Sure Fit shifts into expansion mode

Carole Sloan, Staff Staff, September 9, 2002

In its drive to double its business within two years, Sure Fit is expanding its distribution channels, product mix and marketing efforts.

Known previously as a ready-made slipcover company in a product category that had achieved a commodity image, Sure Fit has managed to recreate the product in the eyes of consumers through its marketing and direct sales efforts.

Retailers had previously abandoned the category largely because of fit issues that saw the return rate soar to 20 percent in direct sales and 10 percent to 15 percent at retail.

"We elected to move more to a marketing approach rather than a sales approach," explained Bert Shlensky, president. It has worked so well, he added, "that we are shifting to be a real marketing organization; we're ready to push the envelope."

"We're emphasizing the Sure Fit name rather than others in our brand campaign. We're now 70 percent Sure Fit in branding vs. virtually nothing two years ago. We're downplaying the Fieldcrest and Cannon names, but we're talking with Pillowtex about launching a Royal Velvet program."

Sure Fit, until 1997, was owned by Pillowtex, and that year management, led by Shlensky, bought the company.

The efforts to date are reflected in sales that were $120 million in 2001, are expected to hit $180 million this year and are projected to leap to $220 million next year, Shlensky reported. Growth will be split fairly evenly between the firm's catalog/website Slipcovers by Mail and via retail.

The company's retail distribution is expanding. Last month, largely as the result of the year-old "Sure Fit Store" in Macy's East Herald Square flagship here, similar departments were opened in Macy's West stores. The program also was rolled out at Sears, Shlensky said.

Typical of the success stories at retail, Shlensky said, is that of Linens 'n Things. The specialty chain had been merchandising Sure Fit's slipcovers, but in August a revised and expanded 28-foot section was launched with 40 patterns — a 25 percent increase in both space and patterns. "In just this short time, the sales results are significantly more than 25 percent," he reported.

Looking around at the retail landscape, Shlensky pointed to Brylane and Direct Marketing Services Inc. as two key players in this business. Next on the radar screen is the home improvement channel.

The product mix has expanded beyond the basic sofa and chair covers with wing chairs, dining chairs and decorative pillows important growth categories, Shlensky remarked. Dining chair covers have grown to a $15 million business, pillows to $15 million, and wing chairs have a $35 million to $40 million potential, he noted.

Marketing is the key element to the company's future, Shlensky explained. "We see Sure Fit as a brand. We relate it to brands like Yankee Candle, Coach and Aerobed in the way we approach the product, consumers and the market," Shlensky stated. "We're building our direct marketing business as the path to building the brand."

Indeed, relationships with consumers is a key point. Focus groups are used to help determine customers' want and needs as well as trends in color and fabric. "And the Slipcovers by Mail catalog is the best thing we do," Shlensky emphasized.

While he declined to separate the company's catalog vs. retail ratios, he projected that the growing retail business would hit about $150 million of the projected $220 million total for '03. Overall, he said, "I'm more confident than ever that this can be a billion-dollar business."

To achieve that the marketing efforts are being strengthened with a $20 million budget for direct marketing and national advertising, and $10 million for retail co-op advertising and marketing support.

A new twist in its advertising efforts will come in October with the launch of a new home magazine —Budget Living. Sure Fit will have a 16-page catalog insert in the launch issue and will sell subscriptions to Budget Living as well as Better Homes & Gardens on its Website.

Later this month, a winner will be named for the eighth annual Ugly Couch contest, an event that produces some awesome examples of ugly.

Next year, Shlensky said, "we'll have the whole brand structure in place. Direct mail is being positioned to leverage retail. And we'll help out customers to build business, both via our catalog and for our retailer customers." The website, he said, brings 30,000 users a day on a regular basis. When there is an e-mail campaign it soars to 100,000 to 150,000 users a day. "They're looking for information, decorating advice, retail stores."

Looking at style strengths, Shlensky said, "Denim is going nuts; we're adding a dark denim. Our micro faux suede, hobnail chenille and Thai silk looks also are strong."

From a production perspective, Sure Fit is "steadily moving our business to the Orient. We're already importing fabric." About 20 percent to 25 percent of the product now is sourced offshore.

But Shlensky emphasized, "We're not doing this just for price or fabric. It's quality and service." As an example, he pointed to a product that was $24.99 here; and when it is produced in China with the same specs it became a $19.99 product, "offering us the opportunity for a better marketing program."

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