If you were in one of the 30,000 or so cars that move in and out of Aspen, CO, each day, at some point you'd probably notice a clean, white van with the name Aspen Blinds & Draperies painted on the sides. Behind the wheel will be Greg Miller, the company's owner, on his way to another installation. Miller handles the installation of all of the company's custom widow coverings -- he handles all of the sales and measuring, as well.
Miller and the Aspen Blinds & Draperies van are recognizable sights around this high altitude resort community. The van is one of the company's most effective marketing tools. "We don't go anywhere where somebody doesn't come out from next door and ask, 'Can you come in and measure my windows too while you're at this house?' It happens at the grocery store, it happens at the post office, and it happens driving around town," he says.
Miller does not have a store front location. In fact, he doesn't want one. "You're held slave to that and I want to be out making it happen," he says. Besides, Miller says rent would be too high, and he can be more competitive on prices without the overhead. There's also no need for inventory. All of Aspen Blinds & Draperies products are custom ordered. "There are no two windows alike in the world," Miller says, "so there's no sense in stocking blinds then having to shorten them or whatever."
Miller's office is just big enough for a telephone, fax and filing cabinets. As soon as he receives products from his suppliers Miller loads them into the van and heads out to install them. "Products don't sit around here long," he says.
Rather than receiving customers at his office, Miller takes the office to his customers. All of his tools and samples are in the van so he can take everything he needs directly to customers. "That way we can observe their windows, measure their windows and assess their needs in window treatments," he says. "Nine out of 10 times I'll give them a price on the spot and ask for the order. Most of the time we get the order, and in two weeks or less I come back and hang the products myself."
Founded in 1983 by Miller's parents, Bob and Jane Miller, the company now is in Greg Miller's capable hands. The legacy of providing customers with prompt and personal service continues today. Greg Miller says the company's main goal is to make the customer happy. "The thing I really stress is taking care of the customer. I do whatever it takes. If the customer wants it tomorrow by noon, I'll hang it tomorrow by noon," he says. "As long as the customer is happy we'll have all the business we can handle. And we do have all the business we can handle," Miller adds.
Here Comes the Sun
Miller's customers tend to be particular. It's a high-quality market, he explains. "The average condo runs $600,000; the average house probably over a million dollars, but we're also in a area with $2 million to $20 million homes. These people are very discerning. They're very concerned with quality," Miller says.
They're also concerned with the sun. "There are people who build a house then find they can't live there. They're upset because they're sitting in their breakfast areas with sunglasses on trying to read their newspapers or see their television or computer screens and they can't," Miller says. "Most of the people here have built big houses with big windows and have big sun problems that we can solve," he says.
To that end, Aspen Blinds & Draperies sells a lot of blinds, shutters and woven mesh roller shades. "We've capitalized on hard window treatments. That's really what works in this market. Draperies tend to close off the view," he says. Combination treatments with a soft fabric valance or side treatment also are popular, but Miller emphasizes that the hard treatments are the functioning window covering for his customers.
To maintain the awesome mountain vistas, many of the area's homes also feature large windows with arched or angled tops, windows placed high on walls and lots of skylights. In almost every case, Miller says a horizontal blind or a pleated or honeycomb shade will fit the bill exactly. But because of their size, Miller often is greeted with raised eyebrows and questions when he calls in orders to his suppliers. "They'll ask, 'You want the shade 172 by 120 inches?' They've never made one that big," he says.
These windows also are ideal subjects for motorization, which is something of a specialty for Aspen Blinds & Draperies. The motors Miller uses can lift up to 100 pounds and can be controlled by wall switches or remote controls. He explains that battery-operated motors usually won't work because they have a size limitation. "We usually use a 110-volt motor or line voltage for the mesh shade products," he says.
Ideally, Miller will work with a home's contractor while still in the building stages. "I get involved in telling them where to put the electrical service and what type of valance, cornice or pocket to hide the shade in," he says. On one occasion, Miller invented a bottom-up shade that raises electrically on cables. When lowered out of view, the three eight-foot-wide shades store under the window in built-in pockets, he explains.
