Construction and home service providers didn’t get the sidewalk standing ovations or human interest coverage in the news, but being dubbed "essential businesses" pushed many such franchises forward in 2020.
Bloomin’ Blinds co-founder and CEO Kelsey Stuart said the status was a silver lining in a very chaotic year.
“We were fortunate enough to be deemed essential,” said Stuart. “We went through all the state and local regulations and, in most cases, construction or home services were deemed essential. We had a couple of operators in San Francisco that got hit and a couple of others took a softer schedule, but most of our operators were out there with the authority of essential services.”
Like almost everyone aside from grocery stores and pizza, he said March was terrible and April was soft, but since then the business has been humming. Customers were calling Bloomin' Blinds, a mostly owner-operator and home-based company, either for new window treatments or to fix their broken blinds—a niche Stuart said is an important backstop for the business in recessionary or tumultuous times. Across the board, customers just had a lot of time to sit and look out or at their windows.
“Everyone was at home, now you’ve got people at home with time for projects and now staring and thinking, let’s make some progress. Also, all the unspent disposable income, all your travel budget, your vacations and summer camps—all the money that normally gets spent through the summer and the holidays gets shifted,” said Stuart. “There was a lot more disposable income that was allocated toward home improvement.”
At Bloomin’ Blinds, he said sales were up 60 percent through 2020, and this January was his biggest month ever. That’s part of the beauty of the service category, especially things like repair, a specialty for the company that differentiates the brand from the rest of the window-covering segment. When people are faced with uncertainty or economic anxiety, they go into “repair mode.”
There was a lot less shopping around, too.
“Even at the height of COVID and all the questions around it, people were very comfortable in their house, it’s when they went out they got very uncomfortable. We built a virtual consultation process, we had it all set up, but we found that consumers were letting people in their homes but letting in fewer,” said Stuart. So when they got the call, they were typically the only bid. “We typically have a 75 percent close rate. In COVID it went up to almost 90 percent because people weren’t shopping as much.”
The company focused on robust technology tools, marketing and being the "uncontractor" vs. the stereotypical butt-crack and stretched T-shirt contractor. Little things like a laser measuring device that feeds data into a tablet and an engaging virtual look book of what new blinds would look like didn’t hurt either.
“It’s amazing how people love seeing that laser,” said Stuart. “It’s incredibly efficient for us, but people love it, they want you to measure from the back of the house to the front, from here to there.”
Another perk of being an essential business: interest in starting a franchise market is growing as was seen in past economic downturns. Bloomin' Blinds, a 58-owner and 68-territory franchise network, just signed another three franchisees for the low-investment, home-based business. The investment cost ranges from $38,495 to $117,425, including a $25,000 to $48,500 franchise fee. Average gross revenue from single-territory franchisees was $227,974 in 2019.