Laid off by Levi Strauss, seamstress sells jeans online


Wednesday, July 12th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


MISSION, Texas – Elvia Flores is a Mexican immigrant and daughter of migrant farm workers who toiled 16 years as a sewing machine operator for Levi Strauss & Co.

She also represents the new face of e-commerce.

In the ultimate bricks-to-clicks turnabout, Ms. Flores lost her job when a Levi plant closed in September in McAllen but now has set up her own Web site – selling Levi's jeans.

"Her ambition is indicative of the old American entrepreneurial spirit," said Peter Buletza, lead faculty member for electronic commerce at San Diego-based National University.

Although Ms. Flores has yet to crack $1,000 in monthly sales, she is demonstrating that you don't need an IPO to tap into the burgeoning world of e-commerce. Nationwide, e-commerce sales are expected to top $180 billion by 2004, from just $20 billion last year, according to Forrester Research Inc.

"When people find out about the capabilities they can have by accessing the Internet, and if they have an entrepreneurial sense to them, they can do just what this woman did," said Mr. Buletza, whose e-commerce program at National University has enrolled more than 300 adults, most of whom are working. "It is happening quite a bit."

Or, put another way, "if people can do 'file save' and 'file open,' they can do e-commerce," said Kirk Waldfogel, a founder and chief information officer of Wazzu.com, which sets up Web sites for small entrepreneurs, including Ms. Flores.

Still, consider how far she has come.

Ms. Flores, 37, was born in the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas, one of 10 children of migrant farm laborers. She came to the Rio Grande Valley with her family when she was 9, completed high school in McAllen and took one year of courses at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg.

Even after starting work at the Levi plant, Ms. Flores was determined to continue her education and gain communications skills. She took bookkeeping and computer courses at a local vocational school. And at work, she made it a point to learn about benefits and other matters.


A sudden shock

But in February 1999, her world was jolted when Levi Strauss announced it would close 11 of its 22 plants in North America, including four in Texas, and shift production to contractors throughout the world. At the time, the company was suffering through a two-year sales decline, losing market share to store and designer brands such as The Gap and Tommy Hilfiger.

Two of the plants to be shuttered were in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, in McAllen and Harlingen. The McAllen cut-and-sew plant was the larger of the two, with about 700 workers.

The company gave its employees eight months' notice, up to three weeks of severance pay per year of service and as much as $6,000 that could be used for job training and business start-up costs, among other benefits.

On Sept. 17, Ms. Flores lost her job.

"We saw this coming, but we really didn't know what it would be like until we got our final notice. You think you can cope with it, but ... boy," she said softly, shaking her head.

Her husband, Jaime, 42, also worked at the plant. The couple share a modest brick home on a cul-de-sac in a handsome, midpriced subdivision in Mission. They have two children, ages 9 and 6.

Mr. Flores accepted severance that would continue his regular pay for up to eight months while he searched for other work.

Ms. Flores was more interested in the $6,000. "They said, 'Well, you can either go to school, open a business or get a job.' I said, 'OK, I want all three,'" she said, laughing.


New direction

Levi Strauss hired the Council for Adult Experiential Learning, a Chicago-based contractor, to help employees develop business plans or get job re-training.

Ms. Flores said she'd had the idea for a Web site for a long time, and "I've always thought that the Levi's product was the best." She filed a business plan with the contractor.

CAEL adviser Teresa Mendoza said other former Levi Strauss employees submitted ideas for businesses ranging from drive-through beer stores to piñata sales. She called Ms. Flores' plan "a very, very good idea. If she keeps at it, I'm pretty sure it will expand."

From the money provided, Ms. Flores purchased a computer, a cash register and about $800 in Levi's merchandise. For her inventory, she turned to an old acquaintance, clothing wholesaler Michael Malka.

Mr. Malka, who owns a Dallas warehouse, used to visit the McAllen plant and sell Levi's clothing to the workers at deep discounts. Ms. Flores was one of his best customers. After the plant closed, Mr. Malka continued to drop by and sell to former employees who came by to pick up their severance checks.

