"It's a perfect example," Marcus says, "You don't know who you are talking to on the phone. Everybody here knows that every time this phone rings it cost me money at some point to make it ring. It didn't ring for free. If we don't take care of customers when they call us the first time, leave them with a good impression and get them into the store and make a sale, then I've thrown away money somewhere."
A few minutes later, when Marcus looked up to see a man large enough he had to duck to get through the doorway, Marcus knew he had been talking to one of the players for the New Orleans Saints football team. "I talked to him, and walking around the showroom he saw all the product choices he could imagine," Marcus said. "He realized he was dealing with someone who knew what he was doing."
When anyone -- saint or sinner -- walks into Blinds & Designs he or she is bound to think they've come to the right place. More than likely they've already been told by a previous customer that Marcus will show them everything's he got and treat them fairly.
The 3,500-square-foot showroom features the biggest displays of brand name products from every manufacturer that customers will readily recognize (and a few others besides), including fabric lines. "I've spread them out over the store," Marcus says. There are four-sided displays, shutter displays and panels hanging on the walls. Above all, Marcus showcases full-size product displays. It's an important part of his retail concept: "Put up a big display and let everybody see it," he says.
"When a customer comes in and says, 'I'm looking for a mini-blind,' I try to show them every single blind and every single advantage and disadvantage of those blinds," Marcus explains. That's another part of his retail concept: "I really don't try to push one manufacturer more than any other," he says. "Everybody needs to be on the same level. I don't play games." Marcus tells his suppliers, "Give me competitive discounts and you'll get a fair share as much as anybody else on the showroom floor.
"I'm not asking for the absolute deepest discount just to pay for it somewhere else. I want any customer at any time to be able to walk in and say, 'I like this product' and I want to be competitive on it. If someone walks out of here and tells me they found it somewhere else less expensive, then I end up with a reputation of being expensive just because of one product," Marcus says. "I give everybody a fair shake and leave it up to the customer," he says.
About half of the customers know what they are looking for when they walk into the store, and Marcus attributes that to direct-to-consumer advertising by his suppliers. For the other half: "We start them at one end of the showroom and do a full circle showing them everything. I say, 'Look, these are all your basics: your mini-blinds, your wood blinds, your vertical blinds,' then I bring them around to the drapery end and tell them, 'Now it's up to you. Anything you can envision, we can draw it on paper and have the workroom make it.'"
Blinds & Designs actually started in an eight- by eight-foot office in a warehouse with little more than a telephone and portable samples. Prior to that Marcus had created and built an acoustical ceiling tile cleaning business, but was looking to move on. He had taken that business as far as it could go. When he started selling blinds sales were good; Marcus ended his first month up $12,000 and soon was averaging $15,000 a month. But he always knew two things: He couldn't be happy working for someone else, and he needed a showroom.
"As good of a closing ratio as I had, I always felt there were more things I could do. I couldn't up-sell customers. I could show them the blinds in the sample books, but they couldn't see, feel and touch things. They'd constantly say, 'Boy I wish I could see that,' and they'd end up saying 'Well, never mind. Let's just go ahead with the white mini-blinds and we'll do the valance later.'"
Marcus got a chance to do it the way he always wanted a few years ago. He opened a showroom and began building Blinds & Designs on the residential market. "I like the idea of doing my own thing, starting it up from scratch," he says.
Soon after opening, Marcus began getting more customers asking about draperies and valances. So he added to his product mix by picking up fabric lines while reading up on treatments and measuring. But Marcus admits that was never his forte, so he advertised for an experienced drapery salesperson/decorator. He's been fortunate to have had three excellent decorators work for him. "They'd go to the customers' homes, do the drawings, pick the fabrics, and 90 percent of the time when the customers came in to see it, they'd like it." His current decorator is Lori Stewart. Robert Buczynski handles installations.
Marcus says his customers come from the "in-between market. It's not a designer market, but its above the discount or 800-number market," he explains. "My customers want to be a part of it, have some say in the decorating," he says, adding, "We can do everything for them, if the customers want it. But our specialty is window coverings."
To reach his customers, Marcus relies on regular advertising in a small local newspaper that's circulated -- and popular -- among many of the area's small retail stores and local coffee shops. "I've been loyal to them because I've gotten loyal customers out of them. I'll run an ad every single week," he says.
Referrals and repeat customers make up the majority of Blinds & Designs' customers. "There's probably not a day that goes by that we don't hear from one of our customers that's going to repeat business with us," Marcus says. He attributes that repeat rate with his philosophy of making every customer happy. "I've seen how one customer who buys one mini-blind from me can refer me to a $20,000 drapery job next week or next year.
"Then there are some customers that you're not going to make happy no matter what you do," he says, "and they are not going to brag about Blinds & Designs at the end of the job. But I make sure they at least feel they came out fairly on the deal. I make sure I don't have one person bad-mouthing me."
There are no other showrooms in the area quite like Blinds & Designs, Marcus says. Many of his competitors moved to The North Shore, an area of relatively new residential developments opposite Lake Pontchartrain from Metairie and New Orleans. Marcus decided to let them go and "fight it out in the trenches. I was going to sit here and be the king for little while. There was probably a two-year span where I was the only major window coverings store in the area," he says.
As business grew, so has Blinds & Designs' product mix evolved. Besides hard treatments and custom draperies, the store also offers upholstery, upholstered walls and custom bedding. A few years ago when shutters were gaining in popularity, Marcus "dug in" and learned everything he could about them. "I boasted myself as a plantation shutter expert," he says. "If a client wanted shutters, we could make them work." His new interest, however, is motorization, which he sees as the next big thing in the industry.
"Lately our drapery business has really been picking up," Marcus says. "Once you start getting a reputation for them you start getting some of the nice jobs, and usually the nice jobs are large houses with tall windows."
That brings us back to the New Orleans Saints football player who happened to be building a new home.
"I met with him the next day to measure the house," Marcus says. What he found -- among some other surprises -- were several 25-foot tall windows: three levels of seven-foot windows topped with arches. Luckily, the contractor still had scaffolding in place, but that's where the luck ended. "When I got out there, the contractor had already closed up all the walls, and I didn't want to bust open the walls to run wiring," he says.
Marcus brought his measurements back to the office and met with the designer. They discussed what the owner was looking for, some of the problems and what they could do to treat them. They decided to go with sheers on the extra-tall windows with an overtreatment of side panels that would not traverse. Marcus called the owner back into the store with his wife, sat them down, showed them what they came up with and give them the price. "He said, 'Let's do it,'" Marcus recalls.
"As it turns out, when this job is over we're not doing one thing the owner came in asking about," Marcus says, "but we're doing his entire house from upholstering walls, upholstering sofas, bedding, dust ruffles, draperies -- the entire house." That house also includes 68 Silhouette® window shadings, which Marcus says Hunter Douglas has told him is the largest single installation of that product.
Most likely, Blinds & Designs can chalk-up another satisfied customer. Marcus credits his success to three factors: 1) His knowledge of the business. "I started this business doing every single thing. I learned all the tricks and I installed everything I sold," he says. 2) His showroom concept. "When you can show customers a full-size product, which I do in the showroom, you up-sell so many things. So even if I'm not getting every mini-blind, vertical blind and pleated shade job out there, it doesn't matter because in the long run my average ticket sale has increased in dollar value." 3) His philosophy of making every customer happy. "The most commonly heard comment I hear from my customers is, 'It was so easy!'"