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Susan Dickenson

Retail Profile: Ballard Designs

Atlanta-based Ballard Designs made news earlier this year when it announced it was launching a designer collection with Suzanne kasler; the first such collaboration in the catalog retailer's 27-year-history. The first products were unretail powerhouseveiled to friends, customers and members of the press in July, during AmericasMart's summer gift and home market.

     The party was held in Ballard's Back Room outlet on DeFoor Avenue in West Midtown, adjacent to the company's main offices. Valets parked cars, wine was poured and southern delicacies were passed, as Kasler, Ballard President Ryan McKelvey and Business Development Director James Pope greeted guests. Staffers answered questions about the new collection while Kasler, also based in Atlanta, signed copies of her book and chatted with customers and friends.
     Atlanta has been home to Ballard Designs since its 1983 founding by Helen Ballard Weeks. Weeks ran her mail order design company until 1997 when it merged with Cornerstone Brands Inc., a group that includes Frontgate, Garnet Hill, Grandin Road, Improvements, Smith+Noble, The Territory Ahead and Travelsmith catalogs. At the time of the sale, Ballard Designs was a $40 million-a-year company with 240,000 customers.
     Today, McKelvey estimates Ballard's annual sales at more than $100 million. At least 37 million catalogs are mailed annually, the company added internet retailing in 2000, and it operates five retail locations. Two of those are full-priced stores (Tampa and Jacksonville, Fla.) and three ar

retail powerhouseBallard Designs President Ryan McKelvey with Suzanne Kasler at this summer’s launch party for the Suzanne Kasler Collection.
e outlets - the Ballard's Back Room on DeFoor, another in Roswell, Ga., and an outlet attached to the company's West Chester, Ohio, distribution facility.
     Cornerstone Brands is now an operating segment, along with HSN, of publicly held HSN Inc. The Cornerstone group of brands mails 324 million catalogs annually. Weeks remained with Ballard Designs as CEO until her retirement in 2000.
     McKelvey joined Ballard Designs in 1999 as vice president of operations and global sourcing. In 2005, he became president of Cornerstone's Improvements catalog and, in 2008, president of Ballard Designs. Born and raised in Macon, Ga., McKelvey graduated from the University of Georgia Business School and was initiated into the catalog industry at LL Bean where he held positions in product development, international retail and inventory planning.
     Since becoming president, what has been your biggest challenge? Managing the proper investment in circulation and marketing during the challenging economic environment.

     How has Ballard Designs held up during the recession/ economic slowdown? We have stayed focused on our customer and her needs, which has allowed us to fare well over the past couple of years. The customer has always been the primary focus for Ballard.

     How many employees work at your company? Ballard Designs has more than 150 employees, plus the brand is supported through shared services from Cornerstone Brand

A vignetteA vignette at Ballard’s Back Room in Atlanta featuring products from the Suzanne Kasler Collection, Ballard Designs’ first designer collaboration in its 27-year history.
     How much collaboration is there between Ballard Designs and the other Cornerstone brands? The brands share best practices freely between one another while remaining completely independent from a brand identity and merchandising perspective. Each brand has its own merchandising/buying team along with creative, marketing, inventory control, finance, and sourcing. Back office services - accounts payable, payroll, etc. - are shared by the brands. Distribution for all the brands is centralized at our West Chester, Ohio, facility. In addition, many brands participate in a shared call center and data center, also in West Chester.
Nearly 60% of our orders occur online, but the vast majority of these are driven by the catalog.

     How would you describe Ballard Designs? Ballard Designs is a multi-channel retailer that creates timeless home furnishings for consumers who see their home as a personal expression of who they are. We satisfy our customer's passion for decorating and validate their own sense of personal style uniquely and beautifully to increase shareholder value.

     Which channel generates the most sales? Nearly 60% of our orders occur online, but the vast majority of these are driven by the catalog.

Avenue in AtlantaIn addition to its catalog and website, Ballard Designs operates two full-price retail “prototype” stores and three outlet locations including this one, called “Ballard’s Back Room,” next to its main office on DeFoor Avenue in Atlanta.
     How important is it to operate brick-and-mortar stores along with the catalog and website; do they complement each other? The two prototype full-price stores are doing great, and they allow us to learn about the differences between the catalog/online shopper and the brick-and-mortar customer. We have done a significant amount of analysis in those markets and there are benefits to having catalogs, website and retail all available to potential customers in the same market. So yes, we feel they do complement each other. If you get to visit the stores, you will see that they clearly and effectively bring the brand to life - the pages from the catalog are literally re-created in the stores. Our customers love this.

