The cottage is home to Designing Windows Inc., and once you enter it’s unlikely that you’ll leave empty-handed.
Owners, Debbie and Jerry Priestley, work out of this cozy cottage by the ocean along with four decorators, an office manager, an assistant and an installer. Its eight rooms are loaded with window treatment samples including top treatments, plantation shutters, a variety of blinds and custom draperies. There’s also fabric, trims, wallpaper, hardware and custom bedding.
The cottage showroom, and its location, has meant a lot to the success of Designing Windows. In fact, it has become synonymous with the business; its likeness appears on its advertising, promotional material, even its letterhead.
“We love our showroom,” says Debbie Priestley. “When customers come in we can take them to different rooms in the shop and work with them. When customers first walk in to our showroom we have what looks like a little living room. We have a gas fireplace going, a sofa and two chairs. It’s very welcoming. We offer them something to drink and have them sit down.
“When they leave, we always make sure they leave with something,” she continues. “We have custom folders. When they leave we’ll put all of the information they’re looking for into the folder, so when they leave they have that. When they come into the shop, we make sure they leave knowing it was worth their trip to come to us.”
This small window coverings showroom does big business in the resort town of Ocean City with an even split between soft and hard treatments. “We specialize in custom window treatments—that is our main focal point. We do everything for the window,” Priestley says.
“A lot of the windows we cover are in ocean-front condos,” she adds. “We do a lot of ceiling-to-floor, wall-to-wall windows.” For Designing Windows that often means shutters. Thirty percent of the hard treatments its sells and installs is shutters, Priestley says. “Down here in a resort town, we sell a lot of plantation shutters,” she says. “In our town if somebody needs shutters, they know to come to Designing Windows.”
Jerry Priestley is a carpenter by trade, which comes in handy when installing treatments. He is aided by Kurt Wildmann, a staff installer, and both are certified by the manufacturer for installing its shutters. “So when we go out to a house, there is nothing we can’t do,” Debbie Priestley says.
Living and working in a resort town “makes our jobs fun,” Priestley says. “A lot of people who come here have second homes. That’s neat because at home they’re very traditional, but when they come down here they’re more contemporary, more open to different ideas. It’s a very relaxed setting.
“It also makes it nice for us to work in this atmosphere because we don’t have to wear a suit and tie to go out on an appointment. We can be more dressy casual. It’s a wonderful place to work.”
It wouldn’t be unusual, she notes, for a customer to be in a bathing suit while picking out shutters.
The mix in customer tastes that results from an area that has full-time residents as well as an influx of seasonal visitors keeps things lively for the decorators. “If they’re moving in from out of the area and they’re bringing their furniture with them, then we work with their furniture and they do tend to be a little more traditional. That’s when we get to use our traditional flair,” Priestley explains. “Then you have some people who are more transitional. That’s another thing that’s nice about our business and where we’re located—we get to decorate in all styles: traditional, transitional, contemporary.”
One downside to working in a resort area is the population swings, which concentrates the workload into a short, but busy season. Ocean City is most full of activity four months out of the year—mostly because of tourism—from the middle of May until September. “Our busy time starts in February. We’ll start getting busy from February until May as everybody is getting their condominiums ready. We’re in there all winter long fixing up the condos getting them ready for the next rental season.”
Helping to even things out is the area’s growing golf industry, which has a longer season. Then, again, seasonal visitors are not Designing Windows’ only customers. “With our reputation, we’re busy year round because we also have our local clientele. When all the second-home owners go home, there’s so much building going on in our surrounding area. That keeps us busy year round,” Priestley says.
Designing Window’s reputation is supported by the knowledge and expertise of its staff and its effective marketing efforts.
As Priestley points out, selling products is one thing, having the knowledge to understand the products and their benefits is another matter. She makes sure everyone at Designing Windows stays up-to-date on the products they sell through seminar programs run by the company’s main supplier, Elmar Window Fashions. “Anytime they have any type of a training seminar—whatever they have—we go to it and get certified and do whatever needs to be done. I can send any of my decorators out. They know how to measure; they know if the window is out of square. Customers end up falling in love with our decorators because they are so knowledgeable and know what they are doing.”
Priestley is a big believer in advertising, especially printed materials. The business runs an ad in the local newspaper 52 weeks a year. “We will go into the condos or the homes and we’ll see our ad cut out and put on the refrigerator,” she says. “With print, they have something to hold on to.”
Ads for Designing Windows also appear in some regional magazines and publications printed by The Chamber of Commerce. But one of its most important marketing pieces is a nine- by four-inch, glossy 16-page, full-color brochure.
“It has taken me almost two years to put it together,” Priestley confesses, “but it was well worth the wait. We’ve taken pictures of all our work and it’s really a wonderful sales tool that we can give to realtors.”
Keeping Designing Windows’ name in front of those mostly likely to steer business its way is an effective part of its marketing efforts. “Because we deal with second-home owners, a lot of times we have to get keys from the local realtors to go into the condos when the owners are not there. Every time we go get a key, we give that realtor a business card—whether we go there one time or five times, they’ll get a business card and that way they are constantly reminded of who we are,” says Priestley.
But it doesn’t stop there: pens, notepads, gift bags and even drink coasters are handed out—each prominently displaying the company’s name, address and telephone number and, in most cases, featuring a likeness of the little yellow cottage showroom so immediately identified with Designing Windows.
GET RIGHT ON IT
Debbie and Jerry Priestley moved their business into the cottage shortly after starting Designing Windows in 1997. They began working out of their home, but soon that had to change. “We realized that working out of your home just consumes your whole life,” Priestley says.
They saw the cottage for rent, and although it was listed as residential they found they could run an office out of it. When it came up for sale, they bought it.
Built in 1961, the two-story cottage needed a lot of renovation. “It’s an old beach cottage that we converted. It’s bright yellow outside with blue shutters. Inside we have 16 windows. In each window I have either a shutter or a custom window treatment to show customers different window treatment ideas. I have four showrooms that are full of fabric lines, trim lines, wallpaper, hardware. We have a lot of working displays—big ones, not the hand samples,” she says.
Debbie Priestley’s background in the business began when she was child. Her mother, Carol Suttka, had a fabric store and did sewing and alterations upstairs. “So when I was 13 I used to sell dress fabrics. I have grown up in the fabrics business,” Priestley says. “Everything I’ve learned I basically learned from my mom.”
In 1984 Debbie started working for her mother and father’s window treatments business, Interiors by Carol, and she ran one of their stores until 1994. Carol and Craig Suttka still run their business in Ocean Pines, MD, about 10 miles away. “They do the same business,” Priestley says. “My dad is an installer and my mom does the decorating.”
When Debbie and Jerry set out to open Designing Windows, the first thing they did was call mom. “I asked her how she would feel about me starting up my own business and she was very encouraging.”
From there on it has been a success story—one based on quality products, expertise, customer service and not solely on price. “Price is a factor,” Priestley admits, “but if somebody comes in [after shopping a discount or box store], we tell them right up front, ‘We are not competitive with every product; however, when you buy from us you get our knowledge.’ We give free in-home estimates, we have two in-shop installers—one of them being the owner. That’s very important. Customers know who is going into their homes, that it’s not somebody that they don’t know.
“My success is due to the people I work with. They helped make our business,” Priestley continues. “Our customer service is second to none. We have four wonderful decorators who go out and sell the jobs, and what’s nice about that is that while they’re out selling they know that back at the store their customers are still being taken care of.
“While the decorators are out selling I have two people here all the time making sure our business runs, answering the phones, taking care of customers. If there is a problem, we don’t wait until the end of the day. We get right on the problem, take care of it and resolve it.”