– Originally posted in the Travel Section of TheWashington Post, where it appeared on December 25, 2005, “What to know Before You Buy”
You’re preparing to go on a wonderful cruise to the islands anticipating the beautiful blue water, warm weather, and shopping for a fabulous piece of jewelry to commemorate the occasion. Perhaps you are celebrating a honeymoon, an anniversary trip or just a little get away because you deserve it. Plus, who has not heard of someone getting a bargain while vacationing in the islands, or has a friend who returned with a gorgeous piece of jewelry. Do people really save by buying jewelry in the Caribbean or is it just a myth? As independent appraisers of fine jewelry and watches in the Washington DC area, we are privileged to see many pieces that have been purchased in the Caribbean Islands. Some clients have done well with their purchases and others have not. How can you shop and buy with confidence for something you may know little about from a jeweler you know nothing about? To solve this mystery, we decided to take a cruise to investigate and personally experience the shopping ourselves. In order to cover all bases, we focused on the cruise line, merchants, and guests. What we found was enlightening and exciting.
We began by attending the ship’s shopping seminars. There, we learned that many cruise lines have someone on board responsible for advising quests on shopping. This person is THE shopping expert on board the ship. Normally they are called the Port Shopping Guide. This person knows all the ports and which stores to recommend for any type of shopping. The Shopping Guide is well-educated and trained in shopping for jewelry, diamonds, coloured stones and watches and gives excellent advice in the form of seminars on the buying opportunities on each island and how to shop there. Let’s face it; with so many stores and so much jewelry to choose from in addition to sight seeing, there is very little time to make up your mind. Therefore, listening to the ship’s expert is a great start. The seminars are held before arriving at every port of call giving you great tips and free gifts provided by recommended stores. These stores have paid a promotional fee to be included in these seminars and on the Shopping Maps. There is one catch, to receive some of the free gifts; you must visit the store at the island. If you are not sincerely interested in visiting these stores, don’t spend your time running from store to store just for the free gifts.
One mantra you will hear is “See it, Like it, Buy it!” This can be good or bad advice depending on many different scenarios. On one hand, you only have a few hours in each port and there can be as many as seven cruise ships in any given port on any given day. The average ship carries 3500 guests. Do the math. There is the very real likelihood that if you walk away from a piece, it literally could be gone in the next five minutes. These stores look like the day before Christmas every day! However, you have many of the same stores on different islands, so if you miss something, it may be in the next port. Or if you buy something and decide you want something else, you can exchange within the same company in the next port. The downside of this is that a vast majority of stores’ return policies do NOT cover buyer’s remorse. You buy it you own it.
To complete our review of the ship’s shopping program, we interviewed the Port and Shopping Guide hired by this particular line. We found that these individuals are experts in what they do and work very hard to assist, help, and advise their guests to ensure their shopping experience is pleasant and rewarding. However, we must emphasize that all recommended stores in this program have paid an advertising fee but these stores have also been screened and are required to offer guarantees to stand behind anything purchased and it is in writing. This guarantee is on a Shopping Map offered by the cruise line for each port that states: “Shop with confidence at each of the recommended stores on this map. All merchants have been carefully selected and have paid a promotional fee to Onboard Media for inclusion in this program. Each merchant offers a 30-day guarantee. Excluding buyer’s negligence or buyer’s remorse, this guarantee ensures buyers that all participating merchants will repair or replace any unsatisfactory item. For purposes of determining quality and value of jewelry, only appraisals from independent graduate gemologists, not affiliated with any retail jeweler, will be acceptable. Please inquire about individual store return policies before finalizing any purchase. If you become aware of a problem during the cruise, please contact the Port and Shopping Guide for immediate assistance. If a problem arises after the cruise but within 30 days of the purchase date, contact the merchant directly and send a copy of all correspondence to Onboard Media Customer Relations. To expedite your claim, please include the store name, date of purchase, copy of receipt, any relevant documents and a written description of the claim.”
