Ben Bridge CEO: A Challenging Year, But Jewellery Demand Is Strong

Lisa Bridge, President and CEO of Ben Bridge Jeweler, a Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary with 75 stores in the US, became the first female CEO of the company in 2018. Lisa graduated with honors from Washington University in St. Louis, and obtained her Graduate Gemologist degree in residence at the Gemological Institute of America.  She also holds a Certified Gemologist title from the American Gem Society and sits on their executive board.  She previously served as Vice President of Education at Ben Bridge. In that position, she educated and professionally developed the company’s 1,200 associates. In 2015, Ben Bridge launched the Lisa Bridge Collection, which combined modern styling and heirloom quality for a new generation to accept fine jewellery as part of their lifestyle. The fifth generation of her family to lead the company, Lisa has managed this year to guide the company through lockdowns, California looting and more. In an exclusive email interview to Solitaire International, Lisa speaks about the challenging and ever-changing US market.

What is the current state of the US retail industry for jewellery?

This has been a challenging year, but once stores were able to reopen, the demand for jewellery has been strong. People are looking for enduring and meaningful ways to mark special moments and jewellery does that like nothing else.

Ben Bridge store
Redesigned Ben Bridge store

How has the pandemic affected Ben Bridge’s business and business in general?

The pandemic has caused us to look carefully at our business and to refocus our attention on who we are and on what we do uniquely well. We endeavour to be our customers’ personal jeweller, so we are laser-focused on creating the most personal experience possible for our customers. I hope we can use this year to accelerate the evolution we were making as a business and drive us into the next chapter as a company.

What are your expectations for the Holiday Season business-wise?

There are lots of unknowns this Holiday Season. So far, we are beating my expectations and I hope that will continue. 

What defines Ben Bridge?

Our extraordinary people define Ben Bridge. We are fortunate to have a passionate, dedicated, and knowledgeable team who make all of the difference in our success. We have more certified gemmologists of the American Gem Society than anyone else in the country and likely more certified watchmakers as well. That level of professionalism is a testament to our dedicated team and is a service to our customers. We are also fortunate to have very long-term associates who gain experience and build relationships over time. Having this level of professionalism allows us to offer a unique experience to our customers. 

What changes have you made since taking over as CEO?

We have redesigned our store concept to make it more of an engaging place for exploration. The stores have different moments throughout them, with different ways of interacting with the jewellery and watches, different types of seating, and enhanced hospitality. We also brought in lots of storytelling throughout the store, bringing our watchmaking heritage front and centre through our Alchemy Lab, and highlighting how jewellery is made in our Curio Cabinet. 

We also launched a new bridal experience with our brand Bella Ponte. It is a beautiful collection and allows for the freedom of customisation in design. We utilise hologram technology to help our customers envision their rings, and even send them home with a hologram cone to show their design from their phone while it is being made. When the ring arrives, we have images of their ring being made at every step of the journey. It is an incredible experience that we are able to offer our customers. 

Our investment in technology has also grown. One of our latest launches was to arm our associates with the ability to reach out to and engage customers wherever they are. Beyond just texting or calling customers, our associates can provide an ongoing personalised experience. With this technology, our stores can utilise our web fulfillment, have access to expanded merchandise, and are open any time.

Is online becoming more important than retail?

I don’t see a distinction between the two. We need to be wherever customers want to interact with us. We need the digital world to work in unison with the physical. The majority of customers explore and learn online and then want to come into a store to touch and feel a piece of jewellery or a fine timepiece. It has to be a seamless and consistent experience across all channels.

What is the price range of the pieces you sell?

We have a wide range of prices, but the consistent thread throughout is the quality that each piece represents. Quality is of the utmost importance for us because it leads to lasting enjoyment and long-term relationships with our customers. All Ben Bridge jewellery goes through a rigorous quality control process and is scrutinised by our gemmologists.

How competitive is the US market for jewellery?

It is a very big market, so naturally, there is a lot of competition. There are a lot of places and ways to buy jewellery in the US and that continues to evolve. While there are fewer physical stores today than there were ten or twenty years ago, there are many new online avenues and types of jewellery sellers. It is a dynamic and ever-changing market.

Has the pandemic changed buying habits?

After months of isolation and time together, we have seen an uptick in engagements. I think people feel that if they made it through quarantine together, they are in a good position to make it through life together.   

With the restrictions and precautions in place, the traffic out shopping is down dramatically, but the shoppers who are out are more likely to buy. Jewellery is a highly considered purchase, so most customers have already narrowed their search and come in ready to explore, ask questions, and buy.

What is the situation for women CEOs in jewellery and in retail in the US? 

So  much of jewellery is made for women to wear, so it only makes sense to have women leading jewellery companies. There are some wonderful examples of women as CEOs of major jewellery retailers in the US. We have more work to do as an industry overall to work towards inclusivity of all different kinds. We need to reflect the wider community to create the most dynamic and vibrant industry. 

Can you talk about Indian jewellery? Do you sell it? Do you use supplies from India?

We have many wonderful partners in India. It is a key part of the jewellery world, and we source diamonds and jewellery there. There is an incredible tradition of rich and intricate jewellery in India. I was fortunate to first visit India about a decade ago, for both a buying trip and to attend the wedding of a friend from GIA. The wedding jewellery was extraordinary — a testament to the heritage and tradition of jewellery in India! I had a truly incredible experience and I have been captivated by the country since then.

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