Very Impressive: Unique Impressions, DEMEP Spur Growth

By Eileen Smith Dallabrida

Unique impressions is a full-service seller of imprinted products catering to a broad spectrum of organizations, including businesses, schools, nonprofit groups and sports teams.

Computerized Embroidery Machine

Computerized Embroidery Machine

The company was launched in 1988 and initially targeted sororities and fraternities on the University of Delaware campus in Newark. A founding partner, Donna O’Dell Hoke, got the inspiration for the business while working at a Greek store at her alma mater, Penn State University.

“I had friends at UD, who told me they had to go to University of Maryland to buy things for their sororities and fraternities,” she recalls. “I immediately made a note to myself to open a store in Delaware.”

The business clicked with the collegiate set and grew steadily over the years. Unique Impressions branched out, adding product categories, including event favors, promotional materials and one-of-a-kind items for individuals. The company can embellish clothing with vinyl lettering, embroidery, print screening or a combination of all three. Unique also sells engraved items, such as key chains, picture frames and money clips.

Over the years, the payroll grew to 10 full-time employees who make most products in-house, sewing embellishments, screening T-shirts and even applying rhinestones. The base of part-timers, many of them college students, fluctuates widely, from 45 during back-to-school and holiday seasons to four workers when school is not in session. Last year, Unique began gearing up for a growth spurt, targeting mid-range customers that would provide a new stream of income, but without the deep discounts and quick turnarounds often demanded by the largest customers.

“We were intentionally growing our client base and we needed to be ready to meet those new deadlines,” Hoke recalls.

But there was one large obstacle to growth. Unique had run out of room. There wasn’t space for more equipment or materials that would be needed to fill that anticipated need.

To identify ways to make the space and the staff more efficient, the company turned to the Delaware Manufacturing Extension Partnership. Accredited by the National Institute for Standards and Technology, DEMEP’s mission is to substantially improve the quality, productivity and profitability of manufacturers in the state by identifying, transferring and implementing best practices.

“Lean concepts are universal. They apply to a steel mill, a doctor’s office or an embroidery shop,” says Steve Quindlen, DEMEP’s executive director. “We have seen small businesses benefit enormously from lean training and Unique Impressions is a shining example.”

All full-time employees received training in 5-S processes. Introduced in Japan, 5-S focuses on effective organization and standardized procedures to simplify the work environment, reduce waste and activities that don’t add value to the product, while increasing quality, efficiency and safety. The 5-S principles translate to: Straightening, Systematic cleaning or Shining, Standardizing, and Sustaining.

Two DEMEP field agents, Lisa Weis and Jim Jones, meticulously mapped the movements of workers as they went about their tasks. What they saw looked like spaghetti, with swirls of pathways instead of direct, linear routes.

Their mission was to analyze the workflow and devise strategies for cutting out unnecessary steps.

“Wasted steps add up to wasted time,” Jones says. “If you can squeeze out that inefficiency, you will be more productive.”

Setting up a computerized embroidery machine was a time-consuming process because the screen used to program the equipment was located across the room from the machine. “The two monitors were 10 feet away from one another,” Hoke recalls. “We just turned that giant machine around so the monitors are now two feet from each other.”

Valuable space on the second floor was consumed with storing merchandise that couldn’t be sold, including slightly damaged goods or articles whose personalization included an error.

“Some items were perfect, but out of style,” Hoke recalls. “College-age customers are very fickle when it comes to fashion.”

Unique Impressions reclaimed that space by donating, selling or tossing passé merchandise. The business gained even more room when an outdated embroidery machine was sold for scrap.

On the administrative front, DEMEP agents suggested transitioning from paper orders to electronic records.

“When a piece of paper travels from the original order, all the way through the process to accounting, there are many opportunities for that paper to get lost,” Jones says.

Electronic records also reduce the odds that a worker will misinterpret an order due to an individual’s handwriting.

In a business producing personalized pieces, errors are costly. Mistakes can render merchandise worthless or result in expensive alterations.

With a new emphasis on efficiency and procedures to measure performance in place, rework orders decreased 30 percent.

Increased accuracy also has resulted in reducing wasted material by nearly 5 percent, Hoke says.

“That might not sound like much but it really adds up,” she says. Still, the business hasn’t completely done away with paper.

“There are times when it makes more sense to take a picture of a T-shirt and draw on it instead of trying to describe that you want the design a little above the left chest,” she says.

In the retail space, the counter was reconfigured from a surface about the width of a desk into a long, horizontal bar.

“You can entertain many customers at a time, rather than have people line up single file,” Jones notes.

Merchandise was rearranged in order to make shopping more intuitive. Instead of mingling various categories of goods, merchandise is grouped.

“Giftware with giftware, sportswear with sportswear,” Hoke says.

An added bonus: the new layout makes the store appear more spacious.

The shipping department was consolidated from separate stations into a single, linear space. To keep the surface streamlined, only the most commonly used tools are placed on the line. Rarely used tools are stored separately.

Overall, orders are up 15 percent. Sales have increased 20 percent. Because machinery is arranged more efficiently, set up times have been reduced by about one-third.

“With the unique and innovative ideas generated during the improvement event they were able to increase productivity and reduce waste, which allowed them to take on more work with their existing resources,” Jones says.

In coming months, Unique plans to buy additional lettering machinery that will enable the business to take on more orders.

The business also will hire one additional full-time employee, plus several part-timers. “The increase in business has given us a more comfortable cash position,” Hoke says.

There also has been a positive impact on the company culture. Lean principles are now part of Unique’s job training procedures.

“We talk about efficiency, when we didn’t before,” Hoke says. “It is an important part of the way we do business.”