Many of us can identify with the challenges faced by Jim Barksdale, CEO of Netscape. (By the way, if you don't know what Netscape is, you have a lot of homework to do!) Recently, Barksdale was interviewed by The Costco Connection about the confrontation between Microsoft, obviously the No. 1 company in the computer software industry, and Netscape, a small but superior challenger in the arena of Web browsers. In this interview, it was asked if it could be advantageous to be content to be No. 2 rather than aspiring for the No. 1 position. Barksdale's response was, "In my industry it is absolutely worthwhile and very important to be No. 1 in your niche."
In your niche. Did you catch that? Netscape is not trying to surpass Microsoft in everything Microsoft does. Barksdale singled out one small area of Microsoft to be "exceptionally better than."
The difficult thing to understand is that even if it's a fact that your products are equal to or even of better quality than your competitor's, explaining the quality of your products (without bad-mouthing your competition) is not always enough to sway some customers to buy from you. Learning about quality products is just not that exciting or memorable to customers. Many times, it takes something extra to close the sale or to over-satisfy customers to the point they will go out of their way to pass-on generous accolades of your business.
What is your niche that is not being covered by your competitor? Can you do something additional that your competitor isn't, won't or hasn't thought of doing?
Many of us face some fairly large, or at least well-established, competitors out there. It can be rather overwhelming even to try to plan a marketing attack. However, if you have read anything about time management, you know the best way to accomplish a task is to start with small pieces. Therefore, the first thing to do is to find your niche. That may not be easy, but let's look at some possible ideas to help you.
Analyze what products your competition is offering. Are they offering the latest products available in the marketplace? If you scratch your head and say, "I don't know," then either you haven't investigated your competition thoroughly enough, you haven't been reading Draperies & Window Coverings or you haven't been attending the trade shows. You have to do your homework here. Know your competition and be current on the industry.
Iron-on products: If you have been following Cheryl Strickland's recent articles in D&WC, then you've read about iron-on products. ("The Big Picture," August 1997) I've listened to many workrooms say they just can't see the investment in these products. But think about it. These products have been used very successfully in Europe for many years. Certain things done with iron-on products definitely look more professional than using a traditional sewing machine. Aren't you out for the most professional, best look available? One that is better than your competitor's?
Here again, go with the small pieces concept. Find one iron-on product you know will look better than the competition's and work with it first -- for example, soft cornice stiffeners or maybe thread-through linings that eliminate the need to sew rings onto shades. Not only does this lining look terrific, but it will speed up your production -- if you use the proper equipment.
Grommets: Cheryl also has done an article on super-sized grommets. (D&WC, September 1997) These are extremely popular in Europe. Using them in window treatments is a very new idea here in the States, so by offering them you could be literally setting the trend in your area. This will help establish you as being on top of the industry. Decorative/functional details: For shades, alone, there are many little products out there to make that extra special difference in the perceived quality of your work. Bandex Home Decorating Co., Saddle Brook, NJ, offers some very nice acorn-shaped cord pulls for shades, and you always can go to the craft store and find unusual wooden shapes. These can be painted to suit the decor. Besides that, Patterns Plus, Ft. Myers, FL, offers patterns to make lovely fabric cord pulls.
Safety is certainly a consideration as well. Both R.H. Rowley Co., Gastonia, NC, and Warm Products Inc., Woodinville, WA, have devices for covering shade cords and keeping them out of the reach of children. Many workrooms do not even use cord locks on their shades. Going the extra mile might be using the system from RollEase, Inc., Stamford, CT, for pulling shades.
Unusual fabrication: There are window treatments that some workrooms will not do. In my area, I was the only one who would do hobble Roman shades. Another treatment that is commonly shunned is draperies for arch windows. More homes are being built with these types of windows and there is not that much how-to information available for making treatments for them. So if you don't know how to do it, there's a very good chance your competitor doesn't either. Trademark: Try to come up with something that will be identified with your business only. I know a florist who has an antique panel wagon with his business name on it. He uses the wagon to deliver flowers. There also is a company called Stupid PC that sells inexpensive computers that are delivered by employees attired in polyester and driving Volkswagen Beetles who stay and train the new owner. Maybe that's not quite the image we're looking for, but it sets that company apart with good customer service to boot!
In our industry, there is a company in Kennett Square, PA, called Bear Windows, owned by Janice Giancola. This company sets itself apart by giving its customers a bear made out of the customer's fabric! Not only does it carry over the company name, but it's bound to get a prominent position in the home and be seen by anyone visiting. I happen to collect bears. I probably would buy from her just to get the bear!
Safety: The importance of making window coverings safe for children has been so successfully publicized customers now are asking about it. Keep your eyes open! There is bound to be more products coming out for this purpose. Extra service: Certainly having flexible hours for appointments is a big benefit customers appreciate. Something else you can offer are attractive temporary paper shades, made by Shades Unlimited Inc., Santa Rosa, CA, to put on the bare windows (no pun intended) until the window coverings are finished. These pleated shades give your customer privacy and a nice look from the outside -- and you get more time to get the job done. The unexpected: Probably the most appreciated and remembered service you can do for your customer is something they didn't expect. Personalized gifts left on the day of installation with a thank-you note will do more to endear your customers to you than you can imagine. Susan Day of Susan Day Custom Sewing, St. Joseph, IL, likes to surprise her customers with such things as a table runner, fabric-covered photo album or a liner for a Longaberger basket made out of the customer's fabric. Amanda Brown, Amanda Brown Window Coverings, Seminole, FL, likes to make Christmas gifts for clients from their fabric scraps.
The key here though is surprise. If you do it all the time for every customer, it becomes expected. If that's what you want, that's OK.
Personalized gift: Tying in with the ideas just mentioned is the importance of making any gift personalized to suit each customer's interests and needs. As I said before, I collect bears. If my decorator left a little apron or hat on one of my bears, I not only would be thrilled but I would feel very special. Make your customer look good: This is specifically for workrooms to the trade. There is no reason why you can't offer some of the just mentioned items to your designer clients for them to give their customers. By doing that you would get double love and appreciation! Education: It is so important to keep yourself educated on what is happening in our industry not only so you know what to sell the customers, but so you also can explain the products well. Wise business people constantly educate themselves and hone their skills to produce even better products. Because absolute perfection is not possible, there always will be more to learn.
Your education will benefit your clients whether they are retail or wholesale. Keeping your customers educated further endears them to you. If you are a workroom, you can offer to pick up literature for your designer clients who cannot attend the trade shows you attend. There are many products at trade shows that do not advertise in the trade magazines.
Whether you do one or all of the above, it will do nothing for your business unless your potential customers know about it. Get that information out to them and let them know why you not only are better, but exceptionally better than your competitors.
Take the time to analyze your business and what sets it apart from the crowd. If there is nothing there right now, then plan and create something. You want to create an image so that when people hear a particular thing mentioned, they automatically think of your business. Find your niche and get good at it, really good at it!
Kitty Stein is a 20-year veteran of the drapery workroom field, having owned and operated her own business for 16 years and having taught classes on window treatment construction. Until 1990, Stein and a partner owned a workroom with nine employees. She since has opened her own smaller workroom, Workroom Concepts, that has just one employee. She also does workroom consulting, seminar speaking and is the author of Order in the Workroom available through Draperies & Window Coverings.