Kay Jewelers was founded in 1916 by Edmund and Sol Kaufmann in the corner of their father’s furniture store in Reading, Pennsylvania. That original store, of course, bears no resemblance to the corporate giant that the company is today. In the USA, Kay Jewelers is the second largest mall-based jewelry store chain (in terms of number of stores) after their major competitor Zales. Kay Jewelers is owned by Sterling Jewelers, inc. which also owns the national off-mall higher end chain store, Jared. In addition to these two national brands, Sterling also owns a number of regional chains (JB Robinson Jewelers, Marks & Morgan Jewelers, Belden Jewelers, Osterman Jewelers, Shaw’s Jewelers, Weisfield Jewelers, LeRoy’s Jewelers, Rogers Jewelers, Goodman Jewelers, and Friedlander’s Jewelers). All of these regional brands operate similarly to, and target the same type of customer as, Kay. Jared is Sterling Jewelers only off-mall store brand. All together, the Sterling group of stores is the largest jewelry store conglomerate in the USA.
Sterling Jewelers, inc. is likewise wholly owned by their UK based parent company, Signet Jewelers Limited. Signet also owns a number of very successful UK based jewelry chain stores targeting different levels of the market. Sterling Jewelers is the largest jewelry store conglomerate in the world.
Kay Jewelers vs. Online-only
Kay Jewelers is primarily a “bricks & mortar” jewelry store chain. As such, there are certain hurdles they face in competing with the broader modern jewelry market that would seem to be insurmountable. In recent years, they’ve expanded their web presence, but the simple fact is that they can’t undercut their own B&M operations by lowering their prices online to compete with the other online-only stores.
As you can read in my article entitled “Truth about James Allen & Blue Nile,” (which presents a brief history of the evolution of the diamond jewelry business over the past century) bricks & mortar diamond jewelry stores have several built-in handicaps when compared to online-only diamond sites. Lets take a moment to briefly review the issues:
1) Online-only diamond sites (like James Allen and Zoara, for example) carry almost no inventory. The diamonds they sell are listed virtually by diamond wholesalers/manufacturers and presented by the online store as their own. The sites are happy because they don’t have to invest anything in their inventory and the wholesalers are happy because now they can tap into the retail market in a small way without any opportunity cost. They’re still free to sell their diamonds to whomever they please — all they need to do is update their diamond feed to the online store when they sell one of their stones themselves.
2) Inventory is by far the single greatest expense when running a jewelry business. You could imagine just how quickly the value of a jewelry store’s inventory can grow! For a jewelry store to have 200 diamonds available for purchase, they’ll probably have to have well over a million dollars invested. Almost no store has that kind of cash lying around, so stores need to take on major loans to carry even a small inventory. This creates serious levels of debt that need to be serviced. Online stores don’t have this expense.
3) Jewelry stores have another alternative, and that’s what’s referred to in the industry as “memo.” Memo is just diamond jargon for consignment. This is becoming less and less prevalent in the industry, but it’s still relatively common. Basically, a wholesaler/manufacturer will loan some inventory to a store and only bill them when a stone is sold. The catch, however, is that memo prices are always significantly higher than purchase prices. Even though they have no interest expenses with a memo arrangement, the B&M stores will still need to charge a higher price than the online stores because their cost is significantly higher. The reason, by the way, for the higher memo cost is the opportunity cost to the wholesaler. Once a diamond is “on memo” at a store, they can’t easily sell it to anyone else. So the B&M store needs to pay a premium for having that diamond locked up. Of course, this isn’t the case online, so wholesalers are happy to give the sites their lower possible price because they’ve lost no opportunities having the stones listed online.
4) Overhead in B&M stores is astronomically greater than online stores. Think about it, for every little mall store in the Kay Jewelers chain they have to have a team of employees, utilities, insurance and rent. Each one of those stores can only service a few thousand people in the local geographical location. James Allen services the entire world with only 2 offices (one in NY to handle the diamonds, and one in MD to handle customer service) and about 100 employees.
These four points address the primary reasons why Brick & Mortar operations can’t compete with online only stores in terms of price. But the inferiority of Kays Jewelers to the major online stores is most definitely not limited to price and price alone.
Twenty years ago, a typical diamond jewelry customer would walk into a jewelry store and receive a quick education in diamonds by the very person selling him the diamond. Obviously, the direction of the lesson was to convince the buyer that the products sold at that store are better and offer more value than the products sold at other stores – without any real measure of objectivity.
