Quilt company finds a new business pattern

“Look at this,” Ann Howington Zipper says as she points to a small section of a quilt that had arrived in her latest shipment. “I can’t send a quilt out like this.”

This reporter looks hard and can’t see anything wrong.

Zipper points to very tiny dots — a faint imperfection in one small spot on the fabric. That quilt joins a stack that won’t be sent out to her customers.

That’s just the way Zipper is.

In 2006, Zipper founded Comfort in The Word, a company that sells baby quilts adorned with scriptures. Her product retails for under $40 at hospital gift shops, Christian gift stores, other shops and directly through her company. Strong customer service and maintaining her good name are important to her. Although she typically sells about 300 to 400 quilts a month, only a handful have been returned over the years, Zipper is proud to say.

It’s also safe to say that Comfort in The Word is more than a business to Zipper. A devout Christian, she is passionate about her mission to spread the word of God and make people happy with her products. She says her business isn’t only about making money, as she donates many of her quilts to charity and wants to make sure her price point is affordable to many people.

Still, this is a business, her husband, Bruce Zipper, gently reminds her. And with so many satisfied customers over the years, there is no reason this product can’t take off, they both agree. That’s when we brought in Phillip Harris, a counselor from SCORE Miami-Dade who has owned product and service businesses and has decades of experience in sales and marketing, to perform a Miami Herald Small Business Makeover. Joining the team: Zipper’s husband, who is a stock broker, and Miriam Grossman-Rodriguez, her accountant.

Harris was impressed with the artisan-like quality of Zipper’s product, which she designed but is manufactured in China. The quilt measures 40 inches by 45 inches, comes in pink and blue and contains nine scriptures embroidered on the fabric. He was also impressed by her organization skills. With the help of her accountant, her financial information and record keeping in her small home office are in great order, something many small businesses have trouble with.

So to get at the crux of her challenges, Harris first asked Zipper to fill out a one-page business plan, that asked for brief descriptions of Zipper’s vision for Comfort in The Word, mission, measurement of success, strategies and action plan. Then they discussed her existing customers and sales channels — she currently has about 500 active accounts — as well as pricing, target markets, branding and sales methods.

“In this business our biggest problem has always been and will always be getting money to pay for the next shipment,” says Zipper, who explains she purchases from China twice a year with relatively small orders (4,000 quilts). The process takes three months from the time of order to the time of delivery and she has to pay up front.

Another problem: Receiving too many quilts with defects that she can’t sell. The company gets a credit from the manufacturer for those, but that doesn’t help getting the orders out faster. There was some discussion over whether, just perhaps, Zipper, who is known to use a magnifying glass to survey the quilts, might be a little too picky. “Damages are money,” Zipper concedes, “but it is my good name.”

But the main challenge, the team agreed, is increasing sales. With more money coming in more quickly and more frequently, that will help alleviate her other challenges.

“If the sales don’t go up to the next level, we are mired in nowhere land, and that shouldn’t happen. We know the product sells,” says Bruce Zipper. “We just need more eyes on it.”

Indeed, there is a wide market the team isn’t reaching. For instance, Zipper sells to 200 hospital gift shops quite regularly, including Baptist Hospital in Kendall and South Miami Hospital. But there are at least 5,000 birthing hospitals with gift shops in the United States, her research shows. And Harris points out that an Internet search of “Christian gifts” yielded 11 pages of offerings. “We have just scratched the surface,” Harris says.

A near-term sales goal is set: sales of at least 500 quilts a month. Harris thinks this is achievable over the next few months. Now how?

They talked extensively about the need to target certain higher volume, repeat customers and prospects. That’s where she should spend most of her valuable selling time, Harris said.

Bruce Zipper was assigned to identify and hook a couple of large, reputable distributors or large accounts that service many outlets, such as Cracker Barrel.

And to increase sales volume among existing customers as well as netting new ones, Ann Zipper needs more time to call customers and potential customers. That leads to the second recommendation: Delegate more tasks.

Like so many small business owners, Zipper likes to do it all and admits to having trouble giving up control. She tried using outside salespeople for a while, but found they didn’t follow up with her clients or deliver the level of customer service she would have liked. So she took it back in-house. She does find phone time yields results, as she logs each call and its outcome.

Harris suggests she hire a worker to help her fulfill orders and pack and ship her quilts so that she has more time to work the phones. Sounds good. Only problem: Will that person inspect each and every quilt for defects as thoroughly as she does?

Though she doesn’t even fully trust her family members with this task, she agrees to give it a try.

Next, now with time to sell, sell, sell, the group talks more specifically about marketing strategies. Testimonials are key, Harris says.

One woman draped the quilt over her grandchild’s incubator, with the scriptures facing inward, after the child’s premature birth. Another family’s adult daughters were comforted by the quilts while caring for their dying mother and laid one across her body in the coffin. “We just take the quilts out of the box and the orphans’ eyes light up,” wrote a Haiti orphanage that received hundred of quilts as a donation.

Harris believes she should secure permission and use these testimonials and others on her website, in her marketing brochure and at trade show displays. To get started in that direction, his wife, Rita Harris, who has a background in advertising and graphic design, prepared a brochure for her that opens with a cute photo of children under the quilt and the slogan “Beautiful gifts that lift the spirit and nourish the soul.” Inside is a description of the product and what it could be used for: “the perfect gift to celebrate a new life — newborns, baptisms, baby showers — or as a get well message to comfort the sick and their loved ones.”

“I love it, I just love this,” Zipper says, as she unfolds the brochure. “This expresses exactly what Comfort in The Word is. It’s beautiful, it’s perfect.”

Grossman-Rodriguez suggested that Zipper more diligently collect email addresses for her customers and include a follow-up email asking how the customer liked the product, which could yield more testimonials.

So far, Zipper has hired one person to work four hours one day a week, with an eye to increasing to more days as sales volume rises. Even the first couple of times the employee came to pack and ship while Zipper made sales calls, Zipper recorded an increase in sales calls and was impressed with the worker’s attention to quality control.

“Your suggestion was phenomenal,” she tells Harris. “That worked out great. I didn’t die giving up the responsibility of the quilts, I didn’t keel over on the ground.”

With the new brochure in hand, the Comfort in The Word team is excited to start expanding its customer base and ramping up a search for larger accounts. Orders are already flowing in for the new year, says Zipper, who was packing an order for 300 quilts last week. She will be attending a big trade show in the spring, and the quilts will be advertised in eight catalogs.

The team is also working on refreshing www.comfortintheword.com, and Zipper will be applying for a $2,000 Mom and Pop Small Business Grant from Miami-Dade County this year.

In order to combat the problem of sometimes running short of quilts because of the long production and payment cycle, the team is going to see if the manufacturer will agree to smaller, more frequent orders even if it means Comfort in The Word has to pay a little more per quilt.

The last meeting of the makeover also included a review of 2011 financials. The team was disappointed that the year ended with a small loss, after a profitable 2010.

“This year we absolutely must be profitable,” says Harris after the early January meeting. “Making money is very important for several reasons. First, it’s more fun. Second, it allows us to invest in the business with more marketing and resources. It enables us to borrow from banks, and it certainly increases the value of the company.”

“I’m excited about implementing a lot of new things. This will be a good year,” says Zipper. “I just feel it’s a great product and when you love what you do, it’s a great thing.’’

Zipper and Harris are going to continue to meet monthly. And regarding that stack of quilts with very minor imperfections in them, the orphanages and shelters she donates them to will be very happy to receive them.


Source:  Miami Herald