The Story Exchange featured the startup story of Judi Henderson-Townsend of Mannequin Madness in this 2012 video. (Video credit: Sue Williams)

When she bought 50 used mannequins for an art project about 20 years ago, Judi Henderson-Townsend of Oakland, California, never imagined — well, she never imagined a number of things. She never dreamed that she would start a rental business with them (watch our video profile above), or expand that business into a sprawling mannequin retailer based out of a 4,000-square-foot warehouse, or make close to $1 million in annual revenue through her aptly named company, Mannequin Madness.

She also never imagined that Amazon.com would be a competitor. Back when Henderson-Townsend was just starting up and stockpiling mannequins in her garage, Amazon was still primarily known as an online bookstore. But like many business owners, Henderson-Townsend now views Amazon as a rival, not because they sell similar products (though you can find mannequins on Amazon.com) but because they offer fast, free shipping — something customers have come to expect.

[Related: Read Judi Henderson-Townsend’s complete startup story]

“The biggest thing about Amazon is they set the bar for shipping,” she says. “It affects everybody.” According to the New York Times, Amazon has more than 110 fulfillment centers in North America, over 250,000 warehouse employees and its own fleet of planes — giving it a competitive advantage that few businesses (not even Walmart or Target) can match. As the Times put it, Amazon has had “a two-decade-long obsession with shrinking the time from click to doorstep.”

When it comes to shipping, Henderson-Townsend has learned to compete with Amazon in the following three ways.

1. She manages customers’ expectations.

That can require the extra step of calling clients when they place an order. “We find that if we communicate with people that, ‘hey, your order is going to ship in X number of days,’ they can live with the fact that they are not going to get it next day, like they did with Amazon,” she says. The regular shipping rate for, say, a $260 mannequin is $60 via FedEx or UPS ground, and it can take several days. Henderson-Townsend explains to customers that expedited shipping for mannequins “is just expensive and most people don’t want to pay for that expenditure.” On the back end, she partners with other mannequin vendors around the country, so that orders can sometimes be fulfilled locally (reducing shipping costs).

2. She does offer free shipping, but on more expensive orders.

Since customers like the notion of a bonus, Henderson-Townsend includes the cost of shipping in orders of $399 or higher. Bottom line, “people are not happy with having to pay for the shipping,” Henderson-Townsend says. “So, we had to build [it] into our price point.” That sometimes means taking “a little bit of a hit,” as she needs to use FedEx or UPS for shipping, as opposed to the cheaper U.S. Post Office. “Those are the trials and tribulations of being in a small business,” she says. For customers in San Francisco, she encourages them to come to her warehouse and pick up their mannequin orders. She has worked to beef up her local presence by hosting consumer-oriented (and Instagrammable) events at her space, such as headdress workshops called Wine & Design, where customers can design their own floral crowns using mannequin heads.

Judi Henderson-Townsend of Mannequin Madness. She has started headdress classes as a way to build buzz.

Judi Henderson-Townsend of Mannequin Madness. She has started headdress classes as a way to build buzz.

3. She has an employee dedicated to expert packaging.

Shipping something as unwieldy as an unbendable mannequin — which can be large, expensive and one-of-a-kind — is something of an art form. “I have a guy on my staff that does our packing, and we have gotten much praise from our customers about our packing, when they receive it on the other end,” she says. Especially for vintage mannequins, quality packaging is critical as “it’s not likely that we can replace that mannequin if it gets damaged along the way.” Her employee has come up with a near “fool-proof” way of packing.

One last way Henderson-Townsend competes with Amazon: Her love for what she does shines through her company. She often acquires mannequins at deep discount, when stores are closing or remodeling. “I still get excited when I go into a store and they say ‘we’ve got mannequins to get rid of’ and I’m going in the back dark room, looking at the mannequins,” she says. “It’s crazy, but I like that.”

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