Niche marketing certainly has its advantages. Concentrating on a specific market segment can keep costs in check while allowing a company to specialize in its chosen product line in a narrower field of competitors. But niche markets usually are thought of as small, and that’s a mistake.
Jonathan Wilken has identified a niche market that is sizable to begin with—and
growing. Wilken’s Olde Towne Window Works, Fredericksburg, VA, helped define
and develop this niche. You might think of it as an in-between market: several
steps above the off-the-shelf ready-made market, but not high-end fully custom,
In January 1997, Olde Towne Window Works established the Uptown Line, which Wilken
describes as “a high-end line of ready-made window treatments, bedding
and accessories marketed to retail stores.”
“There is a large percentage of people that don’t want to spend $500
a window and do custom work, but they also don’t want to go to a Big Box
Store and buy it off the shelf ready-made,” Wilken explains. “They
want something that’s high quality, but at an affordable price. They want
to have some choices.”
And choices is what Olde Towne offers—about 200 fabrics and a line of fringes
in stock and many styles of toppers, draperies, comforters, bedspreads, dust
ruffles, duvets, shams, pillows and kitchen accessories such as napkins, chair
pads and placemats to choose from. The company will make any style in any fabric.
That’s Olde Towne Window Works’ advantage.
“We don’t manufacture a large quantity of one [style] and stock it
and ship it to retailers. We actually stock the fabrics, trims and styles and
the customers order whatever they want. It’s not really a traditional ready-made
line,” Wilken says. He adds that this division of his business is focused
on the mid-price-point market.
“I see tremendous growth there. I think we had a part in developing this
niche. Back seven or eight years ago the ready-made line was pretty limited—in
styles and fabrics. Coming up with unique window treatments in different fabrics—silk
and fabrics that custom interior designers use—and being able to offer
them to a wide customer base and at a decent price, that is where the growth
is. There is that middle price-point between custom and Big Box ready-made. I
see a lot of growth potential there.”
With a 15,000-square-foot, 30-employee professional workroom, Olde Towne Window
Works has everything it takes to present this growing niche with a top-quality
product complete with embellishments. “Some of our products,” Wilken
says, “once you put them up on a rod, you really can’t tell the difference.
They look like they’re custom made. That’s what it’s all about.”
There’s a bit more to Olde Towne Window Works than its Uptown Line. The
company began in August 1995 as a strictly custom workroom, and still maintains
a division working with interior designers today. But it’s in selling products
like the Uptown Line to its network of retail customers that illustrates Olde
From its startup with one retailer in the Richmond, VA, area Olde Towne has grown
to become almost nationwide. “Our primary customer would be independent
retail shops and design stores. We’ve got more than 250 customers. We’re
in close to 40 states,” Wilken says.
Some of these shops buy products from Olde Towne in “sixes and twelves” and
stock them for the end customer. If a consumer comes in and sees something, he
or she can buy it right off the shelf. “That’s probably not our biggest
customer,” Wilken says. “Our biggest customer would be a design shop
that would display from one or two valances to 15, 20, 25 valances and do a bedroom
ensemble. They would have all the swatches there and hand-cut samples and our
color catalog. Their customers would come in, look at our fabrics and look at
the styles and then decide which style they wanted in which fabric they wanted.
They would place that order with the retail store and the retail store would
fax the order to us and we would make it and ship it to them.” The average
turnaround is two weeks.
What makes this turnaround time possible is Olde Towne’s workroom. It began
with hiring one former workroom owner and has grown along with the business to
30 employees: three full-time office people, the rest are sewers, fabric cutters
and shipping and receiving personnel.
The space has grown, too, from 1,000 square feet of leased space to 15,000 square
feet used to house industrial sergers, straight- and blind-stitch machines as
well as some specialized machinery for shower curtain button holes, cording machines,
pleaters and tackers to do pinch pleats and double-needle machines to do rod
pockets. Still, Wilken calls it a “mid-sized operation.”
Like the company, Wilken has grown professionally. He began as a sales representative
for a sporting goods distributor, but backed with a business management degree
from Virginia Tech, he had the urge to own his own business. His wife at the
time had opened a decorating franchise and soon found there was a need for a
professional-quality workroom in the area.