     Do you think the website could overtake the print catalog in future years? The web will continue to grow as a selling channel, but the catalog will always be an important part of our business, both in print and electronically.

Best-selling product(s): We have customer favorites in both soft goods and case goods categories. Favorites in soft goods are our fabric by the yard and outdoor cushion offerings. Favorites in case goods are items from our Original Home Office and Tuscan collections.

     What's the most expensive item in your inventory? Our most expensive group offering is from our Tuscan collection, the Return Office Group, which retails for $3,180. Our most expensive item offering is our Hanover modular tall bookcase, which retails for $1,799.

     And the least expensive? Our least expensive items retail for $10. At this price point you can select from one Ballard Basic Pillow insert in a 12x20 or our Ballard Go Green Totes that are sold in pairs.

     How much of Ballard's product lines are sourced domestically? With over 75% of our product being designed in-house and exclusive to our brand, approximately 50% is sourced domestically. We do not have any direct investment in our manufacturing partners.

     Which markets do your buyers shop? Atlanta, High Point, Las Vegas, New York, Dallas, Paris, and other markets in Europe and Asia.

The Ballard DesignsThe Ballard Designs brick-and-mortar locations bring the brand to life as the pages from the catalog are recreated in the stores.
     What was the motivation for bringing in a well-known designer (Suzanne Kasler) for a new collection? Is it just a coincidence that she's based in Atlanta? Suzanne was a natural fit for Ballard. She has a unique and accessible style with hints of glamour and color that are both timeless and modern, plus she is influenced by European style just as we are. Her line offers great options and solutions that help make a customer's home fresh and updated, from mirrors to dinnerware. It was a nice coincidence to have Suzanne in Atlanta - it has made the product development process easier and more personal. But even if she wasn't based here, we would have still pursued her for this project.

     Will Suzanne Kasler's designer collections sell at a higher price point than the average Ballard products? No, not necessarily. With each item we produce, whether it is one of our own or from Suzanne, we want to ensure that we meet our customers' expectations in terms of quality and value.

     What are some of the biggest change(s) you've seen over the years? The biggest change is the development of the internet as a retail channel. It's enhanced our ability to effectively interact with our customers, and made it easier for customers to find and access merchandise, which has increased our need for unique and exclusive product. Also, the supply chain has increased in complexity as many of the manufacturing operations for our product categories have moved to other countries, increasing development and delivery times.

     Ballard is active on Facebook and Twitter. How effective are you finding social media to be as a marketing and communication tool? We have been actively using Facebook and Twitter as a marketing and interaction tool for over a year and a half. It has allowed us to connect with our customers in an ongoing dialogue about design and style. They give us insights into what they like and don't like about design. And not just our designs - they talk to us and each other about their decorating dilemmas and have given us ideas that we have incorporated into our catalogs, marketing and products.

     What about when the Facebook or Twitter wall posts aren't so nice - comments about a damaged product or slow shipping, etc. Do you get many of those? If so, do you think the two-way communication facilitated by social media opens up a whole new area of quality control for the larger retailers who put themselves out there? Yes, there are rare instances where a customer issue may come up on Facebook or Twitter, but we welcome the opportunity to connect with our customers in whatever forum they choose. When things like that do happen we take quick, decisive action, just as we do when a customer calls at the call center or emails us. Overwhelmingly, if you look at the comments from Facebook customers after we have resolved their concerns, it is very positive and complimentary to the resolution and us. We think this is great, because it shows the world that we stand behind our products and services. In a sense, to be a truly successful retailer you can't be afraid of open and honest communication with your customers. Facebook is a very good forum for just that.

     Is the Ballard Designs catalog available digitally, for the iPad and similar delivery devices? Currently our catalog is not set up to be delivered as an app through the iTunes app store for either the iPhone or iPad. However, we have recently redeployed our web-based online catalog with a new provider that allows it to be viewed and manipulated on either of those devices along with many other mobile devices. We have been researching and analyzing the new trends in digital publication through devices like the iPad and feel strongly that this will be an important part of our business in the future.

     What else is in Ballard's future? Lots of new, exciting and inspiring products ... stay tuned.

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