BAE Interview: Smythe and Cross

Khatchig Jingirian speaks with us as part of a gift industry standing at a crossroads: modernize, as the big box chains have, or disappear.

As the owner of Smythe and Cross, a standalone diamond store in downtown Los Altos, Khatchig acknowledges that the choice for stores has often been a difficult one. “The jewelry business has always been slow to evolve,” he admits, elaborating that purist jewelry store owners — naturally suspicious of internet sales — were only forced to move online because of store closures. And even then, the road towards financial stability in such a unique area of retail has been rocky.

“You look at how you [as a business] distinguish yourself,” he elaborates. “You ask, ‘what can I do differently?’” In most cases, that comes with dialogue, patronage, and consumer loyalty — things hard to build upon in an era of social distancing. Khatching continues that, “with us, we are now able to offer online services, but for our type of product and service, the personal relationship is still important. The trust factor in jewelry is still a priority.”

It is a relationship that Smythe and Cross has pursued from the very beginning, and a path that began with Khatchig’s own love for retail and customer interaction. “In 2008, when the economy went sour, I realized that I wanted to do something a bit different,” he explains, telling us about the origins of Smythe and Cross. “I really liked working with retail and customers, and finally opened the store back in 2010. We’ve been in Los Altos for 10 years now, as a small, independent shop.”

Khatchig’s experience with customers and business also extends to a level so meticulous that he often refers to it in our interview as the “science of shopping” — that is, the relationships between clientele and business owners.

One example of this science: “People have specific tendencies as to where they park, where they visit, which doors they go through,” he explains. “When a customer has specific habits, changing those habits is actually very costly. You’re trying to get the customer to do things they aren’t used to doing.” Everything, from a door entrance to an aisle path, is another factor in customer experience that Khatchig claims is deeply ingrained. He furthers that, “whenever you change someone’s habit, you need to re-integrate those habits.”

It is this science that has made him one of the de facto representatives of business owners who oppose local street closures. Most notably, Khatchig was one of the retailers to speak in opposition to “Measure C,” a proposal to close down State and Main Street in downtown Los Altos. The plan went into place following the June 9th City Council meeting, which members of this group also attended and spoke at.

During our interview, he explains some of his reasoning behind speaking up at that meeting. The “science of shopping,” indeed, played a pivotal role. “When you have a temporary measure rather than a completely closed promenade, it hurts us far more than it helps,” he tells us. “When you have temporary street closures like you have now, we get a negative response from consumers,” due to inflexibility. Street closures were originally put in place to encourage diners and consumers to travel downtown.

When we asked him about other factors behind his opposition to street closures, along with a few other businesses, Khatchig raised concerns over transparency. “The initial discussions really caught a lot of people off guard, especially retailers… and the closures occurred not even two weeks after we were able to open our doors,” he states.

Merchants, he continues, have also done comparisons with the 4 day vs. 3 day intervals of today’s street closure schedule versus that same time interval in previous years. They have found a noticeable decrease in consumption, though we ourselves were not able to confirm the controlling factors in the data.

When we asked Khachtig about whether or not these street closures — and the pandemic itself — have affected the way he views downtown, his reaction was mixed. “Yes and no,” he replied. “I always try to look at downtown in an objective and unbiased way… Emotions have, of course, been heightened. I won’t sugarcoat the fact that there have been reactions of anger. There’s been some animosity between different groups, and there’s become a sort of ‘Us and Them’ type of situation which is a very unfortunate situation.”

However, Khatchig claims that there have been more successes coming from the city in terms of dialogue. “Having been involved with the process for about a month now, I think that the city management has really stepped up,” Khatchig states. He credits both Chamber of Commerce and Los Altos Councilwoman Jeanine Bruins with going “above and beyond’’ with street closures, commenting on how frequently they discuss street closures consumers and businesses alike. Bruins for context, spoke up at the June 9th council meeting, effectively stopping the council from tabling the street closure proposal. Streets are now closed under the designation of festivals.

Khatchig also lauds the reopenings of certain street segments to parking and vehicles as progress, stating they were hurting local merchants in these areas. Since we spoke, many other areas of both Main and State Street have reopened — a few businesses that can manage to place up their own barriers have done so.

He still has some misgivings about the street closure process in general. “I just think the information that has been given to the council for decision-making purposes has been challenged, biased,” he explains. “I don’t think it was all malicious, but I think just a problem of the crazy times we’re living in.”

Still, in spite of all the good and the bad, Khatchig’s love for downtown Los Altos remains undiminished. “We’ve been here ten years, and we really love Los Altos,” he explains. “It’s home for me, it’s home for Smythe and Cross… I’ve made so many great friends and relationships here, and the community has alway been a great support to our business, which we really take to heart.”

In honor of their ten month anniversary, the store donated ten percent of their profits over ten days to the Community Services Association, in order to support other businesses. “We feel that in order for the community to support us, we need to support them,” he states.

As our talk drew to a close, we asked Khatchig what he believed was the best advice he could give to the Los Altos and Bay Area community during this time. His reaction, true to his straightforward nature, was rooted in action. “Where I would bring a focus is… there are community members that deeply want to help,” he begins. “And sometimes, we need to think more about ‘What can we do to help’ rather than instructing businesses to do a certain thing. We really want to welcome community involvement, and we want help — but please try and offer help. Ask how you can help.” He finishes off with a statement we have heard time and time again from businesses, since we began interviewing in June: “The best thing for us to do is just to shop, come on by and ask how we’re doing.”

350 Main St, Los Altos, CA 94022

Find out more about Smythe and Cross here:

https://www.smytheandcross.com

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