Since the company was started in 1990 Quality Blinds & Shades has been building business - slowly at first, but then by leaps and bounds. It took until 1993 to show a "small" gross profit, says Tom Hudson. But the next year business tripled and was "terrific" in 1995. "We doubled 1994 by November," Hudson says.
Headquartered in a storefront showroom in downtown Sonora, Quality Blinds & Shades specializes in hard window coverings: mini-, vertical and wood blinds; pleated, cellular and roller shades; plantation shutters; and top treatments. Hudson estimates 70 percent of the business is residential window coverings - many going into new homes. The contract and commercial business also includes new construction. A recently completed job, at Skyline Place, was "a very good job for us" installing one- and two-inch metal blinds at the retirement center, he says.
The husband-and-wife team divide the work and responsibilities. Tom Hudson handles in-home sales and installations. He learned installation "the old fashioned way, on the job," he says. About the only product he doesn't install is wood shutters because they require more space and specialization for custom fittings. Jennifer takes care of accounting, schedules appointments and manages in-store sales.
The success of this couple-owned and -operated business is founded in the basics of good retailing: offering a specific high-quality, custom product; providing customers with complete service from sales to installation; and simply doing the legwork, whether it means knocking on doors for business, putting in 10- to 12-hour days six days a week, learning much of the job through hands-on experience or taking the extra step to ensure customer satisfaction. It all can be summed up in one sentence: "Hard work is the bottom line," Hudson says.
Much of the Sonora area is resort. Deep in the heart of what once was booming Gold Rush territory, the area today is peopled with newcomers, many from the San Francisco Bay area, looking for a vacation retreat or a retirement home.
This latest wave of residents means plenty of building, and many of Quality Blinds & Shades' customers are moving into new homes. The remainder are remodeling jobs. In either case, doing window coverings for an entire house is not usual for the Hudsons. Although Tom says a customer could want anywhere from one to five to 20 windows covered, the average job runs about eight window treatments per project.
In the foothills of the Sierra Nevada weather plays an important role in a home owner's decision for window coverings. Hudson says insulated pleated shades are an especially big seller because they keep out the cold weather during winter and the sun's heat during summer. Jennifer Hudson adds that vertical blinds with a tight stack-back also are popular because they open a customer's window to the surrounding mountain views.
One of the disadvantages of working in the area is that many customers don't want to spend a lot of money on a retirement home or a part-time residence, Jennifer explains. But the Hudsons offer very competitive prices, even compared to large national chain stores. "We can compete on price on a product-by-product basis," she says.
With the next biggest shopping areas 40 to 50 miles away at Modesto or Stockton, customers tend to be loyal to the Sonora community and shop locally. And timing doesn't seem to be a factor. The Hudsons' main supplier, Hunter Douglas, can deliver custom orders in three to five days. Instead, Tom Hudson explains that it is the long-term service Quality Shades & Blinds provides that customers look for, even though they might end up paying $10 more for a treatment. He points out that someone from one of the chain stores in Stockton "isn't going to drive up to fix something. Service goes hand-in-hand with sales."
Hudson estimates there are about 10 window coverings retailers in the area. Most of them, however, sell primarily soft treatments. In fact, one of the store's head-to-head competitors is a husband-and-wife team similar to the Hudsons, except they specialize is soft treatments. In a town of 50,000 residents, competitors sometimes end up working together. That happens because decorating styles tend to run along traditional lines with a Victorian look, according to Tom. Jennifer adds that hard treatments often are used in combination with draperies or other soft coverings. "If we can work together, then it's nice," Tom says.
Quality Shades & Blinds is the only window coverings retail outlet with a storefront. Although most sales are made through in-home sales, Jennifer estimates the store does between $1,500 and $3,000 a month in walk-in business. Located on the two-lane highway passing through Sonora the store is on the same street as other building and supply stores making it especially convenient for builders or remodelers. In the same area is a store selling tile, a glass company, a carpeting outlet and a hardware store.
