digital disruptors | Oct 30, 2019 |
DecoratorsBest dragged fabric makers online. Now the site is their biggest customer

When Barbara Karpf’s husband gave her a laptop for her birthday in 2004, the New York–based interior designer decided to figure out what she could do with it.

“I did a lot of work in the Hamptons off-season so that the house was ready for Memorial Day, and I did a lot of work in New York so it’d be ready for Labor Day,” she recalls of her two decades as a designer. “It was not the most glamorous experience. So I started looking online to see what could I do—how could I take my little laptop, which weighed seven pounds, travel with it, and run a small business.”

After rejecting concepts like designing for clients remotely, she found a corner of the design industry where she could innovate: fabrics. “In those days, we didn't have all the tools that people have today,” she says. “I saw that no one was selling designer fabric and wallpaper online—so I was the first to do it.”

The result was the e-commerce site DecoratorsBest.com, which today carries not only tens of thousands of to-the-trade fabrics and wallcoverings by the yard, but also furniture, lighting, accent pieces, wall art and soft goods from notable showroom-based brands. Though the site serves primarily consumers, Karpf has seen a burgeoning trade audience in recent years.

At a moment when so many trade brands are wrestling with changes wrought by the internet (notably a demand for pricing transparency and frictionless e-commerce), Karpf's site has been quietly making it work for 15 years—at a profit. We caught up with the designer turned internet entrepreneur to find out how she balances the needs of consumers and the design community, where she sees opportunities for growth, and what she wishes the big fabric houses would do to position themselves for success in the future.

When you launched, were there already people selling fabrics and wallcoverings online?
There were, but they had neon-looking sites. They did not look upscale. I decided that I wanted an upscale-looking site that was very easy to use—and I wanted top-quality customer service. We were dealing with a luxury client who was doing their home, and they deserve to be treated with care and respect.

What was the initial reception?
Before we really launched, I had a few ads out. The website was barely up—within minutes, it was like one of those old ads where you see people going, “Oh, my God, we just got 100 sales.” I got sales instantaneously.

What were the initial brands you carried—and what was the process of building relationships with them?
I was very lucky—as a high-end interior designer, I had dealt mainly with Brunschwig & Fils and Scalamandré. But even though those were my go-to places, I didn’t contact them first. Instead, I reached out to Robert Allen and Ralph Lauren—two big ones [at the time] that got it right away. And because I could say, “Robert Allen and Ralph Lauren are in,” many others followed suit.

Were there any holdouts in the early days?
Some people were very receptive, and those were the ones we had on the website at the beginning; others watched. It took about two years to get one of the largest brands—two years! We’d meet every few months to discuss it. Years later, we’re now their largest single customer.

How does the process with the brands work, and how has that changed over time?
The industry played beautifully into the internet from an ordering standpoint, because you can order one yard, one roll. People could order very small quantities. There were samples—essential so that people could touch and see the fabric. It’s the same today. I don’t think I could have built the business in an upscale way without that ability.

Do you stock your own samples, then?
No. I have always done exactly what an interior designer does: We order as needed, they send out the samples for us, and all of our brands drop-ship for us. We have no inventory.

Do you carry an entire line? Is it about what the brand wants to put on the site, is it everything, or do you edit?
We just put up everything. Let’s say a company has four or five brands, they may give me one to start with—that happened often in the beginning. Then, as they felt comfortable, we were generally the first to carry their most high-end brand. We were the first to carry Brunschwig online, for instance. We were the first to carry many of the other companies’ product.

What are the quantities—what kind of projects do you think people are working on when they shop with you?
It varies. We can go from a $25 order to a $30,000 or $50,000 order. People can be working on one small thing, or they can be working on a whole house. We don’t get to know the customers the way an interior designer does, but we work with people all over the country and from all walks of life.

