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All That Glitters

By James Johnson

 

During 82 years on this planet, Rhudy Phillips managed to collect many friends but also a few detractors. In fact, when the Army veteran-turned-accountant decided to open his own pawn shop at 2410 Murchison Road in 1962, several of those critics made it known exactly what they thought.

“Everyone told him he was crazy,” said Joe Brunais, manager of what is now known as Rhudy’s Jewelry Showroom. “He borrowed $1,000 and went into the pawn shop business in a small portion of a building that, at that time, was a school, (and) in what at the time was considered the worst location you could get. He did it part-time for the beginning and after a few years, in the late ‘60s, he decided to go full-time.”

Brunais went to work for Phillips in the mid-1970s, but when the shop first opened it wasn’t like any business Brunais had ever worked for. He has stuck around for 42 years as a result.

A unique policy helped Rhudy’s gain favor in this military town in those early years. Unlike other pawn shops that cashed soldiers’ checks for a fee, Phillips decided against charging soldiers for the service and instead required only that they buy an item at the pawn shop valued at $1 or more. The move boosted business.

“We sold a lot of music back then and we sold a lot of electronics back then but the check cashing was the beginning, and it wasn’t until 1979 that gold was deregulated, and business went way up,” Brunais said. “And that’s when we branched out into the jewelry.”

In 1979, Phillips purchased $10,000 in jewelry chains, which he would sell at his shop from a cigar box behind the counter.

“One of the successes there, was that we sold gold by the gram, as opposed to most of the major retailers who were selling them by the piece,” Brunais said. “When (customers) start weighing a piece they bought in the mall and comparing it to a piece they bought from us for far less, they recognize the real value.”

The shop’s jewelry became so popular that it went from being sold out of a cigar box to being sold out of a small back room. Eventually, it became the core of the business, prompting Phillips to change the shop’s name from Rhudy’s to Rhudy’s Jewelry Showroom.

After it committed to selling jewelry, Rhudy’s added related services, including jewelry repair, setting stones and engraving. The shop began manufacturing its own jewelry designs as well as doing custom work.

“It just has grown and grown ever since,” Brunais said. “I think a lot of that was because Mr. Phillips was a terrific P.R. person. He liked people. It wasn’t about the money for him. Money wasn’t what drove him. He didn’t have a house at the beach, he didn’t gamble, he didn’t chase women. It was all about taking care of the people. He was very service-oriented. We try to operate the same way today as we did then.”

Phillips had his values instilled in him, while growing up on a farm in Virginia, before the military brought him to Fayetteville. Those values, Brunais believes, continue to be reflected in the way the business pays attention to customers’ needs to this day.

Because Rhudy’s is so focused on its customers, the staff is well attuned to their buying habits. Brunais says most of the shop’s regular customers are women. But the customers who tend to show up during the biggest shopping periods – just before Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Christmas – are men. Typically, they come in at the last minute. Rhudy’s staff is there to help them.

The commitment to customer service and customer relationships has paid off in customer loyalty. Some customers have relied on Rhudy’s for decades.

 “Once someone is a customer of ours, they usually stay with us,” Brunais said. “We have people who send us jewelry from all over the country. Jewelry has memories. It is very important to people. ‘This is my mother’s ring,’ ‘my grandmother’s ring.’ They don’t want just anyone working on them.”

These one-on-one relationships are one reason why Brunais says that Rhudy’s isn’t worried about losing customers to online shops. According to Forbes magazine, online jewelry sales make up only 4 to 5 percent of the industry sales, and Brunais believes that is unlikely to change.

“The thing is, with jewelry most people want to see it and touch it,” Brunais said. “A picture of a ring doesn’t mean it is the ring that you’re getting and you don’t know how the photo has been corrected for color. It is very hard to sell online.”

Phillips passed away in May of 2015. Three of his children, Kenny Phillips, Chris Phillips and Donna Fonke, now run it.

In the years since Phillips first opened his shop, it has filled the building that once was occupied by a trade school, and expanded further, adding sections for selling car audio equipment, photo finishing, electronics and, most recently, home automations, which can be operated via mobile iOS or Android devices.

“We’ll go in to wire a house so that everything in it can be operated via your iPad,” Brunais said. “We started doing that last year.”

Today, Brunais says, the shop employs 45 people, including four master jewelers, and it takes up more than 18,000 square feet.

Currently, Rhudy’s is gearing up for what promises to be a hectic holiday season. Last year, holiday shopping in November and December brought in $658.75 billion nationally, according to the National Retail Federation. That was up 4 percent over 2015 due to a strengthened economy. This year, sales are expected to increase another 3.6 to 4 percent, for a total of $678.75 billion to $682 billion.

As of now, Brunais says Rhudy’s has no immediate plans for any more large expansions, or revenue streams. But he says one can never say never. As Rhudy Phillips showed his nay-sayers, crazier things have happened – and are still succeeding.