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You must have done some good deeds to be living here," quipped a friend visiting me in Switzerland many years ago. The country was wonderful but in my city only two stores sold books in English and the choice was limited. Amazon swiftly became my go-to store way back in the late 1990s. Fast forward to 2016, I have not stepped into a grocery store for over seven years. My grocery comes from one of the UK’s largest grocers. Further, it has been years since I went into a clothing store. In other words, I live off the Web. Except when it comes to jewellery.

This personal quirk became a challenge when I co-founded a fine jewellery business in London. Fine and high-(end) jewellery is a tough sell online, for both purveyors and customers. Like all good businesses, jewellers too put their customer at the centre of the design of the online store. It is challenging to deliver a satisfying customer experience, especially given the differences between the Web and physical space. As a customer, I expect to see a jeweller’s full range of products online. But as a business there are complex choices. Do we put all our jewellery pieces online, or just some of them? The latter was not really an option for us because we did not have a retail presence. Still, do we showcase our bestsellers, new products or classics?

As a customer, I want to be moved and enticed. But as a business, do we present products by themselves, or showcase them on human models, who can show the product realistically to the customers? How many photographs per product? Do our photographs really pluck at the customer’s heart strings, because that is where the sale is first made? This is the toughest one to crack. The logic is not very different from those who insist on telling me that they cannot buy their fruit without touching and smelling it. The cost implications of such decisions are notable.

As a customer, I want the product photographs to dazzle me. As a business though, we wonder if our photographs present the real fire and brilliance of our diamonds, and the true colours of our gemstones. Jewellery photography is notoriously hard and not for everyone wielding a digital camera. All decisions must be made remembering the high standards of a typical customer of fine jewellery.

Let’s say the business sells a fabulous piece of jewellery online. We can’t be certain the transaction won’t get called out as fraudulent after we have shipped the product. Jewellery is a new category for e-commerce and payment processors just don’t have enough transaction data. It is a catch-22 situation because till more jewellery sells online, actuaries won’t have the data to build the risk model. This is why many fine jewellers do not let a customer complete a transaction above a certain value online, typically £5,000 (around 4.75 lakh) in the UK, and will instead phone the customer to verify details. So much for selling jewellery online!

The last-mile problem in shipping is not simple. Only a few couriers may take goods worth lakhs of rupees with appropriate insurance. Besides that, in countries with distance-selling regulations, returns must be made easy and safe too. As a customer, I want assurance on both counts.

Selling jewellery is much easier in a retail store. In a store, the jeweller can deliver the right ambience, with champagne and macaroons, or a lungo made perfectly, as well as hand-held and full-length mirrors to enable the customer to see how the jewellery works for her. As a customer, I delight in the sensuality of that experience. Experienced jewellery salespeople in a store can assess a customer’s intent, interest and budget; they can then help with information, offer alternative products and address customer doubts. For the customer, this helps bridge the chasm between the heart and the head, and leads to an actual purchase. The interaction is between two humans, which means there is an opportunity to upsell or cross-sell products by listening to and working with the customer, the first steps in that elusive process of clienteling.

Both as a customer and a jeweller, I watch technology closely. Solutions are emerging to approximate the physical experience online.

For now, diamonds shine brightest when moving gently under the right lighting. Just like Charlize Theron’s dazzling Harry Winston necklace at the recent Oscars! You can’t buy it online.

Shefaly Yogendra co-founded a fine jewellery business and is now a luxury consultant in London.

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