The same holds true today as well. The best customer for Kay Jewelers is an uniformed customer – a blank slate waiting to be taught that what Kay wants to sell is what’s best for you. Of course, with the internet now more widely available than ever, the pool of this type of customer is dwindling by a greater margin each year. A customer who educates himself on the various issues that are central to evaluating diamonds can tell rather quickly that what’s being offered at Kay Jewelers is most certainly not the best value available.
For example, sites that I recommend (such as James Allen, Zoara, and Brian Gavin Diamonds.), deal almost exclusively with GIA and AGS diamond certificates. Kay Jewelers deals almost exclusively in looser certifying labs such as IGI. An uninformed customer might see that an IGI certified diamond is priced the same as a GIA certified diamond and think that the stone is competitively priced – an educated customer knows that the IGI certified stone is probably 2-3 grades upgraded from what it would have received at GIA and that you need to compare apples to apples. An uneducated consumer might think that the light performance certificates that Kay offers on their premium branded stones really tell you how brilliant a diamond is – an informed customer knows that it’s the diamond’s proportions and angles that matter (as assessed by GIA or AGS).
C) Head to Head Comparison
Lets do some direct comparisons to see what you get for your money at Kay Jewelers, which in many regards is the premier bricks & mortar jewelry store chain in the USA, vs. James Allen which is the premier online store for diamond jewelry in the world at the moment. We’ll compare a one carat round diamond ring from Kay’s two main lines: generic and Tolkowsky.
See the relevant generic Kay Jeweler’s one carat solitaire ring here: http://www.kay.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/product1%7C10101%7C10001%7C-1%7C150884702%7C15051%7C15051.15057.15106
This is a generic non-branded 1 carat round diamond set in a basic 14K White Gold solitaire ring. One important note to remember regarding Kay Jewelers and their carat weights is that they go according to the table presented on their site here. So you might be shocked to find out that when you order a “1 carat” diamond, you might very well receive a 0.95ct diamond. Just to really drive the point home, we will assume for this exercise that the diamond in the link above is actually over 1 carat. Informed readers of this site already know that diamond prices jump drastically at the major carat levels (ie, 0.50, 0.70, 0.90, and 1.00ct).
Also, Kay Jewelers doesn’t offer an exact color and clarity grade for their rings – it’s always presented as a range. In the case of this ring, the range is H-I in color and SI2-I1 in clarity. We will assume, to be on the safe side, that in our test case the diamond in question is over 1.00ct and is also at the top end of the range of color and clarity (ie, an H SI2). In reality, you’d probably find many more I I1s in their inventory mix than H SI2s and likewise you’d probably find many more stones under 1.00ct than over it. But lets see how the prices compare even in the most extreme case.
Is $4500 a good price for an IGI certified H SI2 solitaire ring? It happens to be that James Allen does carry a very small amount of IGI certified stones, so in this particular case, we’ll be able to compare apples to apples. An additional benefit is that the reader will be able to see a picture of what an IGI SI2 can look like! And it just so happens that James Allen has a 1 carat IGI certified H SI2 available! Here it is:
There are a few important things to note about this stone. Firstly, and most obviously, the price. The stone is listed for $2830. Pair this with a basic white gold engagement ring setting such as this:
and the total bill will be $3154. That’s compared to $4500 at Kay Jewelers! Kay Jewelers is 50% more expensive!
The second important thing to note here is to see just how poor the clarity is in the picture and yet this stone still received an SI2 grade from IGI. Admittedly, this is worse than most IGI graded SI2s, but this is certainly not the first stone I’ve seen that’s this bad that received an SI2 grade. A stone like this would never receive an SI2 grade from GIA.
You might be thinking to yourself, “Hold on a second. That’s not a fair comparison! You’ve picked a terrible stone with a giant black inclusion in the center. The diamond buyers at Kay would never allow a stone like that to enter their inventory.” That might very well be true. So lets take another example just to be sure:
This stone is a grade higher than the highest grade available for this ring on Kay. This diamond/ring combination should, in theory, cost more than the ring on Kay because it’s a higher grade. But, in reality, that’s not the case at all. This stone is listed for $3780. With the setting above (with the discount code applied), the total price comes to $4140. As you can see in the magnified picture of the stone above, it’s a fantastic SI2 – as nice as possible for an IGI SI2. And yet with getting so much more from James Allen in this case, Kay is still almost 9% more – and that’s in the best case possible!
