You’ve heard it before: Love don’t cost a thing. But unless it’s a hand-me-down from grandma, the ring sure does.
To make a transaction that’s traditionally as weighty on the wallet as it is on the emotions more appealing to a younger generation of shoppers accustomed to doing just about everything online, fine jewelry brand Ritani  is touting a new retail scheme designed to pair the best parts of fine jewelry e-commerce sites and brick-and-mortar stores. The result, hopes Ritani’s President and Blue Nile  alum Brian Watkins, is an e-commerce-enabled website that’s “fully integrated with the local jewelry store.”
With that goal in mind, Ritani, which has operated as a jewelry wholesaler and manufacturer since 1999, this week rolled out a new website that allows shoppers to learn about the “4 Cs” (cut, color, clarity, and carat weight), chat with trained gemologists, browse jewelry, and design custom engagement rings online, all things that numerous fine jewelry sites also offer. Going a step further, Ritani will also ship up to two custom rings or two loose diamonds free of charge to a local partner store, where they can be viewed in person at a time of the customer’s choosing without any obligation to buy. It’s a notably forward-looking move in an industry that Watkins describes as “always a couple years behind everyone else.”
“People start by shopping online, but what’s unique with this considered purchase is that they almost always end up back at the jewelry store,” he says.
And what of those unwanted, custom-made, one-of-a-kind rings? Because Ritani sources its own materials and manufactures its own jewelry, it can shoulder the financial burden of unwanted items more easily than an independent retailer, Watson says. In most cases, he tells me, such rings will be reduced to their parts, which can then be reused.The success of online-only jewelry sales demonstrated by retailers such as Blue Nile and Amazon.com  notwithstanding, the biggest players in fine jewelry industry today in terms of annual sales are those with physical stores: Kay and Jared Jewelers’ parent company Sterling Jewelers, Walmart, and Tiffany & Co. top National Jeweler’s 2012 rankings of U.S. jewelry retailers.
And while those companies and many others also have online stores, a distinct barrier persists between in-store shopping and its online equivalent. That holds true not just for fine jewelry, but for the vast majority of retailers today. It’s true that Apple and Walmart have made strides to dissolve the wall between Internet and offline shopping by allowing customers to order products online before paying for and picking them up in-store, and others such as the Container Store, BestBuy, and Nordstrom are making it increasingly easy for customers to order items online and schedule subsequent in-store pickups. But the emergence of “omnichannel” retailers with websites, brick-and-mortar locations, and combined inventory capable of functioning in perfect harmony remains very much in its early days.
“This kind of online offline integration has really become the holy grail,” says Watson.
While Ritani allows shoppers to buy purely online, it gives those drawn to the web’s vast inventory and easy personalization tools a way to start there and seamlessly finish transactions in a store, should they so choose.
The arrangement offers obvious benefits to ring hunters: access to the massive inventories and options only the web is capable of offering, the chance to customize jewelry without financial risk, and an alternative to shipping an expensive, precious item to one’s home or office.
At the same time, the arrangement is also attractive to partner retailers: Local jewelry stores function as affiliates. Assigned territories, they make commissions on sales from customers located in their geographical areas, regardless of whether that customer ever sets foot in the store itself. But if a customer does, so much the better.
“Not only do we make a commission on that sale, but we meet the customer. It’s up to us to make that customer a customer for life,” says Steve Padis, who owns two eponymous jewelry stores in San Francisco.
While Padis already has e-commerce on his stores’ websites, he says partnering with Ritani allows him to offer his customers more inventory than he can fit in his roughly 9,000 square feet of combined showroom space. He can also present custom-designed rings without paying shipping or eating the cost of labor and materials should the shopper decide not to buy the finished product. For shoppers, connecting with a local retailer also means a trusted place to head for maintenance, sizing adjustments, and repairs.
“Rings show wear. They need to be polished, so it’s important to maintain a piece of jewelry very much like a car, and if you buy it strictly online like at Blue Nile, what do you do with that?” he asks.
[Image: Flickr user Malakh Kelevra ]