In the window coverings industry, perhaps the area's most recognized name is Eddie Z's Express Blinds. In large display advertisements in newspapers and on television commercials, the public is nearly always made aware of it. And that's just the way James Zakoor, president, wants it. "A large percentage of the company's time and budget is devoted to advertising," Zakoor admits.
But the success and rapid growth experienced by Eddie Z's more likely is an indication of how well the company meets customer needs. In four years this family owned and operated business has grown to 15 retail locations providing a full range of services from no-obligation shop-at-home decorating to in-store sales and speedy installation in the customer's home or business -- and all of its products are custom.
Starting out with its own fabricated vertical blinds, Eddie Z's today sells a blend of private label and branded products from wood shutters and mini-blinds to draperies, pleated shades and top treatments. When it comes to serving customers, the company's mission statement says it all: "Offer unparalleled value in window fashions by providing the best service, the best prices and the fastest delivery, resulting in unequaled customer satisfaction."
Zakoor credits the people behind Eddie Z's Express Blinds for its success. Today, headquartered in Lombard, IL, the company employs more than 80 persons either directly or indirectly. Besides Zakoor, the company's management team comprises George Lutfy, vice president of operations, and Craig Duff, vice president of finance and administration. Lutfy is responsible for the company's factory and all of its fabricating and delivery operations. Besides financial and administrative responsibilities, Duff has overseen the installation of a $400,000 computer system that was brought on-line to streamline operations and facilitate the flow of information.
On average, Zakoor staffs each retail location with four people to handle in-store and shop-at-home sales. Zakoor says he looks for employees with good people skills and those who will fit in with other employees and the overall corporate culture. He also looks for window treatment experience. "We're picky about who we hire," he says. "Each employee goes through numerous interviews before hiring," he adds. Each of the company's retail outlets tend to be compact in size, but all are located in highly visible retail strip malls. Often, Eddie Z's Express Blinds can be found among other destination stores shoppers seek out for particular items. The walls of an Eddie Z's store are filled with window treatment samples featuring textured and patterned vertical vanes, blinds and shades of every color, wood shutters and blinds, and draperies and top treatments in the latest fabrics and prints. Freestanding kiosks provide even more space to showcase all of the company's products.
Eddie Z's contracts out installations, but is just as picky about installers. "We realize that quality installation is the best way to ensure customer satisfaction and increase referral and repeat business," Zakoor says. He estimates 75 percent of the company's sales are installed, the remainder -- usually treatments for one or two windows -- are picked up by the customers themselves. In those cases, the salespeople review installation procedures with the customers and make themselves available for questions the customer may have later, Zakoor explains.
This type of relationship also is important for Eddie Z's and its suppliers. Zakoor says that while the strategic planning and implementation of growth polices are paramount among his priorities, he also works to build relationships with suppliers. "We like to work with suppliers who are willing to invest in our future potential, not just sell to us and make promises based on actual or future achievements," Zakoor says.
Zakoor's background has led him to this point. He grew up in the family's business -- Everfresh, Inc. -- the largest juice producer in Canada. When the company was purchased by John Labatt Ltd., Zakoor moved to the United States as executive vice president of Everfresh Inc., Chicago. He enrolled in the Executive MBA program at Northwestern University and was graduated in 1990.
That same year Zakoor left Everfresh having invested in a retail/fabricating operation in Fort Meyers, FL, run by his cousin, George Lutfy. Intrigued by the business, Zakoor saw the potential for operating a similar business in Chicago. He persuaded Lutfy to transplant the concept, and together they founded Eddie Z's Express Blinds, named after Zakoor's son. Craig Duff, Zakoor's brother-in-law, was brought into the business to prepare it for expansion.
Eddie Z's Express Blinds first opened in Northlake, IL, roughly 15 miles from the heart of downtown Chicago, but centrally located to reach the residential suburbs surrounding the city. Beginning as a factory outlet in August 1992, Eddie Z's has grown to 15 suburban retail locations including its second fabricating/ retail establishment in Rockford, IL. "We have a greater number of locations in Illinois than any of our direct competitors," Zakoor says.
Eddie Z's Express Blinds has achieved its phenomenal growth despite the fierce competition found in the country's third largest market. There are four types of competitors, Zakoor explains, and Eddie Z's has an advantage over each.
"First is the mass market retailer who promotes price but performs poorly on customer service. Usually they sell more ready-made products than custom," he says. "Second is the direct mail catalog vendor who competes on price but offers no service. Next are the single-store dealers who provide strong customer satisfaction through personal attention and high service levels. But they are at a disadvantage when competing in price," Zakoor says. "They also do not have the advertising capabilities of a larger organization," he adds.
The last type of competitor is the category Eddie Z's fits into: regional retailers and retail fabricators. But Zakoor claims an advantage over these competitors because he offers more retail locations and free shop-at-home service as well as measuring and installation.
The bottom line is sales, and this past year sales increased a whopping 80 percent over the previous year, Zakoor states. He says this success is due mainly to an increase in the number of retail outlets, but also to higher sales volumes at existing stores. Another important part of the company's profitability has to do with fabrication.
Eddie Z's fabricates 55 percent of the products it sells, Zakoor says, and he explains there are several advantages to doing that. "With these products we can control the production, service and profit margin associated with them," Zakoor says. Retail fabrication also is important for providing quality products, speedy delivery and competitive products -- all things customers want. As for customer service, fabricating products means "Eddie Z's can directly handle customer problems in a timely manner," Zakoor says.
Zakoor is a strong believer in advertising. He says the Eddie Z's television commercials -- the Window Coverings Network-produced commercials featuring Mariette Hartley -- add credibility to the stores' image and provides the company with "top-of-mind awareness" among its target markets. But actual products are promoted through print advertising in Chicago's two major daily newspapers along with local suburban papers and direct mailers.
Eddie Z's Express Blinds deals primarily with the residential market. Yet each store must independently service its target customers, which Zakoor says covers diverse groups with differing requirements. Speaking only generally, Zakoor says the stores' target groups "are not the top 10 percent, nor the bottom 10 percent" in each market.
The company monitors what and how products are being purchased and what services are being demanded by consumers. Eddie Z's than sets out to satisfy those needs. In all cases, Zakoor says what customers are looking for is value. To provide it, Eddie Z's offers a full range of services from shop-at-home convenience to measuring and installation.
It also means communicating with customers. "We make sure our customers are secure with the knowledge that we will take care of them. This means always keeping the customer informed and making sure they understand how appreciative we are for their business," Zakoor says.
The company's ultimate goal is to become the largest and most successful provider of window treatments in every market in which it operates, Zakoor says. With that in mind, Eddie Z's is embarking on "an aggressive" expansion plan over the next 18 months. For now, Zakoor doesn't want to be too specific about the details of the plan, but admits that for the first time Eddie Z's is looking to make a name for itself outside its home state of Illinois.