With this statement, the cruise line is giving its guests peace of mind and the ability to shop with confidence with regards to selection, ethics and authenticity. Some stores offer guarantees beyond what is stated in the Shopping Guide. It is stressed during the shopping seminars that if a guest chooses to shop at stores that are not part of the group, there is nothing that the cruise line can do to help if a problem should arise. What we found in interviewing many stores that were not part of the program was that they were just as willing to personally stand behind their products and service after the sale as the recommended ones. Which leads us to the second phase of our quest.
Our second approach was to interview as many merchants as possible to learn how they serve vacationers buying jewelry. We visited stores in Aruba, Curacao, St. Maarten, and St Thomas. Although there are chain stores with locations on many islands, we found that smaller stores are exclusive to only one or two islands. This creates very different shopping experience and customer service. Our focus was price, customer support, return policy, and business ethics. As one might expect, we found a plethora of services.
Prices. Merchants are trying to get the most for their jewelry and buyers are trying to pay the least. However, in this price tug-of-war, the merchants have the upper hand. They know how much profit they need for each item as well as the expected volume of vacationers coming behind you. Most buyers are not expert enough to compete with the merchant and win. Later we will show how you can even the playing field. We did do one price check. As a comparison test, we asked all stores the price of a one-carat round, G colour, VS clarity diamond. This is a basic diamond that any jeweler would have. To our amazement we were quoted prices ranging from $5700.00 to almost $10000.00! This was astonishing.
For most people, customer service is as important as price. You don’t want to pay bargain prices for jewelry only to find out when you get home that a stone is loose, a clasp breaks, or worse, you find out that your purchase is not what you thought you bought. Communicating with a jeweler several thousand miles away is not easy or fun. We found that the level of customer service varied from store to store. Many stores have a repair policy and large stores have repair centers in the U.S. but in large cities like LA, New York, or Miami. Therefore, if you have a repair issue, you must send it to one of their centers. Others ask you to send the jewelry back to them for repair. The best approach we found for minor repairs was one in which you contact the merchant, describe the problem and get their approval to have your local jeweler do an estimate for the repair. The merchant then reimburses the local jeweler for the repair charges. If this is not cost effective for the merchant or requires a special stone replacement, you may have to send it back to the merchant or their US-based service center. This approach gives you the maximum flexibility.
The real nightmare can be when you want to return the jewelry for some reason. This is where you must understand their return policy. We have found that many stores have return policies on back of their receipt and NONE of them cover buyer’s remorse! We found only one store with a no questions asked policy. In some cases, we found return policies displayed near the cash register, not always easily visible. In a few cases merchants do not provide written policies to customers. They rely on what they tell the customer at the time of the transaction. We recommend that buyers understand and request a copy of the return policy before purchasing any jewelry. Do not rely on verbal promises. Virtually all of the stores would take a return or provide an exchange for defective merchandise or damage through no fault of the wearer. In the case of a value discrepancy, they would only take a return if the guest had an appraisal from a gemologist/independent appraiser who is not associated with any retail store and does not sell to the public. Watches are only serviced through the watch manufacturers.
In rare cases, we encountered multiple stores with the same name on one or different islands but were not affiliated. This may cause buyers to shop at a store thinking that they are doing business with a particular chain when in reality the two stores are not connected. In asking merchants for an explanation for this, we were told that the copyright laws in the islands are not clear leaving the opportunity for multiple stores by the same name. It was clear to us that buyers need to be aware of this before buying from a store expecting a particular level of service.
After interviewing dozens of storeowners and managers, we were able to determine several common business ethics. For the most part, merchants are looking for long-term business relationships, customer loyalty, and good word of mouth advertising. The reputable establishments will provide customers with written return and exchange policies as well as long distance communication via phone, fax, email, and web site services. They allow for trade-ins and trade-ups as long as the piece is in good condition
Finally, we interviewed many guests to get their first-hand experiences. This was where we learned the most. Many of these people were seasoned cruisers and some were very experienced jewelry buyers on all levels. One of the best pieces of advice we got was from a lady in Oregon. She said. “Do your homework!” Before she cruises, she visits stores in her area looking for the best sale prices on jewelry she intends to purchase. Then on her trip she goes to one particular store and buys exclusively from that jeweler. She has developed a relationship there; however, if the jeweler cannot give her the price she’s looking for, she doesn’t buy. Another great idea was given by a group of ladies who were sharing their fantastic buys. They told us that they buy from the same jeweler and have developed a process. First, they contact the jeweler letting him know when they are coming. They describe what they are looking for, send pictures, or fax sketches of the jewelry they are interested in purchasing, and discuss price. This gives them time to compare prices at home. When they arrive at the island, they only visit that store, knowing exactly what to expect. They always verify what they purchased by having it appraised by an independent jewelry appraiser. They claim that they have always done well getting what they were looking for at a bargain thereby avoiding all the price wars that most vacationers go through. Additionally, they have time for sight seeing and enjoying the beach. They suggest that if this is your first time shopping, ask friends for referrals before leaving.
