How I Did It: Roman & Sunstone

Sally Alex, CEO

Expert jewelry strategist and new CEO Sally Alex discusses her role at the evolving fashion and bridge company.

How does a multi-industry holding company turn its private label jewelry division into a branded player? How does it unify its varied bridge and fashion jewelry companies located in different cities into a cohesive force to entice retail buyers? How does it employ hip bloggers and social media strategies to build buzz? In the case of TSI Holdings, the owners of Roman & Sunstone, it hires jewelry expert Sally Alex to strategize.

Sally Alex is a jewelry veteran who was previously vice president of global jewelry at Avon Products, Inc., and before that, Avon’s vice president of U.S. fashion and home, where she led the design and marketing teams in jewelry, watches, accessories, apparel and home. During her tenure, Avon Jewelry hit record sales and was named the number-one jewelry brand by market research firm The NPD Group. Roman & Sunstone hired her as chief executive officer in August 2011 with the task to re-engineer the portfolio, innovate the product line and be the face of the company.

Accessories sat down with Alex in Roman & Sunstone’s sunny New York showroom to meet the design team and discuss her ambitious plans for bringing the company’s mass and mid-tier brands to a new level.

How did you rework yet unify, the brands?

Ann Rush, Creative Director

One of the first things we did was clearly differentiate and segment our brands. Beginning first with Roman, we restructured the brand into three tiers: Roman Luxe, our first luxury brand; Roman, our core brand that’s all about pearl, bridal and special occasion; and Roman Studio, our color, casual, fun line. Each segment has a distinct personality, reason for being and a clear pricing strategy.

In Sunstone, we took the same approach and segmented our brand into three tiers: Sunstone 925, our fine sterling and gemstone line; Sunstone, our core brand; and Sunstone Inspirations, our premium silver plated line. After that we hired some great outside talent to help us create a new look that reflects who we are. One of the things we wanted to accomplish was to make sure Roman and Sunstone could sit side by side and complement each other versus compete. We did a major overhaul from our logos, colors, packaging, showroom, and of course, product.

In addition, we renamed our company from TSI Accessory Group to Roman & Sunstone. We want to be loud and proud about our brands. We still believe in private label, but we also believe that private label and brands can and should co-exist.

Did you need a new design team to rework the product?

A lot of the talent was already in place—one of our designers, Katherine Kim, was an FGI Rising Star finalist, and our creative director Anne Rush is an industry icon. We also have a designer exhibit in the showroom, where each designer displays her latest collection in showcases with some information about them. It’s great to show our retail accounts the design talent behind the brand. We also supplement our existing design team with guest designers.

What are the big initiatives for 2012?

Maintaining our core replenishment business and growing the fashion side of both our Roman and Sunstone businesses. In addition to providing private label we are also aggressively going after our branded business. Our first big initiative is Roman Luxe, our luxury brand created for better stores with signature details, statement pieces and lots of shiny status links with retails ranging from $35 to $150. It’s inspired by the runway and enhanced by technology.

For example, we’re printing QR codes on the boxes so consumers can snap them with their smart phones and link to our Roman Luxe page and see blogger Karla Deras of Karla’s Closet giving style tips. We are excited to be the first brand that marries luxury jewelry with technology, and we are thrilled to be partnering with one of the top fashion bloggers. Karla will also be designing four capsule collections for us, one for each season.

Another big initiative for 2012 is our entree into trend jewelry with Roman Studio, which is a line all about easy everyday jewelry. Roman Studio is a little more casual than our core Roman brand which is designed for special occasion. Retails are all under $35 so as not to overlap with Roman Luxe.

We are also focusing on product innovation in our core Roman brand with the launch of our Roman signature collection. This steps up its use of the Roman numeral in classic button earrings and ladylike designs.

Is boxed a large program for you?

Yes, but we’re working on new and more creative boxed programs to freshen up the category. We’re known for our trademarked bow box and the return of our iconic red Roman box, but we wanted to reinvent the boxed business (who says holiday boxes need to be Christmas colors?). We’re looking at foil, glitter, stripes and other non-conventional approaches. We believe the box needs to attract customers over to the table first; then the product will sell itself.

Boxed goods often face mark-downs. How will you circumvent this?

We have several different boxed stories, such as those we plan as year-round programs with newness flowed into the stores each month. We are also coming up with creative merchandise inside the box, like Roman Rainbow, Mix and Match interchangeable sets, and 5 Ways to Perfect, which are five pairs of identical drop earrings/pearl studs in various colors. Enhancers are another initiative. The idea is to flow in it gradually so retailers aren’t left with too much merchandise after the holidays.

What about your bridge lines?

We have Sunstone 925, which is sterling silver in a vertical presentation of caseline, top-of-counter and boxed goods. We also collaborated with Swarvoski on a line with Swarvoski zirconia. It is designed for in-case and top-of-counter with classic diamond looks and showstopper looks. We’re also working with guest designers every six months to add excitement to the bridge department.

How are you getting around the high price of silver?

We created Sunstone Inspirations, a line of premium plated (20 microns) silver over brass that’s inspired by the look of sterling. It gives our customers the opportunity to maintain trigger pricepoints and improve margins. We were the lead in this and have tremendous distribution across all tiers and at all pricepoints. There are also collections with touches of silver and genuine accents such as Floral Sentiments, which features dried flowers.

What types of innovation have you done?

In addition to product design, our packaging, carding and showroom displays are ramping up innovation as well. We want to be known for innovation in everything we do, from ‘gotta have it’ product, to fresh packaging to a warm and inviting showroom.

Are you looking to pick up new business?

We’re currently strong in mass and mid-tier department stores, but we see opportunity in trading up to a higher tier with Roman Luxe.

How often do you travel?

In the past five months I’ve been to Bangkok, Hong Kong, Qingdao, Paris, London, Seattle, Dallas, Minneapolis, Chicago, to name a few. I have mastered the art of the carry-on!

Are you moving all the company’s design operations to New York? Where are they located now?

We have design operations in all of our locations, but we’re doubling our New York showroom this spring to create a larger presence. We’re creating a design center of excellence with great light and energy. We want our customers to feel welcome and appreciated; in fact we have wine and cheese every day at 5 p.m. during market weeks.

How have you stepped up the company’s brand marketing efforts?

We have a lot of exciting things planned in marketing, PR and social media to get our name out there. We are partnering with several well-known brands and retailers this year, and we will be a much more visible presence in the industry.

Do you have concrete plans to launch an e-commerce site?

We are currently upgrading our website and our social media strategy. We will be a major player in the digital space.

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Lauren Parker, Accessories Magazine

Lauren Parker, Editor-in-Chief, Accessories Magazine
As Editor-in-Chief of Accessories Magazine for the past 12 years, Lauren Parker has covered accessories both from a retail business perspective and a fashion point of view. In previous full-time magazine jobs and freelance gigs, she’s written about practically every angle of fashion lifestyle living, including women's fashion accessories, fine jewelry, Caribbean travel, private jets, Hampton’s real estate, the New York art scene, the bridal industry, men’s lifestyle and being a mom. She loves meeting designers and seeing how their latest offerings capture the current zeitgeist and fit into the entire cultural and social picture.