Plying The Pearl Trade
Entrepreneur India Rows reinvented her business to grow
If necessity is the mother of invention, perhaps recession is the mother of re-invention. One thing that’s come out of the great recession and the glacially slow recovery is the need for businesses, large and small, to give their business plans a once-over or maybe twice-over, looking for ways to cut costs while growing their market in a time of consumer austerity.
India Rows is the president and CEO of The Pearl Girls, a pearl jewelry buyer and wholesaler. In 2008, and without a business background, Rows created a direct-selling business, then a wholesale business, in the worst economic climate since the Great Depression.
Though the specifics of her story are unique, her business decisions are not. Combining sound advice, informed intuition and a passion and knowledge of her product, Rows is managing to grow her business sensibly, even while making a 180-degree turn in her business plan.
A three-month trip through Asia in the latter part of 2006 netted Rows more than memories. With prices too good to pass up, the Thomson native jumped at the opportunity to buy pearl jewelry for herself and for family and friends.
“We went to China, Vietnam and India,” Rows says. “Everywhere I went I was encountering pearls. As I bought pieces for myself, it dawned on me that if I loved them so much, there were a lot of women back home who would love and appreciate them as well.”
On her return, Rows began selling pieces at her sister’s art gallery, at parties and to individuals. She continued making trips to Asia to restock and, more importantly, gain first-hand knowledge of the industry, from pearl growing to grading and buying the gems. “I met so many knowledgeable people and learned so much, but I knew I needed to enhance my knowledge independent of the people directly involved in the cultured pearl industry,” she says. Rows went to Los Angeles in 2008 to receive training in Pearl Grading from the Gemological Institute of America. She later received her Graduated Pearls Diploma. Thus armed, Rows officially started her company, The Pearl Girls, in partnership with her sister, Molly McDowell.
Despite the deepening recession, The Pearl Girls did well. “It was actually a good time to get into my business,” says Rows. “It was a great year for pearls, and I got some great valued pearls. I entered the industry full force with very good quality merchandise.” Like other gems and precious metals, pearls tend to increase in value.
The Emotional Side
Rows wisely tapped into the emotional side of buying pearls when marketing to her customers, touting their value as timeless gifts for graduations, weddings and other milestone occasions. “People tend to have good associations with pearls, and it’s generally something tied to very special memories,” she says. “A lot of our customers are parents or husbands buying for a special event or women who want to give themselves a treat.” The line was also affordably priced. Their best seller, the classic 18” strand of 7 mm pearls, was a reasonable $129.
The Pearl Girls enjoyed steady growth and high sales for two years, with revenue from the first year at $93,000. But in 2010, McDowell chose to step out of the business, a decision that coincided with Rows’ belief that in order to grow, she needed to move away from the direct-selling model to get the jewelry line in front of more consumers.
She would need to move to the wholesale supplier side of the business and take The Pearl Girls to established retail outlets. The sisters dissolved their business partnership, and the business shifted to a wholesale business with limited online retail at the website, ThePearlGirls.com.
Rows carries a classic jewelry line and a special line for spring/ summer and fall/winter. She showed the line at the Atlanta and Charlotte merchandise marts, selling to buyers for high-end boutiques, gift shops and jewelry stores.
As a result of the changes in 2010, the bottom line took a hit, but Rows says they’ve already recouped in 2011. A nice two-page style spread in Southern Living magazine in April certainly helped. Currently, The Pearl Girls line is found in 57 stores in 18 states, most but not all in the southeast, and the business is poised to expand in 2012. Rows will add the Dallas merchandise mart to her list and is currently deciding whether the Chicago or New York show would be the best place to take the line.
Customers continue to contact Rows directly, and she doesn’t hesitate to pick up the phone if she spots a store she believes would be a good fit for her line. “The Pearl Girls jewelry is an accessible jewelry line. It’s priced extremely well,” Rows says. “But it is a high-end jewelry line. I make certain to communicate to the stores I’m working with that if their clientele comes expecting to find nice things at their store, our merchandise is a good fit.”
A classic entrepreneur, Rows started her business doing everything herself. “I thought I could do it all,” she says. “It was a wonderful moment of growth for me to realize that there are wonderfully talented people who can be an asset to this company, and it doesn’t all have to fall in my hands.” She continues to do all the buying for The Pearl Girls, traveling to Asia, mostly China, once a year, but she has three employees and contracts with outside public relations and marketing firms.
The Marketing Side
She’s an enthusiastic fan of social media, maintaining an active Facebook page, The Pearl Girls, and using Twitter, @ThePearlGirls, to drive consumers to the website and Facebook page. “We do analytics about where we should focus our business,” she says. “It’s obviously strongest in the southeast, so we focus a lot of our efforts on reaching customers in the southeast. We track who’s watching us, responding to us online.”
Because she started out by direct selling, Rows loves talking pearls with her customers. “That’s part of our story, and it’s what I ask vendors. ‘What do you think of when you think of pearls?’” she says.
“This year is a transition year because of our move to wholesale. It’s been steady so far, but we haven’t hit full stride yet. We’ll keep expanding the wholesale side and continue to develop ways to interact with our end consumer and customer base. I think The Pearl Girls is doing well because it’s a quality, well-priced jewelry line tied to great memories in life, and those aren’t going away, even when we’re having tough times.”