logo

The art of survival: How owners who create for a living are keeping afloat

By Thomas V. Bona
BusinessRockford.com
Apr 21, 2008 @ 05:00 AM

It’s not the best time to be selling interior design services, hair coloring, flowers or jewelry. It’s not a good time to be selling
anything other than food, gasoline and other staples, according to economic reports.

The U.S. Commerce Department reported last week that retail sales increased 0.2 percent in March after a drop in February. The only sectors with noteworthy increases were gas stations and grocery stores; everything else was flat or declining.

“All businesses reliant on discretionary spending will suffer,” Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, told The Associated Press.

But in the Rock River Valley, some businesses that focus on creative services have found keys to surviving economic downturns: Provide good customer service and value when times are good so that loyal customers will come even when times are bad; find ways to help customers meet their tighter budgets; and make sure that, financially, your business is running as efficiently as possible.

Designed to last
Lesley Killoren will be your interior designer whether you have a 16-room office building, a horse farm or a college apartment.

“You never know. You might have a customer who wants a lavish thing in a down time, and you might have a consumer in a good time who doesn’t want to spend anything. You just have to go with the flow,” said Killoren, owner of Designs by Lesley in Rockford. “If they say they have $300 to do their room, we’ll do it for $300.”

Killoren’s business plan doesn’t change during an economic downtown. As an independent designer for more than 20 years, she has relationships with furniture dealers at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago and paint stores in this region. When she gets a good deal on products, she passes the savings to her customer by selling them at cost.

“Anytime you are doing anything you can to help somebody else, you’re going to stay in business because people are wanting to work with you. Once they know you can offer the best deal you can get, they have a tendency to come your way.”

She works from her home, so she doesn’t have to pay the overhead costs of an office. She also has a wide range of clients, including businesses that need to paint their walls or replace furniture no matter what the economy looks like.

Killoren doesn’t push customers to buy more than they want, or to buy items they don’t like. She credits that attitude with her continued success — she hasn’t seen a decline in total business during the economic downturn.

“I’m not in sales. If a purple chair does not look good, I won’t sell you a purple chair,” she said. “There’s sort of a new philosophy in interior design. They walk in and say, ‘What are you looking for, how can I make your house more comfortable, more pleasing for you? That’s a significant difference from 20, 25 years ago, when a designer would walk in and say, ‘This is what you should do.’”

Cut costs, not service

“Value-added” may not be a phrase you commonly hear to describe a hair salon, but it’s the aim at Fuzz Salon, 124 N. Main St., Rockford.

Customers get a warm greeting when they come in, and food and beverage service from Octane InterLounge next door while they wait between procedures.

“In a time of economic difficulties, people are real stressed,” owner and stylist Daniel Minick said. “This is a place where they can come and let go.”

He’s seen some decline in customer spending — people will put off a haircut or treatment an extra week or so, and when they do come in, they look for less expensive choices — but it has not hurt the 12-year-old salon’s business much. The salon gets 60 to 70 clients a week; about half are for coloring treatment.

Minick has looked for ways to save money: He’s focused on eliminating wasted product by using only what’s needed and being more mindful of shutting off lights when they’re not being used.

But he has not skimped on customer service. For example, the salon continues to cut women’s bangs or trim the hair on men’s necks for free in between appointments.

“When you do that, that will extend the haircut a little longer,” Minick said. “Because of that, people will stay with you. There’s a loyalty that develops.”

Fuzz tries to emphasize the experience of going to the salon. The three stylists mix color products at a “color bar” in front of customers and answer questions about what they’re doing. If a customer is trying to save money on a treatment, the stylist will suggest ways to get more bang for the buck.

The result, Minick hopes, is customers who keep coming back. After all, everyone needs a haircut at some point. And getting it done at a salon is “one of the last things that they give up.”

Business in bloom

Even when times are tough, people need to party.

There are birthdays and anniversaries and weddings. That’s why Balloons and Flowers By Haley in Rockford is still doing well.

“Everybody’s going to have a birthday. They want to celebrate it,” owner Jill Gleitz said. “You want to do things for people.”

She has been in business for 17 years and works out of her home with 11 employees. Most of her business is through phone
orders — for delivered flowers, fruit baskets, gift baskets and balloons, and for setup for planned parties.

While other florists in the area have closed, Gleitz is looking to expand her business.

“A lot of it is customer service. We kind of bend over backward for our customers. Even when we added a delivery fee,
people still say, ‘You can deliver? Great.’ They know they’re going to get a good product, too. They’ve seen our work.”

She said the company can do last-minute deliveries — say, when a husband forgets his anniversary — and she tries to say
“yes” whenever she can. About three-quarters of her business is repeat customers.

And as the business has grown, it has expanded to provide a full range of decorating services, including theme pieces,
wedding and stage decor, and funeral flowers. That gives Gleitz a varied customer base for all seasons.

To save on costs, she organizes each day’s deliveries to minimize drive times. She also uses wholesalers around the country to
find the best prices on products.

But other than that, she hasn’t cut back. The company serves the Rockford area, Beloit and Chicago, and it gets customers
through several nationally known services, including FTD, Teleflora and 1-800-Flowers.

“I work pretty much seven days a week,” she said. “It’s fun to work with the brides. It’s fun to work with people planning
events. When someone’s in the doghouse with their wife, they know we’ll help them.”

Diamonds are forever
One part of Mincemoyer Jewelry’s business is booming: maintenance and repairs.
“I think they’re just trying to keep the older rings or watches going a little longer,” owner Ray Mincemoyer said. “They’re not going to buy another one for a while.”

People who are buying jewelry and other items are pulling back a bit, buying somewhat less expensive items, he said.

But they’re still buying. The third-generation Rockford business, 6585 Lexus Drive, isn’t seeing a significant loss in revenue right now.

“This is our 70th year. We’ve been through quite a few different ups and downs. God always comes through and takes care of us. We pray hard and trust him, and he’s always taken care of us.”

Mincemoyer promotes his company as a Christian business, closing on Sundays and handing out tracts in the store. He said his customers value that and keep coming back to his store.

He also finds ways to get them good deals. For example, he’s a member of the Retail Jewelers Organization, a group of 800 independent jewelers who negotiate prices with diamond cutters around the world.

“With 800 stores represented, we are becoming one of the larger chains to come over and buy in Belgium, so we get a real good price,” he said. “Going over there gives us the best sales, the best quality, we can find.”

Mincemoyer said customer loyalty is what keeps the company going in good times and bad. It has 11 employees, including Mincemoyer’s daughter, so customers get to know the staff and feel a connection with the business.

And if history is any indication, Mincemoyer will be there when the market improves and they want to buy higher-end items.

Staff writer Thomas V. Bona may be contacted at 815-987-1343 or tbona@rrstar.com.