It is hard to believe that 50 years has past since I started selling drapery fabrics and manufacturing in our family-owned retail fabric store,” says Joseph Barnett. “Prior to my 12th birthday I spent many days in our store helping straighten the remnant counter and doing other activities to either help or aggravate my dad. I understood retailing at a very young age. I actually started selling fabrics before I was 12.”
Barnett’s family had three stores in Massachusetts; in Newton, Salem and Malden—the Malden store moved to Saugus before Joe got his driver’s license. “My uncle in the Newton store started to bring in drapery fabrics. He hired a few women to sew in their homes, an installer and a slipcover cutter. I shared in the use of these people and soon I was selling draperies and going along on Saturday as our installer’s helper. He was willing to share all kinds of good insight and advice. I soon felt comfortable dealing in the store with any situation that the customer could share with me about the installation. At that time we didn’t do any home sales calls, so everything had to be determined in the store. Most everything sold were basic draperies.
Would you believe that we had a special offering: Our labor price was $1 to make up a pair of draperies (not per panel). We added 50 cents to line the pair. This was our cost. It took one of our stitchers 1 1/2 hours to fabricate a pair of draperies. Can you imagine?”
Barnett advertised and hired sewers who worked from their homes. “It was a great job for them as most had children, and it was terrific for us as we had more control over the manufacturing. Everything was hand finished. It was amazing the quality that we got for our cost. I needed to determine what fabrics could be handled by each stitcher. We had loose weave casement fabrics, sheers and upholstery weight fabrics. Each of these needed special attention. I found out who could handle what and we were off and moving.”
Barnett worked in the fabric store as he was going to Boston University. Even after he graduated and got a full-time job as a buyer for a local department store, he still had time to service drapery and window treatment customers. “I left the department store after my dad took ill and moved to full-time work in our store. Boy, did I love what I was doing,” he recalls.
Then, in 1979, a major fire hit the store he was working in. “The dress fabric business was almost extinct and I wanted to do more home decorating than selling fabrics. I separated with the family and opened The Reflective Designer in 1980.”
“When I was in college I found out that I had a real interest in the insurance business. But I was told that I would have to start selling to my relatives and friends. I didn’t want to hound them, so I went into retailing. When I started my new business from home I had no choice but to advertise to friends and, fortunately, with my involvement in my community I was an instant success through recognition. I started selling to friends and friends of friends. I knew that good words spread—sometimes slowly—but bad words spread very quickly. So for me to be a success I had to make sure, one by one, that all my jobs went well and if there was any problem to take care of it faster than I sold the job not only to keep my reputation strong, but to keep friends as well.
“I also learned from my family that to keep the best relations with our vendors was critical in being able to service our customers. I made sure my bills were paid on time even before I put food on my table. This one personality trait of mine has helped me to give the best quality at the fairest of prices in every product category that we sell. That is the one area of my business career that I am most proud of achieving because it has allowed me to service my customer better than most of my competition has done.”
Up to the mid ’80s everything was terrific for Barnett and his business. Then the industry started offering dealers more than one price sheet in order, he believes, to inflate the conceptual value of the product and allow dealers to take huge discounts off the suggested retail prices. “I thought more highly of my customers and friends than to make such claims,” Barnett says. “I never advertised the 50/50 or even higher discounts. This led to my not getting a lot of the business as I was now being perceived as charging higher prices. What is most interesting is that I actually bought the products for the lowest prices and sold them at a markup very similar to my competition. But since I didn’t advertise week after week the same discount prices, I lost a lot of those new potential customers.”
THE NEXT 50 YEARS
Barnett is most proud of four areas of achievement during the mature years in the business.
First, he became the Northeast board member of the Window Coverings Association of America. “WCAA gave me an opportunity to meet people from all over the United States. I became very active and I started the local chapters. I started the first local chapter in the Massachusetts, and now [local chapters] have grown to cover most states in the United States. We emphasized training and education to make our members really qualified to service the customer,” he says.
Second, he developed the first design software for the industry. It worked like an overlay system with four layers. The first showed shades, blinds and shutters. The second showed underdraperies. The third was draperies, and the fourth was valances, cornices, lambrequins, swags and jabots. Using the software, the layers could be switched easily and a new look could be seen by the customer.
But Barnett thinks he was way ahead of his time. No one in the industry used computers back then. Of course, that has all changed today.
His third area of achievement just happened a year ago. After so many years in business Barnett realized that there are still ways for him to better his position in the market. “I joined Exciting Windows! The group started Window Covering University, for which I am an instructor, to give more management skills to the owners and selling techniques to make everyone in our industry at all levels more skilled and more professional.”
Barnett also made a big commitment to his window treatments supplier by becoming a Hunter Douglas Centurion dealer, which he considers the fourth achievement in his career.
The Reflective Designer specializes in window treatments, but during the past 50 years Barnett has brought in all related products including slipcovers, upholstery, bedding, decorative hardware and trimmings, as well as carpet and flooring. He always comments on how terrific his employees are and especially the ones behind the scenes. His stitchers, installers and suppliers all in their own right service The Reflective Designer customers with the same respect he and his sales partners do.
Today Barnett is looking forward to maintaining all his high ideals as he begins his next 50 years of making new friends and providing a service of excellence to everyone he comes into contact with.