Here was Wilken’s chance. He hired a former workroom owner who moved into
the area and opened Olde Towne Window Works with his wife’s decorating
franchise as its first client. Somehow they made it through that first year. “We
had our lumps and made our mistakes, but learned a lot,” Wilken says. Basically,
the new company broke even or, at least, “was not too far in the hole,” he
By the time Olde Towne began offering the Uptown Line the company had expanded
into a 4,000-square-foot space. Wilken was still working his job selling hunting
and fishing gear, but realized that if he wasn’t running Olde Towne every
day, the business wasn’t going to survive. The woman he hired to run the
workroom knew fabrication, but the business skills and management style he wanted
wasn’t there. Wilken quit his job and took over full-time.
This is where Wilken’s college courses helped, somewhat. “Accounting
classes, economics classes, finance classes—those things were all helpful
as far as running the business,” he says. “I came at it from that
background rather than from a hobby background. For me it’s a business.
I want it to be profitable and I want my employees to make money and enjoy what
they do, too.” But he says that college training only goes so far, the
day-to-day managing of people can’t be taught in a book. “You have
to get out there and experience for yourself the decisions that have to be made,
the trials and tribulations. It really all comes down to the people, and it’s
hard to teach that from a textbook in college. How to motivate people. How to
be authoritative and firm but also be fair. Those things really have to be learned
on the job.”
Wilken’s success can be measured in sales. “In our first five years
our average sales growth was 65 percent,” he says. Business peaked in 2001
when Olde Towne hit $1.2 million plus in sales. Since then, Wilken admits that
sales have leveled off, but the company still has managed four to five percent
increases the last two years and “should do better this year.”
“It’s not the type of growth I would like, but we’re still
growing while others are treading water or losing ground, he says. “So
I’m pleased with that.”
The growth in the popularity of Big Box Stores actually might have helped Olde
Towne Window works “because of the lack of service, the lack of choices
you have in those types of stores,” Wilken says. “People have gravitated
toward design shops and retail stores that offer more selection, more products.
“The end consumer who is buying the curtains and putting them up, or having
them put up, is more knowledgeable now of the different kinds of fabrics, the
trims, and what makes a curtain better if it’s made custom or made in a
very professional workroom as opposed to mass produced.”
Many of his retail customers have learned this too. Retailers who began selling
only ready-made products have, through time, come to order custom products, board-mounted
window treatments, Austrian shades and cornices through Olde Towne and now are
expanding their lines and offering more styles.
“That’s a reflection of people who want to spend a little bit more,
but want a quality product and want the service.” Wilken says.
Judging by orders, Wilken says pinch pleats and cornices are popular now along
with trims, the added touch that gives his high-end ready-mades a more custom
look and adds to the selling price. “Embellishments definitely have picked
up for us: trims, twist cord, bullion fringe, brush fringe, tassels. Just this
last spring we brought in some tassel fringe and we’re looking at glass
bead fringe. Embellishments are very popular and are going to be popular in the
Another popular treatment is Roman shades in place of blinds and shutters. Wilken
thinks that is because they have the light controlling qualities of hard treatments
plus the added advantage of custom-selected fabrics.
INNOVATE AND UPDATE
The future of Olde Towne Window Works may well be in a much newer and growing
niche: Internet shoppers. The company’s Web site (www.oldetownewindowworks.com)
is used to convey information about Olde Towne to retailers who might be interested
in its products. Because the company charges for fabric samples, trim cards and
catalogs, Wilken says retail customers who don’t want to shell out money
before they find out what they are all about can go to the site to find information,
photos of fabrics and the styles they offer.
Olde Towne’s site does not sell directly to consumers—that would
be competing against its own customers. But Wilken is working to supply a couple
of Internet retail sites that will begin offering his whole program on the Web.
How well this niche pans out is yet to be seen, but you can bet the same strategies
that got Olde Towne Window Works where it is today will continue as the basis
of its future success. For Wilken that’s professional workmanship, good
selection of fabrics, unique styles and customer service. “It’s not
easy to get new customers,” Wilken reminds us, “once you do get them,
hold on to them. We try and do whatever we can above and beyond to please the
An added benefit for Wilken is the custom division of Olde Towne Window Works.
Working this side of the business he sees fabrics and styles coming in from designers
and keeps abreast of what trends and fabrics are popular and new. Being able
to offer new products and services on a continuing basis is a necessity. “You
can’t rest on your laurels,” Wilken says. “You have to constantly
innovate and update and have new products out there.”