested jewelry. I thought it was crazy at first. I did my research and then bought one.”
Since then, Gaston has been spending time learning jewelry as well the industry. “I’ve been to GIA and have learned the trade. I’m much more knowledgeable today than I was in the past.” He’s enjoyed the process and he loves both jewelry and the industry. His customers also know he loves jewelry. “I’ll get a text from a customer saying ‘turn on the TV,’ or they will send an article on gems. People know I love the historical part of jewelry as well.”
So what does Gaston know for sure about the industry and his business? “Men like to buy jewelry as much as women like to receive it.”