Being singled out as the best has become something of a habit for this 54-year-old family-run retail chain. Fabric Place has been presented four Best of Boston awards in the last four years—actually winning two in 2000, one for Best Fabric Store and one for Best Upholsterer. It's an honor the company works hard to earn, and its recognition is based on product selection, customer service, business and marketing skills and a reputation for making anything possible.
Fabric Place has become a New England institution. It was founded in 1946 as a clothing and fabric store, and has grown to become so much more. "Today we are vertically integrated," explains Ron Isaacson, who with his cousin Robert Weitzler represents the second generation of leadership at Fabric Place. "We buy piece goods from the mills, we stock it in the stores, we manufacture it in our own workrooms, we reupholster in our own workroom and we deliver it with our own people and with our own installers. We're responsible for our product from beginning to end."
Custom window treatments, added to the store's product mix in the 1950s, were quickly identified as the company's growth market and have become 30 percent of the business today. "We do both custom window treatments and blinds and shades," Isaacson says. "We also do custom reupholstery where we pick up furniture from customers, reupholster it and deliver it back. We do slipcovers. We do a full range of custom products."
Yet Fabric Place has remained true to its heritage and steadfast to one of its original product lines: fabrics. Alec Vezina, CEO, says fabrics have remained strong through the years. "Not as many people are sewing clothes as before, but there are other things that have taken up that slack: our bridal business is very strong, our quilting fabric business is very strong, our home decorating business is exceptionally strong. We carry a full line of upholstery fabrics, which most stores don't carry, and that business is very strong. Plus we sell a full line of yarns, and we also do a full line of home decorating accessories: tabletop, wall-mounted mirrors, floral, things like that—even a little furniture and rugs.
"Our stores are in the 30,000-square-foot range," Vezina adds. "We were a category killer before there were category killers."
Fabric Place has six retail locations throughout New England: five large fabric and custom treatments stores in Framingham, Randolph and Woburn, MA; Cromwell, CT; and Warwick, RI; and one smaller, custom-only shop in Newton, MA. It went through a growth spurt beginning in 1984 when the company opened the Woburn location in addition to its original Framingham store and lasting through 1994 when the Newton location opened.
The company's expansion was fueled jointly by customer requests and the understanding that the business was built on a solid, growth-oriented foundation. "We realized that we had a good infrastructure of buyers and systems," Isaacson explains. "The transition was out of ready-to-wear to strictly fabrics to where we are now. We sell all kinds of fabrics: fashion fabrics, home decorating fabrics, reupholstery fabrics. But it became clear to us in the late '50s that people wanted us to do something with this fabric, so we started doing window treatments. Then they asked us to make them, install them . . . We realized this was the growth end of our business. We opened our first workroom in the '70s because we realized we wanted to control quality, and we hired our own installers."
"We had many people calling us, wanting us to expand," Weitzler adds. "There were even busloads of people that would come in from Albany, NY, park in the lot and unload into the store."
While growing in size, product lines and personnel, Fabric Place was still able to maintain the advantages of a small company. "We're not too big," Vezina says. "We're large enough that the individual stores have a tremendous selection, but as a company and a business we have to stay small because a large company couldn't do the custom business, there's just too much detail. We purposely tried to keep things close and together just to be able to continue to supply that custom product." It's what makes anything possible at Fabric Place.
BEYOND THE STOREFRONT
Becoming an institution takes much more than just putting in time. The decades-long success story behind Fabric Place has everything to do with customer service. Annie Isaacson and Betty Weitzler, Ron and Robert's identical twin mothers, founded the company right after World War II using a customer-first philosophy that has carried through to this day. "Our reputation of following up and making sure customers are satisfied is unblemished," Ron Isaacson says.
That type of service has led to tremendous word-of-mouth advertising, which is Fabric Place's No. 1 marketing program. But don't think the company hasn't adapted with the times. Fabric Place incorporates a host of up-to-date advertising and customer service strategies beginning with direct mail.
Fabric Place has a current customer mailing list of 150,000 names, which grows by about 1,000 names a week. Ten times a year these customers are mailed 12-page, four-color advertising circulars. The company also maintains a "not-so-current" mailing list of another 100,000 names. These efforts are supported by weekly newspapers ads for blinds and shades and full-color ads for custom products in the Boston Globe's magazine section.
Fabric Place also has invested heavily in a new point-of-sale system that will use bar coding to help it track customer purchases at the store level. Even before this system was installed sales and inventory were constantly monitored, but the new system will make this vital task absolutely accurate and instantaneous.
Fabric Place also has invested heavily in its Web site, www.fabricplace.com, which offers true e-commerce, a yardage calculator, bulk sales of items from batting to vinyl, coordinated collections and a searchable fabric finder.
"We're just trying to ride the wave to see where it will take us," says Vezina. "We started out as being kind of a yellow-page-description-let-the-customers-get-to-know-us-and-ask-us-questions type of a Web site. In fact, we developed it in-house at first. We gradually evolved it into what it is. We probably spent our biggest chunk of money on it last year developing the e-commerce section and professionalizing it.
