Before the year 2002, the few ways one could get their clothes altered in Kuala Lumpur after a shopping spree was to drive up to their neighbourhood alteration shop operated by a part-time seamstress in her home.
While there was nothing particularly wrong with the way that alterations were being conducted, Za Altera founders Cheryl Cheah and Susan Liew realized that there was a huge gap in the market for such needs. [restrict]
“We realized that there was no particular alteration service in Malaysia that provided good customer service and consultation with high quality alterations at locations convenient to the urban market. You either paid a premium for top-notch service or send your garments to your neighbourhood seamstress, with no guarantee of quality workmanship and higher risks, vis-à-vis accountability. There was no such thing as express alteration service too,” Cheryl shared.
The former business acquaintances turned good friends who were then, in their late 30s, decided to embark on what has now been almost two decades of a laborious but rewarding entrepreneurial journey.
Today, Za Altera is Malaysia’s first and largest chain of alteration shops providing alteration and restyling services and operating 15 outlets across the Klang Valley.
We sat down for coffee with Cheryl and Susan where it all began, at their first Za Altera outlet in Mid Valley Megamall.
Cheryl and Susan are both no strangers to the fashion and retail world. Cheryl was a former regional manager who oversaw the operations of some 20 fashion outlets in Singapore and Malaysia. Susan on the other hand, was a former merchandising manager at Malaysia’s then largest department store.
The two were introduced to one another through a mutual client and hit it off straight away. With a passion for fashion and retail, the two combined their arsenal of industry experience and knowledge to start Za Altera.
“It was the year 2002. Mid Valley Megamall was still pretty new, and it was the talk of the street. The mall was at that time the largest shopping mall in Malaysia. We decided that was the perfect time for us to go in and start Za Altera,” Susan said.
Just like any new entrepreneurs, Cheryl and Susan were not spared from the harsh struggles of building their sales, customer trust and gaining market confidence and share.
Of the several issues that they were dealt with, hiring, training and retaining good staff were the main problem areas for the two women. Ironically, neither Cheryl nor Susan have any sewing or dressmaking skills.
The two mentioned how difficult it was to also source for committed and reliable staff. This remains a challenge until today.
“It was just the two of us, two seamstresses and one person for customer service. There were no online job portals for us to easily source staff from. We browsed tirelessly through newspaper classifieds, and even had to drive out of Kuala Lumpur, to bring in good seamstresses onboard. The recruitment landscape was a completely different world then.”
Cheryl also humorously recalls hardly catching a wink in the first three years of business.
“Za Altera in Mid Valley Megamall operates from 10am to 10pm, 7 days a week, and that meant both of us having to take turns doing shifts to operate the shop. Even then, work for me began at 4am in the morning and only ended at 2am. It was crazy hectic!”
The two women were also mothers of young children at the time and were thrown into the deep-end of juggling and building an alterations empire while attending to growing family needs at the same time.
“It was really tough! Nonetheless, we were extremely determined. We knew that our hard work and efforts would come to fruition. You need to believe in the vision of your success, hold on to it in your mind and put in the time,” Susan shares.
Reaching For The Stars
Along the way from having just the Za Altera chain the two partners have launched another branch called i-alter.
So just how have these two female entrepreneurs not only managed to sustain their business but grow it to 15 outlets, with over 60 staff, all over a span of 16 years?
“Innovation plays a pivotal role in a company’s survival,” Cheryl shares.
“Our outlets have gone through multiple rounds of renovations, concept changes and equipment updates. We try our best to stay up to date with the current trends. For example, when Lycra material, peplum tops and flare skirts were all the rage, we had to retrain our staff to handle and sew these garments.”
Altogether, Za Altera has 9 direct-owned outlets, 3 under a partnership and 3 (soon to be 4) outlets under a franchisee (combined Za Altera and i-alter outlets), with a further 4 outlets in the plans.
Having a solid branding has also aided Za Altera’s success. The alterations company has stayed true to their orange and blue colour scheme since 2002.
“Quite like how the colours red and yellow are synonymous with McDonalds, we felt that it was important that we maintain the initial colour scheme of Za Altera, to maintain a strong brand identity.”
“Having effective branding can help build your reputation, make you stand out from your competition and project your values to attract your ideal client,” Susan said. “A strong brand identity helps the audience differentiate you from your competitors and can positively influence their purchasing decisions, directly impacting your profitability.”
Cheryl highlights that “the main criteria is building trust. Be accountable when issues arise. It’s an everyday work-in-progress in ensuring good customer services, quality stitching and timely deliveries. Customers can be demanding and very unforgiving, but you just have to deliver once it’s promised.”
Riding the Waves of Success
We just had to find out if after a span of 16 years of growing their business, if the two had anymore plans for business expansion.
Cheryl said, “Generally our business still operates on a brick-and-mortar concept. We are exploring the migration of the concept to being online based, in line with all other existing offline retail businesses that will have to move towards embracing the digital age.
The two women, who are now in their 50s admitted that transitioning online has been rather difficult for them. “The next step is to set up a website. We’re quite overdue on that. We already have a Facebook page, but it’s purely to manage enquiries and complaints,” Susan stated.
Words of Wisdom
When asked if these two female entrepreneur veterans had advice to share for budding small business owners, they said, “Be very prudent at all times. Check and recheck your finances and cash-flow positions to prevent overspending. The aim of running a business should always be to achieve profitability. With profits, you’ll be able to inject that money back into your business for expansion, growth and long-term competitive sustainability.”
Today, Za Altera has come a long way since their first outlet in Mid Valley Megamall. They have also diversified their services, offering a range of alterations not only for apparels but also household drapery, tailoring services, dry cleaning, and shoe cleaning, at selected outlets.