Slides and simulation results from a 3 hour lecture I gave on July 11, 2018 at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, CA:
Withholding is a useful differentiation strategy for some organizations. Stan Phelps, IBM Futurist and Forbes contributor writes:
Most brands are trying to be strong, and they want to get stronger. They want to be powerful. This seems to make sense. Be the best. Do more. Expand. Grow. Benchmark your competition and then offer more features, more products, more services, and more locations.
Why do less? Why withhold?
Because withholding is zigging when everyone else is zagging.
Chick-fil-A, the chicken-centric fast food chain, is infamous for being closed on Sundays (amongst other things). And while withholding wasn’t an intentional tactic when the company was founded over 70 years ago, it has been an effective one. (Chick-fil-A chooses to remain closed on Sundays in order to give employees and customers a dedicated day to spend with their families and their communities.)
Withholding is doing less of what makes you strong, less of what customers love about you. It’s about limiting customer choices, limiting decision fatigue, and creating some scarcity – whether it’s false scarcity or not.
Withholding gives you or your business a chance to build anticipation.
Withholding involves offering fewer options, fewer locations, fewer features, fewer products, fewer services, fewer hours, fewer perks, and fewer discounts. This is about deliberately and relentlessly shrinking the things that everyone else is expanding.
Oddly enough, withholding is part of a differentiation strategy: Do less of something you’re good at in order to stand out even more. When executed properly, doing less can drive even more demand.
Growing up in Texas I’ve seen this first-hand a hundred times. Someone has the brilliant idea to grab some Chick-fil-A and you race over to the location down the street, your mouth watering. Before you even turn off the road you know something is wrong. The parking lot is empty. It’s Sunday.
While Sonic took our Sunday dollars, Monday was always Chick-fil-A.
Drive-thru Takeaway: How can you withhold to bring about more demand? To differentiate? How can you integrate doing less into your positioning and strategy?
I’ll leave you with a Chick-fil-A love song:
This week I spoke twice at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, CA – 30 minutes east of San Francisco. I whipped together an hour long presentation for the students in a Strategy course in the Business school to answer the question: What is Strategy?
It was great to force myself to present some of my ideas – several of which were only half baked – and to get so much positive feedback and concrete recommendations for changes.
I haven’t had a chance to incorporate feedback into the deck yet so I just decided to publish it for you as-is. I plan to tweak things and give this talk again soon though.
One big note: I designed this deck to be presented by me so it’s not 100% ready for consumption without me. You’ll get the gist though.
I reference my piece last week about Puddles Pity Party and my research on Moneyball (the 2002 Oakland A’s season) – only some of which I’ve published so far. Check out those posts if you haven’t had a chance yet.
The students were excited that I was taking back the word “strategy” – not just using it sloppily like many of their course readings. They expressed a lot of interest in the etymologies that I shared too, which is surprising given how boring that sounds.
And, they really appreciated that I actually defined the word strategy.
What is Strategy?
Strategy is the process of creating a set of well-aligned activities with the aim of occupying a valuable position in a competitive landscape.
I really emphasized that strategy is a process, not a static outcome.
In case you missed some of my posts from the past few days, here they are:
- Best Strategy Books
- New AI Report
- Metrics Fixation
- Niche Positioning Lessons From A Sad Clown Who Doesn’t Talk But Sings His Ass Off
PS: This is just for you.
PPS: If you’re not familiar with the trivium (slide 3), you’re missing out. I might write about it more next week.
“At the opening of the 2002 season, the richest [baseball] team, the New York Yankees, had a payroll of $126 million while the two poorest teams, the Oakland A’s and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, had payrolls of less than a third of that, about $40 million.”
For the Oakland A’s the exact number was $41,942,665. Oakland won 103 games that regular season, while the Texas Rangers had only won 72 and spent $106,915,180. This phenomena was somewhat common actually. Many of the richest teams in Major League Baseball were not delivering results while the Oakland A’s were… consistently.
Let’s look at this another way. Teams have to spend a minimum of $7 million on payroll and a team that’s spending the minimum payroll is expected to win about 49 games during the 162 game season. So, on a dollar-per(-marginal)-win basis the A’s were spending about $650,000 per win while Texas was spending about $4.3 million for each win. What explains this nearly 7x delta in ROI?
The two word answer is simple: Bad Tactics.
Baseball is a sport steeped in tradition and the decade preceding the 2002 season saw teams payrolls rise by tens of millions of dollars per team, up to a 400% increase. These new costs meant that more people were paying attention to how effectively this money was being spent.
In 2002, the vast majority of MLB scouts were still judging players by whether they had a “good face” and by the 5 Tools – running, throwing, fielding, hitting, and hitting power. These subjective metrics were used in place of the enormous data sets that baseball had been collecting since the invention of the box score in 1845.
