How Greenwich St. Jewelers has thrived through 46 years of change and challenges in NYC

Retail Gets Real episode 320: Co-owner Jennifer Gandia shares a story of perseverance and the ability to adapt and succeed
Sheryll Poe
NRF Contributor

Greenwich St. Jewelers started from humble beginnings in 1976, when two immigrants from Puerto Rico decided to open a tiny store in downtown Manhattan, in a newly minted industrial zone behind the New York Stock Exchange and the recently built World Trade Center.

“Their business was really built on service, so the kind of work like jewelry repair, restyling, eventually custom design. As they were able to grow their resources, they were then able to add in more fine jewelry that they sold in the front of the store out of cases,” Greenwich St. Jewelers co-owner Jennifer Gandia says about her family business on this episode of Retail Gets Real.  “And they were in that location for 25 years when 9/11 happened.”

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Greenwich St. Jewelers Co-founder Jennifer Gandia
Greenwich St. Jewelers Co-founder Jennifer Gandia

The store suffered structural damage and had to close for 10 months, leaving Gandia’s parents unsure about their next step. Eventually, they decided to reopen and stay in the neighborhood.

“They felt like this is the neighborhood that they knew and where they built their business and had really built a good client clientele, so they decided to reopen the store just a couple of blocks away,” Gandia says. “It was a really tough neighborhood to reopen a business and most businesses were leaving when my parents decided to reopen.”

That resilience and perseverance has allowed the family business to continue to grow and overcome many obstacles, including Hurricane Sandy, the 2008 financial crisis and, most recently, the pandemic.

“I think that ultimately survival is encoded into the mentality of immigrant families. You come to a country, and you do whatever it takes to survive, and so that’s sort of on a psychological level,” Gandia says.

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Gandia and her co-owner sister Christine have also learned to innovate and adapt the business to stay current while maintaining their parents’ heritage of customer service. For example, when the pandemic happened, the sisters had to close the store again.

“One of the things we realized very, very quickly was that to be able to give our clients the kind of service that we were so used to giving them — that we wanted to give them, that we felt is our hallmark — we said, ‘Well, we have to get our team all new phones. We have to get them whatever technology they need. We have to train everyone on Zoom, on Skype.’”

They also put more attention into the ecommerce side of the business, which had been initiated in 2006 but became critical during the pandemic. “Originally, we looked at it as just a giant billboard,” Gandia says.

But even while embracing innovation, she says the company stays true to its customer service roots. “In fact, our live chat is not an AI or chatbot,” Gandia says. “You get directly connected to a sales professional in our store, so everything is very high touch with us.”

Listen to the episode to learn more about Gandia’s career journey, how Greenwich St. Jewelers prioritizes inclusion, representation, and ethically and responsibly sourced materials, and what today’s jewelry buyer is looking for.

Episode transcript, edited for clarity.

Bill Thorne: Welcome to Retail Gets Real, where we hear from retail's most fascinating leaders about the industry that impacts everyone, everywhere, every day. I'm Bill Thorne from the National Retail Federation, and on today's episode, we're talking to Jennifer Gandia, co-owner of Greenwich Street Jewelers in New York City. We're going to talk to Jennifer about the second-generation family business she runs with her sister, the process behind rebranding a legacy brand while maintaining its heritage, and growing from a traditional brick-and-mortar to an omnichannel business.

Jennifer, welcome to Retail Gets Real.

Jennifer Gandia: Thank you, Bill. It's such a pleasure to be here.

Thorne: So, Jennifer, let's start with a little background about your business and let's start at the beginning. How did you get involved? How did your parents start Greenwich Street Jewelers and why the jewelry business?

Gandia: Great questions. And I think the best place for me to start is actually at the very beginning and then how I got into the business will make more sense because I actually was not intended to come into the business. I was in the fashion industry for a number of years. But what happened, we'll dial it back to 1976, my father and mother opened Greenwich Street Jewelers on Greenwich Street. They both emigrated from Puerto Rico when they were quite young. My father went to high school and learned metalsmithing as a trade, and then when he got out of high school, he went to work for a jewelry manufacturing company. Fast forward to when he and my mother met, she was a hairdresser at the time. They decided to open a business, so they opened Greenwich Street Jewelers.