Don’t forget many diamonds in this category will be below 1.00ct which would drastically drop the comparative price on James Allen. For example,
is an ideal cut GIA certified I SI1 – much better than the Kay Jeweler’s IGI certified I SI2 average cut stone. Yet the price of this stone with a basic solitaire is only $3694 with the TAD0611 discount code compared to $4499 at Kay Jewelers.
See the relevant Tolkowsky Diamond ring here: http://www.kay.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/product1%7C10101%7C10001%7C-1%7C150899007%7C22137%7C22137.22422.22423
This is a 1 carat Tolkowsky Diamond set in a basic 14K White Gold solitaire setting. The same rule applies for the Tolkowsky Diamond regarding Kay Jewelers’ diamond weights as mentioned above (ie, that the actual diamond weight begins at 0.95ct for a one carat diamond).
Also, as mentioned above, a range of clarity and color grades are provided – not a specific grade. Lets assume for stringency’s sake that the diamond we’re comparing is actually the top combination offered — in this case, an H SI1. In reality, most likely you’d find that the percentages are always skewed to the lower end of the spectrum (ie, there will be many more I SI2s in Kay’s inventory than H SI1s). Furthermore, you’ll also most likely find that there are usually many more “1 carat” stones under 1.00ct than there are above it.
Is $8000 a good price for a 1 carat H color SI1 clarity diamond mounted in a 14K White Gold solitaire? Lets have a look at James Allen for comparison.
This is a GIA certified 1.01ct H color SI1 clarity diamond with an Excellent cut grade and Polish and Symmetry grades of Excellent. This stone is just as nice in terms of cut as the Tolkowsky, which is just a classic ideal cut. This stone from James Allen would most definitely pass as a Kay Jewelers Tolkowsky cut. The diamond costs $5700. One can match this stone with a setting such as the following:
The cost of the ring drops to 324. Keep in mind that James Allen’s ring is 18K gold whereas the Kay ring is 14K gold. So the total cost of this diamond ring is $6024. The prices aren’t even close. When you consider the following, they’re even farther apart:
1) We took the most extreme assumptions regarding the quality of the specific Kay Jewelers diamond into account. ie, highest color and clarity within their range and that the diamond is over 1.00cts. Had we assumed the diamond was an I SI2 instead of H SI1, we could have found a comparable diamond ring on James Allen for about $4750 total.
2) We are not comparing apples to apples. The Tolkowsky is certified by IGI which is consistently looser than GIA. From personal experience selecting thousands of stones to be sold into diamond programs with a minimum grade of I SI2, I can say with confidence that most IGI certified I SI2s would most likely receive J color and I1 clarity grades. If we assume a GIA level J I1, then we could find a comparable ring on James Allen for much much less than Kay’s price.
So even in the best possible case imaginable, you’re still overpaying at Kay Jewelers by about 30%. Most likely, however, you’d be overpaying by much more than that.
D) In Conclusion
For my other reviews, I felt that I needed to actually order something to undergo the full customer experience for each store. With Blue Nile or James Allen, for example, it’s really just a matter of the details. Both stores carry high quality products that are certified by reliable labs. Both stores carry high quality fine jewelry. Both stores are very competitively priced. Therefore, in order to discover any real significant differences between them, I needed to immerse myself in both stores as a typical customer.
For Kay Jewelers, though, there was really no need to move beyond step one (besides, there’s already a plethora of feedack online detailing people’s experiences with Kay Jewelers. I invite you to google “Kay Jewelers Review” and see for yourself). The differences in quality and price are so glaring that it’s very difficult to justify buying from them.
As I mention in my article on clarity, you should consider your diamond budget to be a pie. Different slices in the pie represent different aspects of the purchase that your budget is going to. I argue in that article that one should appropriate the largest portions of his budget to the slices that will be visible to your eye (color and carats) and minimize the slices that are not visible to your eye (clarity – within reason). Well, there’s one hidden slice in this pie that I didn’t discuss in that article that’s extremely relevant. And that’s the store’s markup. If the store selling you the diamond makes more profit, that most definitely does not make your stone sparkle more. All it does is eat up a larger percentage of your budget that could (and should) be used for things that will make your diamond more beautiful, such as carat weight and color.
In conclusion – what kind of pie would you rather buy? One whose invisible profit slice is 14% of the pie, or one whose invisible profit slice is 30-50% of the pie?
Reviewed By Michael Fried