"The customer almost freaked out!" Johns says. "She was afraid what she was going to get would not be as good quality as New Concepts blinds. In the Atlanta area, we have a very well respected name."
As a retail fabricator in Acworth, GA, New Concepts has a lot more going for it than that. The residential half of the business has what Johns estimates as a 95 percent rate of repeat or referral customers and an enviable reputation with the area's home builders. On the commercial/contract side, New Concepts is involved in high-profile jobs such as doing the windows for the remodeling of Atlanta's Fox Theater. Johns also is working to develop a lucrative opportunity with a national chicken restaurant franchise using a new licensed, patented insert blind product the company is fabricating.
As a fabricator, New Concepts also has the quality control, fast turnaround and product flexibility it needs to supply all of the custom shades and blinds it sells at retail. In addition, Johns has partnered with three select dealers whom he has helped into the business and is now supplying.
It has taken Vern Johns and wife Shelly since 1989 to get New Concepts to this point. That was the year Vern ended his tenure at Levolor to go out on his own. "I started in the verticals business because it didn't take much capital to make verticals," Johns says. "I worked right out of our basement," he adds.
In six months the business had grown beyond the Johns' basement and into a leased 2,300-square-foot building. The following year it moved again, this time into a 6,000-square-foot building in Kennesaw, GA. An additional 5,000 square feet was available and before long that space was taken on as well.
The key to the company's growth and success, Johns says, "has been living up to what we say, and providing a final product suitable to the customer for what he's paying. Our line on the business is to offer a good quality product at a good price and to stand behind the product." Follow-through service also is a New Concepts specialty. "We've hand-selected a blind cleaning and repair company to work with us," Johns says. The result has been customers much like the one mentioned above who seek out New Concepts' blinds and shades to the exclusion of all others.
With very few exceptions, all the window coverings sold through New Concepts' showroom are custom-made right there in Johns' 20,000-square-foot Acworth facility no more than 30 miles northwest of downtown Atlanta. Johns took three months to make the move because he didn't want to shut down production. Now with the larger facility and three acres of property, New Concepts has room to grow at Johns' discretion.
The New Concepts facility includes a small showroom, which is more than adequate for Johns' needs. "Basically, we make wood blinds, we show a wood blind. We make polywood blinds, we show a polywood blind. We make a motorized blind and we show that. We do pleated shades, we show them. We do mini-blinds, we show a mini-blind," Johns says.
More important, the showroom is more than adequate for New Concepts' customers, even though it's not located in a centralized shopping area. "The reason I left Kennesaw was that we were paying a very high dollar amount just for visibility," Johns says. "It's not like I'm going after any mass market," he adds. "Most of our business now is customers calling us saying, 'Come measure our house,' or 'We want blinds.'" he says. "They'll say, 'Measure the house and you pick the color to match the molding.'" Just about the only other thing customers what to know is, "When will they be in?" he laughs. The answer usually is no more than five days.
Quick turnaround on products is important both to New Concepts' customers and to its bottom line. "To get better prices from suppliers you have to buy in better volumes. But why buy a whole bunch of merchandise if it takes you six months to sell it? What you save in volume you lose in storing inventory. We try to keep minimum inventory and keep use and turnover going," Johns explains.
Shelly's hard work and persistence are credited for the growth of the retail business and for getting it to the point where it's 95 percent repeat or referral customers. Johns appreciates the value of word-of-mouth advertising. "When you do advertising, it's hit and miss-or shooting from the hip as I say. We've tried newspapers and spent a lot of money. We've tried billboards and spent a lot of money. We've tried coupon books and spent a lot of money," he says.
New Concepts' customer approval and loyalty hasn't escaped the area's home builders, either. "Builders love us. They recommend us because they know they're not going to have any repercussions from the home buyers," Johns says.
New home construction in the area is "going crazy" Johns says with each new home averaging 23 windows. He believes Atlanta is the current hot spot in the nation for home construction. "The reason I love the new home market so much is because we know a customer's approximate closing date, and sometimes that can be a month from now. We can schedule the production and installation of window treatments with little problem," he says.
Wood and polywood blinds are the big sellers these days. For several years, Johns fabricated vertical blinds for a couple of national brand name manufacturers, but says verticals never were very popular in Atlanta. For one thing, French doors are used more often in homes than sliding glass doors, he says.
Motorization is a growing area for New Concepts despite its higher cost to consumers. Johns says in Atlanta, motorization has followed the same "me too" route as wood blinds. "When home owners see it in one home, they want it in theirs too," he says. "People seem to have the money to spend. The market seems to be moving toward a higher-end everything in the home," he observes.
Take a Chance
Fabricating custom blinds and pleated shades has been a hallmark of New Concepts from the very beginning. Johns understands that startup costs are a limiting factor for many retailers, but fabricating what he sells has benefited the business through quality control and a fast turnaround on custom products. It also provides product flexibility, which is an important way for Johns to differentiate New Concepts from all the others in the market.
"The competition," he says, "ranges from 'trunk-slammers' to other retail fabricators. But there's a big difference in the quality of product that's being offered. You can drive through some subdivisions and see the poor quality window treatments-the way they hang, the way the start sagging. Usually by then it's too late and you feel sorry for the customer," he says.
Johns explains that in a high-growth market like Atlanta, whenever someone comes out with a new product or a new feature, there is always someone else who will try to buy a cheap knock-off and sell it for the same price. "Builders in major growth cities have standard-size windows and companies buy an inexpensive ready-made product in those sizes and sell it for top-of-the-line, custom prices," Johns says. "That's what erodes the market and makes some people not want to pay the full price for quality products," he says.
To counter the consumer notion that blinds are a commodity, Johns has helped develop two new products which he markets through New Concept. One is a two-inch horizontal blind with hidden rout holes, the other is Danielle, a custom insert horizontal blind product from BlindVisions LLC of Alpharetta, GA.
The insert blind allows laminated fabric or wallpaper to slide through grooves along the top and bottom edges of each slat to create the distinctive look of custom printed blinds. Although laminating has nearly always been available in the blinds market, Johns says in the past they've been much more labor intensive than his new product making it more difficult to get the retail price needed to cover overhead. He also has contacted a computerized photo imaging source that can enlarge a customer's photograph to the exact the size of the blinds. The photo then can be slit and inserted into a blind.
Johns foresees the insert blind as merging hard and soft window treatments. "Combining soft treatments with this new blind will create a total look. It will eliminate having a beautiful fabric treatment with a big blank space in the middle. It will add the convenience of a blind to the beauty of a soft treatment," he says. " For many customers it will be less expensive to put slit fabric into the horizontal blind slats and dress up the window with a swag than to do a complete, all-fabric treatment."
Johns also sees commercial value in the insert blind. New Concepts is doing showrooms for a couple of fast-food chains that are using corporate images and advertising photographs as inserts. "If they have to put blinds in their restaurants, why not use them for advertising?" Johns asks.
Developing and marketing this new insert blind is an important aspect of New Concepts success story: Vern and Shelly Johns are not opposed to taking a certain amount of risk to stand out in the industry. "I'm not afraid to at least try something once. I'm not afraid to make a mistake. If you don't take chances, you stay right where you're at. You have to be willing to change and take chances," Johns advises, "But if it doesn't work, you had better realize it quick enough to regroup and change your direction."