Retail is dying.

We can bicker over the truth or falsehood of that statement, but we certainly live in a rough time to be in brick and mortar retail. Mainstays like Toys R Us are going under left and right, and even in the e-commerce space, retailers aren't safe: with a market cap of $740 billion, we're increasingly living in Amazon's world.

But Amazon can't win everything. And a new generation of e-commerce entrepreneurs is showing that with a high-touch, white-glove approach to online retail, it's possible to carve out a niche and build a growing business.

Plus, they're doing it in one of the oldest, most traditional industries in the world: jewelry.

Build a brand by marketing more carefully.

One of these entrepreneurs is Maxwell Katz, founder of fledgling jewelry brand Amant New York. Amant makes a luxury jewelry item, intended for men, called a TieDrop: a small silver or gold ornament that hangs on a fine chain from the center of a tie knot.

Amant has created a new category of product in a market dominated by prestige brands. That's a bold move, and it's required them to take a different approach to their marketing strategy. As Katz explains, Amant has to take an extremely hands-on approach to marketing, using narrow targeting and high-touch outreach to engage a demographic looking for something that stands out in the world of men's jewelry.

Amant uses precise targeting to spend marketing money only on high-potential customers, and they focus on consumer education as much as visual aesthetics. This has let them build a new brand in a very old industry. 

But Amant isn't the only startup innovating in the jewelry space - and custom jewelry platform Linhaus shows just how powerful a white-glove approach can be.

Exploit tech to democratize white-glove service.

Linhaus is a company aiming to make custom jewelry available online, to a mass-market audience. While they're still in stealth startup mode until their September 2018 launch, the concept of the business perfectly demonstrates the high-touch approach that's winning in the online retail space.

The founder, Lisa Linhardt, has been making custom jewelry pieces for more than 10 years. But with her new venture, she's using new tech to democratize custom jewelry and offer a completely different jewelry-buying experience. 

"What we can do now is use programs like Rhino and CAD/CAM to 3D print samples of the rings and send them in the mail," explains Linhardt. "You can see exactly how it fits on the finger, so you don't feel like you're throwing money into a black hole."

Linhaus exploits these technologies to reduce the labor necessary to make a custom piece, boosting margins and making the process more affordable to the mass market. But for consumers, it still feels white-glove: customers work directly with the jewelry designer, go through multiple rounds of revisions, and get to see a model of the ring on their finger before they get the finished product.

To succeed in retail, prioritize your customer experience.

What unites these two companies -- and proves so instructive for business owners -- is their focus on making individualized service and attention a part of their product offerings. By drilling down and devoting resources to caring for each individual customer, they can offer something even Amazon can't compete with.

In practice, this boils down to one concept: prioritization. Small e-commerce businesses will never compete with Amazon on scale or price. It's impossible to win. But you can win if you cut spending on low-return customers and product lines, then reinvest that money into nurturing your best customers. It's the 80/20 rule, applied. 

And this doesn't just apply to existing customers. Take a cue from Amant: start that specialization at the advertising stage. Focus your ad dollars only on the highest-performing channels. If you don't know offhand what those are, run tests to identify what brings in high-revenue customers, then spend your money there. 

Once a customer does convert, find low-effort, high-impact ways to build more personalized service into the customer journey. Build email automation scripts triggered by customer actions (for example, an email suggesting tips for caring for a product a customer recently bought). Host live webinars to educate customers and answer questions. Even something as simple as putting a video interview with the founder up on the website can be an effective way to form a deeper relationship between your customers and your brand. 

At the end of the day, it's that relationship that's valuable. Amazon can always beat you on price and scale. But if you can provide unparalleled service and a white glove approach, you can build a relationship with your customers that goes beyond transaction -- and in the online economy of 2018, that's what it takes for David to beat Goliath.

Published on: Mar 21, 2018
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