It was a tiny little store located in downtown Manhattan, very far south. It was, you know, we like to say in the shadow of the World Trade Center, right behind, at the time, the American Stock Exchange, and it was their idea that this area — which really was kind of newly minted as an industrial zone, because the Trade Center had only been built a couple of years before — would be a good place to start a business.

And they managed to grow a healthy business. My father was a master jeweler. Their business was really built on service, so the kind of work like jewelry, repair, restyling, eventually custom design. As they were able to grow their resources, they were then able to add in more fine jewelry that they sort of sold in the front of the store out of cases.

So, they really built the business from very humble beginnings. And they were in that location for 25 years when 9/11 happened. Because they were so close to the Trade Center, it did affect the business and they were closed for 10 months.

Thorne: Whoa.

Gandia: Yeah, it was a big deal. You know, they weren't quite sure what their next step was going to be. They weren't sure, do we retire? Do we move? You know, they really needed to take some time to kind of recover from the events of that day as well. And ultimately, what they decided was that they did want to stay in the neighborhood. They felt like this is the neighborhood that they knew and where they built their business and had really built a good client clientele, so they decided to reopen the store just a couple of blocks away.

Thorne: Wow.

Gandia: And it was the first few years, that, you know, the World Trade Center area was still a recovery zone. It was, it was a really tough neighborhood to reopen a business and most businesses were leaving when my parents decided to reopen.

So, I was actually working in fashion. I was working at a beauty company doing marketing and PR and I decided to take a break from that work and come in and help my parents get back on their feet. And that's how I joined the business. It was not really intentional in the sense of our parents prepping us to come into the business. And I thought it would be temporary.

Actually, I thought maybe a year or two, and then I would move on to something else. But the truth was, I really fell in love with retail and even the classes that I took at FIT, a lot of them, I … My first degree was in fashion, buying and merchandising, so I was well prepped. So that began my tenure at the store.

At that time, it was really, I would say the first three — to three to four years — that I was there was really just about survival and keeping the doors open, really letting people know that we were still there, getting to know how we were going to operate within this new landscape that downtown Manhattan, the financial district had become.

Thorne: Jennifer, so what makes Greenwich Street Jewelers different or unique? Because there's a lot of jewelry stores out there.

Gandia: True. I think that one of the things that we like to talk about the most — because we feel like we do it really well – is maintaining the heritage of what one would expect from a traditional jewelry store.

So, the things that our parents built their business on the service aspect of the business, so again, doing things like being a part of the community, doing repairs, doing restyling. A lot of custom design is really the foundation of our business, and that is what allows us to integrate into the community and provide a service that they need. What Christina and I did once we came into the business, and by the way, this is my 20th year in, so I also …. went way beyond a couple of years.

Christina came in about seven years after I did and had a very different skillset, which was wonderful. Very complimentary. She's really the finance and operations head and I'm the marketing creative head, so it really works well for us.

What we each did on top of that foundation of service and offering beautiful jewelry, what we created was a more curated selection, really looking for unique jewelry, independent designers and very interesting gemstones, exceptional workmanship to offer to our clientele. That was one area that we really built up.

The second thing, which actually I think kept us in business through things like the financial crisis, was that we put a very big focus on growing our wedding category, so engagement rings and wedding bands. Now I would say that that is really the part of our business that brings the most people to our doors and in our store to really get to know who we are as a company is wedding and jewelry. Although we do carry the work of about 40 independent designers and we have now also created our own, we have, I think, six of our own collections that we create. We offer a lot. It’s a broad range of things.

Thorne: Yeah, I'm interested in two aspects of that. One is, you indicated that you've got these unique offerings, unique designers. Do you go out and find them, or do they come in and find you?

Gandia: It's a mix of both for sure. It started out of pre-internet and social media days, where we would go to trade shows — and because I came from a fashion background, once I started doing that with my mother, at the time, when I was just newly minted into the business, we would go to these trade shows — I really got to see, wow, this industry — jewelry, which I had kind of thought of as a special occasion industry — I realized that no, this really was also a fashion product and a product that women would buy for themselves, and I got to see that firsthand behind the counter.