The Hudsons budget between $600 and $700 a month in advertising and make use of supplier-provided co-op monies. Most of it is spent on running newspaper advertisements. The two- by three-inch or three- by three-inch ads usually run twice a week.
"We have a beautiful ad in the telephone book," Jennifer adds. That half-page color display ad lists Quality Blinds & Shades' products, shows their manufacturer's brand names, promises customers they will be glad they checked prices and mentions the fact the store is locally owned and operated. Jennifer explains the advertisement has been used as a model for other retailers.
The Hudsons have tried a direct mailing campaign, as well. They used a store coupon as a bill stuffer sent to 12,000 addresses. The result was to bring in new customers and pay for itself, Tom says. They also exhibit at the annual spring home show, an assembly of every business with items for homes from chain saws to tractors. This year the Hudsons are planning to expand their booth. "Basically we take our whole store and set it up in the booth," Tom says.
Perhaps their best effort has been directed to new home owners. The Hudsons get a list of names that have been issued building permits. They send these potential customers promotional packs that include brochures explaining their products and services. "Nine times out of 10, when the painters finish and the new home owners are ready to move in, we get a call," Tom says.
But making the extra effort is what Tom and Jennifer Hudson are all about. Even before a new home is completed, Tom is out at the building site on weekends. That's when he's likely to run into new home owners out checking on their home's progress, and Tom gets a chance to introduce himself and Quality Blinds & Shades.
"Growing up I learned if you want to make something of yourself you have to work hard," Tom Hudson says. Tom learned about work at an early age, running his own lawn cutting business at age nine or 10. Later he worked in a grocery store for several years, and at age 20 was introduced to window coverings by a friend who had started the business right out of high school and encouraged Hudson to get involved.
For four and a half years the Hudsons operated out of their home. It was a small operation then, and basically has remained so ever since. The couple printed business fliers and began knocking on doors. Tom Hudson met and got to know many of the area's home builders who were busy with new housing developments. The two got an opportunity to work on some model homes, and now these clients refer other builders to Quality Blinds & Shades.
As business boomed in 1994 the Hudsons realized they needed more space. "After four and a half years of working out of our home, we needed a store," Tom says. Besides being young and aggressive marketers, Tom and Jennifer Hudson also are goal-oriented. Once the couple decided to open a store, they set a two-week goal to find the right space. One day Tom was passing the dry cleaners in downtown Sonora and noticed an empty store next door.
In February 1995 the Hudson's moved into their new space and opened for business March 1. New fliers were printed and soon Jennifer Hudson was out placing them on cars and knocking on doors. Making the transition to retail space even easier was the fact the Hudsons had display materials from their supplier in storage and ready to set up. "It all happened at the right time," Tom says.
Both Tom and Jennifer appreciate the advantages of owning their own business. "There's no one telling you what to do or how to it," Jennifer says. Tom adds, "If we need to take time off, we can close." There also is the opportunity of working with people. "This is a people business," Tom says. "It's rewarding to enhance clients' homes, and it's good to feel we're a part of that." Of course, there are disadvantages. "Taxes, expenses, not having a certain, steady income," he says.
Business at Quality Blinds & Shades tends to be seasonal. It starts up in March right after the home shows and runs through the middle of December, Tom explains. Time at the end of the year provides the Hudsons time to set new goals. "Do more," is Tom's plan for 1996. For now that doesn't mean expanding the store's product mix. The Hudsons believe in specializing in one thing and doing it right. That means hard window treatments, although they understand that could change. "In time we will be forced into draperies," Tom says.
Continuing Quality Blinds & Shades' success rate would be welcomed, although the Hudsons plan to do that cautiously. "Too much growth means losing the personal touch," Jennifer says. "Our customers know we are there from start to finish," Tom adds. Predicting the business climate of the future is full of uncertainties, but whatever happens the Hudsons will work it out. The way Tom sees it, "When business starts getting tough, I'll have to hustle harder."