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DECOR (cover art): No More Mystery
Kirstie Bennettt

No More Mystery
The Original Decor Magazine story.

May 03, 2010

By Kirstie Bennett

The first time I entered a custom frameshop, I found myself completely overwhelmed.

It was 1975, I was young, and I had limited means.

A dizzying wall of corner samples and an unwelcoming store owner immediately made me feel out of my element. The owner looked at a series of photographs I brought in for framing and pulled out a few corner samples and mats. With little explanation, he calculated an estimate and presented me with a three-figure price.

Floored by the quote, I left the store in a hurry, with my unframed photos in hand. The framer lost my sale because his shop was mysterious, he was intimidating, and his price was unexpected.

A year later, I ended up framing the photos at a do-it-yourself frameshop in Berkeley, Calif., and had a great experience. It was one that prompted me to switch career goals, and a year later, I actually opened my own frameshop.

With my first-ever framing experience still fresh in my mind, the mission in opening my store, The Framer’s Workshop in Berkeley, Calif., centered on demystifying the custom framing experience, especially for younger shoppers. I focused on customer inclusion through many initiatives, the main one back then being a do-it-yourself framing service.

Over the years, The Framer’s Workshop has matured into a custom frameshop with a do-it-yourself option that is alive and well. Today, my husband and I, along with a staff of 10, run the store with many of the same goals I established more than three decades ago.

Poster Special SignSince that time, we have weathered several difficult economic cycles with the belief that consumers respond best to an open pricing and design policy that eliminates intimidation and fear of the unknown. We have refined our ideas with regard to making the customer feel comfortable enough to purchase custom framing and to have a good experience in doing so.

Although our efforts to reach out to younger buyers have been fairly successful, we recently came to the hard realization that they might not be enough. When a small group of students recently entered our store, hesitated in the doorway and immediately turned around to leave, my horrible frameshop experience of 1975 came crashing back.

Inside our store, several of our framers had been busy working on projects at the time. Looking confused, one of the female students said, “Oh, I’m sorry,” and started to back away. This was a pivotal moment for us. If this young girl was actually afraid to enter the shop and not clear on how things worked, then we were not fully doing the jobs we set out to do.

In these still-challenging economic times, when business owners can’t afford to lose a single customer, and buying habits are quickly changing, we immediately took action and developed a six-month plan for improvement. The main focus: to increase our visibility with a complete overhaul of our signage. The following is a detailed look at our strategy.

Determining What The Buyer Wants

For all consumer generations, shopping habits across the board have changed.

Today’s younger consumers, and even our shrinking baby boomer customer base, have come to expect instant gratification. The younger generations, namely X and Y, often view wall decor as something temporary and have become accustomed to the convenience of Internet shopping and the ease of throwing products into a shopping cart at a major retail store without any intrusion from a salesperson. The shoppers read the price and get just what they expect. There are no uncomfortable surprises.

AOut Door Information Signlthough the boomers grew up with small stores on every corner where they could stop and chat with the owners, they too are now pressed for time and have adjusted their buying habits. They comfortably shop on the Internet, and in our current recession, they have become accustomed to searching for bargains on a regular basis. In fact, a recent McKinsey research study reveals that many consumers are now quite happy with the lower-priced options they choose, and they might not easily go back to more high-priced luxury items in the future.

In order to keep up with these massive changes in buying habits, we need to make adjustments to how we present our businesses. But first, we have to get inside the customers’ minds in order to get them in the door. To do this, I suggest brainstorming about your own shopping experiences and then determining whether you can apply any of them to custom framing. Some questions to ask yourself:

  • How do you feel if you walk into an upscale clothing boutique, and there are no price labels on the clothes? Or, how do you react when the price tags are hidden in a jewelry shop window? Do you just figure you can’t afford these types of items if you can’t see the price?
  • Do you prefer to shop where the men’s ties are behind the counter under glass, or do you like to feel the fabric and look at prices before getting help?
  • Do you like restaurants where the prices are clearly listed, or do you like to order the “fish of the day” with an unspecified seasonal price? Are you ever slightly uncomfortable asking for the price?

Now, picture yourself as a young consumer with a poster in hand. You have never been inside a frameshop, and you have discovered three options:

  1. A small and dark frameshop with no visible prices and a lone employee behind a counter.
  2. A luxurious-looking frameshop with fine art on the walls and an impeccably dressed sales woman in high heels offering tea to a customer relaxing on a couch while approving a frame design.
  3. A homey-looking frameshop with a guy wearing an apron behind the counter who looks like your dad, and there are still no prices anywhere. You think you might want your poster glued onto a hardboard, but you don’t know the term to ask for that, or you might just be looking for a ready-made frame.

