Dreaming big: Why she’s leading her family’s old wholesale bedding business into 'scary’ change online
Working nearly 40 years in her family's bedding business, Janet Wischnia has just launched a line of organic, American-made bed linens that will test the 88-year-old wholesale company's ability to succeed in today's social media-driven direct-to-consumer world.
Janet Wischnia has been working in her family’s wholesale bedding and bath linens business, ATD-American, for nearly half of its 88-year history, 10 years as president.
About to turn 60 in August, the grandmother of three was itching for a new challenge within the company. She found it by venturing way out of ATD-American’s comfort zone, launching in January a line of U.S.-made sheets created from 100 percent organic cotton grown in West Texas for sale direct to consumers online.
That’s right, a company started the year that Al Capone was convicted of tax fraud and a dozen eggs cost 18 cents is vying for customers in today’s social-media-driven retail environment, where so-called influencers -- those with big online audiences -- can make or break a business with a blog post or YouTube video review.
“You can’t be afraid to change. It’s scary, but it’s also fun,” Wischnia said recently about her new “baby,” American Blossom Linens, which she’s overseeing from ATD-American’s headquarters in Wyncote. “It’s good to learn new things.”
Selling anything but wholesale is not something that ATD-American or its sister company, Thomaston Mills, has done in about 60 years — ever since Wischnia’s father, Jerome Zaslow, and his brothers Arnold and Spencer changed course for a business their parents started in 1931 as Jaffe’s Art Linens, a storefront in what was Philadelphia’s garment district.
A couple of years ago, Wischnia decided it was again time for something new. She took her cues, in part, from Donald Trump.
“With the political climate, the current president, Made in USA is more out there, people seem to think about it a little bit more than they did before," Wischnia said. "When we saw that trend and the whole environmental trend, the trend for people wanting products made out of organic fibers, we thought we would give a try at creating a product and doing direct-to-consumer.”
In a sense, there was a feeling they had little to lose.
“Not a lot of people have gone into American textile manufacturing recently thinking it’s a great new career. We needed to get better at all of these things and change,” Tim Voit, chief marketing officer at ATD-American and Thomaston Mills, said of setting out to make “the greenest, most sustainable product out there when we saw that there was a niche in the retail market."
American Blossom sheets are made from cotton grown in Texas and spun in North Carolina. Weaving is done in South Carolina and cutting and sewing at the Thomaston Mills plant in Georgia, founded in 1899 and a part of what Wischnia said her family bought out of bankruptcy in 2001.
Thank you cards tucked into every American Blossom order describe a product that is “100 percent American — from farm to bed.” Wischnia said no other company is making organic linens in the United States, with most coming from India. Even some of ATD-American’s wholesale products are imported.
The idea for American Blossom came from Wischnia trying a heavyweight fabric — as sheets go — that Thomaston Mills had made for a company in Canada and thinking it would be even better made with organic cotton. She came across the documentary The True Cost, which explores the clothes-making industry and its global impacts, which led her to a West Texas co-op of organic farmers and the cotton now being used by American Blossom.
“It’s really fun learning new things,” Wischnia said, declining to disclose sales as a privately held company, but acknowledging that American Blossom’s $289 queen set is “a lot more expensive” than cotton/polyester blend alternatives made overseas. She noted the set includes four pillowcases rather than the standard two, and features bigger and deeper sheets with wider-than-usual elastic.
Consumers are willing to pay more for products from companies with “ethical business practices,” said Kathryn Kellogg, the San Francisco author of 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste. She cited a “new wave of consumerism" that favors ethically sourced and made products that don’t harm the environment.
Alexandra Breines, 30, is a Brooklyn-based marketer specializing in new product launches, including American Blossom. While saying “all of Janet’s instincts are correct ... people, millennials especially, we want products we can feel proud of,” Breines said the key to success for American Blossom "will be really building a community and engaging with that community.”
That’s where influencers are key, such as the Daily Connoisseur blogger Jennifer L. Scott, author of the Madame Chic book series on lifestyle pointers, who also claims 50,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel. A Scott follower for five years who has bought products she has recommended, Wischnia reached out to her, asking if she would like to try American Blossom sheets.
“I get a lot of those requests — I ignore 95 percent of them,” Scott said from her Southern California home. She, however, was charmed by Wischnia’s demonstration that she really had been a longtime reader.
She was also impressed, she said, that the bedding was organic, American-made, and high quality, and that “there were faces behind the company. It’s like a family and I really like that.”
In all, ATD-American and Thomaston Mills employ 150 — 35 locally, the rest in Georgia and South Carolina.
Scott said her YouTube video featuring American Blossom got 7,500 views, which led to some sales.
To use a bedding term, Wischnia has ambitious dreams for American Blossom, a line she envisions one day expanding to include towels and blankets.
“The plan," she said, “is to grow it big."