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E-Commerce Business Makes Popping the Question Easier

E-Commerce Business Makes Popping the Question Easier
Image credit: Photography by Axel Dupreux
Put a ring on it: Brian Watkins of Ritani.

It's a tale as old as e-commerce: You fall in love, start shopping around for engagement rings and notice that pricing and selection online are superior to what's in stores. But then come the cold feet. After all, who wants to spend thousands of dollars on a once-in-a-lifetime purchase without actually handling the merchandise first?

In October 2012 Ritani, a name that has been around the wholesale jewelry business since 1999, set out to change this scenario, offering jewelry buyers the best of both worlds. The Seattle-based company has relaunched in a clicks-and-bricks format that uses strategic partnerships to keep overhead low while expanding its online and offline reach. Customers can make straightforward online purchases of necklaces, earrings and other jewelry items that are shipped directly to them. With engagement rings, however, the website also provides a platform for customers to create their own designs, which are cast by Ritani and shipped to local affiliate jewelry stores (or directly to customers), where they can be examined in person before purchase. Change your mind? No problem--there's no cost for handing the ring back to the jeweler and walking out the door. (In that case the ring is returned to Ritani and disassembled.)

"We're the first jewelry brand to bridge the online and in-store experience in [engagement rings]," says Ritani president Brian Watkins, who earned his e-commerce chops as vice president of merchandising at Seattle-based online jewelry retailer Blue Nile. With a $15 million investment by Cantor Ventures of New York, which has a controlling interest in Ritani Wholesale, the company can now offer a wide selection of ring options from Ritani's catalog as well as add other local jewelers to its network.

That network is growing, thanks to what Watkins claims is a win-win for the independent jewelers who sign on. As Ritani affiliates, jewelers receive a percentage of the purchase price for each in-store transaction and for each online transaction in their region; Watkins won't reveal the figure "for competitive reasons," but says that it's more than enough to cover staff time and related expenses.

At its relaunch, Ritani had six jeweler partners with 35 storefronts; Watkins hopes to have more than 50 affiliates nationwide in 2013.

"While no business is riskless, the fact that we're not taking on inventory, that we're offering something new, is very different from other jewelry businesses," says Cantor's director Jed Kleckner. "The main investment we're making is in technology and not inventory. That gives us opportunities to add more retailers and for our growth to be very rapid."

Sounds like the start of a beautiful marriage.

Gwen Moran is a freelance writer and co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010).

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This article was originally published in the February 2013 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Rock Stars.

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