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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 27, 2015 4 years ago

So (not) obsolete

A bold business owner hopes she's about to 'kick it in the teeth' on growth. Understanding what customers want is key.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

The consolidation of the salon and hairstyling product industry in the late 1990s crushed Melissa Helm's business.
Her Tampa-based company, JH Enterprises, was a Paul Mitchell products distributor in Florida and Georgia. When big industry players started to acquire each other, says Helms, it left little room for small firms. So she sold her company.
At first glance, Helms' next entrepreneurial venture — running a sewing retail business — seems even more obsolete than hair gel. That's because sewing, to many, is stuck in the 1950s. “Most people look at me like I have three eyes when they hear what business I'm in,” Helms says. “They always say, 'You mean people still sew?' If I had a dollar for every time I heard that I could retire.”

Not only do people still sew, Helms has learned, but they buy machines that cost up to $12,500 to do it. These customers, Helms has also learned, crave a social environment to share their passion.

On the backs of this interest, Helms' 18-employee company, Keep Me In Stitches, already with $2 million in annual sales, is poised for a breakout year in 2016. Says Helms: “Hopefully we are about to kick it in the teeth.”

That confidence comes courtesy of several recent moves, particularly Helms' decision to open a third location, in Largo, that cost at least $200,000 in inventory and build-out costs. The Largo store, aided by an SBA loan Helms obtained through USAmeribank, opened in early November.

Expanding a business mostly dependent on discretionary income scares Helms — but only a little bit. “You can't think about 'what if it doesn't work,'” Helms says. “You have to look forward and know it's going to work.”

The other Keep Me In Stitches locations, in Carrollwood and South Tampa, have been open since 2000, when Helms first invested in the business with a partner. The goal at all three stores, says Helms, is to serve the traditional sewing aficionado of a certain age while also reaching out to the Pinterest generation of up-and-coming sewing devotees.

The company does that by selling high-tech, sophisticated sewing machines with an array of features, from LED lighting and touch screens to lasers and multi-needle positioning.

Brands the stores sell include Baby Lock, Janome and Bernina. Machines cost from $100 to the Bernina 880 that runs $12,500. (Keep Me In Stitches sells several Bernina 880s a year.)
But the trick to make the business go isn't just the machines. It's the after-the-sale work, says Helms. That includes classes and tutoring sessions, on-site repair and maintenance and a social coffee bar, where customers can grab a snack and a drink, and chat about projects.

“You can get a sewing machine anywhere,” says Helms. “But we offer services other companies don't. That's what differentiates us from buying a machine from Target or Sears or online.”

While a chunk of customers come in with a healthy sewing knowledge, says Helms, some are novices who seek a hobby where they can create something tangible. Another segment is a small army of entrepreneurs who craft goods and wares to sell on Etsy and other websites. The sleek bars at the back of the stores provide a great gathering place where everyone bonds over a passion for sewing.

“It's a fun little niche market,” says Helms. “We are a happy place for customers.”

Follow Mark Gordon on Twitter @markigordon

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