Spring 2009
Monogram Mania By Poornima Apte

Southern Comfort

Retailer Julie Butler still treasures her baby blanket. Her mother, Charla Schlabs, monogrammed it for her many years ago with a traditional sewing machine.

As co-owner of the store Texas Threads in Hereford, TX, Schlabs has since upgraded her sewing machine to a more commercial one but the driving reason behind the business model still remains the same as when she created that baby blanket: Monograms make for memorable keepsakes.

The enormous rise in popularity of monogrammed products is not surprising to people from many pockets in the South where the art has long been a way of life. “Monogramming has always been a staple in the southern regions of our country,” says Karen K. Hugenberg, the executive director of Monograms America, Inc. based in Houston. Hugenberg adds that in the Deep South pretty much everything has always been monogrammed—from bed linens, to handkerchiefs, to table cloths, napkins and even, yes, undergarments. Charla Schlabs, for instance, was taught an impressive array of sewing techniques by her grandmother. Charla’s daughter, Julie, says that such knowledge shows in the work her mother creates. “I know [Charla’s] monogramming is what it is because she has such a thorough foundation in sewing, and understands at the most basic and advanced levels, how the different elements interact to create what they create,” Butler says of her mother. Butler and Schlabs co-own their store.

Initially, Schlabs translated her passion for monogramming and embroidery into a home-based business. The work gave her some supplemental income as she raised her five children. In March 2003, when her youngest was a senior in high school, she moved to a storefront. Daughter, Julie Butler, joined the operations after she graduated from college that very year.

Uniquely yours

Explaining the popularity of monogrammed gifts, Butler points out that there are relationships and occasions in all our lives that call for a gift that’s not ordinary. Monogrammed gifts work because they are custom-made for just that person. “A personalized gift is just that—an expression to your recipient that they are, in your eyes, extraordinary,” she says. “I think people realize that when they get a gift that someone has taken the time and effort to have it customized—just for them—it’s a very special thing. Face it—anyone can roll into a gift shop and pick something off the shelf. It takes a special gift giver (and a special store) to make the ordinary truly extraordinary,” Butler adds. Tracee Martin, the president of Occasionally Made, a wholesaler based in Richmond, VA, points out that ours is an increasingly diverse and individualistic society and that your customers love items that lets them wear their identities readily. “People love items that provide an outward identification of themselves such as where they went to school (collegiate merchandise), their favorite vacation spot, a quote that resonates for them (novelty tees) and especially their name or initials,” Martin says. The company offers a diverse array of monogrammed products including handbags, baby bibs, shoes, soaps, belt buckles and more.

Products galore

Baby bibs. Baby towels. Jewelry pendants. Plates. Clogs. Backpacks. Stationery. Garden accessories. The list of products available for monogramming is endless. There are even monograms available in Hebrew. Museware Pottery based in Manchester, NH, offers a Hebrew Monogram platter in three different colors.

Single initials are a logical (and easy) extension of the monogramming concept and many vendors have hopped on board. Wholesaler Natural Life in Jacksonville, FL, offers initial ceramic mugs, recycled note cards, lockets and key chains. Fred Pannek, the vice president of product development at Mud Pie based in Stone Mountain, GA, says the company offers two best-selling monogrammed collections of home décor products, Initially Home and Cosmopolitan Home. The collections feature glassware, kitchen serveware, barware and bathroom linens and soaps, which come in bold and script style options and neutral shades of black-and-white and cream-and-brown. In addition, Pannek says, the company recently introduced two matching collections of monogrammed fashion items for baby and women featuring bright shades of pink and green in playful polka dot designs, which were very successful at this year’s winter markets.

Monogrammed items for children and tweens are also a big hit. Wholesaler Stephen Joseph in Lubbock, TX, sells blanks like backpacks and other accessories that can be monogrammed. National sales manager, Shawn Shofner, reports that in addition to initials, many retailers embroider children’s first names on the company’s products.

Monogramming in store

If you are really serious about taking up embroidery monogramming, you will need to invest in a computerized embroidery setup in your store. Retailers like Butler and Schlabs have done just that. Schlabs says that they do all monogramming in store and can handle orders of any size. Very rarely is any work outsourced. Retailers who choose to do monogramming in the store can order blanks from wholesalers. Preppy Monogrammed Gifts, a wholesaler based in Rockwell, NC, wholesales blanks for a wide range of products, which retailers can then monogram in their store. Wholesaler Occasionally Made just came out with a lunch tote and wine bag that are blanks that retailers can then embroider. GUND Baby in Edison, NJ, wholesales a number of baby products that can be monogrammed by retailers in their stores. Spunky Comfy Cozy, a combination blanket and stuffed toy and Duck Bathrobe, a terry cloth hooded bathrobe, are just two of the products offered. Hugenberg advises retailers to think carefully before taking the plunge. “One thinking about the monogramming business must weigh several factors into their business plan. The inventory is out there but the machine is a huge investment due to the cost of the embroidery machine itself. Training is involved and the sewing is time consuming.” You also have to train your employees to sew—more investment than teaching someone to operate the cash register, she says.

