Through his 12 years in the window coverings industry Don Dickey, Affordable Blinds, San Antonio, TX, finds he consistently has been right in the middle of things—and that’s fine with him. “I’m very much hands-on oriented,” Dickey says. “I like to be in the middle of what products are selling, what the manufacturers are doing, what the market is doing.”
Dickey and his wife, Belinda, opened a shop-at-home window treatments business at a time when the San Antonio market was looking for more suppliers. A mild building lull during the 1990s was coming to an end and they found themselves right in the middle of an emerging building spurt. Affordable Blinds grew to where they soon had a warehouse, a showroom, several installers, salespeople and an office staff. “The San Antonio market was just starving for a blind operator who was a little more reasonable in price, a little more cutting-edge as far as service and willingness to perform, and one thing led to another,” he recalls.
Dickey ran the company for six years before rethinking the direction he wanted to take it. He began “fragmenting the company,” essentially giving two other couples who worked with him their own territories in San Antonio, and he began franchising the business. “That has worked out really well,” Dickey admits. He now administers the franchises as well as develops new ones and has three locations in San Antonia and stores in Austin, Forth Worth and Amarillo. “But in addition, I operate my own territory,” he adds. “I go on sales calls, I do installs . . .” In other words, he’s right in the middle of things.
BUILD ON RELATIONSHIPS
Essentially a hard coverings business—about 10 percent of the company’s sales is in draperies—Affordable Blinds offers a full spectrum of products including window tinting, solar screens, blinds (wood and faux wood) and shutters, which Dickey says are “becoming a huge factor just in the last year or so.” The reason, he says, is the introduction of good quality, low cost shutters into the market. “The cost of shutters is going down, and the value of homes is going up.”
“Shutters are wonderful; they’re timeless,” Dickey continues. “I think people have always wanted shutters, I think they were out of the price range for most consumers five to 10 years ago; today that is not the case.” He finds shutters are being integrated more into homes, so perhaps not the whole home is being done in shutters, but the front of the house or the entertainment areas are.
More homeowners are looking for better, higher-end treatments, he adds. “We’re seeing a lot more diversity in the home. Rather than people just wanting the windows covered for privacy’s sake, they’re wanting to give each room it’s own feel.
“People are investing more money in their homes. With that we’ve seen an opportunity to sit back and analyze what’s going on in this person’s home: how long do they intend to be there, is re-sale a consideration? With that, we’ve come up with little bit better strategies than what we had five years ago,” he explains.
Likewise, draperies sales are on the rise. “We have not had a strong drapery program up until about a year and a half ago. I would like to see that number (10 percent of sales) get up in the 15 to 20 percent range,” Dickey says.
Affordable Blinds’ primary customer has been the new homeowner who needs to get windows covered. “But we try to transition that into additional sales later one—whether it be window tinting, solar screens—going from an entry-level product to a shutter a year down the road or adding draperies once they have recouped from the moving experience,” Dickey explains.
Affordable Blinds’ success has come despite a limited amount of marketing: yellow pages, radio, direct mail. “We typically find a lot of that advertising does not reach our target customer—and that’s the new home buyer who is closing in the next 60 to 30 days,” Dickey says. “By the time you’re mailing out to them they’ve already moved in, bought their blinds and we’ve missed that opportunity to start a relationship.”
“We’re fortunate that 70 percent of our business is either repeat customers or referrals. When a new dealer starts up, they don’t have that luxury, so they really have to beat the bushes. We will encourage them to do flyers at construction sites and build relationships with the builders and the realtors and the salespeople at the builders’ sales offices.”
Dickey encourages his new dealers to be out in the subdivisions on evenings when people are looking at their new homes after work and approach them in a tactful way. He advises that they give them a business card, introduce themselves and move on. “Quite often that turns into a sales appointment,” Dickey says.
“The real foundation of our long-term success is referrals. Presenting yourself in a way that you’re asking the customer to please refer you. Being in business this long it’s not uncommon to be doing the third or fourth home for some of our clients. They’ve kept us in mind for their window coverings needs.”
Dickey also stresses value, and with the name Affordable Blinds, fair pricing. “When you get into the entry-level homes it’s all about price, and that can come back to haunt you especially when you get so competitive that you start to get into the lowest-end products. A lot of customers still have high expectations even though they don’t way to pay very much. Our target customer is typically the homes that are between $150,000 and $700,000, which is getting into the high end for San Antonio. Those people typically want a good product, but they want a fair price. They don’t want to be sold short. They want to be educated on the product. They don’t want to be told they are buying something they are not. They really want to know what they are getting. They want to know what else is out there so they can make an educated decision, but they are at a point where they don’t want to do it themselves. They don’t want an economy product. They’ve learned the lesson that you’re going to get what you pay for.”
