Where We Live


In mid-July, I packed up the Prius and headed to Tampa for the 2010 Independent Funeral Directors of Florida conference and expo.

This was our fourth year attending the show, so I didn’t know what kind of response we would get.  Here were my major questions:

Would our customers need any more covers? 
Would there be any new customers left for us to sell?
How would our new dressing table skirt systems be received?
Would we sell any dressing table skirt systems?

I left my facility on the morning of the event.  Exhibitors would be allowed to begin loading at noon, with the doors of the hall opening for visitors at 5:00 pm that evening.  The trip to the convention center took about two hours, allowing me to arrive just as they opened the loading dock for exhibitors to begin setting up.

Because I registered late for the show – hadn’t decided by mid-June if we’d attend again – I did not have the best choice of booth space.  In fact, the organizers had sold so many spots that the only space left was in the lobby near the registration area.  I was concerned about this setup, but I convinced myself that we’d still see everyone, even if we had to work extra hard to get them to hang out with us outside of all the main action.  I was beginning to rethink this strategy at the end of the first session.

Basic tenant of trade show booth placement:  don’t be too far away from the main action.  In fact, I would rather have been in the hall on a far wall in the corner than in the lobby.  Why?  Because everyone rushed past the eight booths in the lobby so they could get into the exhibit hall, which, incidentally, was the location of all the food, the bar and their friends.

So the typical attendee spent an hour or two in the exhibit hall, shooting the breeze with his friends, until his wife says, “Let’s go,” and he moves to leave.  By this time, he’s disengaged himself from the trade show, and just as he has closed his mind to looking at any more products, he walks out the door and sees 8 more booths. 

Needless to say, most of these guys were not going to stop to talk to any of us.

Our first day was very slow, with very few people talking with us.  The exhibit hall was rocking, but the exhibitors in the lobby were starting to wonder why they had paid the same amount as the people in the larger room.

We ended the evening with no sales.  First convention I’ve ever done where we sold NOTHING during a session.  As you might imagine, I was concerned and, if I’m truthful, a bit depressed about it.

It’s hard enough to risk hundreds or thousands of dollars and days away from your business to generate sales, but spending money and producing nothing is terribly discouraging.

(NOTE:  This post has been hard to write, since I haven’t been posting here regularly.  Sorry for the crappy writing.  Hopefully it will improve as I “up” my writing frequency.)

Luckily, I didn’t spend lots of money on a hotel room, since my sister and sister-in-law live in Tampa.  After a short drive and a “healthy” double-quarter-pounder meal (supersized, of course), I arrived at my sister’s house and crashed for the night.

The event started again the next morning and our results were better.  First, the organizers, to their credit, moved the desserts for lunch to the lobby, giving the attendees a reason to visit us after they finished their lunch.  Second, the day was less rushed, with visitors having more time to chat with vendors. 

Fortunately, several of my old customers stopped by to see what’s new and we showed off our new dressing table skirt system.  Orders started coming slowly, with our first being to a funeral director who had seen our product but held off because he had questions about durability.

As the day went on, we slowly added orders.  By the close of business and the end of the show, we had written more orders than the previous year.  I breathed a pretty big sigh of relief and started packing up to head home.

Here’s how the show finances ended:

Booth:  $375
Fuel:  $25
Food:  $50
Misc.:  $50

TOTAL EXPENSES:  $500
TOTAL SALES:  $2000 (10 items)

Typically, I budget $50 for trade show marketing from each item I sell.  So, spending $500 to attend the show meant I needed to sell 10 items.  Which we did (barely).

For contrast, the last IFDF show we attended (IFDF 2009 Wrap-Up) cost $242, meaning we’d have to sell 5 covers to meet the budget.  Of course, I received a complimentary booth for that show, which, had I been required to pay the full cost, would have made our expenses more than $600 and meant we needed to sell 12 covers.

We sold 11 items at the 2009 IFDF show and 10 this year.  I think we’re staying on track with IFDF.  And I can’t stop going to this show, since it’s usually in my backyard (next year?  Orlando) and I know the funeral directors so well.

As for the answers to those questions?  Here we go:

Would our customers need any more covers?
More than half of our sales were to customers who had ordered before.

Would there be any new customers left for us to sell?
We did, indeed, meet two new customers who were excited to try our products.

How would our new dressing table skirt systems be received?
Our previous customers loved the skirts and ordered right away.  They even ordered additional covers to match.

Would we sell any dressing table skirt systems?
We sold two systems, with two more orders coming in the next weeks following the event.

In all, it was a good event, despite the near heart-attack the first day’s response gave me.

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The quilted cot cover business that started in my one-car garage in 2003 has seen some pretty impressive growth in the past.  During the first few years of our business, sales tripled annually.  Then, as the business began to mature and we gained a foothold in the industry, our growth “mellowed” to a still-impressive 50% more each year.