Ms. Flores kept buying.

"At first, I thought she was buying for her family," Mr. Malka said. "Then, I learned she doesn't have such a big family."

Ms. Flores soon approached him about supplying her with wholesale merchandise for the new Web-based business.

"She was very determined, and she really followed through," Mr. Malka said. "She is a very sharp-minded woman who's not afraid to tackle anything."

After she connected her new computer, Ms. Flores got online and questioned several Web companies about helping her set up her own site. She settled on Wazzu.com, one of many new companies that have sprung up to assist budding e-commerce businesses.

With Wazzu.com's help, last November Ms. Flores launched denimsforless.com and started offering Levi's jeans, shirts, belts and even pocket watches for as much as 50 percent off retail prices. She made sales "almost immediately," mostly to local customers, including family, friends and former co-workers.

She recorded about $800 in sales her first month – not enough to support a family, but it marked an important fresh start for Ms. Flores and her family.

"Before the final announcement of the plant closing, I was already thinking how to move on," she said. "Some people were skeptical. They said, 'Are you crazy?'

"But we have a dream. We're going to go forward. I definitely don't want to go on welfare."

She set up shop in a tiny bedroom, with the computer in one corner and stacks of jeans nearby. Also in the room is a large sewing machine she purchased, with which she someday hopes to create her own denim designs.


Nothing fancy

No one would ever confuse Ms. Flores' Web site with that of Amazon.com.

The home page is plain, with "Denims For Less" in gold letters at the top on a denim-colored background, with a picture of a pair of Levi's jeans to the right. Ms. Flores has written a brief introduction about herself, along with a pitch, "Save more. Get the best items for less. Get quality, service you deserve!"

The inventory is limited, but e-shoppers can point and click on pictures of merchandise, place them in an electronic shopping cart and check out at a virtual cash register.

Items currently featured include men's belts for $7, Levi's pocket watches for $25 and women's stonewashed denim jeans (sizes 5 to 13 only) for $18.

Ms. Flores accepts cash, checks and major credit cards and handles shipping herself.

"She was really a beginner going in, computerwise," said John Manligas, a Wazzu.com customer service representative who has been assisting Ms. Flores. "Now lately, she's got her own digital camera and is taking pictures to upload to the Web site.

"She's really particular," he said. "She knows what she wants, and she's so expressive. She says, 'This picture isn't good enough,' or, 'What can I do to make it sharper or lighter?'"

The site receives about 120 hits a month – not a huge amount, says Mr. Manligas, but plenty considering that business has been almost entirely word-of-mouth.


Planning for the future

In March, Ms. Flores opened a small retail storefront, off a waiting area inside a beauty salon on Inspiration Road in Mission. A sign out front displays her Web address.

She is also attending classes to become a dental assistant. But she makes clear that she intends to make denimsforless.com a full-time venture and someday hire employees.

Ms. Flores downplays what many may see as her uncommon initiative.

"I think that any individual can do this," she said. "If I can do it, anyone can. I have children to support, and I want this to be like a path for them to follow in the near future."

Andrew Whinston, director of the Center for Research in Electronic Commerce at the University of Texas, says Ms. Flores could face challenges in maintaining inventory and processing credit-card orders as business increases.

"It seems like she has it worked out nicely for the time being," Mr. Whinston said. "I think it's nice that people can become more entrepreneurial, and that's what people in the Internet economy have discovered."

A Levi Strauss spokesman said the company has no objection to Ms. Flores' new discount enterprise and is pleased that she has made the most of its severance package. He notes that the company routinely distributes off-price goods to outlet stores and specialty stores.

"It's nice that she has found a way to remain connected with the brand," said the spokesman, Jeff Beckman.

Some find it remarkable that Ms. Flores has remained loyal to Levi's, despite losing her job. "I'm not mad," she said. "I understand why they did it. And I do appreciate that they stayed in the Valley for 25 years.

"And now, I'd like to sell their products."