The data was clear. In 2002, RBIs (runs batted in), stealing bases, bunts, batting average, slugging, foot speed, high school players (vs college), and old (vs new/fresh) pitching arms were all tremendously over-valued in players – and it showed in their salaries.
The following were underpriced: High pitches per at-bat – which wore down pitchers – walks, and any other activity that got a hitter on base instead of out. So despite the availability of the data, the statistics to make sense of it, and the computing power to crunch the numbers, looks and luck were still being priced over results.
The human mind played tricks on itself when it relied exclusively on what it saw, and every trick it played was a financial opportunity for someone who saw through the illusion to the reality.
Baseball teams simply insisted on using bad tactics – which of course amounts to bad strategy. But reliance on knowably bad tactics happen outside of baseball too.
Insider vs Outsider CEOs
A recent episode of the Freakonomics podcast (How to Become a C.E.O.) illustrates another example of reliance on subjective decision making when good, relevant data is available:
A 2009 academic study, which analyzed established public companies from 1986 to 2005, found that internally promoted C.E.O.’s led to at least a 25 percent better total financial performance than external hires.” A 2010 study by Booz & Company similarly found that, in 7 of the 10 previous years, insider C.E.O.s delivered higher market returns than external hires. And yet: external hiring seems to be on the rise: in 2013, between 20 and 30 percent of boards replaced outgoing C.E.O.’s with external hires; a few decades ago, that number was only 8 to 10 percent. Outside hires also tend to be more expensive: their median pay is $3 million more than for inside hires. So, an external hire will, on average, cost you more and perform worse. And yet that’s the trend.
Overpay & Underdeliver
Why do companies overpay for inferior results? Why do baseball teams?
I think the biggest reasons is fear. The fear of humiliation and failure drove both baseball management and corporate boards into the bad tactics of over-paying for inferior results. When you focus on avoiding failure instead of finding success, you’re less likely to see new opportunities and adapt.
There’s also an issue of misaligned incentives at work too. In baseball, owners and managers care more about not being embarrassed by their performance than about wins. A losing team can still be profitable and have a great return. In the business world, board members and CEOs are often scratching one another’s backs and giving one another high paying jobs instead of focused on increasing shareholder value.
And, of course, it’s not always clear who’s delivering value, who’s slacking, or who’s just getting lucky or unlucky – in both a corporate environment and on the baseball diamond.
Recognizing Bad Tactics
So how do you recognize bad tactics?
1) Define what’s important to you.
For boards, they want CEOs who will deliver returns for a fair price. For baseball teams, regular season wins are the key to having a shot at the world series.
2) Look at the data & try to understand how different actions affect the outcomes you care about.
If there’s no data or bad data, start investing in this area. Try to put a value on different skills or results (on-base percentage, walks, or market-cap). How are different variables connected? What’s currently undervalued and what’s overvalued?
3) Ask hard, even contrarian, questions and seek out different perspectives.
Challenge the norms within your sector, culture, or league. Don’t be different just to be different but understand that the standard approach – or even your entire industry – might be severely under-optimized. Seeing reality through the illusion is incredibly valuable.
4) Be honest with yourself.
Embrace your findings. Act on them. Yes, that probably means risking failure.
I was inspired to write this post after reading Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. While I haven’t been a baseball fan since I was about 9 years old, listening to Bill James (one of the key players in all of this) on Russ Robert’s EconTalk got me really excited about the story of the Oakland A’s 2002 season – which was made into a very popular movie as well. I highly recommend reading Moneyball – which uses baseball as an analogy for the tactical and strategic failings of many organizations.
Small Things Grow Great by Concord
We’ve all heard the phrase “divide and conquer” (divide et impera) but when was the last time you heard concordia res parvae crescunt?
Over 250 years ago – when the 13 colonies were on the cusp of the Revolutionary War with Britain – John Dickinson wrote a series of 12 essays called the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania.
In these letters, Dickinson shared his thoughts on how the colonies should respond to the Townshend Acts (1767) – a set of taxes that the British imposed on glass, lead, paints, paper, and tea before the outbreak of the American Revolution.
In addition to these new taxes, the British we’re also explicitly penalizing the New York colony for refusing to house and feed British troops. Dickinson, known as The “Penman of the Revolution,” wrote the following in response to this so-called New York Restraining Act:
I say, of these colonies; for the cause of one is the cause of all. If the [British] parliament may lawfully deprive New York of any of her rights, it may deprive any, or all the other colonies of their rights; and nothing can possibly so much encourage such attempts, as a mutual inattention to the interests of each other. To divide, and thus to destroy, is the first political maxim in attacking those, who are powerful by their union. (emphasis Dickinson’s)
Said another way: If your goal is to destroy those who are powerful because of their union, first seek to divide them. Further, if you can encourage each party to focus on only their own interests, then division is easier.