Affordable Blinds is a shop-at-home business (although any of its franchise owners are welcome to open a showroom), but the company just recently started a new project by opening a storefront—a pilot store, Window Blinds To Go. The plan is to reach out to a higher-end clientele. “It runs amazingly well in tandem with our Affordable Blinds,” Dickey says. “We’re essentially in the same market competing, but we’re appealing to different customers. It has increased sales without cannibalizing the existing business.”
The new concept features “a very classy showroom,” Dickey says. “We display the higher-end products where people are going to be more comfortable about spending that kind of money.
“In the beginning we positioned it to go after the do-it-yourself customers, but that was not what the market was after. In San Antonio they were looking for a full-scale showroom with higher-end products where they could come in and spend some time, get familiar with products and come in several times. Over the course of three or four visits we’ve seen customers spend more money than they typically would with shop-at-home.”
The Window Blinds To Go showroom isn’t large, the building is 1,200 square feet, “but it’s very well laid out. It’s comfortable; it’s almost like walking into a home. It has a lot of home décor, people can sit and converse and walk around and look at displays,” says Dickey. He adds that he keeps the store well staffed and presents a low-pressure sales atmosphere.
Another relatively new venture for the company is aimed at supporting its franchise dealers. It’s Affordable Blinds’ internal wholesale distribution center. It is intended to support company dealers by stocking some of the most common products they sell. “In doing so we are able to deliver a faster turnaround time at a more competitive price,” Dickey explains. “In addition to faster turnaround we have greatly improved our margins by buying in large quantities products that otherwise would not be very profitable.”
Products currently offered through the distribution center are builder program faux wood blinds, door shades and blinds, sheers, micro-blind inserts for doors, arches and specialty hardware and tools. Soon to be added to the lineup will be additional colors in faux wood and wood blinds, retractable screens, roller screens and sidelight shutters.
Before getting into the window treatments industry Dickey spent 15 years in the retail grocery business. It’s a background he believes has had its advantages. “It has been very helpful to me when it comes to negotiating with venders, selecting products, micromanaging products.”
Looking back 12 years ago, Dickey recalls how things were when he and his wife started the company. “I think the toughest part about [getting into this industry] was discerning that’s there’s bad quality window coverings out there and there’s good quality. We learned some tough lessons early on. I became very savvy quick.
“I’m very mechanical and hands-on, and when products started to fail or just didn’t make sense to me why somebody would make something like this I started looking around. As we started getting into more reputable brand names, and as I started picking apart the product, I learned to identify when there was a quality product. You still want a competitive price, but not at the expense of quality to where you’re going to be out in the next five years fixing a customer’s blind all the time.
“It was a real hands-on approach,” he continues. “A lot of it was meeting the manufacturers until I could actually see the blinds and install the blinds and operate them. There was a weeding out process, because everybody tells you it’s a great product!”
Dickey extends this same hands-on attitude to installations. Affordable Blinds uses its own installers, trained by Dickey, and does not outsource the work. “I really want someone who is accountable to the customers’ satisfaction. I find when you outsource it, you’re paying more money, but you also can’t give specific directions as you can when you have your own installers.
“I typically bring people on without experience in window coverings and I train them myself. So in that aspect I’m very involved in the installations. Once they are up and running, we gradually build them into more products. We do all that in-house. I do enough installations to where I can stay in tune with what the manufacturers are doing.” And stay on top of any potential problems—another way Dickey keeps himself right in the middle of things.
A GOOD STARTING POINT
There’s been a major turning point in Dickey’s market, which Affordable Blinds is in a position to take advantage of. “Builders in San Antonio now are starting to push the blinds through the building process,” he explains. “We’re starting to see manufacturers sell direct to the builders, which is unfortunate but is part of the competitive environment.”
That environment includes other retail competitors, too. “It comes and goes,” Dickey says. When he started in the area, there were many storefronts and many of them have since gone by the wayside. Many dealers in the market offer a limited product selection, obviously tied to one manufacturer, he believes.
To differentiate Affordable Blinds from the others Dickey relies on product knowledge and customer service. “We let our own presentation do the talking,” he says. “We’re very well knowledgeable in all the products; we’ve been doing it a long time. We try to educate the customers—70 percent of our business is referrals, so these people have been sent to us by somebody whose opinion they value, whether it’s a family member or co-worker—and that’s a good starting point.
“We educate these people on who we are: how long we’ve been in business, where we stand on quality products, where we stand on warranty and service . . . we’re going to be here five years from now, so if a tilt mechanism breaks we’ll be out there to fix it.”
Often, when dealing with new homeowners, Affordable Blinds’ dealers find themselves working with customers who are constantly dealing with a number of trades in order to get their home ready. “We often hear that when somebody is building a new house, they tell us, ‘You’re the only person that did what they said they were going to do when they said they were going to do it.”