Thomas Piotrowski, owner of Delta Diamond Setters & Jewelers, strikes a welcoming pose while sporting beautiful Brain Squad gray.

INSTORE's Unsung Heroes? Meet the Brain Squad!

These 1,000 jewelers are definitely our secret weapon.

If there is one thing that has allowed INSTORE to stand apart from its trade magazine peers over the last 15 years, it’s the Brain Squad, our reader survey group, which provides an unrivaled look into what’s happening in independent jewelry stores around the country.

At any given time, about 1,000 store owners and managers belong to the Squad, nearly all of whom will answer at least one survey during the year. The average monthly survey attracts between 260 and 300 responses, a number that rises to over 800 in July when we send out our annual Big Survey.

Each month, the Brain Squad is asked what’s selling well in their stores, how their stores are performing and up to a dozen more questions that could focus on anything from how they deal with vendors’ phone calls to how they are preparing for an upcoming holiday.

This frontlines surveillance has allowed us to be among the first in the industry to identify product trends: Our readers, for instance, first reported Pandora sales were taking off as early as 2006. More recently, they noted customers asking for those “twirling diamond earrings” back in 2013. Noted industry analyst Ken Gassman has told us the overall sales trends, which we report on our In Front page each month, provide an uncannily accurate indicator of industry trends as reported by the U.S. Commerce Department months later.

“No matter how big or small your store is, someone else had a problem like yours, and has a suggestion on how to fix it.”

Our survey software also allows us to slice and dice the data to determine, for example, how small stores are faring, to what extent custom design jewelers may be outperforming full-service jewelers or which regions recovered fastest from the last recession. It’s an incredible data set.

Brain Squad members — who get access to much of the raw data — tell us the surveys help them in many ways as well. That’s particularly pleasing for us, given the frequency with which we tap their knowledge.

“What’s a better place to go for information than your own peeps?” says Erin McMichael Hess, owner of Extinctions in Lancaster, PA. “No matter how big or small your store is, someone else had a problem like yours, and has a suggestion on how to fix it.”

For Elysia Demers, Barnhardt Jewelers in Spencer, NC, the surveys are an excellent source of product information. “They open the doors to new lines and designers that maybe you haven’t heard of or never considered before.”

When we started the Brain Squad, we were hoping a few dozen jewelers would help us get a bit of an idea of what was actually going on out there. Fifteen years later, and a historical membership of more than 2,500 jewelers, we now view the Brain Squad as the heart of the magazine. They are us, and we are them.