Ready Made RoomRather than ask uncomfortable questions, you might quickly move on to the big, bright craft store where everything is clearly priced, and you don’t have to deal with anyone. There, you make your purchase, along with every other frame purchase from then on.

The problem is larger than many of us want to admit, and we need to work hard to position ourselves to become the destination of choice for multiple generations of future framing customers. In order to serve this new customer mindset, retain our current customers and capture the younger customers’ initial framing sales, we need to examine how we can make adjustments to help all our customers feel comfortable with the framing experience.

Delivering Information at the Doorstep

We believe the experience starts on the sidewalk outside of our store. When you walk by our shop, you now see a large, two-sided, professionally designed and illustrated weather-resistant sidewalk sign that briefly lists a number of our services.

Mindful that we are located in the college town of the University of California, Berkeley, the sidewalk sign emphasizes our lower-priced options, such as name mats, mounting and poster special packages, and pedestrians stop to read it on a daily basis.

Looking into the shop from the sidewalk, passersby now see a 60″ x 40″ sign hanging from the ceiling that states, “Affordable Do it-Yourself and Custom Framing” and includes a short list of services. We made the sign prominent, so it would be clearly visible to anyone walking past our store.

Store SignageContinuing the Informative Signage Inside

Inside the store, a 36″ x 24″ chart above our design table details our poster special package prices. Below the sign is an area of metal and wood mouldings clearly marked as available for the aforementioned framing packages.

We believe customers are more comfortable with prices they can see, so we implemented a new, more transparent signage strategy. Our goal was to let shoppers clearly see a starting price point in order to eliminate fear of the unknown.

Now, when a browser walks in and asks how much it costs to frame an average-sized poster, we point to the sign and explain that the prices start there. If these prices are too high, we point to the stacks of clearly priced ready-made frames near our entry.

We find that if the customer knows there is an affordable starting price, the person is actually more comfortable designing elegant framing solutions and will often go with an upgraded frame design. But if that design is too expensive, the customer can now be much more at ease downgrading the order to one of our good-looking poster special choices, most of which will work on a variety of art. We save the sale, and the customer can gracefully downgrade the order by simply saying, “Let’s go with one of those.” We don’t point out the sign to every customer, but we find that just having it eases the process.

Satisfying Every Budget

We further the concept that we offer something for every framing budget by strategically placing stacks of ready-made frames near our front doors. Passersby can instantly see that we have a large and deep selection of ready-made wall frames for sale. We stack them in groups of about one dozen per style and size so artists can visually understand that we can fulfill their exhibition needs. We buy these frames only in black, maple and mahogany. Many competing major retailers have a broader selection but do not have the depth of stock to fulfill the busy artist’s needs. Because we moved the larger-sized frames to the front of the shop we have significantly increased our business with many artists now using us as their go-to source for exhibit framing.

We created the ready-made room out of a former office space, and we stock it with both commercially made frames and our own shop-branded wall frames built from off-cuts. These shop-branded frames are so popular, we have trouble keeping the shelves full. The ready-made room is integral to our business, and we have become known for our wall frame selection and service. We see customers making a beeline for this area on a daily basis. Once they select their frames, we cut mats on the spot and help them fit their art at no extra charge. This service brings in a different demographic and does not compete with higher-priced custom framing. The ready-made service also provides another fallback price for custom sales that we might not otherwise capture.

Offering Unbeatable Options:

Diplomas

Next to the poster special chart and above our design tables, we created a Document Framing Special sign with two framed diplomas displayed above it as examples. We are extremely close to a large university, but we didn’t always get diploma sales because the university store sells a package complete with a university-branded mat. With our new lower-priced special, we are recapturing this business, as well as additional certificate framing for the university itself. We show all certificate customers the Diploma Special display, and we find that many will upgrade their choice once they know the starting point.

Jerseys

Our jersey special has helped us generate increased sales in the same way. Pedestrians outside the shop can see several large jerseys framed on our back wall. The jerseys are clearly marked with our new Sports Jersey Framing Special price sign, which includes available upgrades. We have found that our jersey framing sales have significantly increased since we added these examples and signs. Moreover, most customers upgrade their designs.

High-End Options

Although we display several entry-level framing options, we also have a gallery full of higher-end possibilities on our walls and on our store website, www.framersworkshop.com/.

Upon entering our store, a wall on the left is filled with framed limited-edition prints featuring beautiful frames with hand-wrapped mats and Tru Vue’s Museum Glass®. Here, we also show off Arts and Crafts mortise and tenon frames with various styles of matting. When customers walk in, their immediate sense is that we are able to provide a range of framing and that we have something to fit most budgets.

Sports Jersey Special SignageGiving Samples of Pricing

In order to help potential customers visually understand what their approximate price might be, we framed our store’s 30th anniversary poster, “The Berkeley Rose Garden,” in a number of styles representing different price points.

