Sitting in her cozy sewing nook surrounded by fragrant bolts of leather and suede, with her custom clothing draped festively around the room, Jackie Robbins looks the picture of a successful clothing designer.
For 25 years, Robbins has used her creativity with natural textiles to make and sell jackets, pants, skirts and purses to the Malibu glitterati. Her attractive shop Leather Waves is lined with photos of celebrities like Paul Newman, Neil Diamond, Goldie Hawn and Celine Dion sporting her tailored motorcycle jackets and kicky suede pants.
Yet at a time when leather is popular and the economy is strong, Robbins' business is languishing. In 1999, she netted about $9,000 profit on revenue of $56,000, taking no salary.
Recently divorced, Robbins applied for a small-business make-over from the Los Angeles Times with the goal of transforming Leather Waves from an artistic endeavor and supplemental income source into the primary means of support for herself and her daughter.
She knew that what worked in 1975 doesn't work today, but she wasn't sure where and how to make changes. And like many artistic entrepreneurs, Robbins acknowledged that she excels at her craft but is less savvy about her business. Aggressive selling makes her nervous, and she has never handed out business cards or kept a customer database, an oversight that hurt last year when she could not notify her clients that Leather Waves was moving to avoid a rent hike at its longtime retail space on the busy parking lot of the Malibu Country Mart.
Although the move wasn't far--into a smaller, cheaper upstairs studio in the back of the same complex--she misses the walk-in traffic that she had come to rely on, and lost regular customers who didn't know where to find her.
"I never called clients to solicit business because I didn't think it was cool to do that," she said. "Maybe it's my personality, or maybe it's because of the whole artist-sensitivity thing. I want to be wanted and needed. I want people to come to me and seek me out, because they like my art."
A noble proposition, but no way to run a business, says Bob Phibbs, a Long Beach-based consultant who conducts seminars and advises companies as the Retail Doctor.
To be successful, Phibbs said, Robbins must define herself, her business and her target customers, then use that information to fuel all her strategic planning and marketing decisions.
Although she has been in business for many years, Phibbs noted, Robbins did not have a ready answer when he asked her what she does. And because of the lack of client data, she could not easily define her target customer.
After some brainstorming, the two settled on the idea that Robbins is an artist who makes personal custom leather garments for clients who are generally middle- to upper-income, fashion-conscious, imaginative men and women with disposable income who can't find satisfactory garments off-the-rack.
Because she did not have this definition firmly in the front of her mind, many of Robbins' recent efforts to enhance sales have gone off track, Phibbs said. For instance, in the last two years, she has developed a brochure, started Leather Waves Babe--a children's clothing line--and explored wholesaling, but results have been decidedly mixed.
"It's easy to throw money at stuff, but you can't just do something to help your business, you have to do the right thing," Phibbs said.
Among the wrong turns he says Robbins has taken: She spent about $1,500 on a company brochure that he calls "a mistake. I'm telling her to throw it out, and that's going to hurt."
The long-winded brochure copy in small print and large photos of Robbins striking provocative poses in leather do not effectively communicate what she does, he said.
He designed a sample brochure that walks would-be clients through Robbins' unique process of garment selection, design sketches, fittings and completion, stressing the perfect fit of custom-made clothing, and says it would be a much more effective marketing tool, especially if she includes pictures of her customers in their finished garments.
Phibbs was also critical of Robbins' wholesale children's clothing line, which a sales rep placed in 15 kiddie boutiques two years ago.
Although the boutique sales were bringing in much-needed revenue during Robbins' slow summer months (wholesaling accounted for 20% of her total revenues in year one but dropped down to 10% in year two), Phibbs pointed out that her time and material costs are constant because Robbins' clothing is all hand-crafted. Because there is no production cost savings, when Robbins sells the garments wholesale, she's effectively cutting out her profit entirely.
"Stop this at once," Phibbs counseled her, adding that considering the time she puts into a garment, her prices are reasonable.
"Don't cut your prices for anyone, and don't coupon your services or discount your products to try to win new customers. If they are price-shopping, they aren't your customers," he said.