I think this is why I ended up staying in retail was that one-on-one working with people during really happy times of their lives, but also working with that assistant who would come in looking for a pair of earrings because she just had a promotion or something like that — really was exciting to me and I did see a lot of women coming through the door and buying products for themselves. And I thought, Wow, if I, as a woman, thought of fine jewelry as a special occasion category, and I'm being sort of schooled. I'm learning behind the counter that that is not the case. Well, then our industry really has a lot to learn about how to sell jewelry, and that excited me as a marketer.

Thorne: That's really cool. So, I think your Greenwich Street store has been operational for, what, 40 years?

Gandia: Yeah. 46 years.

Thorne: It's always good to hear a number that's actually older than just 10 or 12, because you think about retail, people never really realize that some of these retail stores that are doing new and innovative things have been around for a very long time. And a lot of that is due to perseverance, your ability to recognize change, needed change, make the change, and succeed as a result of the change. But you've had a lot of real big challenges. You mentioned 9/11 and then there's been Hurricane Sandy, there was the financial crisis and now just recently the pandemic. How do you persevere through these challenges? And in a business that’s 47 years old.

Gandia: I think that ultimately survival is encoded into the mentality of immigrant families. You come to a country, and you do whatever it takes to survive, and so that's sort of on a psychological level. Once you get beyond that and you're in a place where you are running a business, for example, and these things are coming at you, and you get past one, right? You get past something like 9/11 and you reopen your doors, and you actually make it past five years, 10 years. Well, then the next thing that comes down the pike — which happened to be the financial crisis — kind of doesn't seem so scary anymore.

You just start to think about — and Christina and I have talked about this, especially when COVID hit. I think one of the first things we said to each other was, “We've been here before. We can do this.” It’s basically just about assessing what you need to do to keep the doors open and keeping the viewpoint short. What do I need to do to stay in business for the next month? What do I need to do to stay in business for the next three months? What do we need to make? What do we need to…

So when COVID hit, I'll give you a concrete example. Obviously, we couldn't have the doors to the store open and although we did have an online business, one of the things that we realized very, very quickly that was to be able to give our clients the kind of service that we were so used to giving them, that we wanted to give them, that we felt is our hallmark, we said, “Well, we have to get our team all new phones. We have to get them whatever technology they need. We have to train everyone on Zoom, on Skype.” Because at the time, very early on, we didn't all know that Zoom was going to be the platform. We were using UberConference at the time too.

So that's the kind of thing is just, is to really take a deep breath and assess. What's the next thing you need to do? And then looking forward and ahead. And you know, my sister is very, very good with numbers. She's very tight with our budgets, and that financial foundation is one of the things that I feel the most strongly for anyone getting into retail that you really need to have.

Thorne: Yeah. You know, it's so interesting because what you're saying is when faced with these crises, you go through one. You go through the next. You learn from each, but for every one, you have to innovate in kind of a different way. And it's not just because it's a different problem or a different challenge, it's just that times have changed. Needs have changed. Technology has changed, and so you've got to innovate to keep up with that in order to reach your customer and keep the business open and successful.

So, the omnichannel – why and how has that been going from brick-and-mortar to omnichannel?

Gandia: Well, so this is actually tied to the 9/11 stories. After, I would say about three years later — we were working with a business consultant and they found a grant for us that would create a website. And I thought — this was very early on. It was 2006. Our first website launched in 2006 and for an independent jewelry company, that was extremely early.

In fact, I love this little fun fact, which is we actually had an article in the New York Post at one time because our SEO was better than Tiffany's. So, this is …

Thorne: That's fantastic.

Gandia: True story. And that was because it was early days like at the time, I don't know, think that anyone thought that jewelry could be sold online or should even be put online, but we were scrappy. We had small budgets and we were ready to try anything. And that goes back to your end of it. Innovation point is — being willing to try things.

