THE HOUSE THAT BILTHOUSE BUILT
A REP SPREADS OUT AND GETS COMFORTABLE.
Byline: Brenda Lloyd
ATLANTA — Enough already!
Jan and Ed Bilthouse had had it with setting up and breaking down their temporary display, in cramped space, market after market, for five years.
So they finally took the plunge and opened a permanent showroom on the 11th floor of the Apparel Mart in June.
The payoff has been in making their customers more comfortable and eliminating 12 to 14 hours of exhausting set-up before each show.
Bilt-House & Co. took over 11W127 in time for the June market.
“It’s three times more expensive here, but it’s worth it,” said Ed Bilthouse. “We had a monstrous booth on the temporary floor. We were doing boutique displays that took a lot of time to set up. Wednesday was our set-up day, and we’d be exhausted and stressed before the show started. Now we can rest up and get ready for the show mentally and physically. It’s been a lot easier.”
The husband-and-wife team have given their 1,800-square-foot showroom a boutique feel, too, using props and fixtures made by a friend in north Georgia. Pine tables and chairs decorate the corner aisle room, as well as 34 pine mannequins and a custom-made, 20-foot-long pine armoire that houses sweaters by Avalin.
“All the fixtures are for sale,” Jan Bilthouse added, including rugs and sofas. This way, the showroom will always have a fresh look, she said, and retailers now are selling furnishings and gifts with their apparel.
The Bilthouses know a lot about retailing. They own a store in Buckhead, Ga., on East Shadowlawn and East Paces Ferry, and they have operated retail stores separately in the past. Ed Bilthouse used to operate Enchante, a store in Palm Beach, Fla., and Jan Bilthouse operated 12 stores based here — seven called Ibis and five called Effies. She closed her 12 stores when she became pregnant with her first child, a daughter named Keely, who is six. A second daughter, Kelsey, is four. But she missed retailing, and the couple opened Bilt-House five years ago in a freestanding brick house.
Jan Bilthouse said the showroom is an extension of their retailing experience, and they bring their retail knowledge to the wholesale side. They know how to help meet their retailers’ particular needs. And all the sales staff who work at the shows — usually nine people — have a retail background.
“The staff help retailers put together collections that make sense,” Jan Bilthouse said. “They make their own decisions. They put the customer first, and they pride themselves on that.”
Their confidence in their staff allows Ed Bilthouse to visit retailers in his 24-foot showmobile and Jan Bilthouse to focus on customer service, or travel for her third career as an auctioneer for charity fund-raisers.
Their wholesale business, up 50 percent in the past year, has been so strong that the Bilthouses hired two salespeople to help cover the Southeast territory. Ed Bilthouse travels throughout Florida, Virginia and South Carolina; Stacey Vandiver, who was hired at the beginning of the year, covers Georgia and South Carolina, and Carol Roach, hired in August, goes to Alabama and Tennessee.
The new sales team has enabled the Bilthouses to better cover the territory and service their accounts more efficiently, and has helped them find new customers, Ed Bilthouse said.
They also have been pleased with the efforts the Atlanta Apparel Mart and Milt Crane, director of buyer relations, have made to attract new buyers to the mart.
“Our business is good, so we have no complaints,” said Jan Bilthouse. But the new showroom, which will mark its third show with the Bilthouses in October, also has helped attract new customers. It’s much less hectic there than in the temporary space, and customers are more comfortable in the new surroundings, she added.
The showroom has a small kitchen with a refrigerator and microwave, so the Bilthouses can offer buyers refreshments.
Since many of the Bilthouses’ contemporary customers spend most of their time on the permanent floors — especially on the contemporary 11th floor — during markets, they didn’t have time to visit the temporary exhibitions. Now, Bilt-House is seeing all those customers. Plus, buyers visiting the Gift Market often come to the Apparel Mart to buy apparel.
Jan Bilthouse said the showroom stayed open for the July Gift Market and added six new accounts.
“I think the [seventh floor] bridge will make it even more convenient for people to come over,” she said. The bridge, connecting the Gift Mart with the Apparel Mart, is scheduled to open in time for the October women’s and children’s wear show.
Bilt-House & Co. carries contemporary lines, which is reflected in the Bilthouses’ appearance and attire — casual and comfortable. It’s another reason business is so good, they said.
“American consumers want comfort first, and that’s what we have,” said Jan Bilthouse. “We have comfy clothes at moderate prices.”
The lines that Bilt-House offers now, some of which are carried in their own store, include Abraxas, Alywear, Liz and Jane, Moementum, Tastebuds, People United and Saga. The two lines that have sold most consistently in their store are Avalin, a New York-based line of sweaters, and PA Co., contemporary sportswear from Boston.
Wholesale prices in the showroom range from $25 to $55 for dresses, $18 to $49 for sweaters and $13 to $40 for separates.
As a retailer, Jan Bilthouse also shops the Atlanta Apparel Mart. According to her husband, “She makes it a point to shop at this mart, as all the buyers here should. We always support the local reps.”