For some window coverings specialty retailers it can take years of steady growth to reach $2 million-plus in yearly sales, and that would be a success story. Brian McGrath jumped into the industry in 2000 and almost immediately became a million-dollar company. He has doubled that by now and has plans to take The Blind, Shade & Shutter Co., Leesburg, VA, into new areas that—based on his current success—will ensure continued growth for years to come.
While “jumped” might be a good way to describe McGrath’s
seemingly quick success, it isn’t fair to imply that he didn’t
first look before making his leap. McGrath spent months studying,
researching, training and observing before opening his own business—and
that was after a friend of his in the industry had been trying to
get McGrath into it “for years.”
“I thought it was a good business,” McGrath says, “and
I thought there was some room for advancement—computerizing
some things, implementing some systems.”
In the end, it was those systems—aggressive advertising, a
consistent sales plan, target marketing and the use of technology—along
with a dedicated staff of eight, a 1,600-square-foot showroom and
an emphasis on customer service that has been the springboard for
the company’s success.
GETTING UP TO SPEED
It all began in 1999 when McGrath spent months getting ready to
open The Blind, Shade & Shutter Co. He figures it was three
months learning about the window coverings industry and another
three months preparing to open his own business.
About 10 weeks of that time McGrath spent at Window Fashion Design
in Indiana, a retail company owned by an acquaintance. McGrath flew
out there three or four times, “watching him work and watching
how his operation went,” he says.
He then spent the next three months studying, getting up to speed
on product knowledge and establishing accounts. A part of McGrath’s
research had to do with where he was going to locate his new business.
He says he would have opened his company “anyplace it needed
to go,” but Leesburg felt right.
“There was a lot of building going on in a couple different
areas of the country that I looked at. This one had the most sound
placement for us because it was an easy fit for me.” McGrath
grew up across the river in Maryland.
“Along with doing the research before I started, I chose Loudoun
County [VA] because at the time it was the fourth fastest-growing
county in the country and it was geographically located someplace
that was good for me.” He adds that now it’s the fastest-growing
county in the country.
“We advertised aggressively, we developed some relationships
with builders, then went after some decorators. That was really
a big bonus for us—focusing on the decorators because that’s
a good marketplace for us,” McGrath explains.
“Being involved with the builder can be overly complicated
for a startup,” he continues. “I went very hard and heavy
with that in the beginning. You end up having to tailor something
to each and every one of them. Then we went to the decorators who
cater to the high-end, and we found that if we set up a program
for them that was easy for them to manage and they got paid in a
timely fashion that they loved us for it, and that’s where
we’ve had our greatest success.”
KEEPING IT SIMPLE
To service customers, decorators and homeowners alike, The Blind,
Shade & Shutter Co. has a staff of eight, including McGrath
and the company’s own installers. The keys to breaking the
$2 million sales figure with few employees are dedication and training.
That means spending time and money to attend training sessions—up
to four different sessions held by vendors per year—to become
certified in various product areas.
With a staff whose most senior member has less than three years’
experience, this training has made all the difference. “Their
jobs become second nature to them,” McGrath says. “Three
years into it there is no more second-guessing.”
“In the process of our learning how to do this, we wanted to
keep it simple for our salespeople,” McGrath adds. “We
wanted to do it in steps until they became proficient at the job.
Once I’ve got somebody here for four or five years, I’m
sure we’ll be able to take on much more interesting and complicated
McGrath also studied the training advice of Bob Phibbs, also known
as The Retail Doctor. “A very, very interesting fellow. Dynamic.
I would recommend reading his book to anybody. I put it in front
of my salespeople and they gave me this look . . . and, truthfully,
after they read it, there was a consensus on how they wanted to
act in front of their customers, whereas before there had been this
I-am-an-independent-spirit-and-I-want-to-do-this attitude. He puts
it in these very frank terms on how they can increase their salaries
and, obviously, increase the sales for the store. When you put it
in terms for a salesperson on how to make more money, they really
do have a tendency to listen,” says McGrath.
The result of following a sales program is consistency. “Along
with having a showroom properly set up, you need to have your sales
staff trained properly to do the same thing every time someone walks
into the store,” he says. Consistency pays off consistently
by building a store’s reputation and referral sales, he adds.
Most of The Blind, Shade & Shutter Co.’s sales are in hard
treatments—and 98 percent of it is in residential sales—although
this year McGrath has made a strong move into fabric treatments.
“We’ve been dabbling with fabrics for three years, but
we just went full-out and really started advertising our capacity
to do it,” he says. “We’ve had a pretty good turn
with it. I would say we’ll do between $250,000 and $400,000
in fabric sales this year.
“It’s a very synergistic thing. If you’re going to
sell hard treatments, selling soft treatments is a natural progression.
It seems it’s a hand-and-glove fit for us; we just didn’t
have the skill set [at first]. I believe truly that it takes probably
two years of real training and educating yourself to get proficient
in the areas needed just to become a beginner.” For workroom
services, McGrath relies on Lafayette Interior Fashions and Kasmir
Normally, McGrath’s plan is to keep things simple and follow
a stepped program, but when it came to offering fabric treatments
he opted to offer not just top treatments, but go all the way to
full draperies. “We just started off with the whole thing,”
he says. “I did make my life simple; I chose pretty stout vendors:
Kasmir and Lafayette. Lafayette, especially, has excellent educational
facilities. I’ve had my salespeople, subsequently, trained
by Lafayette and from there you basically can do it all in a stepped
program. We can do a set of drapery panels, and as far as the first
three or four layers of treatment we can do that and do it proficiently.”
