At Underwood’s Fine Jewelers on the Fayetteville square, the weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were lonely ones.
“September was the pits,” said owner Bill Underwood. “After the tragedy, for two weeks it was like someone put a barricade in front of the door.”
Then, in October and particularly November, something strange happened.
“November was the biggest November we’ve had in the history of the store, and every month since then has been up,” he said.
“When people kind of got over the initial shock of the event and started kind of looking inward … they started thinking in terms of spending money on more closeness and more togetherness with the family,” Underwood said.
Customers who might otherwise have spent several thousand dollars on a holiday trip abroad instead decided to put their money in jewelry.
“The biggest factor we’ve noticed is people coming in and, in effect, saying, ‘I want quality, something permanent, something with a good name on it … that will be here a hundred years from now,'” he said.
And that kind of thinking meshed well with the message Underwood’s has been sending jewelry buyers since it opened in 1957.
“One of the differences with our store, as opposed to many others, is most of our promotion and advertising is geared to the idea of emotional attachment,” he said.
It’s a message Underwood likes to telegraph even more frequently in economic downturns.
“Some of my competitors aren’t doing as much advertising, and one of my philosophies is you really ought to do just the opposite. When things turn down, that’s not the time to stop advertising. In fact, it’s the time to gain market share.”
Underwood left Oklahoma to further his studies at the University of Arkansas, and he became the first certified gemologist in the state. His business now employs 15, including five goldsmiths who make jewelry upstairs in the 9,000-SF building designed by legendary architect Fay Jones in 1966.
The average price of Underwood’s jewelry is probably the highest of any store in the state, so he worries not at all about increasing competition from Wal-Mart or Friedman’s. Those stores, he said, are for the many jewelry customers who want the best price, not the best quality.
“We’re really competing more with folks outside the state,” Underwood said.
He founded his store the same year John Tyson opened his first chicken processing plant, five years before Sam Walton opened his first Wal-Mart store, and 12 years before the founding of J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. Underwood settled in Fayetteville because he thought a university town would have an educated population that would appreciate the finest jewelry; it was sheer luck that the population of northwest Arkansas also has become a wealthy one that can afford it.
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