Unite & Grow Great
Taking the opposite perspective: If your goal is to grow strong or powerful by nature of your union with others, then seek harmony with them, pay attention to their interests, and refuse to cooperate with one another’s enemies.
Remember: Concordia res parvae crescunt. Small things grow great by concord.
In What Is Strategy?, I define a strategy as “a set of well-aligned activities with the aim of occupying a valuable position within a competitive landscape.”
Surprise is an incredibly useful tool during competition since telling our competitors what we’re going to do before we do it gives them a chance to devise a better course of action than they would have made otherwise. And since there’s always a competitive element to strategy, it seems like we would always want to keep our strategies a secret until we execute on them.
For example, it would be foolish for Apple to tell the world that it’s entering the content creation space 12 months before they’re ready. Netflix, Amazon, and the entire Hollywood machine would have time to adapt and make it harder for Apple to successfully enter the space. Having early access to this information would give competitors the chance to form alliances with one another, sign exclusive deals with producers, writers, actors…etc, and even lobby legislative bodies to make it harder for Apple to enter the space.
Secrecy is a requirement for the success of many strategies.
Just Between You and Me
However, there are scenarios when making our strategies well known is actually better than keeping them a secret – particularly when the competition isn’t fierce.
Since fierce competition destroys profits, it’s often wise to try to avoid it anyway. Signaling our high-level strategy is a good way to let nearby competitors know which battlegrounds are important to us and which are not.
Tesla’s original master plan, written in 2006, clearly states: “The strategy of Tesla is to enter at the high end of the market, where customers are prepared to pay a premium, and then drive down market as fast as possible to higher unit volume and lower prices with each successive model.”
So, in short, the master plan is:
– Build sports car
– Use that money to build an affordable car
– Use that money to build an even more affordable car
– While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options
In announcing this, Elon Musk put his cards on the table. None of the existing car manufacturers or any of the new upstarts made a serious effort to copy this strategy. And it took years for anyone to try to compete directly with Tesla in the high end market – which Tesla temporarily vacated as they began to move down market.
Even now, 12 years after Musk publicly announced Tesla’s master plan and strategy, no all-electric car has copied Tesla’s models and started a fiercely competitive war.
Musk knew that no other car company would copy his strategy and that Tesla would benefit more from announcing their plans than from keeping them secret.
While Tesla didn’t broadcast every strategic move they were planning, Musk was very explicit about the company’s overarching strategy. It makes me wonder how the rest of the auto industry thought about Tesla and all-electric cars at the time.
Maybe some direct competition – real or even just announced – would have forced Tesla to play their cards a little differently and given one competitor an edge? Maybe not.
So bitcoin’s price has been all over the map this month. Are you thinking about getting in before it’s too late? Or maybe you’re thinking it’s already too late and now might be the worst time to buy?
With 2017 coming to a close I wanted to share my thoughts about bitcoin.
In 1937 the US Department of Agriculture picked a group of raisin farmers and handlers and gave them the power to constrict the amount of raisins that all farmers could produce in a given year. This cartel, called the Raisin Administrative Committee, made it a federal crime to attempt to sell more raisins than they determined.
Fun facts: The United States Department of Agriculture, created in 1862, is part of the administrative branch but basically has the power to create laws – a role that’s traditionally reserved for the legislative branch. In 2017 the USDA employed over 105,000 people and had a budget of $151 billion, nearly 8 times NASA’s budget.
Even though cartels, collusion, price-fixing, and other monopolistic practices are clearly violations of US antitrust law, in 1937 a few lucky raisin farmers and handlers became part of a government-protected cartel. The stated purpose of the cartel was to “stabilize” the price of raisins.
Specifically, the Raisin Administrative Committee “a requirement that growers set aside a certain percentage of their crop” to give to the Government, “free of charge.” These raisins are then destroyed, donated, or sold in “noncompetitive” markets, which artificially increases the price of raisins for consumers like you and me (but not my mom – she hates raisins).
In the 2003-2004 growing season, raisin growers were required to set aside 30% of their crop. But that was a relief from the season before when growers were forced to set aside a whopping 47% of their crop.
But like it or not, the rules were the rules. Until they weren’t.
In 2002, when the Raisin Administrative Committee told Marvin and Laura Horne that they could only sell 53% of their raisin crop, they choose to disobey. “The Government sent trucks to the Hornes’ facility at eight o’clock one morning to pick up the raisins,” the Supreme Court opinion reads, “but the Hornes refused entry.”
They were fined $480,000 for the market value of the raisins – even though they would not be compensated that amount when forced to give them to the government – and an additional $200,000 for disobeying orders. Over the next 12 years, the case bounced around various courts until it finally reached the Supreme Court in Horne v. Department of Agriculture.
The court’s opinion was that “Raisins…are private property – the fruit of the growers’ labor – not public things subject to the absolute control of the state.”
