How I Grew My "Made In The USA" Bedding Brand To $600K/Year
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I am Janet Wischnia and I am the founder of American Blossom Linens a direct-to-consumer brand of bedding made completely in the USA from USA grown cotton. Our flagship product is our classic made in USA organic cotton natural sheet set and we sell online in the USA to people interested in quality sustainable products.
Our family business, called ATD-AMERICAN Co was started in 1931 by my grandfather and I have been working in the business for 40 years. He started with one retail linen store in the downtown area of Philadelphia and we have grown to be one of the largest manufacturers of bedding in the USA and we are the oldest. Although we started as a retail store which was eventually closed, we became the go-to USA bedding company supplying the healthcare, hospitality, and government markets. In 2019 I decided to take us back to our roots and start a retail brand.
We started right before the COVID 19 pandemic started which we thought was going to make the growth trajectory very hard but much to our surprise we grew our sales by 400% in 2020 and have continued to grow in 2021. We introduced a line of cotton blankets and plan on introducing many more new products.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I turned 60 in 2019 and had been doing a lot of thinking about what direction I wanted my career to take. Two of my three children are married, and I had 2 grandchildren. I did not want the responsibility of being President of our company which I was at the time but I wanted to stay with the business. I had the itch to learn something new. I stepped down as President and turned that job over to my very capable cousin Robert Zaslow and began to plan our new brand American Blossom Linens, bedding made completely in the USA from 100% USA-grown cotton.
With all of the publicity about Made in America, the growing concern about sustainability and the environment, and the growth of the direct-to-consumer model I thought I would try to take our company back to our retail roots. Caring and being a responsible steward is a very important value that was taught in our family.
Thomaston Mills, our manufacturing plant, had been in business since 1899 and our company had been in business since 1931. The exit of the textile industry to China, India, and Asia had cost over a million US jobs. How could we help protect them and also satisfy the demand we saw for American Made products? It became my mission to create products that consumers could trust, that was Made in the USA, would be made to last, using only safe and sustainable manufacturing methods, and help our friends and neighbors keep their jobs.
I knew it was the right idea when after we launched the site, I began to get several emails a day from people who were so happy to be able to buy bedding made completely in the USA. Each time I get one of these emails or a review it just confirms to me how important this project is for our company and our country and me. Each one increases my passion a bit more. Here are two examples:
I bought these for the number one reason that they were American Made. I was so happy with them that I bought a second set as a backup. They are by far the best sheets I've ever slept on. I am looking forward to buying the duvet cover next. - Larelle.
One of the lessons we learned the first year was that it is important to introduce new products. Once you have a core group of customers it is good to provide them with more options.
These sheets are good in so many ways. The color is so naturally rich, the crispness and heft are remarkable, and the American grown and made aspect is so worthy of the money spent. I can pay this for sheets at a department store and get none of these awesome traits. “Soft” is what we’ve always bought and they don’t compare in quality or durability. Thanks to the crew at American Blossom Linens! You’re doing good work! - Stephanie.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
In terms of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing my product, I had an advantage over other startups because I had been working in my family business for 40 years manufacturing bedding and I already had a team of people that knew how to make the bedding. In the beginning, we decided that we wanted to make a high-quality product that was going to last a long time. Our color palate started as very neutral so that we could appeal to the widest audience. We decided to use a wider elastic, a heavier fabric, to make the flat sheets a larger size and to put labels in the fitted sheets so you could tell which was the top and bottom.
For us, the most challenging part of the design was the packaging. We knew we wanted to do something sustainable with minimal packaging materials and started to look at how different players in the market packaged their products. After looking at many alternatives, we decided to use a box made of 100% recycled cardboard with our branding printed on all sides of the box. As we did not want to use any plastic, we decided to use tissue paper to wrap the sheets in.
I have sent messages to many customer support emails to ask a question and never gotten a response or gotten a response a week later. If a customer wants to buy something you need to answer their question as quickly as possible.
To help our packaging to be a bit different from other bedding companies, we decided to put a little surprise in every package. We wanted the surprise to be related to our brand so I started searching for candy, food, and small gifts made in Georgia. The item had to have been able to be shipped in the carton with the sheets and not sustain any damage. After a lengthy search, I came across a company that made tea in Georgia and they were in the next town over from our factory in Thomaston. They agreed to supply us with the peach tea that we use today and is loved by our customers.
Here is a picture of me with our initial package design;
Describe the process of launching the business.
Making the product for us was the easy part as our factory was already making bedding for over 122 years and we were able to self-fund the inventory. For us, the challenge was the marketing. As we had been selling B2B to the healthcare, government, and hospitality market we had no experience finding retail customers or with digital advertising.
After choosing our name, American Blossom Linens which was a version of a brand that was made back in the 1940s by our factory called “Blossom,” we began to search for webs developers. Originally, we hired a company overseas to design and build our website. We had given them specs for the features we were interested in and a timeline.
After a few months, we realized that they were not going to follow through with their commitment and we canceled the contract with them. Our IT director who had experience with enterprise software but not web development volunteered to learn how to build the website. He did research and decided that we would use the Shopify platform. We choose a theme and he began developing the website. At the same time, I began collecting images (stock photos and original photos) and writing the copy.
