Thinking outside the box
JOEY and Isabelle Conzevoy’s factory outlet business sells the last product you’ll ever need.
Amid the sounds of saws, hammers and power sanders at ABC Caskets in East Los Angeles, Isabelle guides families to a concrete-floored showroom that is more akin to a Home Depot than a mortuary.
“We can save you some money,” she says warmly to Tracy Oxley and David Rancifer, whose mother had died two days before. They walk through rows of wood, steel and cloth-covered caskets, some of which had been rented to Hollywood prop masters.
“This was the casket from ‘Flightplan’ with Jodie Foster,” Isabelle says, pointing to one model.
“That was a good film,” Rancifer says, nodding.
Joey, 59 -- wearing a straw hat, casual clothes and sneakers -- watches as his wife makes the buyers feel comfortable at a difficult time.
“We are in the entertainment business, you could say, in a bizarre way,” he says.
This was not the way his father, or his father before him, sold caskets. For more than 60 years, the family company -- originally named Golden State Casket Co. -- followed the traditional path of hundreds of casket makers across the nation: wholesaling to local mortuaries.
But a near-death financial experience, born of sweeping changes in the casket industry, led the Conzevoys seven years ago to shed the anonymity of wholesaling and meet the buying public.
They didn’t change their location, which is in an industrial area across the street from a pipe manufacturer and junkyard. But Isabelle tried to soften the atmosphere by planting a garden -- complete with roses, plumeria and tangerine trees -- just inside the factory’s barbed-wire-topped fence.
To turn their unusual setting for casket shopping into an advantage, the Conzevoys printed business cards that invited customers to “See How They’re Made.” And to reach a wider clientele, they turned to the Internet, where they purchased sponsored links to appear when searches were done on the word “casket” or the more old-fashioned “coffin,” now seldom used in the industry.
The Internet is how Cecilia Estrada found the company. She called from a Phoenix suburb in September to order a casket for her mother-in-law, who had died of pancreatic cancer.
Price was a primary factor.
“Everything was coming out of our pockets,” Estrada said. “I didn’t care if I had to travel.”
She ordered a $1,900 casket made of poplar with reproductions of Michelangelo’s Pieta sculpture on the metal hardware. Then she drove 400 miles in a Chevy Suburban sport utility vehicle to pick it up.
“Isabelle told me to bring blankets,” Estrada said. “I didn’t want to get anything dinged.”
DEALING with the public also means accommodating special requests.
“I am patriotic as hell and I wanted to be buried in a red, white and blue casket,” said retired schoolteacher Glen Gillette of Las Vegas.
Gillette, 71, has a blood disorder and was told last year by his doctors that he had less than 12 months to live. After being turned down by casket dealers who couldn’t fill his order, Gillette found ABC Caskets online.
He specified the design and the exact shades of colors. “I sent them swatches,” Gillette said. The finished metal casket was shipped to a mortuary in Las Vegas for storage until, as is said in the industry, the time of need.
ABC once got a request for a casket covered in fake fur.
“It looked like a big bear,” Joey said.
Then there was a call for a casket to fit a 900-pound woman.
“It had to be very, very strong, so we made it out of a multi-layered, heavy-duty plywood,” Joey said. “All someone needs to give me is a height, a width and a depth, and I can build it.”
The $1.5-billion-a-year casket business has been transformed by the same sort of consolidation that took out many family farms, mom-and-pop bookshops and corner hardware stores. By the 1990s, a handful of mega-manufacturers had become dominant, and many local casket suppliers closed up shop.
“We have gone from hundreds of manufacturers to no more than several dozen in all,” said George Lemke, executive director of the Casket & Funeral Supply Assn. of America.
It wasn’t just the economies of scale that the large manufacturers could offer. The product itself had changed.
BACK when the Conzevoy family company was founded in 1933, most caskets were made of inexpensive wood, covered in cloth. “All you needed to get into the business was a hammer, saw and a glue gun,” Lemke said.
