High-end handle boutique seeks more pull with designers

Special to The Times

You won't find hammers or nails at Top Drawer Hardware Inc. in Santa Monica.

Instead, owner Cristi Page stocks $75 mother-of-pearl drawer pulls, $200 brass appliance handles and other specialty hardware for a growing clientele of designers and builders.

Her hardware boutique, modeled after upscale shops in Paris and her native Madrid, showcases its reproduction black-glass, oil-rubbed bronze and sleekly modern doorknobs and drawer ware mounted on painted canvases to emphasize their artistic appeal.

Sales at the 2-year-old shop will double this year to $100,000, says Page, who previously was a financial management consultant at IBM Business Consulting Services.

Still, at an average of $8,400 a month, sales don't yet cover costs as high as $12,000 a month.

She's dabbled in advertising in local newspapers and magazines, direct mail and pay-per-click ads online to increase sales. But Page is unsure how best to spend her $30,000 marketing budget.

"I don't want to fritter it away," says the 30-year-old, who first fell under the spell of decorative hardware in her early 20s when she worked at B&M; Hardware, a wholesaler in Oceanside, Calif.

First step: focus marketing efforts where the fish are biting, says expert Amber Bryan, a team leader at Phelps Group, an integrated marketing company in Santa Monica.

Designers account for about 60% of Top Drawer Hardware's business, so that's the group she needs to attract.

"She really needs to drill down on her target, the designer, and reach the designer on a one-to-one level as opposed to advertising to the mass market," Bryan says.

To jump-start her efforts, Page was invited to Phelps' weekly "BrainBanger's Ball," a lunchtime brainstorming and focus group session. Everyone at the agency, including the receptionist and its chief creative officer, talks about ideas for campaigns and reviews work in progress. They spend eight minutes each on four or five topics.

Page came away with a list of 50 ideas to grab a potential buyer's attention and boost sales in three categories: local store traffic, designer sales and online, which accounts for about 20% of sales.

Like any good brainstorming session, some ideas were zany: Create a knob-mobile -- a vehicle covered in knob samples.

Others were offbeat but not improbable: Let customers try out virtual knobs on pictures of their furniture they've uploaded to the company's Internet site, www.topdrawerhardware.com. Or provide pictures of knobs on the site of actual size so that a customer could print them, cut them out and stick them on a cabinet or drawer to decide whether they liked them.

Several of the ideas generated in Page's eight-minute session ended up as part of Bryan's marketing recommendations. The account executive also went to Top Drawer to meet with Page and get a look at the art-gallery-like space.

"I really was blown away," Bryan says. "I wasn't expecting it to be as highbrow. When you walk in, you immediately want to buy something."

She was also impressed by Page's product knowledge.

To create a plan for Page, Bryan pulled from her agency's strategic positioning process, which starts with how potential customers -- designers, in this case -- view a product or brand.

The process looks for ways to create acceptance of a brand, identifies barriers to purchase and uncovers the factors that ultimately attract a customer to the product or brand.

"The goal is to find the point of differentiation, the unique sweet spot our client can call their own," Bryan says.

For Top Drawer Hardware, it's upscale hardware at palatable prices, she says.

To help get the message out, Bryan suggests the following steps.

* Build the buzz. Develop a newsletter program. This should be a combination of mail and e-mail. Buy the membership list of the local chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. Use it to send regular mail and offer an incentive for recipients to provide their e-mail addresses for future mailings.

The program will help build Page's database while also building brand recognition. The newsletters, which should include information about new products, industry trends and upcoming events (possibly including a wine-and-cheese party at her store), arm designers with the timely and relevant information they crave.

"Designers really look for experts and they have a very tightknit group of people they like to work with," Bryan says. "When you get in their Rolodex, you are in there forever."

* Boost public relations. Work with a public relations specialist to help Page talk to editors of publications about the store and to get the company's products included in editorial features. Page could check with her designer clients, as well as other small-business owners, for a referral to a PR specialist.

* Improve online tactics. The marketing expert approved of Top Drawer Hardware's website but suggested several ways to improve the company's online presence.

Page could add a blog to the site, which could dramatically improve her search engine ranking. It's a great way to track the return on her online investment. She could also consider buying search terms for the brands she carries, such as Baldwin, as well as competitive terms.

To further improve traffic on the site, a small-business owner can request that search results that bring up his or her company's ads be limited by geographic area. Page has just taken that step. So now, for example, her site wouldn't come up as a pay-per-click ad for a New Jersey consumer. Although she does sell via her online site, these faraway clicks may not result in as many sales as a local click would, Bryan says, and they will burn up Page's monthly pay-per-click advertising budget faster than necessary.

* Network. "Her biggest challenge is she's not well connected," Bryan says. She suggests that Page join the local chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. Like many organizations of business professionals, the design group has a membership category for companies that provide products or services to its members.

Get into the society's directory as a supplier. Offer to hold a chapter meeting or event at her store.

"Good old-fashioned networking, forming relationships -- she's not doing that right now," Bryan says. "Being a fairly new hardware resource to the community, simply getting Top Drawer Hardware's name out there will make a big impact."

* Try trade shows. Although some experts say trade shows are dying, Bryan notes, she thinks they are a great way to showcase a product or brand and to build relationships with a core target audience in person. If small-business owners can't afford to exhibit, they should still attend to meet potential clients, network with suppliers and get the scoop on industry news and trends, she says.

Although Page was wondering about creating a catalog, Bryan didn't recommend it.

"My thinking with catalogs is it just kills trees," Bryan said. "I think her website does a good job presenting the product."

Bryan also suggested that Page avoid mass-market advertising to general consumers until she has built her designer clientele. And Page doesn't need to spend resources in ways that tend to attract "Dolly Decorator," the amateur, occasional designer, Bryan says. She needs to crack the community of professional designers.

"She should be top-of-mind with every designer in Los Angeles," Bryan says. "It all boils down to getting her name out there."

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cyndia.zwahlen@latimes.com

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Begin text of infobox

Top Drawer Hardware

Business

The Santa Monica store sells specialty cabinet and door hardware.

Owner

Cristi Page

History

Founded: June 2006

Start-up funds: $125,000 from savings, family and friends.

Company snapshot

Sales (2007): $50,000

Employees: 0

Main business challenge

How to get the biggest bang from a modest advertising budget.

Goal

To grow sales quickly, become profitable and open more showrooms.

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Meet the expert: Amber Bryan

Bryan is a team leader at the Phelps Group, an integrated marketing company in Santa Monica. An award-winning account specialist, she has spent 10 years in advertising, marketing and media management on accounts that include paint company Dunn-Edwards Corp., Whole Foods Market and Panasonic Computer Solutions Co.

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