We’ve been talking a lot lately about pricing transparency—and I feel like you’ve been leading the way for a long time on that front, saying, “This is how much these high-end things cost.” How has the conversation around pricing changed?
Very early on, we could price however we wanted to, but I would say in the last five or 10 years, we go with the manufacturer’s suggested pricing for online pricing. Sales reps have sometimes said to me, “Hey, Barbara, you know no one else is following our pricing. Why are you bothering?” I always say, “If I commit to doing something with someone, I try and follow that.” I want to be respectful of the brands that I work with. If other companies aren’t doing that, the brands should consider whether they want to work with them or not.

Are you getting undercut online by other brands who are listing lower prices?
All the time. The manufacturers have embraced selling online now, and they don’t watch it as carefully as they probably should.

What is the competitive landscape for you today?
There are more companies advertising online. Anybody can set up a website, but for the most part, we haven’t been terribly affected by it. As a small company, we're very nimble, so we can make adjustments as we see things. I want to be profitable in our advertising, in our marketing; it’s not just about dominating, it also needs to be profitable.

We have no debt, and every year have been profitable. I believe that our business model is one based on profit, not eyeballs. I’ve studied many startups in our industry, and I believe that our staying power is based on filling a need for a luxury client and understanding many aspects of the interior design industry.

What are some of the top-performing brands on the site today?
Kravet and all of their brands. We work very closely with our reps there, I speak with them at least once a week. They've really helped grow our business—they've tripled it in a five-year period. Fabricut and Schumacher are also both very strong. But really, they wouldn't be there if they're not going to do well. We can't afford to take up real estate space if a company isn't producing for us—and if they're very difficult to work with and not producing, they're not going to be on our site for very long. We need to work closely with people to build the business.

You mentioned that Robert Allen was an early supporter. Did the Robert Allen Duralee Group bankruptcy have a big impact on your business?
Oh, big time. That was thousands of dollars in revenue that we don't have coming in. On the other hand, we had a tremendous amount of back orders that luckily our other brands were able to fill, whether it was the same product or a similar product. We got just about all of our back orders taken care of, but it was very difficult. It really was. It's been very sad—for me, it was heartbreaking because Robert Allen was the first company that got behind us, so I was loyal to them till the end.

Have you reestablished a relationship with them?
I haven't spoken with them. They send us books. They try and market with us, but I think that it's just too far gone. I don't know. Maybe they will re-emerge, but we'll wait and see on that.

Where is the opportunity? Where do you see growth?
We're very optimistic about a lot of things. We're focused on a lot of the European brands right now that don't have exposure in the U.S. For customers who want something a little more exclusive, sometimes they look to us and we're focused on promoting these developing brands. I love taking a brand and really building it up [on our site] and letting it grow.

You serve an interesting mix of designers and consumers—how do you talk differently to each audience?
It’s mainly consumers, but we are getting more and more designers coming to us because they know that we understand their business. The team here is trained to understand what a consumer needs for their design project if they don't know—and for a trade person, they can speak to them on a professional level.

For designers, we're a virtual design center where they can not only view more than 259,000 products easily, but also order multiple brands from us. That has been a big asset for them because the paperwork is so extensive—and we offer free shipping. We also offer CFAs for them—everyone here knows what a CFA is and how important it is—and act as a back office, following up as needed for orders and samples. We give them the service that they need; we understand their needs and their timeframes. Designers can also text things in, which helps tremendously.

How has your team grown over time?
Well, it's actually shrunk, because we're more efficient. In the last three years we have tripled our sales and we reduced our staff by half.

Wow. How does that happen?
Well, it happens by being much more technologically savvy, first of all. We have EDIs for instance, electronic data interface. That was a godsend. Therefore we need fewer people processing orders. We have many more brands, but they can upload easier.

People always say, “Well, how large is your business?” I say, “The question really is: How efficient are we?” The manufacturers almost fell over. I was having lunch with the president [of a large fabric manufacturing company] and he said, “Yeah, well how large is your team?” I told him, “It's not that large.” We’re a team of five. When I said that, he went, “What?” No time is wasted here.

