Across America you’ll find there is value in making a good product, selling it and servicing it after the sale. There’s also pride in helping the community in which you operate. These are the values Jim and Jeannette Wickwire brought to The Blind Factory, when they started their business in Davenport, IA, America’s heartland, 15 years ago.
From the very beginning the Wickwires also brought another dimension to their retail business: fabrication. They started fabricating vertical blinds in the late 1990s, and being a retail fabricator is key to their success today. Over the years they have added more products to manufacture as demand for those products arose and eventually split off the fabrication business into JJW Mfg. At the same time they have kept adding retail locations for The Blind Factory. They now have seven stretching from Peoria, IL, to Omaha, NE.
As the Wickwires have expanded their business, the biggest portion of sales has remained blinds. Last year they bought a fabric-cutting table and started fabricating their own roller shades. More recently, they have begun developing soft treatments in order to provide fuller service to their customers, also a key to their success.
“All we do are window coverings,” says Jeannette Wickwire. “We don’t do any other decorative products like flooring or wallpaper. It’s all window coverings.” And they offer full-circle service. “From measuring it to making it, selling it and installing it, it’s from us—just us, not outside contractors,” Jeannette adds.
And business is good. Unlike many other markets across the country—notably Florida, California and Las Vegas, NV—the Midwest has not seen the volatile swings in the housing market. “Those markets are hurting,” says Jim Wickwire. “We weren’t taking the big 30 percent increases when the boom was going on, but we’re not taking the 30 percent decreases when it slowed down either.”
Here in the Midwest, there’s a much different market driving force. “As the agriculture business goes, so do our markets,” Wickwire says. “Agriculture is good now. Six dollars a bushel for corn, we haven’t seen that in years.”
SOMETHING TO BE PROUD OF
“I always felt that to be a retail fabricator gives us a little more control over many things,” Jim Wickwire says. “We’ve always felt that retail fabrication . . . gives us a leg up on most competition.
“We’re actually manufacturing our own products,” he continues. “Our salespeople have tons of confidence in what we do. It allows us to give better service when something goes wrong. If something breaks in somebody’s house, they are dealing with the same person that manufactured it and sold it.”
They also control deliveries. “We deliver to each one of our stores, so it gives us more control over delivery times, quality issues, shipping issues and, obviously, there are a little longer margins in fabricating,” says Wickwire.
Basically, from the beginning The Blind Factory has manufactured 70 percent of everything it sells.
“I’ve always felt that being a fabricator, you’re actually putting more business into the local community. You’re hiring people from that community to make product that goes into that community. So you’re providing not only the product, but you’re also providing the jobs. We’ve always been very proud of that fact,” Jim says.
Something else the Wickwires can be proud of. In 2007 The Blind Factory was selected as both the Southern Region BlindCrafter of the Year and the National BlindCrafter of the Year by Comfortex Corp.
What started in the Quad Cities in 1993 has become quite the regional business. A second store was opened in 1994, and another in Cedar Rapids the following year while the Wickwires added cellular shades to their manufacturing list.
In 1996, The Blind Factory opened in Peoria, IL, about the time that two-inch wood blinds “had gone through the roof,” Wickwire recalls. Looking to start manufacturing their own wood and alloy blinds, the Wickwires hooked up with LTL Inc. in Duncanville, TX, to learn the ins and outs of blind fabrication. Soon after, The Blind Factory incorporated and split off manufacturing to JJW Mfg.
A retail store opened in Bloomington, IL, in 1988, followed by Iowa City in 2000. In 2001, the Wickwires moved their main facility and corporate office to a 10,000-square-foot warehouse with a showroom. They also added more lifting systems, including cordless systems and top-down/bottom-up systems. They also began looking to manufacturing roman shades.
Two years ago, the Omaha, NE, store joined the family.
Throughout all this time The Blind Factory remained essentially a shop-at-home business offering free installation. The retail stores average right around 1,500-square-feet and can be found just off the major, high-rent shopping districts.