Another raisin grower, Dan King, thought that Marvin Horne had acted unfairly: “I think that there’s a set of rules that everybody was playing by during the time that he was not. You know, it’s like everybody stops at the stop sign but not everybody. [If] somebody doesn’t, it causes a problem. And we needed to have the whole industry following the rules or nobody following the rules.”
This is exactly how cartels normally collapse – some members want more for themselves and begin to “cheat.” They produce more than their quota and soon enough everyone is cheating. Except in this case, “cheating” meant competing to supply the right product to the right customer at the right price. While the Supreme Court’s opinion may mean that the cartel members can no longer constrain supply and therefore inflate prices, it also means that consumers pay a lower price on the free market – a clear win for consumers.
While I’m glad that things worked out okay for the Hornes and for US raisin consumers, it does make me think about all the other places where consumers are paying artificially high prices because of cartels and how many of those cartels are being protected by those in power.
And while this is an amazing case of a farmer breaking bad rules in order to change them for the better, there was clearly a large element of “right time, right place” involved in the Horne case. Which makes me wonder: How do you know when to be the raisin rebel or when to surrender to the rules?
There are a lot of great reasons not to buy a diamond so this article assumes that you’ve already decided to buy a diamond and are looking for the appropriate strategy for making the right purchase. What follows is the result of many dozens of hours of research that I did for my fiancée’s engagement ring. So while this content is catered to diamond engagement rings, the advice is applicable to loose diamonds, earrings, and necklaces as well.
The objective is simple: Purchase the best-value diamond within your budget.
But our strategy – a well-aligned set of activities that result in a valuable position within a competitive landscape – is less straightforward.
In this case, we’re competing against the diamond industry as a whole and diamond retailers specifically. Buying a diamond is also competing with all of the other things that consume your time, energy, and brainspace. The position that you want to occupy when you’re ready to purchase is unemotional, well-educated, outcome-focused, patient, confident, and prepared to make tradeoffs.
If you just want to get something to put on your fiancée’s finger and don’t care about value or cost, then employ the same strategy that most guys do: Ask your future sisters-in-law or mother-in-law to guess about “what she likes.” Then ask your guy friend who was most recently engaged where he got his ring. Go to his recommended jeweler with a budget in mind and do your best not to spend twice as much as you’d hoped. You’ll have the ring within a few days so you can pop the question and you can have it properly sized to her finger a few weeks later. This is a solid strategy for checking all the boxes, especially if you don’t want to invest the time and energy to get something high value.
However, if you want to understand my strategy for getting a high-value diamond within your budget, keep reading.
Make Smart Choices
Because diamonds are so expensive, buying the right one is a decision worth taking seriously. It’s important to choose to make the most rational decision you can now, before you face the enormous emotional, marketing, and societal forces that you’re about to encounter. It’s critical to understand how the cards are stacked against you so that you can put yourself in the best position to achieve our objective.
Emotional Decision Making
Think about a large & important financial decision you’ve only made once or twice in your life – where to go to college, which job to take, which car to buy, which apartment to rent, or which house to buy. Now imagine complicating that decision by coupling it to a second enormously emotional decision: whether to spend the rest of your life with someone or not.
That is the emotional state most people have when they walk into their local jeweler, and it’s why so many people get ripped off buying diamond engagement rings. If your only criteria for buying a diamond is the love in your heart, then you will likely buy something you can’t afford and isn’t very spectacular.
Emotions are a critical part of the decision-making process. In fact, people who have had the emotional centers of their brains removed or damaged struggle to make straightforward decisions like what to have for lunch.
So my advice is to be objective and rational where you can be (diamond X is objectively better than diamond Y) and do your best everywhere else to make decisions you won’t regret (especially regarding budget).
Overcoming Marketing Half-truths
You’re not going to be able to escape a century of diamond propaganda but you can acknowledge that nearly everything you know about diamonds was probably told to you by the very people who sell diamonds – people who want your money more than they want their diamonds.
Diamonds Are Forever
Advertising Age called the 1948 “Diamonds are Forever” marketing campaign the greatest marketing campaign of the 20th century.
The De Beers company (and cartel) has had brilliant marketing like this for nearly a century, and the very fact that you’re even considering a diamond engagement ring is proof. Diamond engagement rings weren’t popular until the 1930s, and the primary success of their marketing campaigns is rooted in convincing women that men don’t love them unless they buy them a big diamond ring. Entangling love and diamonds encourages emotional decision making, which makes the diamond industry more money.
Oh, and diamonds are definitely not forever – In reality they’re quite brittle and easy to lose.
This excellent video humorously paints the picture of “why engagement rings are a scam …but you’ll still end up buying one.”
