Terry Dilday, Co-owner of Cynthia East Fabrics, on the Retail Scene (Exec Q&A)

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, Oct. 8, 2012 12:00 am  

Terry Dilday is co-owner and manager of high-end retailer Cynthia East Fabrics of Little Rock. (Photo by Jason Burt)

Background: Dilday joined Cynthia East Fabrics a few years after Cynthia East opened her store in 1977 with two full-time employees and one part-time worker. The store, which sells fine fabrics, bedding, furniture and gifts, now employs 12. When Cynthia East Fabrics opened on Rebsamen Park Road 35 years ago, it was the only design business in what is now known as the Riverdale Design District.

Q: Who are Cynthia East Fabrics' customers?

A: Our customers are mostly women, in their 20s to 60s, mid- to upper-income. Designers account for about 20 percent of our sales.

Q: Has your customer based changed over the years and how?

A: Yes, our customer base has widened considerably in 35 years. In the beginning, our customers primarily were homemakers, but as HGTV and various home decorating shows on TV increased the interest in home decor, our base expanded to a broader and younger group, including more men. Facebook, Pinterest and similar sites have expanded the group further, especially those with DIY (do it yourself) interests. Our business has definitely benefited from social media.

Q: Have Americans' buying habits changed during the time you've been in business and if so, how?

A: Trends change constantly in home decor, as they do in the fashion industry. For example, blinds and shutters became more popular in the ‘80s, affecting our drapery sales. (We beefed up our upholstery fabrics in response.) Stores like Pottery Barn and even Target began offering ready-made products, and we found ourselves competing with "instant gratification."

Q: How has your business adapted to those changes?

A: As the trends change, so do we. We try always to be up on the "in" colors and styles. Over the years, we've added ready-made drapery panels, decorative pillows and several lines of bedding to compete with the larger stores. We also offer cut-order books (samples from vendors that will sell small yardages), including our private label line to complement our in-stock inventory, as well as labor and design services, making it a one-stop shop. Our gift area has become a significant part of our business as well.

Q: What are your best-selling products?

A: Still fabric, of course, with gifts coming on strong.

Q: Where do you buy your fabric these days? Have your suppliers changed because of globalization?

A: Fabric reps still call on us, a practice unusual in the retail business these days. The staff participates in the buying. There is much discussion and many opinions voiced at these early-morning rep visits! They know what the customer wants. We cross-reference the lines and end up with a good mix of inventory. We hear all the time from customers who say, "This is my favorite store," and I'm sure it's because of our committed and lively staff. Globalization has had a huge impact on the textile industry, and almost all our domestic mills closed several years ago. However, a few are back and we always buy American when we can.

Q: How did the Great Recession affect your business, and did you learn anything useful from the downturn?

A: The recession hurt us too, of course. Sales dropped. We put off expansion projects, and continued to buy product but at a slower rate. We did not have to let staff go and are very proud of that. A serious cutback of overhead helped us pay the bills. We learned that we can operate with less, and that has been a valuable business lesson.



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