What would happen would likely be very similar to the Great Lakes Home Furnishing Center in Holland, MI. It's a 70,000-square-foot design center that is home to 11 individually owned and operated businesses selling window fashions, bedding, furniture, lighting, carpeting, flooring, tile, fireplaces, original art, floral arrangements and spas.
An original partner in this design center idea is Great Lakes Window Coverings, owned and operated by the Meppelinks: Henry, Ankie and their son Randy. The Meppelink family has been involved in retail window treatments since Randy's grandmother opened a small store in Grand Rapids, MI, in 1971. But things changed dramatically in 1995 when the design center was completed and their retail operation moved in.
"Since we've moved from a 3,400-square-foot, two-story building in a town with a population of 5,000 three years ago, we have more than doubled our sales, and our clientele base has changed dramatically," says Ankie, Allied ASID.
"The average home we used to work in eight years ago probably was in the $100,000 range. Now, well over 50 percent of our business takes place in homes that are $200,000-plus," Randy adds. He likens the move into the design center to becoming part of a Dream Team. "It's like a hockey team going out and signing the best player from every team and winning the Stanley Cup every year," he says.
Strength in Numbers
Being part of a Dream Team definitely has its advantages. For one, each member can concentrate on its specialty area to create a whole that truly is greater than the sum of its parts. For example, the furniture store that is part of the design center today used to sell window treatments, too, Randy explains. "Now it doesn't have to," he says. "We've taken all the best in the area and put them under one roof. Now we've gained 30 years experience in this field, 30 years experience in that field, right on down the line," he says.
"That makes it a really great shopping opportunity," Ankie says, adding that the Great Lakes Home Furnishing Center has become a destination point for shoppers. Located in the heart of Michigan's Golden Triangle, an area Randy describes as running from Muskegon to Grand Rapids to South Haven, the center is at the hub of an area with the highest growth rate in the state. It's also off Interstate Highway 196, in full view of 40,000 cars a day.
Each of the partners profit by the customers drawn to the center. "Because of the location we are in we get a lot of people in our area that weren't necessarily looking for window coverings when they came to the facility. But there's something about all the beautiful fabrics that just entices people to touch and feel. So a lot of our business comes directly from walk-ins," Ankie says.
Partners in the design center also pool their marketing resources and efforts to mutual benefit. Each quarter, the center puts out an eight- to 12-page, full-color advertising broadsheet-400,000 of them. Still, each company can do its own thing as well, Ankie explains, "Just last week we had a Summer Picnic and held an antique car show and hot dog roast outside the facility. That increased traffic by one-third for a two-day, two-night period."
Next year, the design center merchants are planning to build a showcase home furnished with products they sell. The model home will be open for about four months with a local organization raising money by selling tickets for tours, Ankie explains. "Then we'll put the house on the market and sell it," she adds.
The design center concept has been so successful, its second phase construction was completed last October, three years ahead of schedule. That phase saw an additional 20,000-square-feet added to the center's original 50,000 square feet and five merchants/leasees joined in to bring it to its present-day 11.
Great Lakes Window Coverings' portion of the design center includes a 1,250-square-foot showroom filled with window and room-setting vignettes and plenty of large individual fabric samples rather then sample books, Ankie says. The store features Comfortex, Levolor and Hunter Douglas products as well as Lafayette shutters and its own custom draperies and bed coverings.
"We've really striven to be the one-and-only source for drapery fabric and bed coverings," Ankie says. "We've become known as the place you go if you want something unusual or special."
In fact, Great Lakes Window Coverings has gained a reputation for handling some very special treatments and installations in both the residential and contract ends of the business-and especially when it comes to motorization.
Two years ago Randy handled an installation in a new church under construction. "It was a 68-foot high clerestory area spanning 40 feet total," he says. The application called for motorized roller shades 12 feet long. The problem was getting to the windows. "We had to use a lift up to the girders and use a scaffolding constructed by others on top of the girders," Randy recalls. "It was fine to do, but if there ever was a problem down the road, or a service call needed, there was no way to access it once the scaffolding and the lifts were taken down and the pews were installed. So we worked with the architect and the contractor and had a door built into the wall of the church way up high so we could go up onto the roof with a ladder outside, climb across the roof and go through the access door. From there we could work off a ladder if we had to," he says.
"One thing I would recommend to anybody going into motorization is to find a local electrical contractor that you feel comfortable working with and work with him solely on as many projects as you can. That way you'll have an electrician who's trained in motorized window treatments," Randy advises.
Another unusual job resulted from a sale Ankie made for an 82-foot, multi-million-dollar yacht that was being built in Wisconsin. "The owner wanted to design the hulls to accommodate window shades so that they would disappear into the hull when raised," Randy explains. The yacht owner flew Randy to meet with the designer so he could spec the dimensions of the shades so the hull could be built accordingly. "That was a scary job for me because if I didn't have it right on the money, the boat would be built-no changes allowed!"
About a year later Randy returned to install the shades. Perfect fit. He also installed custom headboards and bed coverings.
Randy is scheduling a trip to Anchorage, AK, next month to check out 42 Silhouette window shadings Great Lakes Window Coverings sold to a big bed-and-breakfast establishment there. The owner visited the store following a chance meeting and conversation with Randy while at a blackjack table in Reno, NV.
In 1992, Great Lakes Window Coverings opened Window Products, its wholesale division that fabricates all of the products it sells retail, plus for a handful of designers. Randy manages the division, overseeing production of both hard and custom soft treatments. Window Products moved into a new 5,000-square-foot facility, which includes a workroom, in August 1997.
"That facility is where all the production takes place from the custom draperies to cornice boards. We fabricate verticals and cellular shades and it's a full-line distributor of Levolor products to the trade as well as our own line of pole stock," Randy says. The division is part of the Comfortex Composer program.
Great Lakes Window Coverings has 16 employees total. It also installs everything it sells using its own installers and some subcontract installers. Its installation coverage area includes Traverse City to the north, Ann Arbor to the east and Chicago, IL, to the south-although it has shipped products for its retail customers as far away as Tampa Bay, FL; Scottsdale, AZ; and Anchorage, AK.
The Window Products division also installs for its six wholesale designer customers. "Designers love it," Randy says. "We'll call the clients representing the designer and set up the installation appointment. Then we'll notify the designer of the date and time and the designer can choose to be there."
Most visits to the store by retail customers result in a design consultation. "For a small fee we send out one of our salespeople or designers and he or she will spend approximately an hour in the customer's home to get to know the client's needs and to take measurements," says Ankie, who manages the retail end of the business. "Then they will come back and do a presentation for the client at the center," she adds.
"We don't necessarily try to close the sale in the customer's home, or do it all in one appointment," Randy says. "The reason is because of all the products we carry. We would need a semi to go to the house to take all the sample books. We'd actually do the client an injustice if we went out with a van loaded with a few samples and say, 'This is what we have to offer.' The customer thinks that's all we've got," he says.
"That return visit is important because its gives the customer one more exposure to our facility and our salespeople are able to sell not just window treatments but other things as well. I would say 95 to 97 percent is our closing rate," Ankie adds.
Success like that comes much easier when everyone is working as a team. Great Lakes Window Coverings shares in and is partly responsible for the growth all the design center partners have experienced. But it's also the teamwork of its employees that contributes greatly to its success. "It takes the whole company to make it happen," Ankie says.
"Their combination of work and effort with our vision and effort is what makes this company what it is today," Randy says. "What I teach my designers is: If they can find it, find a picture of it, think it, design it and convey it to me, then we can find a way to make it and make a finished product that looks beautiful. Problems are challenges. Challenges make this business a lot of fun."