It’s a tough business for an “outsider” to break into. And this is a tough economy for nearly everyone, especially those selling luxury products.
Yet Bob La Perla — who is celebrating the 20th anniversary of — has been able to succeed, and at the same time give back to the community that loyally supports his business.
The jewelry business tends to be a family operation, and La Perla knew when he started out that he would have to overcome his outsider status. He believes he has succeeded because of a high level of commitment to forming relationships. “Often people get consumed by the value of things they sell, but it’s the value of the people you’re working with and how both you and they value that relationship," he said.
From the beginning La Perla determined that gaining acceptance in the West Hartford community would be the cornerstone of his success. “From day one I knew I would have to work as hard outside the store’s four walls as inside,” he said.
La Perla has built a reputation of involvement with many local charities and believes that has helped him maintain a solid customer base even in a tough economy. He also believes it is his responsibility as a business owner to support the health and welfare of the community.
He is known for his generosity and support of community organizations. “In the last two years I have donated over $160,000 in merchandise to auctions,” La Perla said. Those donations have helped schools, hospitals, museums, and individual health-related charities. “I don’t say no,” he said.
La Perla's top charity continues to be The Bridge Family Center, and he has made a significant donation commitment to the organization’s upcoming Children’s Charity Ball.
He’s supported in his charitable efforts by his wife Nancy, a former Junior League of Hartford president, who has also worked extensively on behalf of the American Cancer Society.
Where it All Started
Not having a family background in the industry, La Perla got his start in the jewelry business “by accident.” Job hunting in 1975, La Perla talked his way into a job at G. Fox & Company. “At the age of five I knew I would be a salesman, but I always thought I would own a haberdashery,” he said.
La Perla worked in the industry for 17 years — including 12 years with — before opening his own store. At the time his son was born, La Perla was responsible for running 22 Black Starr & Frost stores. “After I missed my son’s second year of life, I decided it was time to come home and open my own business,” he said.
La Perla has lived in Glastonbury since 1966, but liked and understood the business community in West Hartford from his years working for Lux Bond & Green. “I loved the sense of village, and have always like the way the town was run and how it’s inviting to businesses.”
Luxury Goods in a Tough Economy
La Perla Jewelers opened its doors during a tough economy — in the aftermath of the Colonial Realty debacle — and has weathered other economic downturns in the past 20 years, but “nothing of this depth and breadth,” La Perla said.
The price of gold has had a major impact in the jewelry market, affecting the merchandise La Perla can offer in his store. He is selling a lot more silver these days.
“In past economies you had stable gold prices, but today it’s at unprecedented highs of $1,800 per ounce,” La Perla said. In 2007, gold was $600 per ounce.
He encourages customers to trade in broken or unwanted pieces of gold jewelry, and will apply the full value of that gold to the purchase of a new item.
It’s not just that gold has increased in price; La Perla said that as many as 75 percent of the traditional gold houses he has dealt with over the past 37 years have been driven out of business.
However, La Perla has looked for new and innovative ways to attract clients and market his goods.
With the understanding that in this economy he has to operate on a decreased margin, La Perla sought professional advice to assist him with the store’s anniversary sale that will continue through Jan. 7. He’s working with a national bank that had seized $2 million of inventory on the West Coast, selling those pieces on consignment at discounted rates that he would not otherwise be able to offer.
He also moved his store from Farmington Avenue to several years ago, something he felt very strongly was the right move even though it initially cut into his foot traffic.
“As president of the [West Hartford Center] business association, Blue Back Square happened on my watch and it was something I firmly believed would be good for West Hartford. I felt it would be a fresh retail environment,” La Perla said.
He acknowledges that New Englanders are resilient to changing their traffic patterns, and also have a resistance to paying for parking, but has successfully worked to help make Blue Back Square an attractive destination.
Keeping up with Technology
“I’m still more of a traditional business, but I’m working hard to pull it out of the Dark Ages.”
La Perla recently shot a video celebrating his 20 years in business that will go live on the store’s YouTube channel. He takes advantage of social media opportunities provided by Facebook and foursquare. He can now update his website on a daily basis and also launched a text-based contest (text “pearls” to 37798) — awarding prizes like pearls and a Skagen watch — to help build a database of email addresses.
La Perla will also work with those who want to purchase engagement rings from other sources on the Internet, charging a finder’s fee for his assistance.
La Perla sees himself as “general practitioner” rather than a niche store. He emphasizes the wants and needs of his customers, with a range of merchandise that begins with silver priced under $50 and extends to high-value diamonds.
La Perla values quality, but doesn’t base his business on well-known brands. “We don’t do designer names. I have always held the belief that my client is the design and my job is to embellish the design.”
He loves to re-work old jewelry into new pieces and about 10 to 15 percent of his sales come from his own award-winning designs.
“I love solving people’s needs,” he said.