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Build Your Business: Shop Talk
More Than Luck
The shop’s showroom includes numerous items, including embroiderable gifts and a line of customizable goods specifically designed for monogramming.
If you ask Elaine Hayward to tell you the story about the man cave, she’s sure to smile. When she came up with the concept for her decorated apparel business, Absolutely Specialties Inc., she was looking for a way to balance her roles as a stay-at-home mom and (at least) part-time worker.
But to make the idea work, she needed the perfect place — one that would be conducive to getting work done and being present when her kids needed her.
Much to the dismay of her husband and his man cave, the family basement was that perfect place. Starting as a storage and production base — since everything involved outside sales — the space evolved quickly. Eventually, Hayward set up a showroom and had customers stopping by her house.
“We treated [the basement] as a real business,” she says. “As we grew, there was so much traffic in the neighborhood from customers and delivery trucks that the neighbors wondered what was going on down there.”
Hayward quickly learned to treat her new business like a real job. She loved the 30-second “commute” to work.
Most importantly, she could simply walk upstairs to see the kids whenever she wanted. The only downside — other than her husband’s missing man cave — was that customers constantly visited their home at all hours during the day and night.
SPLITTING THE SPACE
Today, after 10 years in the basement, Absolutely Specialties occupies 1,400 square feet of space in a former single-family home (surprised?) on a busy stretch of highway in Snellville, Ga. The company includes four full-time workers, including Hayward, and five part-time employees. During the holidays, different seasons and for special events, she brings in more help as needed.
About half of the facility’s space is dedicated to production (embroidery, printing, engraving, monogramming services, vinyl production, stationary customization and direct-to-garment printing) and inventory storage. (Hayward plans to move into a 2,800-square-foot location in the near future.) Its equipment portfolio includes: four embroidery machines (three SWF and one Brother); an engraving machine; a vinyl-cutting machine; a Brother direct-to-garment printer; and screen-printing equipment.
The other half of the shop is the showroom, where customers can find handbags and men’s gifts, scarves, linens, corporate wear, seasonal gifts, local high school
spiritwear, baby and children’s apparel, glassware, jewelry and more. In fact, many of the company’s services can be done on site, meaning customers can get almost any purchased or provided item customized or personalized.
“Our showroom has many, many different items,” Hayward says. “Some of our favorite items are ones we know our customers love. We have to be careful not to create too much of a clutter effect, because the space we occupy is limited. But we try to carry as much as possible before getting to that point. When we look at a new product to bring into the shop, its square footage imprint is very important”
The showroom is divided into sections: new arrivals; school spiritwear; engravable items; embroiderable gifts for him and her; a gourmet section (with some favorite seasonal food and drink); its Simply Southern line of pocket tees and preppy shirts; a personal line of customizable goods specifically designed for monogramming; and its baby room, which features Stephen Joseph and other newborn items.
Absolutely Specialties services three types of clients. The first is retail customers.
The second group is local schools. Hayward and company provide spiritwear, field-day shirts, embroidered polo shirts for school staff, etc. In fact, its “GuaranTeed Profit” spiritwear program has been a huge success for elementary and middle school PTAs. The third group is comprised of corporate customers, which include small businesses with one or two employees, to those with hundreds.
The diverse customer base has helped deliver a number of interesting stories, including one involving ladies from the small country of Montserrat. They asked Hayward to replicate the country’s flag on hundreds of goods, both embroidered and printed.
“They wanted to take them back to their country and sell them,” Hayward recalls. “They also brought in a large piece of white fabric and asked us to cut it into 4″ x 6″ prayer cloths, and then print bible verses on them so their pastor could bless them and give them out to the congregation. After he blessed them, they brought one back to me for good luck. I guess it has worked.”
If you know anything about Absolutely Specialties’ story, then you would know Hayward could be referencing the “luck” surrounding a lightning strike that hit its embroidery machines. “There is almost no amount of surge protection that could have protected them,” she recalls. “And yes, we did have quite a bit protecting them.”
The lesson, as Hayward preaches to anyone and everyone, is to have good insurance and software back-ups. The shop had replacement coverage on the machines and, because the shop’s software was backed up, everything was restored and running in no time.
EYEING THE FUTURE
When Hayward considers the future, she sees a marketplace ripe with opportunity. Her son, Dan Jr., who just received his Master’s degree in business administration from the University of Miami, saw even more growth potential for the company. “He had all these great ideas for the business and I said that I couldn’t do any more by myself,” Hayward says. “So I asked him to join us as a business partner. Thank goodness he said ‘Yes.’”
The Haywards see the monogramming segment continuing to grow from its current stronghold in the Southern states. They also see more opportunities to ship items ordered from the shop’s online store to the northern and western markets.
“Our marketplace has stayed consistent,” Hayward says. “Even through the financial crisis of the mid-to-late 2000s, there was consistency. Business faltered a little bit, but it didn’t appear to be as
affected as other industries were.”
Hayward has seen pattern trends evolve for the past three to five years, from a large demand for animal prints, such as zebra, to polka dots. Today, the market is on the tail end of chevron, as Greek key and geometric patterns are starting to take off.
“Being in the Southeast, we are in a huge market for monogrammed goods,” Hayward says. “We don’t see that dying down anytime soon. People have always wanted towels for their houses, college dorm rooms, gifts for friends or loved ones, etc. And we suspect and hope they always will. There is just something special about seeing your name or initials on a gift.”
Absolutely Specialties also expects to continue finding success marketing its brand through social media. “This has been and continues to be the biggest impact on our business,” Hayward says. “We really committed to it just over a year ago. In that time, we have seen our Facebook friends increase by about 500%. It is an incredibly cost-effective and efficient way to get the word out about new products, news — really almost anything.”
Hayward says success in this business comes when you find what you love to do, and do it correctly. “It’s about finding a niche,” she says. “Fortunately, over the last 20-plus years, we have found many niches. I guess our first niche was ‘extreme customer service.’ Basically, we did whatever it took to get an order out on time and correct. We have seen many embroidery businesses start up over the years. Three or four of my former employees have tried. They all have gone out of business.”
Why? Hayward says it’s because this is not a 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday business. “You can’t do that and be successful or profitable”, she says. “We have had to stay up all night to meet a deadline or to exceed our customers’ expectations many times over the years. Not that we are Nordstrom, the Ritz Carlton or the Four Seasons, but when you perform that kind of customer service, you get a customer for life.”
Michael J. Pallerino is an award-winning writer who has written for a number of national consumer and trade publications. For more information or to comment on this article, email Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Absolutely Specialties Inc. At A Glance
Company Name: Absolutely Specialties
Address: 1381 Scenic Hwy S. Snellville, GA 30078
Year Founded: 1994
No. of Employees: Full-time: 4; Part-time: 5
Services Offered: Embroidery, screen printing, engraving, monogramming, vinyl production, stationary customization and direct-to-garment printing
Company Website: absolutelyspecialties.com
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