And so, our first ecomm site launched in 2009, and so we've been, we've had an ecomm site since that time with many iterations of the website moving forward into today. Originally, we looked at it as just a giant billboard, right? Like we didn't have a lot of budget to be advertising in the New York Times or any of these other places so that people would find us in New York City. And so we thought, “Well, this is great.” We got into the digital marketing very early on, as well for the same reason, because at that time it was cheap. It is no longer cheap.

You know, having this omnichannel approach and having ecomm has been something that's very important to us and that we continually are aiming to grow. For example, we have just launched our (I think it's our third iteration) of Customize Your Ring, your engagement ring, software online so that people can create rings with different diamonds right on the website. Of course, with a lot of handholding. Everything we do online, we have … in fact, our live chat is not an AI or chatbot. You get directly connected to a sales professional in our store, so everything is very high touch with us. And …

Thorne: That’s very unique, I must say. Very unique. I would be challenging that person the whole time. I really, I would be like, so what do you like to eat for dinner?

Gandia: You know, our team would probably answer that. We have an incredible team of very personable people that really love to engage.

Thorne: And if they answered it, I know it wasn't a chatbot. I know it was somebody that really cared.  So, the personalization, I think of the jewelry buying experience [as] so tactile, so personal. And it's not something that you do lightly. You don't just get up in the morning and decide to run to a jewelry store and buy something. It's something you really do think about. In many cases, it's a gift or it's something that's going to last a lifetime.

The consumer that you have, I mean, think about in the 47-year period of time. How has that evolved? I mean, more men, more women. More women buying for themselves, men buying for themselves? I mean, how has that evolved?

Gandia: I think that you just basically laid it out. Absolutely within the past 15 years, what we have really seen that has been the most important thing for industry is just how important and essential that female self-purchaser is and being able to market to her, to talk to her, to make her feel comfortable, to engage her.

Two women in jewelry — it's, of course, easier for us to do that. We do still absolutely have a male gift buyer, and then there's the bridal consumer, and that is kind of its own set of demographics. It tends to be younger. We're working with mostly couples. Even within that demographic or that group of people for that particular product, there are nuances in the ways that have changed. At one time, a man would come in and buy a ring for a woman, and now most — I would say about 65 to 70 percent of the initial appointments — are with the couples together.

There are also now same sex couples who are looking for different types of product, so there's certainly changes happening within the market. Men's jewelry within the past two years has become a very hot category, and so that means looking at inventory and stocking pieces that are more — we like to call them genderless. Because today with the way that … what we understand about gender, we know that we see, men in baseball and celebrities wearing pearl necklaces, and those could really go for either or any gender, I should say, and so you have to think about all of these things. It keeps us on our toes.

Thorne: Yeah, it keeps you busy. So, we’re talking about diversity and diversity in the jewelry industry. What does it mean to you both to be a female businesswoman, Puerto Rican entrepreneurs, and in this particular industry?

Gandia: Like most other industries, the jewelry industry has been historically white male dominated. The closest thing we had to a diversity initiative for a long time was the Women's Jewelry Association, and rightly so because you know, we want more women in the C-suite.

But since 2020 and the social justice reckoning, that's changed. So now we have organizations like Black in Jewelry Coalition and a really vibrant community of BIPOC people rightly assuming their places as designers, retailers, marketers.

I think there's still work to be done at the corporate level to see real change in the C-suite. Also, I think that there are so many opportunities for people from the global majority, people of color, to learn the trade like my father did and continue to contribute to the craft of jewelry, become jewelers, and retail professionals, gemologists, for example.

But we have to think since the raw materials of the jewelry industry historically came from parts of the worlds that were colonized, due to the resources in most cases, ensuring that we've got an equitable future for black and brown people in this industry is so important. It's really important to us, and it feels like a reclamation of a rightful place that's long overdue.

Thorne: Yeah. You know, you mentioned that diversity, but there's [also] responsible sourcing, and then there's supporting diverse independent designers, and their causes. That’s a part of your mission. Why is that an important part of the company strategy?

Gandia: Well, because we care about people, and we care about this: We only have one earth. We really need to take care of her.

