Outlook's first, second and now third generation of family members have known what it takes to make a successful business endure. For most of its early years the company manufactured and sold window treatments wholesale surviving not only two World Wars and the Depression, but countless other business twists and turns that could have made it a casualty of history instead of a part of it.
When the company decided to open the factory doors and begin selling retail in 1984, it did so in a big way. In a little more than 12 years, Outlook Window Fashions opened seven retail outlets in the suburbs west and north of Chicago and moved its factory into a new, larger facility in Gurnee, IL. At retail it now offers both in-store and in-home sales.
President William O'Connor says what has made Outlook Window Fashions so successful for so many years is its emphasis on the customer.
"The key to our success is the commitment we make to service," O'Connor says. "We try to objectify all the subjective elements, what we call the X-factors: the quality, selection and delivery of products," he explains.
Outlook Window Fashions manufactures the vast majority of the products it sells. Throughout its history, the company has gained experience manufacturing just about every type of window covering there is from two-inch steel blinds in the 1940s, to interior wood shutters in the '50s and woven woods in the '70s. In addition to top national brand name products, Outlook today features its own lines of vertical (fabric and PVC) and horizontal blinds, woven wood shades and standard pleated, single- and double-cell honeycomb pleated shades.
Through both its manufacturing and retail efforts, Outlook has invested in "thousands of yards of fabric, coil and hardware," O'Connor says, so all customer orders are available in two days. "What differentiates Outlook from others who have featured this offer is product selection," he says. "This offer doesn't just cover limited products or select colors, but everything we make," he adds.
Outlook also distinguishes itself through delivery and installation. Products either can be ready in two days, or installed in two weeks, O'Connor explains. At the point of sale, an installation date can be set. That date is guaranteed, or an additional 10 percent is taken off the purchase price. "It's important to customers. They have to take time off work or make other arrangements," O'Connor says. "Ninety-nine percent of other retailers will wait until the product is delivered to them, then have the installer call for an appointment," he adds.
Rebuilding the company's corps of installers, who work on a contract basis, was one of the first things O'Connor did at Outlook. It began with a weeding out process. "There's a big difference between guys who can install and those who can install and represent your company," he says.
Customer service and rapid delivery has been a source of pride for Outlook Window Fashions since its founding. The company got its first telephone in 1895, four years after Joseph Perkowitz Sr. opened his first store in Evansville, IL, and less than 20 years after Alexander Graham Bell had invented it. By the year 1905, delivery man Nick Pubo was bragging about the speed of the company's delivery horse. Apparently, he had never lost a race!
For its first 93 years in business, Outlook Window Fashions sold only wholesale. Its product offerings changed with the times beginning with roller shades, picture frames and parasols in 1891. Two-inch steel Venetian blinds were added in 1937, which were changed to wood in 1944 as steel was rationed for the war effort. In 1954 shutters were added to the product line and draperies a year later. A new type of insulated shade, invented by William Perkowitz, was introduced in 1979.
By this time the family's second generation was running the company. William, Joseph's son, joined the company in 1943 at the age of 16. But it didn't stop there. William's two sons, Dave and Tom, joined the company in 1983 representing the third generation.
The whole history of the company changed in 1984. That's when it began selling retail. An era of expansion followed that has led to the company's current standing as "financially, one of the strongest companies in the industry," O'Connor says. It's latest innovation in company operations was adding daily truck deliveries from its factory to each of its stores.
Research and Analysis
Outlook Window Fashions has sold product at retail now for a little more than 12 years, having opened its first store in 1984. Since then, it has branched out to seven outlets. On average that's more than one new store every two years, but actually most of the new locations opened during the four years O'Connor has been with the company.
An analysis of shoppers found that most customers come from within a radius of five to 10 miles. So, O'Connor explains, the object of its expansion plan was not to bring customers to the store, but bring stores to the customers. But opening more stores is only half of the story. "Anyone can open a store or a new location. The challenge is to open up a profitable store," O'Connor says.
When it comes to locating a new retail outlet, the first step usually is to visit the library. O'Connor says a day to two of research can result in a wealth of important information. To begin with, he looks up economic statistics for a particular area including home furnishing purchases and labor statistics available from federal agencies.
Another source of valuable information is the Illinois Department of Transportation. From it, O'Connor can obtain traffic counts such as the number of cars traveling through a nearby intersection. O'Connor says he looks for a location that is easy to get to with good visibility. The next step is to compare information he has gathered with a profile of similar statistics from an existing successful store.
Outlook stores usually average about 2,000 square feet in size with wall and floor space showcasing "the best of everything," O'Connor says. Draperies are offered through the company's workroom. Over the years, O'Connor says draperies sales have held a steady market share while other products rise and fall in popularity. For now his biggest sellers are blinds -- vertical and horizontal -- and pleated shades, but that could change. He notes that currently the market is turning to traditional looks: that means fabric and wood blinds.
Attention to all the business disciplines is what has made Outlook Window Fashions so successful, O'Connor says. Through example, he offers the following advice to retailers: "Know your margins," he says. "Distinguish yourself from the competition. You can't just do what everybody else does," O'Connor continues. "Provide service, especially unique service, and a healthy family of products," he adds.
When O'Connor first came to work with Outlook, he found the company to be very entrepreneurial, but it did not distinguish itself enough from the competition. To do that, Outlook began offering its two-day delivery or two-week installation program and supported it through its marketing efforts.
O'Connor has increased Outlook's newspaper print advertising by 50 percent each year he has been with the company. In addition, he has run cable television spots and a tremendous amount of direct mailing and four-color postcards. But he doesn't stop there. O'Connor regularly reviews the company's marketing message to make sure it says what it should and is aimed at the right audience.
That vast audience is divided among other aggressive independents, chain retailers and the national big box stores surrounding the Chicago metropolitan area. That's the reason O'Connor believes it's so important to stand out.
For an independent retailer to say it is going to take on the big, national box stores "is rank bravado," O'Connor says, "No independent retailer can go toe-to-toe with them, especially on price." The big chain stores are going to get a certain market share no matter where they are located, O'Connor says. His advice to retailers is: "Find out what you do best and market the hell out of it."