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Online diamond jewelry brand is testing a 'not scary' brick-and-mortar store

Signet Jewelers (SIG), the world’s largest retailer of diamond jewelry, is making a big bet on brick-and-mortar for its online-only diamond jewelry brand, JamesAllen.com

On Friday, James Allen opened its first-ever retail store in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Signet’s in-house real estate team picked that area because it’s a location that’s attracted JamesAllen.com shoppers in the past. What’s more, the company also sees “a lot of potential buyers” thanks to the younger population residing there that likes to shop the area’s boutiques and big brands like Apple and Urban Outfitters.

The new store will take a tech-enabled approach to shop for engagement rings while creating a “comfortable” environment that’s “not scary or threatening.”

“We’re trying to create a different kind of atmosphere from a typical jewelry store,” Signet CEO Gina Drosos told Yahoo Finance in an exclusive interview.

Since taking the helm in August 2017, Drosos hs been tasked with turning the company around with her three-pillar plan, known as “The Path To Brilliance.” One of the components to her program is to create an omnichannel experience by blending the physical and online shopping experience. More than 90% of people buy jewelry, especially diamond jewelry, in stores, but e-commerce is becoming a critical component. 

After being acquired by Signet Jewelers a year ago, JamesAllen.com, the online seller of diamonds, opened its first brick-and-mortar store in the Georgetown neighborhood of D.C. in a move to blend the online and offline.

“The pace of change in retail is unlike it’s ever been,” Drosos said. “Technology is the real driver. We have to stay out in front.”

Signet shares fell last week following its earnings report that revealed a slowdown in James Allen sales during the third quarter. In the earnings release, e-commerce was the bright spot for the jeweler with growth across its brands. Signet, which acquired James Allen’s owner R2Net in September 2017, is also the parent company to well-known brands such as Kay Jewelers, Zales, and Jared: The Galleria of Jewelry. The JamesAllen.com acquisition has helped provide insights to use across the portfolio’s e-commerce operations. 

According to Drosos, the new James Allen store will serve as a “learning lab.” This comes as the jewelry giant that faces ever-increasing competition in a world where new players like Amazon (AMZN) might be entering the space.

“What keeps me up at night for Signet is we have to be quick with technology innovation,” Drosos said. “We have to be constantly testing and learning about new things. Now we have a store … that can be a technology company inside our jewelry company.”

The new concept store features virtual reality to look at diamonds, a coffee bar with tablets to quiz shoppers’ diamond knowledge, a ring try-on photo booth to share photos on social media, Holosonic directional speakers to provide additional info about products and facial recognition technology to curate jewelry offerings.

The new James Allen concept store lets shoppers use VR to browse diamonds.

In addition to the tech, the new concept store aims to address some common customer pain points when buying big ticket items like a diamond ring. One of those pain points is the intimidation factor.

To solve for that, upon entering the store, customers will see a 10-foot table that’s a self-service diamond display. Instead of waiting for an associate to unlock a case to try on a ring, customers can try on different designs at their leisure.

“I can try it on, I can see what I think about it and get a sense for different kinds of settings,” Drosos explained.

Of course, the customers can freely do this because it’s not an actual live product, but cubic zirconium instead.

There’s also an educational component to the self-service table, Drosos added. There are four sections where customers can learn about cuts like the cushion, marquise, pear, and princess, etc. and other areas to highlight different carat weights, colors, and metal options for settings.

The employees in the new store currently work for James Allen as customer service reps for its online chat. When the store is not busy, they’ll assist with online customers.

Julia La Roche is a finance reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.