Despite these fairly intimidating factors, the business model works wonders for many retailers including Butler and Schlabs. Retailer Francene Dudziec owns Monogram Muse in Clarks Summit, PA and she too swears by the embroidery business model her store is based on. It helps that all these retailers are members of Monograms America, a national networking organization for retailers like these. Each member has a 50-mile radius protected territory and members share ideas through monthly newsletters and through the organization’s website. The Houston-based organization promotes networking which is essential for retailers of all stripes to stay abreast of trends and techniques. Schlabs points out that it’s also great for morale. “After you’ve finished a busy season and are exhausted, it’s great to get together with people who understand and it renews everyone’s enthusiasm,” she says.

Initials instead?

If you are not ready to commit to monogramming in your store, consider investing in initials instead. Many wholesalers sell products with single initials on them. While these might not make for the degree of personalization that monogrammed products offer, they are still an attractive proposition. Butler points out that the Washington, NC-based wholesaler Mainstreet Collection for example, offers “initials” programs with albums, clipboards and other accessories that are pre-personalized. For retailers like you, tying up cash in unsold inventory is a problem and you might worry about initials that don’t sell as well as the rest. Wholesaler Tracee Martin of Occasionally Made advises a different way of looking at this strategy. She says not to worry about the few letters that you have left on the shelf but rather focus on the ones that are sold and that you need to restock. “All the letters will sell eventually but you must have the popular ones in stock at all times,” she says. “We find that about 80% of your revenue will come from approximately 20% of the letters. Many customers buy single initial items in groups (bridesmaids gifts, teachers’ gifts etc.) so you need to have a good stock of (2-4) of each letter in order to meet their needs,” Martin adds. Besides, she says, most wholesalers do not offer the entire alphabet so you won’t have to worry about those odd letters such as X and Q.

Drop shipping

If you want more elaborate monogramming (not just single initials) but don’t want to do it in the store, drop shipping is also an option to explore—wholesalers like Heartstrings in Auburn, AL, offer retailers the option of having samples displayed in the store along with the full catalog. “Our retailers can use the samples that they have on display along with our full line catalog to show their customers what their available options for personalized products are,” says Alicia Storbeck, president and owner of the company. “The customer places their order, pays for it, and then the retailer places the order via fax or online. Generally within 24 hours, we have pulled the items from our inventory, personalized and shipped them,” she says.

Monica Smith owner of The Pink Monogram in Greenville, SC, offers a drop ship program on the company’s best-selling monogrammed clogs. She encourages retailers and staff to wear the products—seeing them in action makes a big difference in sales.

The Pink Monogram wholesales monogrammed products in many categories including sorority and Greek gifts, baby gifts, hair accessories, stationery and more.

Return policies

Considering that a monogrammed product is custom-designed how do you handle returns? Francene Dudziec of Monogram Muse says the store does not accept returns on monogrammed products and instead places a lot of emphasis on getting the order right in the first place. Texas Threads has a similar policy: Personalized items are generally not returnable unless it was defective or an error on the store’s part. “The staff is very diligent about really working with customers to select the perfect gift the first time,” Butler says. Hugenberg says that members of the association have specific criteria when writing orders so returns are not a problem. “The products we sell and embroider must have met the customer’s approval before we ever sew on the item. This is standard procedure when they pick out the font, the color of thread, location of the monogram etc.” she says.

Time investment

Even if monogramming in the store takes time, retailers and other industry sources find that customers understand that and are willing to come back for pick up if need be. Dudziec even offers a monogramming card as an option on gifts so the recipient can return at his or her leisure to get the monogramming done. Another advantage of a return visit? A chance to make another sale! “We hope when [customers] come back for pick up, that they see something else they love. We try hard to keep our stores looking fresh and inviting [in anticipation] of that second visit,” Hugenberg says.

A forever trend

Industry insiders all agree the monogramming trend is here to stay. “As humans we love to claim our space and what better way than to personalize it,” says Ellen Webb of Preppy Monogrammed Gifts.

Alicia Storbeck says stocking these monogrammed products is also a great way to flaunt the central message of your gift store business: your store is different from the big box guys. Even if mass channels are getting better quality designs in their selection of products, retailers like you can use this model to position yourselves as a “go to” place for personalized and monogrammed products, she says. “These items take an extra level of service to the customer—the level that the [gift] retailer offers on a daily basis and the mass retailer does not. These products are a great way to set your store apart from the masses.”

Probably the tagline for the store, Texas Threads, says it all: Personalized Gifts, Treasured Keepsakes. “We truly pride ourselves on providing customers gifts that live up to that standard,” Julie Butler says. Monogrammed products let her do just that.

Mouse over images below to view.

Poornima Apte

Poornima Apte is an award-winning experienced freelance writer and editor. Learn more at wordcumulus.com.

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