Owner: Chip Tolaney
Year Founded: 2014
Products in stock: Jewelry
Inventory Method/Software Used: Sellbrite
Sales by Category: Exclusively jewelry
Chip Tolaney is a designer by trade originally. He worked in graphic design in the early 2000s and by the end of the decade, he began designing more products himself. Starting with wall décor, pillows and accessories using his artwork, he made the transition into jewelry design three or four years later. Regardless of the medium he used or type of product he created, he says one thing stayed consistent, “Everything has to be symbolic, meaningful or inspirational,” he says. So Tolaney’s jewelry tends to be inspirational, or includes meaningful symbols or represents something bigger. Retailing Insight spoke to him to learn more about his background and about his online wholesale business Culture Spot.
Retailing Insight: You said you started as a designer was that a path inspired by someone in your family?
Chip Tolaney: Almost everyone in my family is a doctor except for me, so there’s no family inspiration there. It was something I’ve been into since I was a kid. I’ve never called myself an artist, because I feel it’s a very loaded term, but I did get involved from the beginning in school competitions and things like that. Designing products like t-shirts for example, even in middle school and high school I did that a lot.
RI: What was the biggest challenge you faced when starting your business?
CT: Initially, when I did the home décor section, it was right after the 2008 crash and the home category was one of the markets that suffered the most. So our start was very bumpy in terms of the timing and nature of products. To be able to finally adjust our offerings to something we were comfortable with and which had a market need was where jewelry came along.
RI: Were you always strictly to the trade or did you shift over time?
CT: We started strictly to the trade and I did some tradeshows in Atlanta and New York. Like I said, we were in the home décor sector. The shows were really slow and dry essentially because the housing market was so negatively impacted by the recession. The thing that did happen around 2010 was that online marketplaces like Amazon, Overstock, Wayfair, they were looking for more sellers. They were basically sourcing us to drop ship for them and that led me into more of the online retail.
RI: Why did you decide to focus on an online presence? Although you do also offer a paper catalog correct?
CT: Most people enjoy looking at a paper catalog, but most of our orders come from online. I think the paper catalog gives us the right setting for a narrative story. We can put all the inspirational jewelry together by theme for example, letting people get acquainted with that collection more completely than they might online. I think it’s a good marriage between paper and digital though, where each provides an important part of the experience.
RI: How would you describe your e-store type?
CT: It’s only open to trade. Only registered members can order it. A person going to the site would not be able to order or see the pricing unless they are a vendor. It goes through a basic application process where they have to prove they are a legitimate online or brick and mortar retail establishment. Once the approval process is done and their account is approved, they are able to view the pricing and place orders. So viewing our site is open to all, but seeing the pricing is only open to registered accounts.
RI: Can you describe your customer profile? Is there a certain region of the country you’re more popular with?
CT: Our rep circuit is pretty heavy on the west coast. California being our number one state. As a profile, it’s any store that offers meaningful jewelry, or gemstone jewelry, or yoga/meditation supplies. Generally, anything in that mind/body/spirit sector. Most of our jewelry pieces tend to be sterling silver, so there’s also a certain type of store that would be interested in carrying us for that as well.
RI: How do you let potential customers know about Culture Spot? Do you advertise online? Do you use social media?
CT: It’s a combination of everything. We do online advertising for people looking for wholesale jewelry, matched with print advertising – Retailing Insight being one of them – and through our reps.
RI: How many reps do you have?
CT: We work with a big rep group on the west coast. They have about 15 to 20 reps and we’re adding more in different regions as we move along.
RI: Can you detail your average workday?
CT: The initial part of my day – the first hour to two hours goes into business processes. By that, I mean any customer service issues that I have to personally look into. I also work through and respond to emails and suppliers.
Overall, I try to balance my time between three things. One is the business aspect – anything working on the business essentially. Then two and three are working on the marketing and product design and development. Product also includes merchandising and photography, things like that.
So a recap, the initial part of the morning goes into business processes and responding to everyone. That’s followed by my marketing section with outreach and sales. The mid-afternoon and evening is where I feel most creative, so that’s where I go into the product section of my day.
