Sample management is not just for the decorator's convenience. Aesthetics factor into the sample display equation because it's important to convey a good impression to customers. Have you ever seen a really awful sample mess in a store or office and asked yourself, "Why would anyone getting ready to spend thousands of dollars for draperies or upholstery consider ordering from a business that's so badly kept?" Anyone expecting to profit by helping customers make residences or offices look better ought to be concerned about the image they convey.
Whether you operate from a retail store, an office or studio, controlling samples is a problem that's magnified as your business or professional practice grows. As business increases heavier demands are placed on the owner and manager. At the same time, more and more fabric company representatives find their way to the firm, all wanting their lines represented in a successful company.
Overnight the sample library grows into a giant resource, representing thousands of dollars in investment and sales potential to both the retailer and the suppliers. If not looked after regularly, the sample collection turns from a vital resource into the essence of chaos and confusion.
As an industry practice, many samples are provided free, and that fact sometimes breeds a cavalier attitude about them, which is very unfair if you think about it. Business is a two-way street. You may not need a zillion suppliers, but those from whom you obtain samples ought to be considered valuable enough to be treated considerately. Their sample books ought to be kept accessible and in good condition in recognition of the critical part they play in the success of both businesses. Be respectful and businesslike about preserving their usefulness.
Plan to Expand
No matter how many samples you start with, every decorator needs to plan for continuous growth. It's a fact of life. To have a good, efficient display system, the key is the ability to expand it easily and rapidly. Otherwise, seeming to multiply before your eyes, samples will overrun your capacity to store them. Each season a new group of samples arrives. Without display flexibility and extra capacity, they'll pile up on the floor, in or on cupboards or in boxes. Soon you'll be unable to find the ones you want quickly.
With the wide variety of samples and suppliers represented in any good library, there won't be any standardization of sample books sizes, so a display system needs to be adaptable for size.
Even if it sounds elementary to say so, saving space always becomes an issue, and planning ahead for inevitable expansion is a good idea. A decorator may think she or he has plenty of room, but experience tells us that samples grow way beyond original expectations. A fixture system and overall display scheme must be able to expand. Remember, while retail rent probably is based on the square footage of floor space, you also are paying for walls, so make use of both to increase effective sample storage.
If you concentrate on in-home sales your clients might not visit your premises, but the need for neat sample management isn't different than that for a retail store with foot traffic. After your in-home visit, customers might want to scout you to see if you look legitimate. Some prospects, who may be spending thousands of dollars with you, will want to feel assured about your business and the way it looks probably will influence them.
But a neat library is really for your benefit. It will save time collecting groups of samples for each sales visit conserving your time and energy for more productive calls.
There are three good ways of organizing a sample library. One of the best ways is to group similar fabric types together. Another way is to group by supplier, which is helpful when it comes to updating prices and stock numbers. The third way is to keep same-size books together, which can help save space. When it comes to making selections the easiest way possible, keeping same-type samples together often works best regardless of supplier. There are products available that can help identify sample books by designating the fabric type or the supplier.
Even with an abundance of samples that are organized and displayed well, it is critical to maintain a housekeeping routine to keep them that way. In a busy store samples always are on the move. To maintain the efficiency you planned, establish a routine for cleaning up and putting things back in order. Neglecting this step eventually will turn a once-efficient library into disarray.
If you are a one-person operation, force yourself to allot a little time to housekeeping once a week. In larger shops, rotate the responsibility among those who use the samples. Better yet, hire a high school student a few afternoons a week for these chores.
It also is helpful to set up a sample log to keep track of sample movements in and out of the library. Most businesses have only one copy of a given sample. If that one sample is loaned to a client, other staff members can save a lot of time hunting for it by first checking the log. A sample log also is a particularly good follow-up reminder for contacting interested customers.
Because of the difficulty of making changes to their samples, most designers and store owners feel they are compelled to accept the standard supplier pattern names and numbering systems on their samples. But doing this makes it easy for consumers to comparison shop. There are a few methods for masking the original supplier pattern numbers and replacing them with your own. It takes extra work and some expense, but given the current climate of competitiveness any method that protects your interests should be considered.
It is easy to mask the supplier identification on hanging print and upholstery samples by replacing tags and headers with private label versions. The task is harder on fabric samples books, but feasible. Found mainly on the inside back, pattern and ordering information can be covered and the appropriate information coded or replaced with your own. No method is 100 percent sure-fire, but these are some steps that can be taken by small retailers to make competition less invasive.
Marv Emerling is president of Emerling & Co., Sunnyvale, CA, a manufacturer of sample management products.