The passing of time has turned me from a young “curtainlady” to an old “curtainlady.” I remember well the day I stumbled into the showroom at Creative Fabrics Inc. in Waco, TX, and was transformed into a bright-eyed innocent newborn “curtainlady” (see D&WC, January 2007, page 46). Not even realizing that I was about to pass into a new world and into a new future for me and my family, I talked with Dan the sales rep that day.
Unaware what was happening at the time, I sat in that showroom being tested. You see, Dan had my future in his hands. He alone at that moment had the authority to bid me good day and send me on my way, or give me a wholesale account. I easily could have failed the test. I remember Dan’s patience as we talked.
“Decorator fabrics? What’s that?” came out of my neophyte mouth.
“People mark up fabric how much? You’re kidding!” I blurted out not knowing anything about overhead, fixed costs or profit margins. Frankly my ignorance knew no bounds.
Looking back I am amazed that I passed the test. But then Dan asked me the golden question. “Where do you live?” Not knowing that this was the acid test for Dan, I told him where I lived.
“Give me $50 and I’ll give you a set of sample books, you ought to do really well, nobody is selling draperies in that area,” came his reply. Based on the potential market that I could tap, Dan decided to give me a chance.
Back then $50 was a lot to me. I decided to gamble the 50 thinking I could cut the samples up and make a quilt if worse came to worse. Dan forgot to mention what the samples were really worth. A quilt made from those samples would be quite expensive, indeed.
What transpired that day was not me buying samples for $50, it was much more. Creative Fabrics Inc. was deciding to invest, and invest substantially, in my business. Fifty dollars invested in my business by me was a pittance in comparison to what Creative was investing.
ECONOMICS OF SAMPLING
Sample books cost money to produce, and lots of it. Figures I have heard vary from $30 per book on up. Using the conservative figure of $30 per book, and I seem to remember Dan stuffing 50 books in the trunk of my car, Creative’s investment in me was roughly $1,500. There is a huge misunderstanding about who owns sample books in our industry. People seem to think that they own the sample books, that what they pay buys the books. When the reality is that the fabric provider invests in your business by loaning you their sample books.
The economics of doing business dictates that fabric companies are producing fewer sample books in recent years. They expect their sales reps to place those books where they will do the most good. Sales reps don’t have an unlimited supply of books at their disposal. They have their share and those books are their bread and butter. Dormant, inactive sets of books do not produce income for anyone.
I was visiting with one of my favorite reps the other day. As we discussed business over lunch, she talked about customers she calls book mongers. “They want to have books, lots of books, and they like to hoard them. They don’t use them; they just want to have them.” She further explained that she respects the account that will be honest and tell her if a book will not work in that market. “If they will be honest with me and tell me what they can sell and what they can’t . . . it makes me want to show them everything I have. But when they just take everything, it makes me want to hold back. Some of my books are limited, and they need to be in the right markets.”
I was surprised when tears came to her eyes as she told me another story. “A customer in my territory wasn’t using my books so she decided to ship them to a friend. Now that set of books is in another rep’s territory and I’ve lost any potential income from that set of books. That dealer, took my books and gave them away and really . . . she took food from my family’s mouth.” That story made me want to rush back to the showroom and find books that we don’t use and ship them back.
IF THE SHOE FITS
As retailers, we think about how things are for us. We notice customers who waste our time, vendors who aren’t as attentive as we would like and a myriad other complaints. But sometimes we don’t walk in the shoes of others. Customers wasting our time are irritating and costly, but what is the difference between that and us wasting sales reps’ time, or wasting their resources? Many sales reps are independent business owners just like us. They pay for their own expenses and travel. They spend time away from families and homes. They work hard to convince us to sell their products with no guarantee that we will. They invest their time, energy, money and resources in us with the hopes that we will help them make a living.
Sometimes I hear retailers complain about sales reps that never come to see them. When I hear that, I usually ask, “How much have you sold for that person?” The answer is usually the reason why they haven’t seen that rep for a while.
When we think about how we qualify customers so we won’t burn gas, time and energy on someone with little potential of profit for us, why would we expect anything less from sales reps? It’s not a matter of them not liking us, or being lazy. It’s a matter of putting limited time and resources in places that will bring results. In short, it’s a matter of economics.
BEING GOOD CITIZENS
A common question is, “Why am I charged for books and then don’t own them?” Again, economics is the answer. Imagine giving costly sample books out willy-nilly. Anybody and everybody could have sample books. Suzy Homemaker wanting to buy wholesale could have her own set of books and toss them when she was through decorating her own house. Imagine the cost of decorator fabrics if anyone and everyone could have the samples.
The money to produce sample books has to come from somewhere, namely from selling fabric. Charging to set up an account is a way to protect those who are truly in business to sell fabrics. The fact that I have invested in setting up a business in order to sell decorator fabrics is protected by charging for samples from those who would only want to use the samples for their own private use and go around me.
As wholesale accounts, we need be good citizens of our industry by doing certain things that are common courtesy to others:
• If you aren’t using sample books, send them back.
• Make time to see sales reps when they come to your town. Don’t stand them up.
• Be honest about what will sell in your market. Cull non-selling books and send them back.
• Understand your sales rep is in business to make a profit just like you are, do all you can to help them.
• Don’t over sample. It is better to concentrate your sales with a few vendors and sell enough to make it worthwhile for each vendor than to spread your sales among a lot of vendors not making it worthwhile for any of them.
The simple fact of life is that we’re all in this together—retailers, sales reps, fabric providers, workrooms, installers and more. As a matter of common courtesy we all need to understand that it has got to be good for everybody. Let’s do what we can to understand each other and work together so we can all make a decent livelihood in this wonderful industry.
Mary Ann Plumlee is the owner of a retail and wholesale workroom. Starting with only $50 and a home sewing machine in 1985, her business has expanded to include a showroom, 12 employees and two locations. She firmly believes that in this business only the tough survive. Finding the humor in the everyday life of a “curtainlady” is how she not only has survived, but thrived in this industry. Plumlee is often seen traveling around the country teaching classes and seminars. She is the author of The Adventures of Curtain Lady and has launched a workroom related blog: www.workroomintelligence.com.