2008 looked like a plateau, with the year ending with 10% more sales than the previous year.  And while it was a good omen, I was still sad to see the days of 50% increases end.

After a rocky start to 2009, where year-to-date sales in the first six months were off by as much as 30% from the previous year, we began rebounding in August.  Steady gains in September and October – helped along by the 2009 NFDA Convention & Expo – prepared us for an absolutely crazy November and December.

How good was the upswing in business?  We ended 2009 with more than 10% greater sales than 2008! 

That’s right, in a down year, when most businesses are struggling to keep the doors open, we added 10% more sales.

So how did we do it?

First, we are fastidious (I love that word) about tracking our sales numbers and comparing our current figures with previous results.  On any given day, I check how we are doing compared with the same month in past years as well as how we are doing compared to the past month. 

While January and February were off the 2008 numbers, March saw an increase, which might have bolstered my spirits, if a healthy portion of that hadn’t been due to the Georgia Expo we attended.  I am careful to track how much of our business comes from conventions, wholesale customers and the website, so I knew that while our convention business was bringing in new sales, our other avenues were falling off.

April and May were not any better, but by that time we’d already begun a recovery plan.

First, I reached out to our wholesale customers, the ones who resell our product on their websites, through their sales reps and in their catalogs.  We offered an even-better wholesale discount during the summer, hoping to jumpstart our wholesale customers’ sales machinery.  I also began seeking out new resellers to add to our list.

In June, we signed up three new regional supply companies to resell our product.  Their exuberance about the product helped spark sales and the rebound began in earnest in August.

We also worked harder on the website, fixing some bugs in the search engine optimization and adding new designs to our offerings.  The new covers, while not huge sellers so far, have bolstered our line, filling in a few gaps left by discontinued fabrics that we can no longer get from our suppliers.

In September, we added “morgue cart covers” to our website, in hopes of capturing more of the hospital market.  Many hospitals use a cart with a metal-tubed framework to cover the body.  This has a fitted fabric cover over the top, giving the cart the appearance of an empty draped table.  Interestingly, the companies that sell the carts do a lot of advertising on the Internet about their great tables, but they never tell you how to buy a replacement when the one you have starts to look like crap.

We’re using our FluidBlocker nylon fabric to create lightweight covers that meet both OSHA and infection control requirements.  So far, we’ve sold several dozen of them are we’re looking for ways to get the word out to hospitals around the country.

The 2009 NFDA Expo exposed us to a number of new customers, with 113 covers sold during the convention.  Since then, we’ve been riding a wave that the convention created, with many new customers calling months later to buy “that great cover we saw at the convention.”

Like most companies, we spent a lot of 2009 cutting costs, re-evaluating our core expenses and rethinking strategy.  Because of intelligent decisions, a reluctance to shout “the sky is falling!” and an industry that believes in our product, we came out of 2009 better than we started.

How about you?  Did you take time during 2009 to differentiate yourself from your competitor?  Did you rethink your basic plan and search for new markets for your compassionate brand of funeral care?  Did you buckle down and cut some unnecessary spending?

If you’re still looking for something to improve your firm’s appearance and set you apart from your competition, why not consider one of our beautiful quilted cot covers?  They’re affordable, amazingly versatile (and protective, thanks to our great lining) and guaranteed to add comfort to any removal.

Visit our product site at www.cotcovers.com.

Anyone else host or attend a holiday remembrance service this year?

I went to one hosted by a good friend of mine at his corporate funeral home.  It was on a cold, rainy night.  I was amazed at how many of his clients braved the wet streets and construction (his company is building him a beautiful new facility) to attend the short service.

They read all of the names of those they had served the previous year and had a wonderful caroling group in period costume sing some beautiful songs while they lit candles in commemoration.  They ended with a prayer and a word from the funeral director.

In past years, he’s asked families to decorate a tree with an ornament they had made, he’s given away dove ornaments to everyone who attended and held candlelight services in the cemetery attached to his funeral home.

No matter what he’s done, the people who attend – sometimes hundreds, sometimes less – are touched by the gesture of remembrance and reaffirm their bond with his firm and his staff.

Is it any wonder that his funeral home continues to grow each year?

If you’ve been following me on Facebook, you will know that I’ve been having some MAJOR issues with our COTCOVERS.com site and how it’s listed on search engines.

When we re-made the site to add online purchases and clean up the layout, we inadvertently messed up some code that, in effect, caused search engines to miss our description.

And while we still had the #1 listing on engines like Google, there was only a link showing www.cotcovers.com and no description to help visitors know what we were selling.

In effect, our listing looked like this:

Cot Covers 
www.cotcovers.com

Instead of:

Cot Covers | Mortuary First Call Stretcher Covers | Quilted With…
To see 15+ styles of beautiful, quilted cot covers, designed to fit your cot or a dressing table during ID viewing, click the link above.
www.cotcovers.com

And what was happening was that people looked right past our prime real estate and clicked on our competitors’ sites, because ours didn’t look like a Google or Yahoo! listing.