But after the Korean War, when steel became more plentiful, metal caskets skyrocketed in popularity. By the mid-1970s, they accounted for two-thirds of caskets sold.
Many local operations that didn’t have the equipment to manufacture steel models went out of business. Golden State held on, buying unfinished metal casket shells for customization. It also had the equipment to make the more expensive hardwood caskets that were coming into vogue.
By 1999, however, the company was on the skids, having lost most of its business to national brands and local manufacturers willing to cut better deals with mortuaries. That was the year the Conzevoys went into the retail business, joining a small but growing movement in the industry.
About 150 non-funeral-home casket vendors sell directly to the public, typically offering discounts of 50% to 75%, a recent study by Bear Stearns & Co. found. Their share of the market amounts to only about 5% but is on the rise.
“It was simple for our parents,” said Jennifer Childe, who wrote the report for Bear Stearns. “They went down to the funeral home on Main Street they had been going to for years and bought a casket there when needed.
“Now people want to comparison shop.”
In 2005, even Costco Wholesale Corp. jumped in. The giant warehouse chain has casket kiosk displays in 56 stores to show sample sections of various models.
“It’s like other items we sell at kiosks, such as carpeting,” Costco Chief Financial Officer Richard Galanti said. “You fill out a form and take it to the cash register.”
A trip to the ABC factory is a far more hands-on experience. And it’s also a museum, of sorts, of Hollywood caskets. On display is a double-wide poplar model made to accommodate two people for a fantasy lovemaking scene in the TV show “Medium.” There’s a gray one painted to match a Lexus used in the Ben Affleck film “Daredevil” and another in bright yellow done up for the soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful.”
After wandering among the caskets for about 20 minutes, Oxley, who lives in Inglewood, chose a white steel model with pink crepe lining for her mother.
“Can you put a pink border here on top, to go with the pink crepe?” she asked, pointing to a spot where the floor model had a light grey band. “Of course,” Isabelle Conzevoy answered. “That will be beautiful.”
Isabelle next took Oxley and Rancifer to the sewing room where two seamstresses were turning out embroidered head panels to be positioned in casket lids for viewings. Among the designs displayed on a hanging rack were various religious tableaux, nature scenes, hobby themes such as a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and sayings such as “Going Home” and “Until We Meet Again.”
Oxley chose a “Mother -- Grandmother” panel framed in roses. “It’s one of my favorites,” Isabelle said.
The cost was $969 for the casket plus $50 for the head panel. Prices at ABC start at $275 for a casket made of particle board and top out at $5,176 for a solid mahogany model with velvet lining.
Shortly after the transaction was completed, a plain steel casket was rolled into the painting room at the factory for the custom job.
But Isabelle was in no hurry to have Oxley and Rancifer leave. With no other customers on the floor, she talked to them about other arrangements for the funeral, giving advice on where they might find the best prices for flowers and even the gravesite.
Customer relationships are ABC’s best hope for growing the business. Advertising, at least in traditional media, hasn’t helped.
A try at late-night radio advertising last year, with Joey as pitchman, was a disaster even though he got advice from one of the masters in the field: Larry “or your mattress is freeeee!” Miller of the Sit ‘n Sleep mattress company.
“I think I got calls from three insomniacs,” Joey said.
Rebuilding the business by word-of-mouth and repeat customers has been agonizingly slow, partly because most families are lucky enough to wait years between casket needs.
Last year, ABC’s revenue was just under $1 million, about a 25% increase since the direct sales venture began but well below the nearly $4 million a year in its wholesaling heyday.
“It’s not like a shirt,” Joey said. “It had to build at a snail’s pace.”
If ABC is to thrive, there will have to be a growing acceptance of buying caskets from a factory store that’s truly housed inside a factory.
Rancifer, 45, on the way out after completing the arrangements for his mother’s casket, had no trouble with that.
“We looked inside a funeral home,” he said. “But here it’s wide open with light coming in.
“And another thing I like about it -- you know there are no dead bodies in the next room.”