This combination of custom products and personal service is at the core of Collins' success. Over the last eight years under his ownership Custom Blinds of Charlotte has grown from three employees to a staff of 12 and has gone beyond seven digits in annual sales, 95 percent of which are from custom products the company installs.
Collins purchased Custom Blinds of Charlotte after 10 years on the road as a regional sales manager for a drapery hardware manufacturer. Facing fatherhood for the first time, Collins decided to pursue "a more local career," and bought what was then a second location for its sister store, Custom Blinds of Greensboro. Although the stores maintain separate ownership, they work together on product decisions and buy as a group to increase volume and maintain strong relationships with suppliers.
ONE GOOD DEED DESERVES ANOTHER
There is no doubt in Collins' mind about what sets Custom Blinds of Charlotte apart from others. "There's a ton of companies in Charlotte doing blinds," Collins says, "but there are very few that will actually service them. We offer so many more products, and we're actually familiar with the products, we know how to service them if something happens to them. We'll get customers who will bring in products from other companies and we'll try to fix them here on site. If we can't, we can at least handle mailing them back to the appropriate manufacturer."
The store's brand of customer service begins with a personal touch in the showroom and follows through to final installation. It includes measuring and quoting jobs within 24 hours of the initial contact and scheduling installation within 24 hours after receiving the finished product. In between, Collins offers temporary shades and even will send someone out to the customer's house put them up.
Custom Blinds of Charlotte offers that same level of service to every customer no matter the size of the order and even if it calls for making a 15-mile trip to measure one blind. "We take the good with the bad. We want that exposure," Collins says. "We try to service everybody." He points out that often one mini-blind will lead to a much larger sale down the road.
"That's my feeling on it," he says. "It's like repairs. I might do a $5 repair for somebody that nobody else would touch, but when it comes time for that customer to buy something, he'll normally call me back."
Collins tells of an elderly woman who came into the store with some broken hold-down brackets from her blinds. He handed her a couple he had in stock at the store. "She said, 'Well, I don't know how to put them on,'" he continues. "So I got in my car and followed her out to her house and replaced these hold-down brackets for her. She didn't buy the blinds from me, and I didn't charge her a penny." The next afternoon, when Collins returned to the shop, there were peanuts and fresh bread made for him.
One of the newest product innovations, battery-operated motorized treatments with remote controls, has provided Collins with yet another service opportunity: a battery replacement service. He'll offer to send someone to a customer's home once a year to replace all the batteries in the treatments, something that is not always easy for home owners to do themselves. It's a thoughtful service that extends the store's personal touch and gives Collins another chance to meet with customers in their homes. "Or their neighbors may see our vans out front," Collins adds.
When Collins purchased Custom Blinds of Charlotte in 1992, its primary products were mini- and vertical blinds, which included custom, stock and cut-down programs. It opened with three employees, including Collins, in a 2,000-square-foot showroom/warehouse. But Collins had other plans for his business. As soon as the lease was up, he moved it to a 5,000-square-foot showroom in a section of Charlotte known as the Historic South End.
"Luckily we were able to predict the future a little bit," Collins admits. "I'm a native Charlottian and know the area very well. The area I moved into has just boomed. There's a trolley line in and they've got new restaurants in the area. It has just flourished."
A new location was not all Collins had in mind, however. "We quickly changed strategy and targeted a more up-scale customer and offered a much more diverse product line," he says. The store began offering a full range of products from more than 20 suppliers including pleated, cellular and Roman shades, wood blinds, drapery hardware and—more importantly—plantation shutters. "We are very custom oriented. There are hardly any stock programs involved in the store," Collins adds.
"The plantation shutter operation probably was the biggest step for our company," says Collins. "We purchased an 8,000-square-foot warehouse for production and finishing. Shutter sales continue to increase and now account for more than 50 percent of our business."
Collins calls his solid, hardwood shutter offering "a semi-cut-down program" working through his supplier in Lubbock, TX. "We have them custom-make the shutters for us," he explains, "but they work on a one-inch scale whereas we work on a one-thirty-second of an inch scale." The shutters come into the store's warehouse where $40,000 to $50,000 worth of woodworking equipment is brought to bear honing each one to a perfect fit. Collins also offers custom finishing at this facility.
Because shutters are such a high-dollar item, Collins handles their sales almost exclusively and has done so since adding them to his store's product mix. "I still personally measure every shutter job before it is produced and installed," he says. To do that, he ends up spending much of his time in customers' homes averaging six to seven appointments a day.
TYING IT ALL TOGETHER
Located on a busy thoroughfare in a booming part of the city, Custom Blinds of Charlotte draws customers with its display of plantation shutters right in the front windows. Inside, two of the showroom's walls are shelved and lined with "nothing but sample books," Collins says. The remaining wall space showcases blinds and their many options including different wood slats, tapes, tilt wands and valances. A 10-foot conference table supplies workspace.
The showroom is especially important for customers who are not quite sure what they want. "Some of them will call shutters blinds and blinds shutters. They know they want the look of wide slats, but they're not sure if they want a plantation shutter or a wood blind," Collins says. "So we have to find what their budget is per window and show them the differences. That's why it's so nice to have a showroom where they can actually come in and see the differences in the products and play with them."
Collins subleases part of his showroom to a window manufacturer in what has become a two-way profit tie-in. When it's a new home construction project, the home owner is drawn to the store to work with a contractor to specify windows. "The windows go in before the blinds," Collins says simply. "I share the conference table with them. They've got their plans out and they're doing their windows, then they see all my blinds and shutters. Two weeks later they're calling me back. We also can take their plans and give them a quote based on their plans while they'll here at the shop," he adds.
The same scenario works in reverse when it's a remodeling project. Customers are drawn to Custom Blinds of Charlotte when they re-do rooms in their homes, then see the new window options while they are there. "It's been a great tie-in for the both of us," Collins says.
New home construction has stirred up an especially large amount of activity in and around Charlotte. Collins says the area was listed recently as second in growth in the United States behind Phoenix, AZ. With First Union and Bank of America headquarted there, it also is developing into an important banking community. Many homes in the $500,000 to $1 million range are being built and many of these new residents become Collins' customers.
To reach these home owners Collins places an ad in the local telephone yellow pages, which "costs a fortune," he says, "but gets a lot of the new people in town. They go straight for the yellow pages." Custom Blinds of Charlotte is also advertised in the local section of the newspaper and in the Charlotte city magazine. Taking advantage of a co-op program, Collins also places regional advertisements in national consumer/shelter magazines. The store's Web page (www.customblindsinc.com) was something Collins felt he had to have given his customer base, but it's so new he hasn't been able to judge its effectiveness.
Typically, Collins estimates his customers earn in excess of $100,000 a year and live in houses valued in excess of $300,000. He also considers them well educated and savvy.
"Most people get about three estimates. I guess they've more time and patience than I do, but that means they're actually doing their homework and are out there getting the quotes," Collins says. "We close about 75 percent of what we quote on. There are some cheaper products out there. We try to sell on quality. You can't always convince customers that quality is worth the difference, but most of the time we can. Most of our customers say they don't take the cheapest estimate they get. But when you compare apples to apples we will be very, very, very competitive."
Of course, not every customer is new to the area. That means Collins has two, distinctly different clients for Custom Blinds of Charlotte. "The majority of my customers are repeat or referral business. But usually that business comes from a more established area of Charlotte, and they are remodeling so they're going to do two to six windows at a time. In a new home, all of a sudden you have $10,000 worth of business in an hour's visit."
How does Collins choose which customer is right for Custom Blinds of Charlotte? He doesn't. "We want both," he says.