Friday, November 30, 2012
Every entrepreneur dreams of finding a highly desirable product or service that has yet to be offered — a hole waiting to be filled, an opportunity to seize at just the right moment when public interest begins to soar. Lady Luck must be smiling upon Shalin and Niti Tejani, new owners of Ribbons and Bows, Oh My!, a Chattanooga-based online retailer fulfilling a niche with serious growth potential.
As interest in crafting and handmade goods continues to grow, so has RABOM. “Pinterest is so huge,” says Niti. “People love do-it-yourself projects these days, whether it’s a gift or something you’re keeping.”
RABOM fills around 30,000-35,000 online transactions annually, which makes up about 94 percent of the company’s business. About 150 orders go out per day to destinations all over the world, with that amount increasing to approximately 200 during the Christmas season — their busiest time of year. Discovering new markets and diversifying their product line are two of the couple’s goals as they continue to grow the business.
Shalin — a former real estate developer and current CFO of his wife’s family business, Hamilton Plastics — says he wasn’t looking for a business specializing in ribbons and bows, per se. The Tejanis first heard about RABOM when the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce named the company one of its Small Business of the Year award winners in 2011. When they saw the business up for sale, they recognized its growth potential and jumped at the opportunity last August. The business was then owned by Paul and Jennifer Hunniker, a self-employed seamstress who started selling ribbons on ETSY and eventually grew the business into a $2 million enterprise.
RABOM is now among the top two online retailers specializing in ribbons and bows, with a 25 percent increase in sales last year alone. “We want to continue to grow online, but we also want to connect more locally and let people know we’re a local Chattanooga product,” says Niti, who often hears Chattanoogans say they are unaware her business is located in town. She wants locals to see it as a resource for anyone who needs ribbon, not just serious crafters.
She says many local people are regulars at RABOM, where several can be found milling about among the ribbon spools at any given time. Kids love to collect free ribbon scraps and watch as patterns are printed onto the ribbons. “I think a lot of people feel connected to the business,” says Niti, adding her employees have enjoyed seeing the customers’ children grow up over the past four years.
While the previous owners only opened RABOM to local shoppers for a few hours on weekdays, the Tejanis decided to open on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon to accommodate local customers who work. The only downside to being an online retailer is the expectation of round-the-clock availability. “This is as 24/7/365 as it gets,” she says.
Walking into the 10,000-square-foot facility in Hixson, one is tempted to utter an exclamation similar to the the company’s descriptive name. Row upon row contains thousands of spools of ribbon, from standard grosgrain to velvet to tulle in every color imaginable, as well as a range of prints from seasonal varieties to those corresponding with the latest fashion trends. You can tell how broad a customer base the business enjoys by the diversity of prints, which ranges from skulls to pandas to sports teams to rainbows. The popular print of the moment is chevron, which they introduced in eight colors and recently added in two more because they can’t keep it in stock. Huge three-inch ribbons are also big sellers — especially in the South.
RABOM doesn’t actually manufacture ribbons or bows. The business takes the raw ribbon product (all 104 solid colors of grosgrain ribbon are manufactured in the U.S.) and prints on it and distributes it to customers across the world. RABOM has more than 200 prints, as well as an on-site graphic designer to create custom prints. “You can get exactly what you need here instead of just settling,” says Niti.
RABOM is also unique among online ribbon retailers in its printing methods. One machine specifically applies polka dots, which instead of being printed on are actually laminated on, similar to the label of a tagless T-shirt. For example, to create a red ribbon with green dots, most retailers would take a white ribbon and print a pattern with a red background and green polka dots on one side. RABOM would use a red-dyed ribbon and laminate green dots on each side. RABOM ribbons are also washable, meaning colors and prints stay brighter longer.
Aside from the ribbons and bows, RABOM also carries everything necessary for crafters to make and sell items using ribbons and bows, from clips and appliqués to plastic holders used to display finished bows. Kits including instructions and all materials necessary to make items such as dog collars or tutus are available and make great gifts, Niti says.
“Ribbons and Bows Oh My is a bit of a misnomer,” says Shalin, who sees the business as more diverse. Ribbons can be used for far more than just bows — for example, they are excellent branding tools, and businesses, organizations and other groups are always looking for unique ways to get their name out. Pretty much anything is cute on a ribbon, and the novelty of it is more likely to catch the eye than, say, the standard pen, magnet or T-shirt.
A significant portion of RABOM’s sales are business-to-business, as in, selling mainly to businesses that create their own product using materials from the Hixson shop. Niti says many of those buyers produce cheer bows, as cheerleading squads are major consumers of ribbons and bows. It’s no coincidence that Australians are among RABOM’s best international customers, as Australian football team spirit is also fueled by cheerleaders (who clearly must have bows).
As the Tejanis move forward with their plans for the business, they want to make community involvement a top priority. They hold weekly classes in their craft room at the Hixson facility, the most recent focused on design. “Projects don’t have to exclusively involve ribbon,” says Niti. She also wants to do more arts and crafts projects with local schools, which have increasingly low-funded art programs.