So many designers are protective of this notion of trade-only product. Does that make doing business with you—and therefore making themselves available to consumers—a complicated thing for some of the manufacturers you carry on the site? Do you see brands grappling with that?
Well, they used to. This was always a discussion in the beginning, and I felt I really wanted to work wherever their comfort zone was. In today's world, though, there's hardly anything you can think of that isn't purchased online—it would be counterproductive for these brands not to be online. It's the way of the future.

We find that many of the consumers we work with have an interior designer. They may even say, “Oh, our designer suggested we call you to order this.” The designer is providing their eye, their expertise, their way to execute a job, their resources for their wallpaper installers, all of their work rooms—all of the things that make an interior designer valuable. I think it's so much more than just providing a product. As a designer, I know how much work goes into a project. I have tremendous respect for designers, and it's certainly not my intention to ever take a job away from a designer. We haven't even had a call about that in about five years.

Why do you think that is?
The industry has changed: I worked on a cost-plus basis when I was a designer, but I don't know how many designers still work like that—they're working on a per-project basis or an hourly basis. If you put 10 designers in a room today, I would bet that you would have 10 different ways of doing that same project.

I think designers realize that everything is sold online today, and that clients can always go someplace. If they want to take the time, they're going to find something. So a designer needs to make themselves very valuable to that customer in many ways so that the client really trusts them. … That's a lot more than just buying something online.

In the conversations we’re having here at BOH, I get the sense is that it's a challenging time to be in the fabric business—but it sounds like you're growing. From your perch in the industry, what do you see that's happening?
I don't think enough has changed with the brands we work with, and that is the fundamental problem—they are not changing and adjusting to the times. They want to go backwards instead of forward.

It’s also how you think about your customer. With everything that we do, we consider the customer first. When we were creating our website, I wanted to make it as easy as possible to search for things in a multitude of ways—that was thinking about the customer first. Well, all of these brands have new websites now, but it's very hard to find things unless you know exactly what you want. They are thinking about their [own] needs, I think—they’re thinking about how to make money, but they're not streamlining.

What are the other fundamental changes you wish trade textiles brands would make?
It's hard to say in general, because each brand is unique, but I do wish they would go to more conferences to learn what's out there. It's a very insular little industry, and I think that they need to open their eyes, and maybe throw out some stuff and bring in new things, and they need fresh ideas coming in. They should also study what the interior designers need, and how to fill their needs. That's what we've been doing, and I think that's why our trade program has been growing exponentially.

You said you're a significant client for some of these brands—their biggest customer, in some cases. Do you have the sense of how important you are to those businesses?
I like to say, “Well, you know, how are we doing?” They will always say to us—if we're not number one, we're in the top three most of the time. They can't give us exact information, and of course I don't expect them to, but they will say that we are [a] leader.

I have strong relationships with almost all of the brands that we work with because they've seen over time that we represent their brand in a very upscale way—in any newsletter we do, in the photos on the site, in the way we treat customers, they feel comfortable working with us. That's extremely important. I see the presidents on a regular basis and we get quite a bit of attention from all of our sales reps—they generally call us within the hour.

You're still completely privately owned, correct?
Yes, it's myself and my younger daughter Ashley, who has been here now full-time for five years. She's a partner and she's been invaluable to the company. She pushed for our home decor section, and for texting—instead of chatting [for assistance], designers can text. She stays up on the things millennials want in their lives—a lot of them I don't quite get, but she does. So it's a very good complement to say, yes, I have good traditional business sense, but she's up on the daily needs of a millennial.

That’s a great resource to have.
Yeah, it is. The internet when I started was really in its infancy and now I'd say it's a toddler, maybe getting towards nursery school. There's such a long way to go, and I love all of the innovations and things that people are doing. The mindset of a millennial is fascinating to me. I raised two of them. Their approach and values are so different, and part of it is because of technology and ease of access for things. I'm just very grateful I've had the opportunity to be involved in something as fascinating as the internet and to make an impact with it as well.

I'm so glad you got that laptop when you did.
Yes. I have it in the office. My seven-pound baby.

You kept it?
I wouldn't give it away for anything. That started everything.

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