This follows McGrath’s plan of trying to move into a new product,
or a new product line, every two to three years. An earlier addition
was shutters, which he says have been “doing very well.”
Shutters, today, represent at least 40 percent of business. In 2001
they were 20 percent of sales. “What’s unique about us
is we motorized shutters,” McGrath says. “We will remote-
control everything. Everything we sell we can motorize, basically.
That’s a big focus for us. A big moneymaker, too.”
He adds, “A lot of folks ask me how I sell it (a shutter treatment).
It’s very simple: present it.”
Presenting products and services is done in a 1,600-square-foot
showroom that McGrath takes great pride in. The Blind, Shade &
Shutter Co. recently became a Hunter Douglas Gallery dealer. “You
walk in and we have a tremendous presence in our showroom. We have
the most up-to-date showroom in northern Virginia. That matters
to me, and it always has. I’ve always had a tremendous offering
of a wide variety of products. They’re all full-size—no
little, dinky 18- by 24-inch displays. I think people like to see
product and how it’s going to look in their home.”
For higher-end customers—those in the 4,000- to 5,000-square-foot
homes around Leesburg, a showroom also adds legitimacy. “Legitimacy
is key when you’re talking about sales that are $10,000 to
$20,000 sales. Our average sale is above the industry average. Our
average sale is about $2,800 for hard treatments.”
Even with a great showroom, McGrath estimates that 70 percent of
sales are done in the customers’ homes. “We always invite
them to the store first—have them come in and look at the products.
If we get them in here, in the store, we have an 85 percent close
ratio. If we go out first, and they’re having 10 people come
in because they called from the yellow pages, we have a 66 percent
close ratio, which I’m still very proud of.”
Once in a customer’s home, McGrath knows the salesperson must
present a professional, knowledgeable image. That is where technology
comes in—from training to sales to follow-up.
It starts with training, and technology has effectively cut the
initial training time for the sales staff. “They don’t
have to learn the old fashioned method of using a calculator to
calculate the price of everything. It’s all done with a custom
“Everybody’s got a laptop,” McGrath continues. “They
take them into the home, they have laptop printers that they carry
with them so they produce the report right in the home. That helped
the close ratio by five or six percent. It boils down to producing
a quote that [customers] can read, it looks professional, it makes
sense to them and the next salesperson who comes in is scratching
something out on a legal pad . . . the sale is made.”
Four years ago, McGrath consulted with CustEmers.com on marketing
and advertising with a heavy emphasis on using the Internet. The
Blind, Shade & Shutter Co. has a Web site, www.blindsco.com,
and regularly sends e-mail sales flyers to its list of customers.
More importantly for business, software helps McGrath know and understand
the numbers. “We aggressively track lead sources and ad budgets
and gross sales. We track everything. You’ve got to know the
numbers and you’ve got to be aggressive about it,” he
says. “You’ve got to know what you’re spending money
on and what’s returning a value for you.”
As an example of what that has meant for him, McGrath shuns advertising
in the telephone directories. “If you’re paying tens of
thousands of dollars in yellow page ads that are bringing in tens
of thousands of dollars in sales, it’s just paying for itself,”
he says; there’s no profit.
McGrath also stays away from advertising on radio, which has never
worked well for him, and television, which is “a little bit
pricier in the marketplace.” He adds that he has two very dominate
competitors in his market—one a national franchise, the other
a more regional 40-store chain—that are spending $10 million
to $15 million a year in advertising and they both run ads on the
three local TV channels.
“Primarily, we use the local tabloids that get delivered for
free,” McGrath says. “We don’t do the penny-saver
types. We do the local newspapers that have a heavy editorial focus
on real local news. It’s the one I read to find out what’s
going on in local government. My community newspaper is the one
that I focus on most heavily. I split my advertising dollars between
that and targeted marketing.”
McGrath says he focuses on Loudoun Country and its two surrounding
counties for his aggressive marketing. How aggressive? Full-page,
full-color ads at $1,400 each every week for the first two years.
He says he began by setting aside 12 percent of sales for advertising.
Today its more like four percent, and that’s where it’ll
stay now that 55 to 60 percent of customers are referrals.
That’s key, too, because each referral helps build McGrath’s
customer database, which he plans to mine for more business in the
near future. He has in mind other home improvement products that
can make use of his current facilities and trained installers and
will be marketed to his current customers. The way he sees it, if
the salesperson is in the home anyway, and the customer feels confident
in his or her ability to meet their window coverings needs, they
should feel the same about other aspects of their interiors.
CUSTOMERS ‘GET IT’
For McGrath, it all comes down to consistency and loyalty. Consistently
serving customers’ needs creates loyal customers who will keep
coming back for more. That plan works for The Blind, Shade &
Shutter Co. even in the face of strong competition and even with
two major box store chains in the immediate vicinity.
“We are never going to try to compete with [those stores].
It’s not in our best interest,” McGrath says. We will
always soundly thrash them on service. We have a fair price and
the client base that we get understands that.
“We are, dollar-wise, probably dead center in the middle of
the marketplace. We’re not the most expensive; we’re not
the least expensive, and people get that.
“We focus on service. Our people are well-trained, they’re
very respectful, we don’t use any subcontractors and once someone
has been through a [box store] project—the one time they do
it in their lives, whether it be for a deck or a floor or a window
treatment or whatever—they find that they’re dealing with
two different subcontractors . . . there are way too many layers.
People want to be able to come in and shake your hand and say, ‘OK
so you’re going to take care of my house?’ And we say,
‘Yes, we are’.”