A couple from New York explained that watches are easy to shop and can be the best buys because they can be researched on the manufacturers web sites. Watches can be a very attractive item to buy because they are duty-free and are automatically lower than in the U.S. Like all items, watches are sales tax free so depending on the state in which you live, this alone can be a tremendous savings. If you live in a state with luxury tax on high-ticket items you can save significantly. One area to be aware of, some watch brands, such as Rolex, cannot be shipped into the U.S. so if you decide to buy later and want the store to ship the watch to you, they will not be able to do it.
Several people we spoke with weren’t planning to buy jewelry because they didn’t feel as though they knew enough about jewelry and would only buy from their personal jeweler at home. One couple from North Carolina said that they weren’t planning to buy but if they did, they would trust the cruise line to make the best recommendations. Most of the guests stated that they would have the jewelry appraised by an independent jewelry appraiser upon arriving home. A couple from the Midwest would only consider name brands that could be compared in like kind.
In answering the question about why some people don’t get a good value in the islands, there were several views. A couple from Minnesota had bought an item on one trip and on a subsequent trip, purchased a matching piece from the same jeweler. They did not feel as though they had gotten the same level of value as before because they believed the jeweler took advantage of their trust. One guest from New Jersey feels that people get caught up in the romance and they don’t buy with the same level of discernment as they would at home. When you’re relaxed and away from the pressures of everyday life, you might not consider the purchase as carefully as you normally would. You end up looking at things you would never even consider buying at home. But here you are on an island paradise, something dazzles your eye and before you know it, its being offered to you…. “Take it home with out paying (leave us your credit card), have it checked out and if doesn’t appraise out, send it back!” What could be better?
In conclusion, our Best Advice:
Do your homework before the trip. Don’t buy anything without checking. There are many ways to research what you intend to buy. Some of the ideas we have already mentioned but let us share some others. For a totally unbiased opinion on which stores to shop, ask some of the cruise ship employees, such as your waiter, your cabin attendant or the spa staff. They are in these ports every week and have no agenda for steering guests to any particular store. Many reliable stores in the islands have web sites where you can visit and get ideas on jewelry, pricing, return policies, and repair centers. Don’t forget your friends. If you have never been to the islands, ask for personal referrals from other more seasoned travelers. People love to recommend places that they like or have had good experiences with. If you had a good experience with a jeweler continue that relationship. They want to keep your business and get referrals. But, never let your guard down. Have your purchases appraised by an independent appraiser as soon as you get home. Your success will also depend on where you live. The more metropolitan your area is, the more competitive the pricing will be. You’ll also have a better variety of jewelry to choose from. The smaller more rural areas are likely to need healthier profit margins to survive. Consider only buying something that you know with certainty that you cannot get at home. Look for pieces that are native to the island. If you don’t do your homework or you are still uneasy, use the advice of the cruise line. Although they will not bargain for you, they will help you resolve any issues you may encounter.
Remember that jewelers are professionals in their business and in the price tug-of-war you cannot win unless you are equipped with the right tools. The stores are ready to welcome you, are you ready to pay them a visit?
As and addendum: With the recent popularity of fancy coloured diamonds and the increase in diamond treatments, we strongly recommend that you do not buy any fancy colour center stone without a lab report from either GIA or AGS. Yantz Bradbury Associates will not appraise any such stone as being of natural colour origin without one. We also strongly recommend that you use a credit card that you know will go to bat for you in case of a dispute.
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