When sales slip an owner finds a new framework

NEW YORK (AP) — Church Hill Classics traditionally sold its diploma frames — which carry a college or university seal or logo — at campus bookstores. Things went well for years, but then sales began to slip at the end of 2007 and kept falling well into 2009.

Stores were cutting back on their inventory to lower their costs, and that meant they were ordering fewer frames.

"We got socked in the gut. We had to reinvent what we were doing," says owner Lucie Voves.

Making things worse, Church Hill had purchased a $3.6 million building in Monroe, Conn., to consolidate and expand its operations. The company had been working out of unconnected parts of another building.

"We were growing really well in 2007, so we decided to make the investment," Voves says. But in 2009, business was down more than 5 percent, or about $330,000, from 2008 — just as the company was counting on sales growth to help make its mortgage payments.

People still wanted the frames, but the company website wasn't set up to take orders. If a consumer saw a frame online, they had to order it from a store. "We realized that we were so locked in to college bookstores that we needed another avenue so we weren't as vulnerable," Voves says.

Fortunately, Church Hill had started to update the 10-year-old website in 2008 to allow consumers to customize frames and other items and order them. When it began that process, Voves was still planning to get most of its sales from stores. Then came a pivotal decision to create joint web pages with college bookstores, opening up a new sales channel that would increase Church Hills' sales even as stores were reluctant to put more inventory in their stores. Anyone who logged into the website for the University of Michigan, for example, could choose from the entire Church Hill merchandise selection.

"That was a huge point — it changed our course," Voves says.

As part of the change to joint web pages, the company negotiated agreements with the stores. They would keep its products on store shelves and Church Hill would give them a commission for purchases made online. This year, sales are up 23 percent from 2009 levels. Half of its sales are now directly to consumers, while half still come from college stores. In 2007, 85 percent of its sales came from the stores.

"We're finding that it's a win-win situation," Voves says.

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