The 4 Cs (That Jewelers Want You To Ask About)
We’ll talk extensively about the famous “4 Cs” – Cut, Clarity, Color, and Carat – but you need to know up front that the 4 Cs are a marketing meme created to help sell more diamonds. By getting just a little education about diamonds (from the diamond industry), people feel empowered to make a great decision. The 4 Cs were also a way to improve the sales of smaller diamonds since jewelers could highlight other features aside from the mass and size of their diamonds. It’s genius and it’s made the industry countless billions of dollars.
The “5th C” when evaluating a diamond is cost. But how much should you spend on a diamond engagement ring? Don’t worry, diamond advertisers have the perfect answer for you: 2 months salary. Or was it 3? Surely your love for her is worth at least a few months of your income – I mean, you are going to spend the rest of your lives together.
The marketing and advertising history of diamonds is fascinating and would make an excellent case study for me to do. If you’re curious, learn more here:
- Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond? (theatlantic.com)
- How Diamonds Became Forever (nytimes.com)
- How an Ad Campaign Invented the Diamond Engagement Ring (theatlantic.com)
Of course, focusing exclusively on the cost of the diamond is the wrong answer anyway. It’s better to set a budget for the entire ring and then figure out how you want to allocate that between the different components of the finished product.
The easiest way to spend more money than you want to on an engagement ring is to not have a budget. Before you even look at diamonds, you must set an initial budget. That means you’re going to have to sit down and look at your finances and make a decision about what you can afford and what you’d like to spend.
I recommend picking a number you’re not willing to spend more than and then subtracting 20% from that number to create a range. Make it clear to anyone you talk to about budget that you are not willing to go even 1 penny over that upper number – all in. And don’t forget about the cost of the ring, any fees associated with setting stones, taxes, any sort of customs fees if that’s applicable, and annual insurance. It’s also okay to spend less than your range – something that might happen if you take the time to do your homework.
But how do you pick an amount? All I can offer you is a few tips and things to think about:
- There is no formula and anyone that has one is probably trying to sell you something.
- A diamond ring is a luxury purchase and should only be made if you have the disposable income to afford it.
- Generally speaking, going into debt to buy a luxury good is a horrible decision.
- Diamonds are a terrible investment so don’t even think about the resale value (which, FYI, will definitely be less than 70% of whatever you pay).
- The cost or size of the diamond does not represent how much you love someone.
- How much is too much? How much would cripple your joint finances? You should probably spend way less than that.
- If you’re buying an engagement ring, remember that you’re planning to spend the rest of your lives together. You’re going to have plenty of opportunities in the future to buy her jewelry or even upgrade her ring.
- Will she wear the ring everyday? If not, then you might decide to spend less money since she’ll be getting less value from the ring. This is a conversation I’d have explicitly with your fiancée.
- Try to translate the expense into the terms of another luxury good. What else might you spend this money on? For example, how many days of your favorite vacation might a ring be equivalent to? What would that cost?
- How much is too little? That number may be $0, but you may also feel good about making a financial sacrifice as a symbol of your love.
- If you’re worried that you are budgeting too much, then you probably are.
- Once you pick a total number, write it down or tell a friend. Having someone else to hold your future self accountable to the decision your current self is trying to make responsibly can relieve a ton of stress down the line.
What Really Matters
Imagine yourself 5 or 10 years into the future and look back on the moment that you’re currently in. What’s going to really matter to you and your fiancée when you think back? Will it be how much you spent? How big the diamond is? The exact details of how you asked her?
I know it’s not as romantic and not as big of a surprise, but if you can both go get educated together and have a few frank and open conversations about an engagement ring, you’re much more likely to get a ring you’ll both happy with long term. After doing some research together you may even find out that you don’t want a diamond at all – which will save you a ton of money and anxiety.
I asked my fiancée to marry me fairly spontaneously in the middle of a crazy art and music festival in the high deserts of Nevada (Burning Man), so I hadn’t purchased a ring yet. We just used another ring she was already wearing while I got my act together and bought her engagement ring.
As a result, we were able to take a few weeks, get educated, visit a jeweler, and I bought a diamond ring that we both love. And it was another big surprise when I gave her the ring.
It’s ok to feel resistance about the idea of proposing without a ring – it’s exactly what we’ve been told to feel. But also know that involving your fiancée is an option too and that whether the whole thing is a huge surprise or you’ve tried on some rings together, all these scenarios have their own tradeoffs and sacrifices.
At the end of the day, this is about the two of you, not anyone else. So do it your way.
Like most industries I study, one of the very first things I learned about the diamond industry was how much there was to learn – about the industry, it’s history, and diamonds themselves. Things are further complicated by the fact that no two diamonds are exactly the same – they’re all technically unique. And while their unique status doesn’t necessarily increase or decrease their value (oranges and snowflakes are all unique too), it does complicate the process of assessing and comparing diamonds and their prices.
There are a lot of relevant variables for diamonds. In addition to cut, clarity, color, & carat (“the 4 Cs”), there’s certification, and shape, which is often confused with cut. And then there’s the ring itself – the material, color, and design of the setting. I cover all of these, and more, in detail in another piece so that we can remain focused on strategy here.