RI: Do you work with other designers, or are your designs created in-house?
CT: Some of the designs are done with other manufacturers who have certain capabilities, but through a collaboration, we make it our own. Most of our designs are done in-house though.
The starting point with collaborations can be either a blank slate or their samples for ideas and we take it to a new level.
RI: When you’re doing something in-house, are you using CAD programs? Or physical creations?
CT: My starting point is usually my iPad. I’m fairly good with Apple Pen. From that point on, my detailed notes go to our silversmiths and then they go into CAD to come up with technical drawings and fine details. From there, we go to samplings and then the finished product. A lot of what gets to the sample stage does not make the final cut. What might work conceptually doesn’t always work in reality.
RI: Do you have in-house employees?
CT: We have five to seven people depending on the season.
RI: How do you manage your workforce in the face of the pandemic?
CT: The creative aspect – copywriting, photography, marketing, a lot of that we were able to manage remotely. For the shipping, with the warehouse obviously being a physical location, the best we were able to do was alternating shifts. So in a work space, there was only one person at a time.
RI: We’ve talked about the methods you use to promote your brand, but what is the message you share?
CT: It’s part of my personal philosophy. Years ago, I read somewhere that your product is your best marketing. That’s always been my mindset. We started with the inspirational cuff where it didn’t have just one word, it had a story or a message. It did really well, so we built on that to have a line that now offers 25 bracelets, each with a deeper message than just a few words or a line. That in of itself, we were able to do direct mail to some retailers with some of those bracelets and it went well. That’s been our continued approach – build on product and use product as our marketing philosophy.
RI: Do you attend Trade Shows to look for inspiration or do you exhibit to find new customers?
CT: The rep group we belong to has showrooms in Vegas and California and we’re considering New York and Florida, but obviously, we’re waiting to see how tradeshows go right now.
RI: How do you determine what might be good jewelry to create?
CT: One approach is to have a balanced selection. Different retailers have different customer bases and different philosophies of how they merchandise in their stores. So one aspect is to have everything balanced in terms of enough bracelets, pendants, earrings – even going further and saying enough inspirational bracelets, enough gemstone bracelets. We want to have something that works as a collection but can also stand alone.
The second thing is if there’s a design or particular piece that’s done phenomenally well, we build on it. For example, we have a collection of spinner meditation rings. We produced three originally and they sold so well, we expanded our line to make them more inspirational and more meaningful. Now we have about 10 of them.
Obviously, the third thing is that you have to be aware of trends.
RI: Do customers ever reach out with jewelry creation requests?
CT: For our inspirational line, we’ve received some requests where someone wants something with a particular sentiment. So that helps if we hear a few requests of that nature. We try to incorporate that. Some requests we receive are more about the display or the packaging. Because we have an in-house design team, we can do that for them.
RI: How has the pandemic impacted your business?
CT: It’s something I find funny. When I started the business after the housing crash, one thing I heard at shows is that jewelry is a recession-proof product. This time around, the issue has been that clothing and jewelry are the hardest hit categories because people aren’t going out in public as much.
I’ve seen folks who have physical locations now get more focused on an online presence. I’m assuming because people aren’t going out as much, their retail sales are lower compared to last year.
One thing we’ve stayed away from is having sellers offering our products on Amazon or eBay. If you have your own website, you can sell on it. But we don’t do marketplace products because that diminishes the value and pricing of the product. We’ve gotten a lot of requests in the last few months trying to sign up as new customers, but they don’t have a quality website or are looking to be just marketplace sellers.
RI: In light of the pandemic, have you see uptick in interest in the inspiration jewelry?
CT: Yes, I think while other jewelry has been impacted in terms of popularity or sales, inspirational jewelry is one that hasn’t really seen a downturn. There are a couple rings like the spinner meditation ring that help relax and calm that have become even more popular. Some specific messages have increased in popularity too. One that says “Breathe in, breathe out,” another that says “This too shall pass.” They’re obviously year appropriate.