“We’re not going to be on the biggest commercial strip,” Jeannette says. “We’re a destination shop, and as long as people know where we are, and we have a nice showroom, they can come in. Probably 80 to 85 percent of what we do is shop-at-home, and customers never even see our shop. They just know it’s there and feel confident because we do have a location, we’re not just a van driving around.”
“One of our strategies is that we know that we are not a convenience stop,” Jim Wickwire explains. “You’re not going to be driving down the road and see us and say, ‘Look there’s The Blind Factory, let’s stop.’ Most of the time, we’re off the main drag just a little bit because we know that when people are coming to us they’re specifically looking for us.”
AWARENESS, THEN SALES
The Blind Factory has always featured newspaper advertising in their marketing. Even though they are aware that newspaper readership is dwindling, the Wickwires have found that their newspaper ads have always generated business.
“It never fails. If we run some sort of sale or special and we put in the newspaper only, coming back to the factory we always see sales have picked up in that area, so we know that newspapers drive customers,” Jim says.
They maintain small newspaper ads two to four times a week. Jeannette points out that many of their customers are Baby Boomers and they still read the newspapers. “People don’t really shop blinds until they really need them,” she says. “We’re a destination; we’re fulfilling a need. We’re not necessarily generating sales in the newspaper, we’re generating an awareness.”
The Wickwires understand, too, that no successful marketing plan is single-pronged; it’s a combination that works, so they have branched out. “We’re shifting towards more personal direct marketing,” says Jim. They are investing more in direct mailing and printed flyers, too, and for the under-35 age group there’s the Web site (www.theblindfactorygroup.com). They also do home shows and, as in most cases, referrals and word-of-mouth has been good for them.
FULLBACKS AND HALFBACKS
The Blind Factory’s target customer is defined by the economy and characteristics of America’s heartland. “People where we are here in the Midwest are very loyal to things that are in the Midwest,” Jim Wickwire explains. “We play on that. Most of our ads will have a little tag: Made in Iowa. I think that registers with Iowans . . . a lot. They’re made right here in the Midwest.”
Ideally, the company markets to women aged 28 to 65 years with middle to upper incomes. Here, that means household earnings of $60,000 and up. “We’ve never really focused on any one segment,” says Wickwire. “We always tell our customers if it’s one window or 50 windows, they’ll get the same good deal, the same price. Another one of our tag lines is: The savings are yours because the factory is ours.”
The Wickwires keep an extensive database in their stores of customers, leads and neighborhoods where they have created their own leads. They find some of their best customers in homes that are three years or newer, or seven years and older. “Usually between the three years and the seven or eight years, the owners have pretty much got it decorated and done the way they want it done. Then you get to that point where you’re at the seven- or eight-year range and they’re upgrading and changing the style and redecorating.”
They refer to their market as Baby Boomer heaven, which means they also work with a lot of retirees, known as Boomerangs: A few year earlier they had retired and moved away, now they are coming back. Boomerangs can be fullbacks or halfbacks. Fullbacks moved to warm climates, enjoyed themselves, but as they age and start having grandchildren move back full-time to be with family and help out. Halfbacks retired, moved into a condo, bought another one in a warm climate and move back and forth with the seasons.
Either way, The Blind Factory anticipates 50 million people are going to retire in the next five or 10 years, and they will have the money to re-do wherever it is they settle down.
Looking beyond that, the Wickwires would love to open more stores, but business is a bit soft right now and Jim and Jeannette understand they are a bit spread out. It would take six hours to drive from one end of their market to the other end. Instead, they are looking to expand their fabrication business, to become a regional fabricator for the many smaller markets found within the region defined by their current seven locations.
“When you get into those smaller towns,” Jeannette says, “there are very few big companies that want to send their salespeople out to those smaller markets. With us, we can offer [them] that personal touch.”
It’s a market the Wickwires see as not being served, or as being undeserved, “or just would prefer to do business with somebody that they know,” Jim Wickwire adds, “and speaks the same Midwest language.”