The point is that there’s a lot to consider when purchasing a diamond and if you don’t have a solid understanding of what gives a diamond value, then you’re almost certainly going to get a bad deal.
Buying a Low-value Diamond
If you’re buying a diamond for an engagement ring, then you probably value things like the meaning it has as a symbol of your commitment to one another and the signal it sends to your families, friends, and broader community. It’s also usually a gift, which carries value in itself. An engagement ring might also represent a sacrifice one person is making – a display of disposable income. The value of these things is primarily dependent on the person.
But there’s one thing that almost all people value about diamonds: their beauty. And a diamond’s beauty is entirely created by the quality and quantity of light leaving the diamond and hitting our eyes.
Fortunately for us, the beauty of a diamond is fairly objective once you leave the carefully crafted lighting environment of the jewelry store.
Many diamonds are objectively bad. Dull, yellow, and obviously flawed diamonds are not very pretty but they’re still expensive – low value, high cost. These are the worst diamonds you can buy but they’re also the easiest to buy. Usually, these diamonds are objectively bad because they are cut to minimize the waste when cutting the rough diamond and so major sacrifices are made to the geometry of the diamond.
Cut geometry is the worst place to cut corners for high quality brilliant diamonds that look great outside of the hundred thousand dollar light system of the showroom floor. Rough diamonds aren’t interesting at all to look at. It’s only once they’ve been cut and polished that diamonds look gorgeous. While cutting them in optically non-ideal ways may mean that there’s more diamond to sell, there’s not necessarily more that can be seen once the diamond has been set.
The other piece of good news is that there’s a limit to what the human eye can and can’t see and that threshold can be partially defined in terms of certain variables. Buying diamonds with features that are substantially above those visible thresholds is a waste of money.
So, going back to our objective – to help you purchase the best-value diamond within your budget – we want to find diamonds that are just barely above the thresholds that make them as pretty to our eyes as possible.
In the 2nd part of this article, I detail guidelines for what and where the thresholds are for each of the key variables that make diamonds visually attractive – so we can spend our limited budget on the features we can actually see and enjoy.
Buying the Wrong Diamond for You
While some diamonds are objectively bad because of certain variables, other variables are more a matter of personal preference.
The ring’s style, setting, and color are all areas where you’ll want to understand your fiancée’s preferences. In addition to knowing the ring’s characteristics – which may affect what diamond you’ll get – you’ll want to know what shape diamond your future-fiancée wants.
To do this, I highly recommend taking your future fiancée to go try on rings together at a high-end retailer. Not only will you have the perfect opportunity to get her ring size accurately measured but you’ll also get to see a lot of styles, shapes, and sizes side by side.
And, of course, you might avoid buying the worst diamond that you could possibly buy: the diamond that you didn’t need to buy.
Information Asymmetry Disadvantage
Information asymmetry is an economic concept where one party in a transaction has more or better information than the other. Let’s say that Schmartha Fluert, the famous television personality and homemaker, finds out that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is going to announce tomorrow that a biopharmaceutical company, KloneCo, is not going to have their new drug approved for public use. If Schmartha Fluert were to attempt to sell her shares of KloneCo before the FDA made this information available to anyone else, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) might call this “insider trading.” I would call it an excellent (and purely hypothetical) example of information asymmetry because the seller, Schmartha, has important information that buyers don’t have.
While buying a diamond from a jeweler is similar to buying Schmartha’s KloneCo shares, there are 2 main differences: 1) There are laws against what Schmartha allegedly did and 2) Schmartha’s information was truly a secret while information about the diamonds you’re considering is much more knowable. That means that while you’re not really protected from shady diamonds retailers (“buyer beware”), you can educate yourself so that you can avoid bad deals.
Finally, buying an engagement ring is not something you do every day. But selling engagement rings is something that jewelers do every day. You are at an inherent disadvantage in the jewelry buyer-seller relationship – both in terms of the information you have and the experience you have at the bargaining table.
The follow-up to this article and the additional resources I’ve put together contain the minimum information you need to help overcome this information asymmetry.
Beware False Confidence
But don’t get over-confident. No matter how much you research, you’ll probably never have more expertise or knowledge than the seller. Worse yet, once you’ve learned a little about diamonds and rings (usually the basics of the “4 Cs” from your local, overpriced jeweler), it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you know enough to make an educated decision.
So arm yourself with as much information as you can, don’t be afraid to go to retailers multiple times to extract knowledge and prices from them. Just be sure not to be seduced by your jeweler, who will work their hardest to make you like and trust them.
Beware of Diamond Decision Fatigue
Decision fatigue “refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making.”
Because of the overwhelming volume of novel information that’s going to be thrown at you and the number of decisions you’ll be asked to make when selecting a diamond, “Diamond Decision Fatigue” can leave you open to being manipulated into buying something you don’t understand or want.
