Aero Drapery & Blind, Little Canada, MN, is bucking the trend. It’s taking an aggressive approach to the market when so many other businesses are retreating in the face of an expected downturn. Not only is Aero Drapery advertising more, it has recently hired two additional staff members (for a total of 19, now) and has just opened its third showroom.
“What we’re trying to do is take a real leadership role in this market,” says Will Bathke, president. “We advertise a tremendous amount,” he continues. “We’ve got decorators throughout the whole region going out to people’s homes. We’re trying to take a larger piece of the slightly shrinking pie.”
It’s working. Bathke says end of the year reports show Aero’s sales up 15 percent in 2007 over the previous year.
“When there’s a down market, we advertise more,” he says. “We kiddingly think: dim the lights, don’t mow the lawn, but advertise more. After 9/11, which was our last big jump in business, we just poured it on with advertising because everyone else retreated. And it’s the same in this market, we have just a tremendous advertising budget.”
Bathke won’t divulge the actual dollar amount, but says he budgets 10 percent of sales. “That is absolutely by design because of the current [economic] situation. Normally, I would budget between six and seven percent,” he says. Where does that money go?
“That’s network TV, radio, we have two major newspapers in our market (Minneapolis/St. Paul), so we do a full-page ad—zoned ads and image ads—in both papers. We’re doing more Internet . . . We try to have a very comprehensive advertising plan, not just focused on one media.”
Likewise, Aero offers a full range of products concentrating on the higher end. That, too, has shaped Aero’s business. “Our business is growing very fast in a down market, so we feel very fortunate. That growth has been in the hard products area. Since becoming a Hunter Douglas Centurion dealer in November 2006, that business is up 63 percent,” Bathke explains.
Soft treatments once were about half of Aero’s dollar volume. Today it’s more like 30 percent, although the total dollars are about the same, Bathke says. “So the draperies business just keeps going and that’s just great.”
Bathke has been a decorator and involved in the industry for some 30 years. In 1994 he and his wife, Paula, purchased the company name and the two began working out of their home for the first four years. “Worked out just great,” he says.
By 1998 business had grown and they began adding employees—one by one, looking for industry veterans and people with a good work ethic. Aero Drapery has grown now to 19 employees. That’s 10 decorators out and about, two installers, three in-showroom decorators and four office and showroom employees. “We’re so fortunate for the wonderful group we’ve surrounded ourselves with,” says Bathke.
“We are still blinds and shades and draperies—that mix. We are primarily shop-at-home. We are very service oriented . . . complete service: measuring, installing, decorating . . .”
With the latest agreement, negotiated and settled as the New Year dawned, Aero Drapery & Blind now has three retail locations. This newest is known as Seven On 7: seven retail businesses have joined in a design studio on Highway 7 sharing common employees. The other businesses offer tile flooring, high-end countertops, carpeting, home automation, custom cabinetry, and custom door and millwork.
Seven On 7 follows an idea Bathke had earlier when he opened what he calls the Showcase Showroom. “That is actually 500 square feet inside a high-end lighting store. It’s something we opened two years ago. We had a good synergy and got to know the owners of this lighting store and that has worked very well.”
“The lighting people love us,” says Bathke, “because they are getting access to the Aero customer. It’s a good customer base. And because we advertise a lot it drives a lot of people to that showroom.”
Aero’s main, standalone retail location is a Hunter Douglas Galley showroom, a partnership Bathke says “has been wonderful.” And only 20 minutes away, Warren Steven Window Fashions is Aero’s fabricator and workroom.
ON A ROLL
With a combination, then, of aggressive marketing, talented staff and three showrooms, Aero Drapery & Blind draws a nice mix of customers: repeat, referral and new. Most sales start with an ad, then a phone call—or an online request for an appointment—often from someone with a historical tie to the company: a customer who was helped four or five years ago and now needs help with something new. “We not only find out how the custom happened to call us in the first place, but also we follow through to see which ads work,” Bathke adds.
Within 24 hours, a decorator is having a phone conversation with that client to get a sense of the project and to verify the time is right for the customer.
Once an in-home appointment is made, the decorator has a goal. “When the decorator goes out, he or she is equipped with samples. They hope they can go out once to identify what the customer or client would like, measure, price and walk away with a check. Of course, many times this happens on the second or third visit, naturally. Our goal, as opposed to going out and visiting with the customer, retreat, and come back with a proposal and sample, is to try to have it the first time around. Because we’re a little higher volume, with a lot of activity going on, we’re as productive and streamlined as we can be.”
Aero also tracks each appointment. Every Monday by noon each decorator reports his or her weekly activity by customer—what products sold, are pending, didn’t sell—so that they can track what advertising is working and what isn’t. This system has produced quality leads. Bathke says the cancellation rate for leads is only two to three percent.
All in all, Bathke says Aero Drapery & Blind has been on a roll for about the last four years, and he intends to keep it going. Even now, with all the problems in the housing industry, Bathke says many of his customers still are new homebuyers. “We are very active—sure, the builders are all down in the mouth, but we’re still working with them. We’re actively going for that business because everybody says business stinks and they’re retreating. We’re out there in a positive, more aggressive mode. That’s really working very well.”
It also helps that Bathke can see the silver lining where others may see only gloomy skies: “In this market, year-to-date, new home sales are down 31 percent, according to my last source (fall 2007),” he says. “I maintain that 70 percent of quite a bit is still quite a bit.