Using and aiming our business towards responsible sourcing in whatever manner that we can has been a part of our mission since I came into the business and started to understand more about jewelry, and where it came from, and the effects of the jewelry industry on our earth.

What we try to do is create our collections using materials that have the least impact environmentally, while having a big impact socially. So, for example, using recycled metals, precious metals, and then mine-to-market gems. When your metals are recycled, they're having a low impact environmentally. When you're buying artisanal gems from miners directly, you're having a very big impact on that person and that community and how they are then able to forward themselves.

That's the kind of thing that's really important and consumers definitely care about it. It's something that people come in asking about. It's a reason why they seek us out. And when you think about the younger generations of jewelry consumers, it's extra important to them because they are the ones who are really very, very passionate about environmental causes and sustainability.

Thorne: Yeah, it's important across the board, whether it's hiring or whether it's attracting customers young, and even older, I mean, people are much more in touch and in tune with their role in encouraging and supporting those who do have policies related to sustainable practices and sourcing responsibly. And it’s wonderful that y'all are doing that in this industry, because I don't think people would really put that together with necessarily jewelry, but it makes sense. It totally makes sense.

So we, as you probably know, (and by the way, FIT is a good, good, good friend of the National Retail Federation. We enjoy working with them, their students, their staff, their alumni), we have a student program every year in New York City at the Jacob Javits Center in the beautiful month of January, but it's usually about 40,000 people and we have over 1,200 students that participate and many of them from FIT. You've gotten some career advice over the years, I'm sure. What’s the best piece of career advice you've ever gotten?

Gandia: Oh, that's a great question. We've gotten a lot of good advice because one of the things that we have done is sought out mentors, consultants. We really, I think, are good — and sometimes it's, I think, coming from a place of being a little hard on ourselves — but we are very good at knowing where our deficiencies lie and especially coming into a business. We didn't come from graduate school or a retail program necessarily [on] how to run a retail business. So, it was really important for us when we realized we had a deficiency, to go out and get help.

I think the most important thing that I would say to anyone who wants to get into retail is to really work on that foundation. I, myself am more of a creative than a sort of financially business minded person. And even I, when I got into the business, took an intro to accounting course. I think it's really important that you get a good financial foundation, and are able to build that strong foundation upon which to then catapult your idea because you need both. You do need that creative vision. That intuitive hit that you've got something that you want to run with. You kind of got to figure out a way to balance the two, and to make sure that your financial foundation is strong so that way you can last.

Thorne: All right, I promise this will be my last question, even though I could ask 100 more. This has been highly entertaining and very insightful. You obviously love retail. You love the industry. What excites you most about the future of retail?

Gandia: I think this might be a controversial answer.

Thorne: Way to end the program!

Gandia: I think that AI is very interesting. To really consider how to use AI for smaller companies. I think it levels the playing field in some ways for independents who may not have the resources to pay for a copywriter or a graphic designer and it gives them tools to be able to create content, to create a story, and also to learn. We can use AI today to tell us the top 10 books about retail that we should be reading if we want to open a retail store. We could use AI to teach us something about accounting or marketing.

I think that AI, which I know so many people are concerned about because of job loss, but I do think that there's going to be a way for AI to live side-by-side and to really be an asset in retail. I get very excited when I think about how AI can be used on our websites to create a personalized experience for people, to show them how things can be worn or styled. I'm really excited about that innovation and how it's going to further both our business, but also the possibilities for independent stores and company owners.

Thorne: I understand where AI is controversial because a lot of people are talking about it. People don't really understand it. They're trying to get their heads around it, wrap their business around it. Yet at the end of the day, I think as people become more familiar with it and its opportunities, what it presents, as opposed to the challenges, but the opportunities, they're getting more and more interested in it and seeing the value behind it. It’s just going to take time.

Jennifer Gandia, Greenwich Street Jewelers, thank you so very much for your time.

Gandia: Thank you. It's been a great conversation.

Thorne: And thank you all for joining us today. If you want to know more about Retail Gets Real or this episode, you can visit retailgetsreal.com. And I am very excited because this is our 320th episode and I appreciate you listening. This is Retail Gets Real. Until next time.

 

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