Rebecca Shearn, Decorating Den, West Chester, OH, has been pleasing her customers with full-service interior decorating for more than seven years. This year, she got to taste the thrill of recognition. Shearn was awarded 1996 Decorator of the Year following a franchise-wide contest held this past summer.
Starting on her own in Massachusetts, Shearn has built her Decorating Den to include a full-time assistant and two additional decorators. She also has tripled sales in 1995. Her success comes from her talent, training, in-home sales ability and willingness to take time to listen to her customers and give them what they want. "Anything from the upholstery up," Shearn says. "And with no consultation fees," she adds. "We pride ourselves in being a full-service decorating company," Shearn says. "The company is built around that idea."
Call for Entries
Actually, Shearn is no stranger to contests. She has entered the annual Decorating Den contest every year for the last four -- and has been an award recipient each time. In 1993 she placed third in home office design. Since then she has won mostly first and second places in several categories from window treatment to family room to whole house.
The contests require storyboards, before and after photographs, samples and a write up of the design. They are open to all Decorating Den franchise owners, and this year more than 300 entries were judged.
Shearn is well acquainted with the home for which her living room and dining room designs were chosen for first place in this year's contest. It's a 1920s Tudor-style home she has worked on before. "I've done every room in the house," she says.
Shearn's design retains all of the original architectural elements of the room, including crown molding, hardwood floors and a window seat, and some of its furnishings, as well. But the highlight of the room is the fireplace. Shearn hired a local artist to hand-paint a faux stone finish that matched the stone work on the outside the house. The result was a relaxed and comfortable room with a distinctive, elegant side, Shearn explains.
As with most of Shearn's clients, the home owner was a referral -- this time from the neighbor. The job began with Shearn doing a little girl's bedroom and has continued on to the two rooms most recently completed.
The mix of homes in Shearn's marketing area includes many built in the 1960s, which the owners are beginning to renovate and upgrade. But there also are new homes being built. To tap that market, Shearn participates in home shows. Home-a-rama, for example, is sponsored by the Home Builders' Association. A block of homes, as many as 18, are built by different contractors and finished by different decorators, then opened to the public.
Many of the potential customers in Shearn's marketing area have similar characteristics: They tend to fall in the 30- to 55-year-old age bracket, are double-income families and, like everyone else these days, they're usually busy. Whether they're looking to redo one room or their entire home, they are looking to increase the quality of their lives, but simply don't have the time to spend away from their families and jobs to shop for home decorating fashions.
That's just about perfect for Shearn. Specializing in in-home sales means Shearn brings whatever she needs to the customer's home. There they will have the luxury of discussing the project at a time best suited to the client while sitting in the actual room in which the work will be done. Fabric and color samples can be shown in the actual room as well.
Shearn likes to begin her visit by taking a tour of the customer's whole home, even if they currently are interested in doing only one room. During the walk-through, Shearn can seen how the rooms are decorated, look for repeated patterns, colors or styles and find out what the customer likes and dislikes, she explains. She also will pay attention to how the rooms are used -- formally or informally, by one or two people or by several.
Then Shearn will sit down with the clients and begin the process of defining what they have in mind for the room. To help it along, they go through her portfolio, which may contain between 75 and 100 photographs of previous projects. She also makes it a point to discuss with the customer exactly which pieces of furnishings and accessories they wish to keep, and which they don't.
The key to the in-home sales process, Shearn says, is to take the time to get to know the customers and for them to get to know her. "Truly listen to clients and find out what they want," she advises. "And treat them as you would want to be treated," she adds.
What most customers seem to want is a high-quality look that also is comfortable: using up-scale fabric to create a casual swag, for example. "It's the look of old money," Shearn explains, "and not brand new." In furnishings, each piece stands alone, and often a mix in the type of wood is used. Drapery hardware remains a hot trend, particularly finials and wrought iron poles, and faux finishes, she adds.
Hard window treatments are popular for privacy, especially in newer homes, but represent only about 10 percent of sales, Shearn estimates. Soft treatments remain tops in sales followed by furnishings.
For installations, Shearn sub-contracts work to a husband-and-wife team she has known for several years. "They are great at dealing with customers," Shearn says. They also can handle any project, and just in case, their large truck has room to include a workbench for any necessary adjustments.
In most cases, Shearn tells her customers she can have a single-room project completed in six to eight weeks -- "although often the project is done in four weeks," she says. After the installation, Shearn always follows up with the customers to see how they like their new room. "Quite a few decorators don't follow through with what they tell their customers," Shearn says. By following through on every project, Shearn comes to regard each client "as my customer forever," she says.
Shearn's formal training began when she attended the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, NY. From there she took a part-time decorating job at Wellesley College in Wellesley, MA, working an average of 30 hours a week. During the six years she was there, she discovered many advantages to working for the university. Among them was the opportunity to work with a $30 million budget on a project to renovate 12 of the 14 residence halls on campus.
Shearn eventually was offered a full-time salaried position, but turned it down after realizing she would make less money than working on an hourly basis. Besides, she wanted to go into business for herself. The problem was she didn't think she could afford it. She would have to open accounts with suppliers, find workspace and cover the overhead including advertising her services.
In 1989, she purchased and opened a Decorating Den franchise in her home town. She greatly increased her buying power and now was able to take advantage of the franchise's advertising programs, which include a lifestyle magazine mailed to her customers and four-color post card mailings.
In 1991, Shearn's husband was transferred to Ohio. Shearn checked and found there was a Decorating Den marketing area available that included part of Cincinnati and ZIP codes to the north and east, including Middleton and Springboro.
Soon after moving the business Shearn began seeing increasing revenues. The business was growing, and getting beyond the point at which Shearn could handle it by herself. That's when she enrolled in Decorating Den's Executive Franchise Program. The program, operated out of the corporate headquarters in Bethesda, MD, teaches franchise owners how to take their businesses beyond a one-person operation with seminars on managing employees, payroll and insurance.
"The program helped me with interviewing, hiring and training," Shearn says. "I learned not to hire someone just like me, but someone who was strong in my weaknesses," she says. Shearn's Decorating Den now has a full-time assistant, Millie Ramsey, and two decorators, Lori Franza and Jordi Garceau.
The next step for Shearn is to expand. In October, she was ready to close on the purchase of Decorating Den's southern Ohio region. That means Shearn will limit her decorating to repeat and referral clients while her assistants handles new customers. It also means she will spend a lot of time training new franchise owners. Meanwhile, her husband will join the business full-time marketing and selling new franchises in the region.