We included a simple metal poster frame special, a ready-made frame with mat, a value-line frame, and a more expensive custom frame with an open V-groove and multiple mats. We labeled each with a sign explaining both the price and the components.

Each framed example looks just slightly better than the previous one, and so we are able to use these examples not only to increase the customer’s comfort level but also to upgrade sales. It is the “good, better, best” idea but with unlimited possibilities.

Carrying Out the Message in Marketing

We recently created a full-color, tri-fold retail brochure (see below) to ensure that new and potential customers clearly understand what we have to offer them. After a casual initial greeting and an offer to answer questions, we let them look around for a bit and then give them the brochure that explains our services and includes photographs of finished projects featured in our framing packages.

All of our in-store pricing examples are also displayed on our Discount Options and Frame Packages Web pages. We also have a dedicated Do-it-Yourself Web page that explains the process with a photo essay. And we have a Framing Examples page that acts as a visual framing menu of possibilities. As the customer often sees our website before his or her first visit to the shop, we believe that by openly displaying base prices on the website, along with examples and clear explanations of the framing process, we put potential customers at ease before they ever enter the shop.

Creating the Right Atmosphere

Our shop is unique in that it has a large open area with three 4' x 8' Do-it-Yourself tables, and our computerized mat cutter is clearly in view. There is always a buzz of activity with framers working on projects and customers getting help both at the design counter and in the do-it-yourself area. The tables are covered with Kraft paper, there are tools in use, and in the background, you will hear the whack of the chopper, the thunk of the underpinner and the whir of the saw. This is a busy workshop that we have resisted making too elegant in order to maintain our casual atmosphere. It puts customers at ease no matter what their income bracket.

Creating an atmosphere that will attract both the affluent and the budget-minded customer (groups that sometimes overlap) is a fine balance. We don’t want to make our stores look like supermarkets or major retailers, but there are also lessons to be learned from some of the better-looking chain stores.

The younger consumer enjoys luxury shopping with a bargain price. If you look at popular shops like Victoria’s Secret or Pottery Barn, you will note that although they have reasonably high-priced items, there is lot of merchandise appealing to a luxury look but with moderate pricing. Whether it is “Buy 5 for $25”at Victoria’s Secret or a one-week sale on white wall frames at Pottery Barn, customers know they can get perceived luxury for less. Walk through any upscale mall, and you will see younger shoppers visiting stores that are beautifully decorated, and because of their marketing programs and clearly marked prices, their clientele knows exactly what to expect. Having customers who know what to expect at various price points greatly lessens the intimidation factor.

Putting the Customer at Ease

Demystifying the frameshop goes beyond signage. In order to make customers comfortable at the design counter and lessen any intimidation, we use an inclusive client-focused strategy. As soon as the customer puts his or her art on the table, we work to make the person feel a part of the design and pricing process. Our design tables are away from the sample walls, so the customer can stand across the table from us or next to us in a more collaborative position. We usually control choices to a point, but the customer can freely grab samples off the wall as pricing groups are clearly marked with poster special, value, in-stock and special-order categories.

Although we don’t break down the entire bill for the customer, we do scan in different pricing options when necessary, and the customers seem to relax knowing that the prices can change with a quick switch of materials. This does not tend to downgrade sales; rather, we find that if the customer understands that the lower-priced option is available, he or she will often go with the better design. We find that if, after placing an order, customers leave with some understanding of the pricing process and options, they are more likely to come back because they were not intimidated when they made their choices.

Realizing Results

As a result of our in-store and online efforts to clarify pricing options with signage, special pricing packages, examples and clearly marked merchandise, we have more browsers in the shop and fewer estimates in our system. We are closing more sales because we have visible price and merchandise options for various demographics with differing framing budgets.

Lessening the intimidation factor is an ongoing process. In the future, we plan to add video displays to both the shop and the website. These movies will include a chronicle of the do-it-yourself process, examples of our finished framing projects, residential and corporate installations and customer testimonials. We will also add to our interior signage, and create an inviting corporate brochure that will explain the art consultation process in a way that makes the corporate executive or assistant feel comfortable before our visit.

Frameshops cannot remain stagnant if owners expect to grow them. They need constant marketing tune-ups in order to weather changing economies and demographics. Demystifying the frameshop is one avenue for growth that owners should consider.

Kirstie Bennett, co-owner of The Framer’s Workshop in Berkeley, Calif., and art and framing consultant, has won many awards over the years for her business practices. Among them are the Constant Contact Best Practices Award, Oakland Tribune’s “Bay Area Best” (multiple years) and DECOR’s 2009 Top Art & Framing Retailers Awards Best E-Newsletter Award. Her store was voted the Best Frame Shop in 2008 by the San Francisco Chronicle. She has a bachelor’s in English and Art History from UCLA, and can be reached at framers@mac.com.