I had no experience hiring photographers or deciding what type of images worked best on a website. I started by hiring a photographer to go to our factory and take pictures of our associates as I thought people would like to see the people that made the products. Here is a picture of the photographer at work on that first shoot.
It took about 6 months to build the website and make the inventory to get ready for the launch. We launched on January 1, 2019. Boy, I was surprised. I thought that we would turn the website on and the sales would flood in. The first few sales that came through were from friends and relatives which made me very happy but I thought where are all the customers that are seeing our website and why aren’t they buying.
Then one day a person in our IT department said “you can’t expect to get sales from a new website, no one sees it unless you advertise it.” I felt so silly at that point. I had never thought about how to get the word out about the website because I was so focused on product design, packaging, and website design. That was a big lesson. Now I spend about 80% of my time on advertising, marketing, and PR.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
My background in B2B sales and marketing has helped me a lot with customer retention strategies. I have found that one of the issues with many online businesses is their customer support and response time. I have sent messages to many customer support emails to ask a question and never gotten a response or gotten a response a week later. If a customer wants to buy something you need to answer their question as quickly as possible.
We have made it a point at American Blossom linens to be very responsive to customer questions and support requests. A dedicated support person answers questions during the week and on the weekend. Another frustration is that if you want to speak with someone on the phone most companies do not have a contact phone number. We have made a point of making our phone number easily found and during business hours we answer every call quickly.
In terms of attracting customers, we use social media, influencers, SEO, and email.
Here is a sample of our Instagram posts.
As we are at the beginning of our journey, we are still in the process of figuring out which channels work the best. During the pandemic, we did a giveaway to healthcare workers that did attract a lot of attention and followers.
Email has worked for us as a way to get customers to make repeat purchases.
PR has been a good channel for us but takes a lot of time and it is important to know that you need to reach out to journalists multiple times before they will respond. This past year we were able to secure a spot on the ABC news:
Two channels I tried did not work much to my surprise. I tried ads in the New Yorker Magazine because I believed that their readers had the right income and demographics for our product. Ads were expensive and it was very hard to determine if we got sales from the print ads even with the coupon codes we had in the ads.
The other channel was the radio. I also believed that our product would appeal to people that listened to country radio so we did an ad on the station that plays the Grand Ole Opry which is a national show. Much to my disappointment, we got only one sale that we could trace to that advertisement. Oh well. Live and learn.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Our average order is $250 and we are profitable. Our social channels, Instagram and Facebook have about 2500 followers each and our email list has about 4000 names.
Here are SEO stats;
Sales during the pandemic grew by 400%. The majority of sales are through our online store although we have a few brick-and-mortar customers. Distribution is done at our factory in Georgia and we use UPS to deliver the majority of our packages.
One of the lessons we learned the first year was that it is important to introduce new products. Once you have a core group of customers it is good to provide them with more options so we plan on introducing pillows, blankets, towels, quilts, and other products.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I had the privilege this year of being invited to participate in an interview that was being used in a book about 30 people that reinvented themselves by Pirie Grossman. In the book, I spoke about the 5 lessons that I wished my younger self knew. Here is what I said.
- The value of listening to customers - American Blossom has only been selling for about two years. In this time, I have gotten to know some wonderful customers. I make it a priority to speak directly with customers at every opportunity. I read every review and I have involvement in any problem that occurs. This gives me an early warning about anything I need to improve. I also get wonderful suggestions which help to improve the product. One customer, Lynn who is a UX writer, has placed several orders with us and volunteered to help us improve our website navigation. Our IT director made several of the changes she recommended.
- The value of listening to employees - Not being very experienced with retail packaging, I went to our sewing supervisor, production planners, and plant manager for guidance. It was their idea to make the box from recycled cardboard and not use any plastic packaging. We have less waste which is, of course, better for the environment and is appreciated by our customers.
- The value of listening to vendors - I was looking to make a product that was environmentally friendly and different from other products in the marketplace. One of our long-time partners introduced me to Sally Fox, the breeder, and supplier of FoxFibre® organic cotton that is grown in a color. It enables us to produce a fabric that is colored but dye-free. I have had the chance to visit Sally at her farm and now we have become friends.
- The value of listening to your “Gut” - I started this process because I wanted to make the best sustainable bedding Made in the USA that I would love to sleep in. Using organic cotton, heavier more substantial fabric, deeper pockets and more generously sized flat sheets was the right decision. Customers are ordering, we have 96% 5-star reviews and best of all customers call me on the phone just to tell me how much they like the product.
- The value of NOT listening - When the going gets tough, don’t listen to” it can’t be done.” Throughout my career, I have been told many times that “You cannot do that”. “It is cheaper to make bedding overseas”, “No one will pay the price for the American Blossom quality”. Well after two years we have proved them wrong and we will make this a success because it is a great product, and it is also the right thing to do.
I do believe that listening is the key to success.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use the following platforms;
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Several books and podcasts helped me develop my brand and get me started on the marketing;
- Brand Story by Donald Miller
- Crushing IT by Gary Vaynerchuk
- Shopify Podcast
- How I Built This Podcast
There was also an online training that I liked.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I would say the main advice I would give is as follows:
NEVER GIVE UP on your dream and work hard to meet your goals. You might have to try different businesses and reinvent yourself several times but if you keep at it eventually you will find the right business that works and that gives you joy. Don’t let the struggles get you down and enjoy the process.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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