Instead of luring customers with lower prices, Phibbs recommended that she network with other businesses and solicit referrals from retailers in other niches that cater to the same clientele.
Motorcycle shops whose customers do not want off-the-rack leather jackets, custom jewelers and other high-end clothing boutiques might allow her to leave brochures in return for an incentive if they generate referrals, he said.
Even more important than bringing in new customers, Robbins' top priority should be holding onto existing customers and reconnecting with old customers, Phibbs said.
She needs to build a database from her backlog of client order slips, inputting information about each client's wants and purchases, and when she last contacted them.
Developing a set of written notes that she can send to these customers during the time they're working with her and afterward is a must, Phibbs said.
And he recommended that she also send out notes to all her previous customers, just to let them know she's moved and jog their memory about her designs. Although the task sounds mammoth, if Robbins mails out two notes each business day for a year, she'll reach a good portion of her clientele. Ongoing mailings will be reasonably simple once her database is complete, Phibbs said.
He suggested that she heavily market her top four best-selling items: a large purse/carrying bag that sells for $350; men's suede shirts and cargo pants for $750; a custom leather outfit of a jacket and skirt or top with pants for $2,500; and her lightweight shearling coats in a variety of colors that range from $1,000 to $4,000.
"People obviously like the products, and you have a history of making them well," Phibbs said.
Robbins is eager to get a Web site up and running, but Phibbs said he sees the Internet as primarily a marketing tool for Leather Waves, because offering custom leather designs on the Internet is impractical. The reason her clients pay a premium, he said, is that Robbins can give them a custom-fit, one-of-a-kind garment that requires a personal relationship.
Putting up pictures of finished garments and customer testimonials, making sure she has an easily recognizable "dot-com" and getting listed in search engines will help her Web site become an effective adjunct to Robbins' other marketing efforts, he said.
Phibbs also encouraged Robbins to raise her prices, something that she--like most entrepreneurs--was reluctant to do. After taking a deep breath, however, Robbins went ahead, softening the blow by offering a 20% discount to existing customers toward the purchase of a second item if they ordered before a specific deadline.
So far, the results have been positive. She sent out a dozen letters advertising the deal, and seven called to take advantage of it. She also plans to send out the note cards that Phibbs suggested, and though she said she feels awkward about asking for customers' pictures and testimonials for her Web site and advertising, she has worked out a photo request and release form and plans to use it.
Calling recent customers and touching base with them has also been successful.
"It works wonderfully. People are thrilled that I'm calling, and I'm going to do more of it," Robbins said.
But another of Phibbs' ideas, contacting some of the celebrities she has recently designed for, makes Robbins uneasy. First, you have to be prepared to pay for a celebrity endorsement with money or merchandise, she said, and second, she considers herself a personal friend of several of her well-known clients and hates to strain the relationship by asking for a favor.
"I don't want to abuse my relationship with these people--getting to know them is a nice bonus I have from this job," Robbins said.
Overall, however, Robbins was thrilled with Phibbs' advice and with other consulting help she has gotten recently, all of which has stimulated her business instincts and gotten her hopes up about Leather Waves' prospects.
"I'm coming up with new ideas, and there's excitement generated about my business," she said. "When you're at a low creatively and personally, that gets reflected in your business. When your mind is moving creatively in a healthy business direction, then you think creatively, too."
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This Week's Company Make-Over
* Company name: Leather Waves
* Type of business: Designs, produces and sells custom leather clothing and accessories
* Owner: Jackie Robbins
* 1999 revenue: $56,000
* Headquarters: Malibu
* Operations began: 1975
* Employees: 0
Main Business Problem
Retaining current customers, regaining former customers after a move, getting referrals, building partnerships
Triple net profit, develop several profitable niches for the business
* Develop a customer profile and concentrate on keeping clientele
* Develop a mailing list and customer database
* Do a mailing to former customers informing them of recent business move
* Specialize in top four best-selling garments and market them heavily
* Drop wholesale children's clothing line but consider licensing custom designs
* Do not cut prices or give discounts
* Redesign brochure, rethink point-of-sale materials, get business cards and carry them at all times
* Build partnerships with retailers catering to similar clientele and selling complementary products
* Establish a Web site
Meet the Consultant
Bob Phibbs, based in Long Beach (www.retaildoc.com), works with independent retailers to help them analyze, plan and succeed against large chain stores. In addition, he addresses local and national audiences as the Retail Doctor, teaching them how to compete successfully.