Workrooms of all sizes need to realize that our similarities unite us more than our differences divide us. Regardless of the absence of day-to-day interaction, we are all interconnected in ways we might not realize. Even though it can be said that workrooms are often in competition with each other, it may be possible that we are linked in ways not evident at first glance.
All of us are aware of competitors who compete based on price. While many of us would never dream of picking up the phone to tell our sister workroom that she could be making a decent living wage if only she would price her products at their true worth, most of us do wish that someone would make that phone call for us. Those who have been in this business for any length of time can tell stories of decorators asking us to lower our prices because “the other workroom” doesn’t charge nearly that much. My usual response is, “She needs to go up on her prices.”
More than once in that situation the decorator’s response was to bring us more work rather than less work at our regular prices. When that happens, I have to consider what makes people bring us work when our prices are higher.
The tipping point is delivery time. It seems as though the workrooms that compete on price fill up with work so much that their delivery times becomes extended. The decorator and the client have a limit of only so much time they are willing to wait. There are only so many hours in the day. The workroom that sells itself too cheaply can only do so much work in a day until the pipeline is clogged and wholesale clients turn to someone else who can deliver.
The workroom that expects loyalty from wholesale accounts based on sacrificial work with slim profits not only is unprofitable but disappointed as well. Rather than strengthening their businesses by making adequate profits, they fail to prosper as they should and weaken the entire industry in the process. It is extremely difficult to raise the living standard of workrooms as a whole when sacrificial workrooms are willing to give of their labors with little or no rewards. If a decorator/client is willing to pay higher prices for timely delivery, then the higher prices are the true worth of the product. The higher priced workrooms, then, are able to command higher prices and still have plenty of work.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU RAISE PRICES
Custom products would be available to potential clients even at the lowest financial level if they were all but free. Realizing that, we can see how the work pipeline becomes unnecessarily clogged when a workroom fails to price adequately. By raising prices, lower end customers are priced out of the market because our products are bought with discretionary dollars that not everyone can afford unless we willingly give up our profit. Raising prices boils down to making more money with less work. While it can be argued that everyone wants our products, it is not our job to guarantee that everyone can afford our products.
Raising prices raises the quality of our clientele. Increasing prices attracts customers who are more than willing to pay for exclusivity. Paying more differentiates them from the run-of-the-mill person, which is something that is important to their sense of self and well-being. A workroom competing on price and wondering why its clientele isn’t of a higher caliber simply hasn’t studied human nature. People want to feel special and cheap is not special.
Workrooms up and down the line, whether small or large, can help support adequate pricing for the entire industry by realizing that what we are selling is, in and of itself, a premium product and further realize that there is a market of clientele that appreciates our products being premium rather than mass produced. The prime motivation of this group of clients is not saving money, but buying exclusivity. Our products are exclusive by definition because they are one-of-a-kind. Therefore, the only entity that can take away that exclusivity is the workroom that does it voluntarily by devaluing what it does by not charging enough.
Better paying clients help workrooms to slow down and produce workmanship that is ever increasing in quality. In discussions with hundreds of workroom owners, I have noticed that we as a species tend to concentrate on competing not only on price but also on quality. Often we try to produce top-notch quality at bargain basement prices and think that is the key to success in the workroom industry. However, in discussions with retailers and customers, I find that their goals run counter to the strategy of many workrooms.
KNOW YOUR MARKET, AIM FOR IT
The goal of the average customer is reasonable quality and timely delivery. Most people want it and they want it now. While there is a threshold of low quality that must not be crossed, often the highest quality of workmanship is unnoticed by the end user because customers concentrate on the finished product as a whole, rather than taking the time to closely inspect the individual parts.
There is a customer base that is well aware of high quality and is willing to spend the money for that quality. However, taking the time to produce exquisite quality for an unappreciative customer base is not profitable.
Of course, unprofitable businesses statistically do not survive. Workrooms need to align their emphasis with the expectations of their clientele and charge accordingly. By being perceptive in reading the local market and tailoring product offerings to the needs of the market, workrooms can move towards higher quality at higher prices or towards adequate quality at lower prices.
