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Business Insights from Andrea Hill

Don't just use digital design to do your old work faster. Use it to transform your business.

Could Digital Design Transform the Industry?

Originally Published: 13 April 2016
Last Updated: 26 October 2020

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I was just on a conference call with three experts in digital design. We are preparing for a panel discussion at the Gold Conference in New York at the end of April (you really should join us! Here’s a link to learn more about the conference). We were discussing the transformative aspect of digital design and manufacture, and whether or not the jewelry industry has actually embraced that yet.

Many of us are talking about the struggles in the jewelry industry.  Here are just a few of the more comprehensive writings on this topic:

And yet, the store closures (~750 last year) keep happening, specialty retail stores are stagnating, and the industry mood is a bit grim.

Digital Design has Already Transformed Industries

So let’s look at what’s happening elsewhere. One of the guys on my call this morning (Harry Abramson, Direct Dimensions) shared a story about his brother (brother-in-law?) who is in the custom t-shirt business. Whereas at one time, if you wanted a custom t-shirt, you had to produce or select a design, then order and stock it by the dozens in each size and color; today you can order one custom t-shirt at a time with virtually the same delivery time. The individual t-shirt may cost a bit more than the cost of each t-shirt in bulk, but there’s nowhere near the risk or inventory cost associated with the old way of doing things. To a certain extent this type of design customization is available today in jewelry stores using Stuller's Gemvision system.

I experience this in my own business as well. Often I receive calls from people asking if we sell any of my business quotes (the benefits of social media, I guess) on mugs, mousepads, desk art, etc. We can and do, one piece at a time, to order.

In the fashion industry, the CFDA has embarked on a significant mission to study how to remain relevant in the age of fast-fashion. In the “old” way of doing things, the fashion industry produced big shows in the spring and fall, showing fashions that will be available for sale at retail six months later. Today, consumers are snapping up those same design concepts at retail almost as soon as the shows are done. How? Fast fashion operations are producing their own versions of what’s hot during Fashion Week very quickly, delivering to demanding consumers the style concepts they saw almost immediately after they saw them.

Paint manufacturers figured out the benefits of fast, digital design long before the rest of us. Instead of stocking 100 colors of paint, your local hardware store stocks a few base colors, and dozens — even hundreds —of colors, all of which can be mixed on demand for each customer.

Publishing, music, printing, television, automobiles, vacation packages, the list goes on-and-on — all have been transformed by incorporating consumer-driven digital design into the process. And by “consumer-driven” I don’t mean consumers doing the design (though in some cases that has happened). By consumer-driven I mean taking into account the real needs and desires of consumers – expressed and yet-to-be expressed – and designing to meet those needs.

There's a difference between "embracing CAD" and  "using digital design for transformation"

I’ve written and spoken at length about how the industry needs to embrace the digital world and incorporate it comprehensively into the bricks-and-mortar world. This is still true. But internet marketing and selling aren't the only digital transformations we need to embrace. How can we bring to consumers the jewelry designs that turn them on — designs that are extremely well conceived, vibrant, contemporary — at retail? How can we achieve what the luxury automobile manufacturers are doing, bringing forward impeccable design and consumer-focused innovation at lower production and marketing costs than in the past?

The tools are there. CAD, 3D growers and digital manufacturing on the design and inventory production side; and advanced CRM systems on the sales and promotion side. But what we’ve focused on in CAD for the past 10-15 years is just getting people to pick up the tools and learn them.

Now that time has passed. It’s no longer sufficient to use the digital tools available to us to simply do the things we are already doing, only faster and cheaper. We need to be innovating new ways, more ways to apply digital tools in our businesses. We need to be so adept at using the digital tools available to us that we start coming up with big new ideas. It’s time to use the digital tools to transform our businesses and our industry. Either that, or let the new world of design, production, and retailing move on without us.

PS. There is still a very important place for hand craft. There always will be. And there should be more hand craft - not less - in jewelry stores. But hand craft alone will not solve the problems the industry is facing. Digital design must also be a big part of the equation.