By Laura Raines, for the AJC
Three years ago JoAnne Nelson was a real estate agent who saw many beautiful custom-made draperies and upholsteries in clients’ homes and decorated model houses.
But having custom drapes made for her own home proved to be a tedious process. Locating a shop, communicating her needs and wondering about the quality of the workmanship made her think there had to be a better way. She bought an established upholstery workshop in an old house in Smyrna and revamped it into Atlanta Custom Interiors.
Last year she knocked down the old house to rebuild the showroom/workroom that she had envisioned.
“I didn’t know that a recession had started and that the demand for custom-made luxury items would fall drastically,” Nelson said.
Yet, in spite of the economy, she has seen her business grow.
“I’ve discovered the best way to stay in business is to stay in business. When other businesses close, you gain more customers,” Nelson said. “You also have to be very creative in your marketing.”
On Oct. 9, Nelson launched her new showroom/workroom to designers and the public with an all-day open house with hourly demonstrations that showcased her workers’ talents. People could watch an antique chair being redone or attend a window-treatment design seminar.
“They could learn something, have fun and see what we do,” Nelson said. “They could see that we are professionals, which gives us credibility and builds trust. There has to be a trust factor in custom work because people are buying something they can’t see. My showroom/workroom building is my best marketing.”
She generates new customers through advertising, networking and speaking to organizations. They find a showroom full of samples, friendly design help and a clean, organized and busy workroom of about 10 employees when they visit, which encourages them to buy. Liking the quality of the finished product and the ease of the selection process, they come back and recommend others.
“Even if a customer wants just one pillow, I’m going to give them the best service because I want them to come back,” Nelson said.
She’s found that people are willing to spend money for custom work, but they want every cent to count and they don’t want to make a mistake.
“They want to make sure they are getting the best value,” she said. “Volume will be less in a tight market, but if we stay in business, we’ll be ready for a recovery. We plan to be here.”
After years in the corporate and retail market, Marsha Peterson decided to use her design skills and merchandising experience to start her own business in 2002.
“I always had a way with accessories and seeing a space through new eyes, so I made redesigning my niche,” said Peterson, owner of Trade Secrets Interiors. Who knew that “recycling” and “green” decorating, both ways she markets her services, would be a perfect fit for a tight economy.
“People collect furnishings that they love over the years, or they need to blend households and don’t know how,” Peterson said. “I can see possibilities where they only see problems and by careful restyling can achieve a great new décor.”
Peterson consults with clients, “shops” the house and then in a day completely rebuilds a room.
“People will say, ‘Oh my, I was planning to throw that out, but it’s perfect there,’ ” she said.
Peterson can help them create a wish list of future purchases and also provides staging services for clients who want to sell their homes faster.
In the recession, her business dropped 30 percent to 40 percent, but she has seen signs of recovery since September.
“I’ve been aggressively marketing and staying visible by actively participating in the Sandy Springs/Perimeter Business Chamber,” she said. “You need to let people know that you are a professional and part of the community.”
She has created an Internet newsletter of affordable redecorating tips. Knowing that “paint gives the biggest bang for the buck,” she provides color consultations if that’s all clients need. She also has started a new service, helping seniors transition from large homes to smaller condos or retirement communities.
“Adding to your repertoire of services can be a good marketing strategy,” she said, “but the new arena should complement what you already do.”