Friday, March 21, 2008
When Susan Barone graduated from the University of Missouri she packed five suitcases and bought a one-way ticket to New York. She had been to the Big Apple on a study tour as a student and had been “enamored of the young people who had such cool jobs.”
She had a few cool jobs herself, becoming an executive in the garment trade, before moving to Smithtown in 1990 with her husband Greg. They started a family and Barone was commuting four to five hours a day. It was brutal and she and her husband agreed: “We have to change our life.”
So Barone took a leap and in 2001 opened her retail Internet site, Always For Me, selling swim and causal wear to plus-size women. But she didn’t leap blindly. She thoroughly researched the plus-size market. “I knew the plus-sized woman was underserved,” she said. “When I worked for big companies I found the plus-sizes only got left-over money, left-over fabric and left-over goods. I knew it was 52 percent of the women in America.”
In fact, research by marketresearch.com shows that 62 percent of American women wear size 14 or larger clothing. The dollar value for the plus-size market is estimated at $47 billion, according to Forrester Research.
That first year, the company took in about $50,000. By last year the take had spiked to more than $2 million. Last year 10 million visitors logged on to Always For Me and the Hauppauge-based company grew from just Barone to 10 full time employees. The site did business in all 50 states and 35 countries.
Barone’s company really hit its stride in the period between 2006 and 2007 when sales increased almost 80 percent.
Barone believes in starting small but with an all-encompassing vision. “Big plans change all the time,” Barone said, adding that many start-ups, when they have a little success, “invest in things they have no business investing in. Use your capital at the level of the revenues coming in.”
The executive employs what she terms “stair-step marketing,” or building a solid foundation at every level of the business before moving on.
“Make sure you have a strong salesperson before going for a strong inventory management system, for example,” she said. From the time you cut the ribbon on your venture, never stop learning about customers, Barone advised. She believes in “360-degree customer service. If you’re not listening to your customers you won’t be in business very long,” she said. Keeping customers coming back is due to courtesy, interest and shipping all items within 24 hours of purchase.
Research should be an investment not just in money but in time. “I’m personally out in the stores and when a customer calls to order swimwear, we always ask, ‘Why did you pick that suit?’”
Sales of swimwear have a down time usually in September and January. “What makes us unique is we have a 12-month season,” Barone said, partly due to its active and workout line of clothes, which fills a void because “very little is offered to plus-size women in activewear.”
Always For Me also is marketing lingerie for the zaftig American woman, which fills in sales nicely from October through February, Barone said. Finally, Barone believes in delegating responsibility and paying attention to experts. “It’s crucial to the success of your business that you must understand everything, but you must understand you can’t do everything,” she said.
Many business people forget another essential aspect of success, Barone said. “Keep learning about your business. Read, read, read. Take classes,” she said. “You have to learn on a daily basis.”
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