Purchasing a diamond isn’t meant to be easy. But avoid the temptation to simply trust whatever jeweler is in front of you when you’re most exhausted. So when you find yourself suffering from Diamond Decision Fatigue and don’t want to get ripped off: stop and take a break.
Buy from the Correct Retailer
There are only a handful of places to buy diamonds: low-end jewelers, high-end jewelers, estate sales, antique stores, resale marketplaces, online, and – of course – your “friend’s buddy” who will give you the “best deal” in town.
While every diamond is technically unique, diamonds are commodities. The vast majority of diamonds are also fungible, or nearly fungible. An item is fungible if it’s units are interchangeable. Pure gold, for example, is fungible. 1 gram of gold in a Swiss vault is interchangeable with a gram in Ft. Knox. Money is also fungible. Your $10 bill is completely interchangeable with 2 of my $5 bills. Once gasoline has been certified to be of a certain grade, it’s fungible too.
While diamonds aren’t exactly fungible, most diamonds are more-or-less interchangeable. Some rare diamonds, like the most famous diamond in the world – the Hope Diamond – are definitely not fungible. Not only is the diamond exceptionally rare because of it’s unique blue color and enormous size (although there are at least 2 cuts diamonds that are 10 times more massive), it’s history makes it irreplaceable.
But since you’re not in the situation to buy an irreplaceable diamond, you can rest assured that any diamond you buy could be interchanged with another similar diamond.
We’re going to use these facts – that diamonds are both unique but semi-fungible – to our advantage.
Whether we’re talking about diamonds, beer, or mattresses, the more middlemen who stand between the manufacturer and the end customer, the more markup a product will have. These middlemen all need to make a profit and you and I are the ones who foot the bill. That’s why companies like Casper are popping up to sell amazing mattresses directly to customers – disrupting the expensive, inefficient, and capital intensive retail showroom distribution channel.
Unfortunately for beer lovers like myself, prohibition-era (late 1920s) laws require that brewers and distillers sell their product to distributors, who mark up the product while adding little or no value, and then sell it to retailers, who then mark it up again and sell it to you and me.
The exact same thing is true for diamonds – the more middlemen there are, the more expensive the end product is going to be for you and me. But, unlike the alcohol industry, there aren’t any laws requiring distributors in the supply chain.
So if you’re looking for to buy a high-value diamond for as little money as possible, one of the best things you can do is to get educated and purchase from one of the reputable online retailers. These online retailers can make a healthy profit while charging you substantially less than brick and mortar jeweler – just like the online mattress companies. And because they don’t have to hire pushy salesmen to stand in their fancy stores, you don’t have to deal with gross sales tactics either.
So as not to make this strategy article too long or too much of a sales piece, I’ve written a separate piece about why you should buy your diamond online.
I want to share one final thing about this entire process that was a surprise for me: I’ve spent dozens of hours doing the initial research, making a purchase, and then researching and writing and publishing about 10,000 words of content. I’ve looked at hundreds of diamonds in person and online – with my naked eye, at 10x, 20x, and even 60x. I understand the structure of the diamond industry, it’s disgusting little corners, and gross history. I understand the economics and I understand that the diamond I bought isn’t unique in any meaningful way.
Once I started getting deep into this process, I got worried that I was going to become totally jaded about diamonds.
But after all that, whenever I think about or see my fiancée’s ring, it really does feel like that little polished clear stone has something magical about it. I know this is just my brain tricking itself – because I’m the one who knows exactly how to find 15 diamonds exactly like it. But it’s a trick I’m happy to fall for – especially since I was able to have the discipline not to fall for it during the buying process. Even though we value the beauty of our diamond, ultimately, it’s the symbol and meaning behind the ring that’s really special to my fiancée and me. And if her ring ends up taking on some of our love for one another, I’m okay with that.
Bottom Line: The strategy for buying a diamond (engagement ring) is:
- Commit to making a good decision
- Understand the value of diamonds generally and their value to you specifically
- Dramatically reduce your information asymmetry disadvantage by doing your homework
- When you’re ready, buy from the right retailer
- Stick to your budget
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As I mention in The Strategist’s Guide to Buying a Diamond Engagement Ring, if you’re trying to maximize value for your budget, you should strongly consider buying your diamond from an online retailer. I make the case for this tactic in this article. Also, be sure to read How to Evaluate a Diamond Engagement Ring.
Brick and Mortar Jewelers
Let’s start with a quick look at the brick and mortar retailers.
Buying diamonds at a brick and mortar jeweler is like buying bottled water at the airport – it’s never a good deal. You will – objectively – overpay for any diamond you buy from your local jeweler.
When you buy a diamond from a brick and mortar store, you are paying not only for their huge markup, but for the store’s sophisticated lighting systems, their rent, their security, the cost of holding inventory, insurance for all of the diamonds and jewelry, the salaries of managers and salespeople, and the profits that are returned to the owners and shareholders.