In most markets there is a need for a whole spectrum of workrooms ranging from the bottom (bottom meaning the lowest level of clientele that can afford custom) to the very top. By determining which level of the market is not being adequately served and finding a particular niche, there is room for multiple players in the workroom industry in most local areas. Often there is no reason to go head-to-head in competition with another workroom when there is plenty of room in the market if the right adjustments are made in market approach.
Many small workrooms think they are “outgunned” by larger commercial workrooms by virtue of their ability to charge lower prices due to higher production. However, the small workroom has a distinct advantage over a large commercial workroom. That advantage is The Handholding Factor. The fact that there is precious little training for retailers in the soft coverings industry means that decorators and designers have to be exceptionally quick studies to work from afar with larger workrooms, or they have to spend time with a local workroom until they are up to speed.
Discussions with large commercial workrooms reveal that they are very aware of the role small workrooms play in training retailers to become knowledgeable customers of the larger operations. In fact, one gentleman with whom I talked suggested that it is a shame that smaller workrooms view the larger workrooms as competition, when workrooms small and large could be working in tandem.
Connecting the small and the large operations might prove to be vital to the soft coverings industry in the near future. As the workroom workforce ages, many people quit because they just can’t hold up to the heavy lifting anymore. A marriage between commercial workrooms to produce the heavy products and the independent workrooms to retain the work that they are physically able to do could extend the life of fabricators and help the industry as a whole for years to come.
Additionally, we come full circle back to the delivery time issue. By farming out heavy work to the commercial workrooms small operators can increase their productivity and maintain their client bases. Small workrooms would be far better off to retain the handholding advantage by sending work to the commercial workrooms themselves rather than have their wholesale accounts drift to the commercial workrooms because of delivery issues.
Small workrooms farming work to commercial operators would be good for the large workrooms as well. Small workrooms have a complete grasp on the necessity of well-written work orders and are knowledgeable about yardages, etc. Order processing would be streamlined for the larger workrooms because they are working with a professional who knows the process. Filtering work orders through a local workroom has the potential to reduce errors, which helps the decorator, client and the commercial workroom. Errors are not good for anyone, no matter who is to blame.
By taking advantage of the price savings by using commercial workrooms, small workrooms can increase their profits by concentrating on what they do best. Larger workrooms can charge less because they can produce work faster. They hire people who do one thing and do it over and over. For example, products such as panels, which many small workrooms do not produce quickly enough to be profitable, could be sent to the larger workrooms. Because panel departments can be set up to turn out the work quickly by multiple employees working in assembly line fashion, commercial workrooms can plug and play workers and charge less because of higher productivity.
The problem of skilled craftsmen and how to find, train and retain them is just as real for the large operation as for the smaller workroom. But it would be easier for a large workroom to find and train employees with less expertise in a panel department rather than find skilled people for a fancy work department. The skilled artisans who produce complicated products can be right there in the smaller, local workroom concentrating on moneymaking products while sending away products that simply are too cumbersome and time consuming. The retailer then has her local workroom to be the technical support and delivery times are more in line with expectations.
Workrooms do affect one another, whether we realize it or not. It’s time for us to harness that interconnection and make it work for us instead of against us. By finding ways to communicate and by using the strengths each of us brings to the worktable, we can tighten up our industry. It’s counterproductive to compete in areas that we could approach jointly in ways that would be beneficial to everyone. Workrooms, small or large . . . we’re all in this together.
Mary Ann Plumlee is the owner of a retail and wholesale workroom. Starting with only $50 and a home sewing machine in 1985, her business has expanded to include a showroom, 12 employees and two locations. She firmly believes that in this business only the tough survive. Finding the humor in the everyday life of a “curtainlady” is how she not only has survived, but thrived in this industry. Plumlee is often seen traveling around the country teaching classes and seminars. She is the author of The Adventures of Curtain Lady and has launched a workroom related blog: www.workroomintelligence.com.