As for retro-fits, Millers says adding motorization is not that difficult. "Electrical service can go anywhere and can be hidden. Most good electricians can fish a wire to anywhere. It's rarely a problem," he says. When an electrical box sticks out where there wasn't one before, Miller sometimes suggests camouflaging it using faux painting.
Miller also points out that motorized treatments improve a home's energy efficiency, which is especially important in the mountains. "In the daytime it gets really warm here, and in the nighttime it gets really cold. These home owners lose heat through the window," he says. "On one house, all the treatments are on sun sensors. When the sun's heat reaches a certain temperature on the window, the shades will come down automatically," Miller adds.
When Aspen Blinds & Draperies first opened for business, its marketing method of choice was daily newspaper ads and a large display advertisement in the local yellow pages directory. Both of these venues were instrumental in developing name recognition.
Today, Miller prefers more upscale advertising through such outlets as Aspen Magazine, a glossy city publication, and Sojourner, which Miller describes as "sort of a catalog of home furnishing and retail places." The ads feature four-color photography of the interior and exterior of homes Miller has worked on and are designed to leave the reader with a specific impression: "If you're in a $1 million to $20 million home, we're the only place to call because those are the customers we have," Miller says.
A four-color bi-fold brochure that opens to 8 1/2 by 15 1/2 inches is another important marketing tool Miller uses. He estimates the brochures cost several thousand dollars to produce, but to reduce that cost he got six of his suppliers to chip in in exchange for running their logos on the back.
Miller pays for real estate closings from an area title company and each month reaps a "high percentage of calls" by mailing these brochures to new home owners, he says. "Whenever I know a house is under construction, I'll call up and find out who the owner is, who the builder is, who the designer is and who is in charge of the window treatments. I'll call them and ask if I can bid on the windows," Miller adds.
To Miller's benefit, the Aspen area sees a lot of property turnovers -- he estimates $60 million in real estate transactions each month and more than $700 million expected for the year. "A lot of it is new construction, but there's not too many pieces of land left," he says. "People trade up, move around, remodel a place and sell it for a profit. Some of my customers do that four or five times in a lifetime," Miller says.
Each year, Miller tries to pick two or three places to which he will donate window coverings products. In the past he has donated products to Aspen area schools, churches, synagogues and charity projects such as Challenge Aspen, a project to teach disabled residents to ski.
Miller explains that the purpose of donating is to help those in need and to take part in the volunteerism that is an important community function. "You have to give things back to the community if you are going to stay here forever -- and I am going to stay here forever," he says. Although Miller admits these acts do have a networking effect that's good for business. "All that comes back to you in good will and in good comments," he says. Three years ago, as the local chairman of Race for the Cure, a fundraising project to help research and fight breast cancer, Miller helped raise more than $200,000, the largest amount collected in the community to date.
Customers Never Forget
Aspen Blinds & Draperies is not alone when it comes to treating windows in the Aspen/Snowmass area. Miller describes the market as highly competitive. "Between here and Glenwood Springs (a smaller community about 45 miles from Aspen connected by Highway 82), there are 34 companies listed in the yellow pages that do what I do," he says. But Miller doesn't worry about the others. "I really don't think about them. I really don't focus on them. I just focus on what I do every day. I think I'm the best at what I do in the Aspen market, and I think most people in Aspen would tell you that," he says.
Aspen Blinds & Draperies may be alone when it comes to taking care of its customers. Miller remembers times while he and his father worked together that he put up the window treatments while his father helped customers with other requests. He assembled a $5,000 mountain bike that had just arrived, replaced a kitchen sink faucet, installed lights, would hang pictures "and other things that didn't have anything to do with window treatments." Miller says they did these things because they were there, had a ladder or a tool or the necessary skill. "Customers never forget that. They will never call anyone else," Miller says.
"It's a small town and if you do a good job it gets around. But if you do a bad job it gets around, too," Miller says. The word around town on Aspen Blinds & Draperies must be good: "I have all the business I can handle," Miller says.