Daintily Quaint [The Philadelphia Inquirer :: ]
(Philadelphia Inquirer (PA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) June 23--Of the mix of ingredients Colleen Corcoran needs to succeed as a small-business owner, these three are key: runny noses, nostalgic consumers, and tears.
She would prefer tears of joy.
Her product's name is Happy Hanky, after all.
The idea can be traced to when Corcoran, 34, a mother of two from Marlton, was herself a kid. A 7-year-old, to be exact.
Her mother gave her a handkerchief for her First Holy Communion.
"That really started my love of fabrics . . . the visual of fabrics," she said.
Corcoran majored in marketing at Rutgers University and spent 11 years at U.S. Vision Inc. developing in-store visual strategies for the optical-products retailer.
While there, Corcoran remained tormented by a "buzz" within -- her entrepreneurial spirit wanting to be humored.
So in 2006, still at U.S. Vision, she launched an online retail business offering a range of giftable wedding items, from garters to flower-girl baskets, and yes, handkerchiefs. The competition proved too abundant, and Corcoran shut down ClassyLittleBride.com three years later to focus on a niche where she thought she could distinguish herself: handkerchiefs.
Colorful, fun, creative ones with names: I Love to Watercolor, Ties Can't Have All the Fun, I'm Not a Tissue, for example.
"If you're going to make a handkerchief, why not make it fabulous?" she said of her line, which does include some white options for traditionalists.
Then came a big break that turned out to be a valuable learning experience, if not a moneymaker: fashion retail icon Henri Bendel invited Corcoran to do a trunk show one evening in December 2008 at its flagship store on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue.
"They put me in the swimwear department," she recalled, chuckling at such an unfortunate location in winter. "I was very proud of the five Happy Hankies I sold in swimwear in December."
Yet, Corcoran still considered the experience "a big win for me -- the first time someone took a chance on me."
Her next stop: trying to break into the wholesale market, paying fees to have her handkerchiefs at shows in New York, Seattle, and Chicago. She heard over and over about their beauty. She also heard about the price -- $28 was not a retailer's dream. At a five-day show in New York, not one Happy Hanky was sold.
But the experience was "priceless" in terms of convincing Corcoran of two things: her hankies -- made by Matthew Cole Inc. in Philadelphia -- had to be retooled to achieve a cheaper price, and she was not ready for the wholesale world, which required an even lower price (about $6), she said.
Corcoran reduced trim choices from 12 to just three, enabling bigger bulk purchases at better prices. She also replaced the original packaging -- acrylic boxes with shredded paper bedding that cost more than $1 each -- with clear poly envelopes that cost less than 30 cents each. And Happy Hanky is no longer embroidered on each handkerchief, just part of a tag on the underside.
Current retail price: $12.50.
Each hanky -- there's a men's line, too, the Hank -- comes with a poem by Corcoran's mother, Marcy Grussenmeyer.
Though not disclosing specific revenue, Corcoran, who has since left U.S. Vision to devote herself full time to her company, said "sales are up over 100 percent" since another alteration -- to her website, www.thehandkerchiefshop.com -- in May.
At Philadelphia University, Sheila Connelly, director of the fashion design program, applauded Corcoran's timing.
"With the current resurgence of pocket squares for men, it is a great time to translate that trend for women," she said. "I can see a dainty handkerchief in a Libertylike print peeking out of a beautifully tailored jacket adding an unexpected touch of femininity."
Hanky use is more a practical matter for 22-year-old forester Brent Lewis in Roseville, Calif., who owns three white Hanks.
"I need it for cleaning glasses, to wipe off my computer screen, blowing my nose," and, he added, to get the slime off his hands after catching fish.
Nostalgia also is a factor.
"My grandpa had multiple," Lewis said. "I always looked up to him."
If You Go
To register to attend the Women's Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) National Conference and Business Fair from June 23 to 25 at the Convention Center, go to www.wbenc.org/wbencconf. Participants
can also register
at the door.
Prices range from $200 to $950 for the full conference, and $100 to $375 for day passes.
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