EDINA, Minn. - The Oprah effect is real.
At least for the Murphy family, whose Edina pajama company Softies has one of its lounge tunics featured as one of "Oprah's Favorite Things" in O, Oprah Winfrey's magazine, for the third year in a row.
The company has grown threefold since the first designation, which was at a low point for Tim Murphy, the company's president.
Murphy in June 2017 was at what he said was "the last hour of the last day of the worst trade show - one of those times when you ask yourself what you're doing with your life."
Vendors were not logically organized. He was by a beer cooler vendor in a corner. Many had left early, and he was packing up himself.
Then two people walked up with their badges turned around and were carefully studying Softies' stock and asking questions. In Murphy's experience, this meant the two were either competitors or were interested in making a big order, so he started asking questions himself.
The two turned out to be from the magazine, including creative director Adam Glassman, scouting out items for the favorite things list. The conversation began a two-month back-and-forth, and in late August, while standing in the Jerry's Foods parking lot in Edina, Murphy received the call that the Softies "Snuggle Lounger" had made the 2017 list.
Then the challenge became predicting how much sales would increase because of the recommendation and ramping up manufacturing and delivery to meet the need. And it was a different type of delivery, Murphy said. Up until that point, Softies had been mainly a wholesale vendor to catalogs and small retailers, so sending 10,000 items to one customer instead of one item to 10,000.
"It was very nerve-racking," he said. "We had no purchase order."
The family drew up the plan and brought it to a bank for financing. And while Murphy had to put his house up for the loan's collateral, the banker also "didn't bat an eye" in approving the loan once he saw that it would be on Winfrey's list. "I couldn't believe how much it worked."
The company made the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal's list of fastest-growing companies with $1.3 million in sales in 2016 and $3.2 million in sales in 2018. Murphy said sales have grown more this year.
The company's origin was the desire of Murphy's father, Dennis, to help his wife, Peggy, feel better. Dennis Murphy had a 40-year career in women's clothing, at the time with Jockey. Peggy Murphy was having night sweats because of chemotherapy treatments for leukemia, and her husband recognized that the moisture-wicking material in underwear could help make her more comfortable. He fashioned pajamas out of it for her.
Then, Dennis Murphy and designer Lily Nguyen decided to make a company out of the moisture-wicking pajamas, not only for chemo patients but for menopausal hot flashes and women who had just given birth. Softies was born in 2006.
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Shortly thereafter, Tim Murphy found out his corporate job was being moved to Virginia. He and his wife wanted to stay in the Twin Cities, so he sat down with his dad to see if the venture had room for him. It did, and in the ensuing years until his father retired in 2014, Tim Murphy learned all the ins and outs of the clothing business from working a trade show floor to managing inventory, he said.
The Murphys expanded the line from the original pajamas, but kept the philosophy of producing clothes with a soft, comfortable fit and feel. They developed a loyal customer base, some using the Softies brand, some having Softies produce a private-label brand, and the company grew slowly. The business moved from his parents' basement to an Edina warehouse, which subsequently has grown to 3,500 square feet.
Then came the Oprah nod. The company quickly had to choose a marketing partner to ramp up a consumer website, court a deal with Amazon and hire a third-party distributor in Maple Grove to help fulfill deliveries.
With the expanded sales also came more feedback. Customers wanted a hood. They also wanted pink as a color option. Both were accommodated, and when O reached out again - Tim Murphy said he didn't know Softies could make the list twice - he had a good pitch.
He again found out the company made the list with the "Hooded Snuggle Lounger" in the Jerry's parking lot, this time in June.
This year, the company pitched O in January. However, few companies make the list a third time so Softies did not find out until late September the "Marshmallow Hooded Lounger" had been chosen, so it has once again been a logistical challenge this year. Last week, both "The View" and "Good Morning America" chose the Softies lounger as one of their picks from the O list.
Other challenges include rising costs and the trade war, both in terms of higher tariffs and keeping supply from Asia flowing. Earlier in the decade, Softies tried to move manufacturing back to the United States as shipping from Asia became more complicated. However, Murphy said the company found that Asian companies had more expertise. For example, a notched collar became an issue for a bulk order at one of the U.S. manufacturers it tried.
Pricing also is a gamble. Softies tries to keep its costs under $100 - charging more than a big-box store hoping to emphasize the higher quality and less than luxury satin pajamas, Murphy said.
Softies also figures it will need to live without another year on the Oprah list in 2020. It would be unprecedented to make the list four years in a row.
That means building new avenues to sell the products. "It will be back to boots on the ground," ramping up participation in the trade show circuit and courting more wholesale customers, Murphy said. The company will be hiring to help with that. It also means building off its current customer lists to increase repeat sales through its direct-to-consumer channels.
One plus that will carry into next year is that Softies is now a platinum brand for Amazon, which means more exposure by the online giant.
It also means trying to grow Softies' medical business. In the year before the first O nod, a friend recommended Softies to Nicollet Health's mammography unit when it needed new robes. Murphy worked with the system to create what the unit needed. The commercial laundry Nicollet uses recommended Softies to a few other local systems.
Since then, "we haven't had a minute to pursue," he said, but thinks it's a business line that could see steep growth.
If there's anything Murphy and his parents have learned through the business venture: "The harder we work, the luckier we get."
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