While this cost structure exists for basically every jeweler, there are high-end jewelers and low-end jewelers. The low end guys – any chain you’d find in a mall except Tiffany & Co – have the worst incentives. Generally, they buy the worst diamonds and try to fool you into buying them at an insane markup. I don’t even recommend visiting low-end stores because you won’t even get a good education from their sales reps.
So I strongly recommend going to the highest end store in your area to take a look around. While high-end retailers also have enormous markups, at least they buy decent diamonds, will treat you well, and help educate you. You also won’t find as much of the sleazy sales techniques at higher end jewelers since they’re mostly dealing with a less price-sensitive customer who wants gorgeous jewelry and will basically sell themselves on the jewelry. They literally serve a different market, not just a different price point.
If your area doesn’t have any high-end jewelers, go to the nearest Tiffany & Co. where you’ll get a pleasant and consistent experience. But if you’re looking for value, do not buy from them! Tiffany diamond engagement rings are 2 to 3 times more expensive than buying online and Tiffany doesn’t use a third party to certify their diamonds.
Why Buying Online is Better
Online retailers simply don’t have most of the costs that brick and mortar jewelers do. Their business model allows for them to pass most of those savings on to you while still being able to run a healthy and self-sustaining business.
Online retailers list diamonds that other manufactures or wholesalers have rather than buying and holding their own diamonds. A good online retailer holds no inventory and may never even touch a diamond they help sell. Their job is to be a trusted marketplace like Amazon or EBay.
Online retailers don’t have to rent expensive commercial real estate in malls and shopping centers, or hire fleets of educated sales people to convince you why their diamonds are somehow different from the diamonds across the street. Online retailers also don’t have to pay the expensive advertising rates for billboard, newspaper, magazine, direct mail, and television ads.
If buying a diamond online sounds risky, you need to do more research. The two most reputable online retailers – James Allen and Blue Nile – have better return, resizing, and upgrade policies than most brick and mortar retailers. And aside from the huge price differentials, online retailers also have much better selection.
Until the diamond cartel is broken up, you’re going to overpay for your diamond. But you don’t have to overpay twice.
After I bought my diamond and ring online, I stumbled upon this regretful article from a guy who almost bought a ring online and then, in his words, “chickened out.” If you’re on the fence about buying online, I recommend reading his story.
Knowing I could simply return the ring if I didn’t like it made my final decision much easier. And if I ever need to buy a diamond again, I won’t even consider a brick and mortar retailer.
Final Considerations for Buying Online
There came a point when I was confident that the diamond I was about to buy online was going to be fantastic. But I still had questions for James Allen – the online retailer I selected.
Q: Could I save some time, hassle, and money by buying the ring online too and have James Allen do the setting? Would they do a nice job?
A: Yes. At this point in the process I could feel myself becoming exhausted from the process of doing so much research and making so many decisions. So I took a break for a bit and then dug back in for one last round of research. People love their rings set by James Allen and I love how well mine was done too. I looked at the diamond ring I bought under 60x magnification and I was much more impressed by the quality and symmetry of the setting than I had expected to be.
Q: Was the shipping secure? Did I need to be there to sign for the ring?
A: Yes, shipping is secure and insured. Someone must sign for the ring and a note cannot substitute for a signature.
Q: Was the box discrete?
A: Yes, very. It doesn’t say James Allen or anything about rings anywhere.
The presentation of the ring (and associated paperwork) was classy and high quality. I’m very pleased with everything about the experience.
James Allen also has a 30-day, no-questions-asked return policy and a 60-day resizing policy. They also perform free inspections and cleanings, every 6 months – all you have to do is pay for insured shipping ($30) and they ship the ring back to you for free.
My biggest complaint about James Allen had to do with how you select the ring size. I knew that I needed a 4.75 size ring but the web interface only had options in half size increments. It wasn’t clear that they could make the ring a 4.75 and it wasn’t obvious where to even make this request. (As of late 2017 the answer is put notes like this in the “Special Instructions” box during the checkout process.)
The silver lining of this minor annoyance was that I had an opportunity to test out some of their customer support. I got a clear answer immediately and the person helping me didn’t try to nudge me at all to make a purchase. I tested their customer service a second time to better understand the process of getting a ring cleaned.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning here that I did research the other reputable online diamond retailer, Blue Nile. From my experience, their loose diamonds are very similar and you can find high-value diamonds on either site. I didn’t, however, like Blue Nile’s packaging and presentation and I was able to get a much better look at diamonds on the James Allen site. James Allen had 20x magnification for every diamond I looked at while some Blue Nile diamonds didn’t have images at all. Blue Nile is the only other online retailer aside from James Allen that the pros like, but it just wasn’t the right choice for me.
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