Area Blanket Manufacturer Finds its Comfort Zone
Company President Rick Lotuff said requests for new blankets are rare, but they do happen. One customer recently called in, for instance, with a receipt dating back seven years in hand – and said her blanket was starting to wear down. Based in part on his amazement that she had retained her receipt, but more so on that lifetime guarantee his company offers, Lotuff made sure a new blanket was in the mail to the customer right away.
“Its about creating repeat customers,” he said. “If I maintain a strong relationship with our customers and show them that we are true to our word, theyre going to tell their friends about us, and we are going to grow.”
Berkshire Blanket was actually born out of a similar friendly gesture in 1993. Lotuffs sister, Mary, conceived the simple idea of creating a fleece blanket, sewing a homemade gift for a friend using some extra material she found at Ricks former sew-and-cut business.
The polyester fleece material, often used in jackets and other outdoor apparel, proved to serve well as a warm, soft blanket, and an appreciated gift. It wasnt long after that Mary, Rick, and their brother Joe collaborated on a second blanket, this time a prototype for a product they felt had some potential to sell. They borrowed their mothers idea for a name – Berkshire Blanket, chosen because its alliterative quality was appealing and, they thought, best reflected the type of product they hoped to market: quality, aesthetic blankets and throws that were manufactured with care to be long-lasting and, above all, warm.
Company:Berkshire Blanket Inc.
They might not have guessed right away, however, how much early success the company would enjoy. The same year that first blanket was sewn, Berkshire Blanket made its first sale to a national company; Lotuff showed the sample blanket to management at Marshalls department stores, and immediately, the company bought 3,600 pieces.
Berkshires mission, Lotuff explained, is to continue to create simple, quality products using the best materials, which in turn enhance lifes “quiet moments.” That philosophy touches every part of the companys operations, from production to packaging, and has spurred strong growth over the past 12 years. A recent spike in sales over the past two years, in fact, has helped Berkshire Blanket become one of the top blanket and throw manufacturers in the nation, in addition to landing the company on this years Affiliated Chambers Super 60 list, coming in at number 10 for Total Revenue and 20 for Revenue Growth.
Thats not to say that business has always been warm and fuzzy for Berkshire Blanket; there have been a few hurdles to clear over the years. Lotuff explained that after that initial Marshalls sale, the company saw a dip in orders from major stores, and an overall sluggish performance.
The problem was not an intangible one for Lotuff, however. He surmised that the issue was that his products intrinsic selling point was being hidden by the vinyl zipper bags in which Berkshire Blankets were stuffed.
“They were sitting on the shelves in those bags, and people couldnt touch them and feel how soft they are,” he explained. “We removed the bag, and now our blankets are unwrapped, held together in a roll by a bungee cord, a paper wrap around the middle of the blanket, or some other ribbon or strap.”
“A lot of our focus has gone more toward feeling — seeing a good product, and then going a step further and offering images that reflect what it means to have a warm, comfortable product.”
That change, said Lotuff, serves as an excellent example of Berkshire Blankets attention to its central mission statement. New packaging may seem like a small shift in a companys overall direction, but soon after switching to minimal packaging, the company became the number-one selling throw company in the nation.
And Berkshires major marketing initiatives continue to revolve around the strength of the product itself and its packaging, said Ellen McNulty, marketing director.
“We had an ad campaign we used two to three years ago in some national publications,” she explained, noting that the ads, which appeared in Martha Stewart Living and the New York Times magazine, among others, can still be seen on the Berkshire Blanket Web site and reflect the idea of simplicity that the company constantly revisits.
Each ad includes only one word describing the product, such as ‘soft, ‘inviting, or ‘warm, and features a Berkshire Blanket in a setting that best depicts each adjective. The ad that describes the blankets as ‘natural, for instance, shows a throw bundled to resemble a sushi roll balanced between two chopsticks.
But after 9/11, said McNulty, the company became increasingly focused on packaging rather than print, Web, or television advertising, in order to curb marketing costs and best utilize its advertising dollars.
“We wanted the product to serve as a mini-representation of the company visually,” she said. “A lot of our focus has gone more toward feeling — seeing a good product, and then going a step further and offering images that reflect what it means to have a warm, comfortable product.
“Our imaging shows a lifestyle that is a simple one,” McNulty continued. “One in which there is time to read, to garden, or to just sit quietly on the porch. Those are the things we try to focus on because when you walk into a store, you see a lot of different products, but our packages share the same simple positioning.”
The Soft Sell
That packaging has carried the company through a few new-product introductions in the past year, and both the packaging and new items, as well as a constant focus on the quality and consistency of existing products, Lotuff said, have allowed the company to grow at the rate it has in recent years.
“We also have a flexible sourcing model,” he noted. “We can source materials from China, Taiwan, or Pakistan, for instance, and that flexible outsourcing allows us to grow in a way we could not otherwise.”
That growth has been particularly evident over the past two years. Two years ago, Berkshire Blanket recorded a 45% surge in sales, and for 2005, the company has projected an impressive increase of 100%. It is growth that McNulty said is thanks to a number of variables – among them, the strength of the market and the readiness of stores and consumers alike to welcome new products made from new, synthetic materials.
“The critical thing is that Berkshire is constantly developing new products,” she said, “but that doesnt always translate into company growth.”
McNulty used Berkshires most recent offering, blankets and throws made from a material called Serasoft, to illustrate that point.
“Serasoft hit a new chord for us that we were excited about, but when the products were first unveiled, retailers werent ready,” she said. “Its all about what the market is looking for. When business is strong in our industry, people dont want to change what is working. What happened, though, was the acrylic business was starting to wane, because the product was not as durable as it used to be, and was not as successful with consumers.
“When acrylics started to leave the market,” McNulty continued, “Serasoft replaced it and brought to customers exactly what they were looking for – a blanket that is warm, easy to care for, and durable.”
And if a blanket meets those criteria, then it in turn meets the internal standards – and reflects the mission of – Berkshire Blanket, Lotuff said. He agreed that the new Serasoft product line is one reason the company has done so well in the past two years, but far from the only reason.
“We just began to evolve,” he said. “We went from polyester fleece blankets to other types of blankets, using sweatshirt material, Berber, T-shirt fabrics… always soft, comfortable fabrics. We are expanding into comforters now. Newness helps spark new growth, but its the little things that keep our momentum strong.”
Little things like money-back guarantees and customer service, Lotuff noted. And the company also hasnt strayed far from the product that started it all.
Berkshire Blankets factory outlet store, adjacent to its corporate offices on East Main Street in Ware, offers fleece pillow cases, hats, scarves, vests, and a number of blankets and throws made from both synthetic fabrics like fleece and Serasoft and natural fabrics such as cotton, wool, and silk. But nationwide, in the 4,000 stores Berkshires products can be found including Linens and Things, Bed Bath and Beyond, and K-mart and in international locales including Japan, the majority stock throws and blankets very much like Mary Lotuffs original creation.
And thats a notion that gives everyone a warm, fuzzy feeling – guaranteed.
Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]