I spent weeks agonizing over what was wrong.  I spent $30 on a Godaddy.com tool to help with search engine optimization.  I called everyone I know.  And I got nowhere.

Then I looked over the site, perused every page of the WordPress.com software – I use it to host the eCommerce blog theme that powers our Cotcovers.com website – and found the one section that was set to “hide site from search engines.”  Why that choice was checked off is a mystery, especially considering that we get so many of our first-time orders from funeral directors who search the Internet for “cot covers” or “quilted cot covers.”

I made the change before leaving on vacation (9/6 – 9/13) and promptly forgot about it.

Then, I got an email from an excited friend who noticed that Google, after five days, had re-indexed the site and found the description.

Is it any coincidence that we’ve had five new orders since the change?

Truth is, we’ve done a PILE OF WORK the last few years to teach people that our cot covers are a better alternative to the cordura or fake fur stuff that they usually buy.  We’ve added great features to our covers and watched as the competition copied our innovations.  We’ve run ads, published articles, spoken at conferences, exhibited a trade shows far and wide.

We’ve done all the important legwork, and to have orders drop off because of a stupid website issue was REALLY, REALLY scary!

So I’m glad we’re fixed.  And I’m really glad that so many funeral directors have experienced the awesomeness of our cot covers that they are talking about them to their friends and the industry is starting to buzz about our quilted covers.  It’s a great feeling to know that creating a good product, getting important feedback to make it better, building relationships and providing the industry’s best customer service have combined to make us so successful.

Still, we couldn’t do it without our awesome client firms.  You know, the ones who take a chance on our small company and buy one of our covers.  We know our stuff isn’t cheap – although we’re usually cheaper than the plain-color ones from Ferno – so we appreciate when funeral directors call back to order more.  That’s just about the highest compliment we ever get, and we’re getting it on a weekly basis these days.

I’ve never been afraid to talk about how much we sell, how often we sell it and how successful or unsuccessful we are at trade shows and with advertising.  And I’m not worried about telling you that our August 2009 was 1/4 our sales of August 2008.  Fortunately, because of the computer fix, our September 2009 is on track to be about 125% of our September 2008 sales.

Even considering the current economy, our numbers through July were up 10% over last year for the same period.  And even considering August’s numbers, we’re still up 7% on the year and I expect to finish December neck-and-neck with the amazing 2008 numbers.

Now, if I can just get our new uniform store (www.eliteuniformstore.com) to start cranking out the sales, we’ll be in great shape!

I’m sure it’s a well-worn phrase, but there are never enough hours in the day.  Between running our growing funeral supply business (we make quilted cot covers), opening a retail uniform store (www.eliteuniformstore.com) and keeping up with my work at the local fire department, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of time to pay attention to my family.

Even worse, the only time I’ve spent with any family in recent memory has been to work on one of the businesses.

So I took last night off.  And it was during a soak in the hot tub that I realized that I’ve been missing a very important part of my life:  writing here on the blog!

Now, this isn’t one of those “I’m sorry I haven’t updated the blog in six bazillion years” posts.  Frankly, there’s no room for pity here.  Also, everyone who reads this blog knows how busy I’ve been.

But there is a viceral jolt I get from writing to my blog friends and sharing important funeral industry-related information and opinion.  So I’m sorry I haven’t been around more, if only because it’s jeopardized my own mental well-being.

So look for some more stuff coming at you in the coming days.  I can’t promise I’ll post every single day – it would be disingenous of me and tempting fate, I think – but I know I’ll be around more.

Plus, I want to tell all of you about the August/September “UN-Conventional Convention Special” we’re offering to all our former cot cover customers.

So stick around.  I’ll see ya later.

Here are the first official “publicity shots” of our new store:

Store #1 by you.

Store #4 by you.

We’re carrying mostly medical uniforms right now, with a plan to branch into firefighting and police uniforms as we gather contacts and contracts.

Our first few days of “sneak previews” were relatively successful, with sales each day and word of mouth spreading.

And don’t worry, I’ll be back here soon, talking all about the funeral industry that I’ve had to forget about for a few weeks now.

‘Til then, see ya!

Wanna visit Elite Uniforms?  Check out www.EliteUniformStore.com.

Friends,

I have not died.  I did not fall off a cliff and I haven’t been eaten by a swarm of angry bats.

I’ve been opening a store.

Here’s a pic of what I’ve accomplished:

P1000919 by you.

We had our first “soft opening” tonight and sold $130 worth of stuff.  More soft opening tomorrow night and Saturday day.

We launch full operations Saturday, August 1st.

More info later and maybe, just maybe, a funeral-related post.  But don’t hold your breath for the next 10 days, because I can’t handle all the hyperventilating you might experience.

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