"The one smart thing we did, I think, is we never budgeted sales against it. Everything we spent on it we spent from the aspect of let's just develop something that works and allows us to be ready to do whatever we want to do with this thing depending on how the business goes. We can sit back and be careful about the way we handle it. So far, it has worked very well, and sales are starting to pick up pretty heavy with it.
"More importantly, it's a conduit for our customers to talk to us and ask us questions. We have one person whose sole responsibility is to track what customers are asking us. It just gives us a good rapport with people not only in our own market area, but all over the country. Eventually we're going to have a whole lot more product on that Web site to sell."
"It gives you a lot of credibility," Isaacson adds. "We are brick and mortar, and we're a Web site. It adds just another piece to our institutional value to New England."
The company's value to its customers also extends beyond normal business parameters. For example, it offers consumer classes on topics such as home decorating, sewing and quilting. The class schedule is posted on the store's Web site, and Isaacson says half of those attending register online. In addition, Fabric Place is busy with community and charity service. "We're pretty active with Friends Fighting Breast Cancer, a local charity here for breast cancer patients. It has become our charity of choice, and it has been really rewarding for us," says Vezina.
IT'S IN THE DETAILS
It takes more than 500 employees to run a business like Fabric Place. That number includes 32 decorators who are on the road making in-home sales, in-store sales staff and workroom and installation personnel. The workroom is responsible for all of Fabric Place's custom window treatments including draperies and hard treatments. Fabric Place is a member of the Comfortex Composer Alliance.
All successful retailers will tell you it's the quality of their people that distinguish them, and it's no different for Fabric Place. Vezina says employees show a "passion for the business," and many have been with the company for a number of years. In return, Fabric Place supports it staff by investing in its training. "Our most formalized training program is for the decorators," Vezina says. "It's an eight-week classroom program.
"We basically hire experienced decorators that have fashion sense and color knowledge and spend six to eight weeks in a classroom teaching them measurements and all the technical aspects of the job. Then we match them with an experienced decorator and they travel with that decorator anywhere from three to six months, sometimes even longer. We're in the kind of business where you can't make a mistake. Everything is detail, so that's probably the thing we're most fastidious about, to make sure, technically, we're not making mistakes because it's costly and discouraging to the customer."
That attention to detail extends right through to the Fabric Place workroom. To help fabricate custom draperies, the company hired a software engineer to create a proprietary computerized system for figuring and spacing pleats. "What we do is we plug in the size we want to pleat the panel down to, plug in how big it is and where the seams are," Isaacson explains. "This thing does all these calculations and hides the seams. If it's a left-hand panel it hides the seam on the left-hand side of the pleat so you don't see it. It tweaks the pleats and the spaces so we get it exactly right every time. I can't say we never get draperies back, but we never get draperies back because they are pleated wrong. We really cross the T's and dot the I's. We make a quality product."
Quality and value are what differentiates Fabric Place from its competition and has helped establish it again and again as the Best in Boston. "How do we differentiate ourselves? With good people, good quality merchandise priced well, and a big selection. People rely on us for that selection. They know they're going to find it here," Isaacson says.
Weitzler adds, "We give [customers] very good value. Our merchandise is current, we get out from the old merchandise very quickly. They come here for service, they come here for selection and we give them a real good value. It seems to work for us." Community Involvement
Fabric Place Helps Raise Money for Cancer Research
Last October, Fabric Place teamed with Friends Fighting Breast Cancer for the Third Annual Celebrate Survival—a day of giving featuring handmade hats and turbans collected for patients receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Friends Fighting Breast Cancer is an all-volunteer organization founded in 1995 that raises money for breast cancer research at Mass General Hospital.
Organizers set a goal of donating 1,000 head coverings to Mass General Hospital, which then oversaw the distribution of the hats via the MGH Cancer Resource Room; the Gillette Center for Women's Cancers; the American Cancer Society's Look Good, Feel Better program at Mass General; and through social service channels. New England residents enthusiastically responded with more than 1,700 beautifully handmade hats donated. Fabric Place also contributed $5,000 to the cause. The year before more than 655 hats were collected and distributed to patients from all over New England.
In addition, Fabric Place stores and its Web site, www.fabricplace.com, offered free patterns for a cloche hat designed by Kendra Haskell. With less than one yard of fabric, a sewer of any level could create something very personal to help maintain dignity for the one in eight women who are diagnosed with breast cancer today.
October was selected for the program because it is nationally designated as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Volunteers from Friends Fighting Breast Cancer were stationed at five Fabric Place stores in eastern Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut to provide information about breast cancer prevention, detection and treatment.
Fabric Place's involvement with Friends Fighting Breast Cancer evolved from a Fabric Place employee discussing her battle with breast cancer with one of the organizers. In addition to the hat event, Fabric Place stores host a quilt-a-thon in March at which customers join together to create quilts that are raffled at Mass General to raise money for breast cancer research.