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Sewing machine company gets a jump-start from the Web

The Greater Baton Rouge Small Business Report

February 18, 2003

From the outside, Allbrands.com has in its 26 years been one more mom-and-pop operation thrown up along Florida Boulevard near the mall, one more squat building with its name painted in immense letters across the front.

To most customers, Allbrands is just a small family business that knows its sewing machines inside and out and stands staunchly behind its products. But for the 20 full-time employees supporting the company's Internet operations, this is no sleepy outfit.

According to Warren Sager, vice president of operations, Allbrands did $8.2 million in sales in 2002 and is shooting for $11 million this year. The vast majority of its sales are done via the Internet, with up to 1,000 appliances a week shipped to far-flung customers from the firm's cramped warehouse.

Year 2001 saw a 50 percent leap in sales as Allbrands reached the $7.1 million mark; last year, as sales climbed again, the company expanded its lines to include vacuums and other small appliances. This month Allbrands is moving to fancy new digs at 20415 Highland Road, virtually tripling its warehouse space.

"Nobody knows about all the business we do out of this small storefront. We ship 200 packages a day," Sager said, noting that until the company started using UPS for some of its shipping, Allbrands was the largest Federal Express customer in Baton Rouge.

Customer satisfaction

Dawn Alleman, who has bought several monogramming and sewing machines from Allbrands for her children's clothing business in Prairieville, didn't realize how successful the company was.

"I thought it was just a mom-and-pop kind of place. They give you that feeling you're the most important customer in the world. As a small business owner, it's absolutely amazing to know the Internet offers such range and accessibility to people who aren't close by," Alleman said.

"It's so typical for these kinds of companies to fly below radar. They don't eat up a lot of parking spaces. They keep overhead low. They don't need to invest in local marketing. But they're definitely special in our market," said Mary Bergeron, executive director of the Baton Rouge Technology Council.

Although Allbrands' Internet sales are driving its expansion,95 percent of total sales are via the Web,the company still maintains storefronts in Lafayette, Slidell and Metairie in addition to its Baton Rouge location.

The combination of Internet and traditional retail is a bonus, Sager says. Some manufacturers won't work with small distributors; others won't sell to Internet-only dealers. And customers benefit as well. A storefront helps Allbrands keep in touch with customers and maintain a mom-and-pop feel. The Internet side gives local customers lower prices, product diversity and technical assistance that the average small dealer can't offer.

"Everyone has a primary job, and everyone's responsible for customer service. It gives us a competitive edge. We've got a guru of sewing machine feet, an expert in smocking and pleating, a technical support person for embroidery machine software," boasts Sager. And with the addition of vacuums, Allbrands just hired a local employee with 10 years' experience in vacuum sales and repair.

Mail-order machines

At first glance it can seem a bit much to shop on the Internet for a bulky sewing machine, especially some of the bigger models. But for customers saving more than 50 percent off retail prices, a $25 shipping charge is small potatoes. Sager shrugs off any shipping hiccups.

"One of the advantages of getting larger is we get very good pricing structures" from UPS and Federal Express, Sager said. The company gets a daily pick-up. "You can see the stack piling up every afternoon."

Allbrands does almost a third of its business by drop-ship. That means it places an item on its Web site as a sort of electronic showroom. Customers' orders are actually filled by the product's manufacturer, reducing shipping costs and inventory. Coffee makers, toasters, grills and other small appliance lines are almost all drop-shipped.

From her home in Muleshoe, Texas, Phyllis Shepard regularly orders memory cards for her embroidery machine. "Why buy locally when you can save $50 to $70 on the Internet?" she asks.

All the high-tech stuff is fairly recent for Allbrands. Owners John and Annette Douthat hadn't even heard of the Internet until 1996, when their 13-year-old-son suggested they check it out. At the time, they had 10 stores across Louisiana and into Florida, all fabric shops specializing in stretch-and-sew materials and sewing classes.

Sager, who joined the company a year ago to help with technology, credits the Douthats with starting the Web's first sewing machine site. It went gangbusters in no time, and by the end of 1996 the Douthats started selling some stores.

"John was killing himself running the roads; he realized he could do much more volume with the Internet and stay at home," said Sager. These days, the Douthats have scaled back their personal involvement to semi-retired status, tending to the business largely from home.

Sew up the market

Allbrands carries a diverse selection of sewing machines, including White, Singer, Simplicity and Brother models. Inventory is around 4,000 units. Last year, two-thirds of Allbrands' sales were in the sewing machine category, which includes traditional stitching machines, sergers and hot-selling embroidery machines, which Sager says have given his industry new life.

Embroidery machines, which cost up to $6,000 apiece, require special software cards that "tell" the machine the correct picture to embroider. Allbrands has thousands of patterns available, from Disney characters to birds to animals. Software packs cost $39 to $150 each.

This year, Sager anticipates Allbrands will likely flip-flop its sales percentages to two-thirds other appliances and one-third sewing machines. What's the company's eventual goal? Try $50 million in annual sales.