Safety Gear of One’s Own

The story of how CharmAndHammer.com came to be one of the main distributors of safety apparel for women in construction and other “physical” professions can easily get lost in the site’s product visuals: pink tool belts, periwinkle and purple work gloves, sea-green overalls, and the coolest tortoise-shell-framed safety glasses ever seen. The company, founded in 2003, is a premier online retailer that has prevented women from having to make do with men’s clothing—in an industry dominated by a decidedly male aesthetic. The fundamental value of CharmAndHammer.com, however, goes beyond fashion: safety wear designed for women is safer. Owner Terri Piasecki spoke with American Builders Quarterly to explain why.

Terri Piasecki

At a Glance

Location
Apex, NC

Founded
2003

Employees
4

Specialty
Online retail of safety apparel for women

Where did you get the idea for your company?
Terri Piasecki: I grew up the daughter of a union electrical contractor and worked in my father’s business on the administrative side doing bookkeeping and job costing. Note that women weren’t acceptable on jobsites at the time, in the 1980s. After that I worked for an environmental organization for 10 years, where I climbed the corporate ladder and became their safety manager. I knew there was safety wear designed for women out there, but no retailer was stocking them. I also had men in small and big sizes. In each case it was hard to find the right sizes without doing a Google search. Since nothing was found all in one place, it struck me I should start an online distributorship.

On the surface, online retailing looks easy. You develop a concept, you hire a designer to put together a spiffy website, you fill orders and make money on the markup. Is that how it worked?
TP: Because Internet retailing is so new, I learned a lot by trial and error. The cost of website design is astronomical, and I found you don’t just put it in the lap of designers. You have to figure out how to create some parts yourself. And I had to learn a lot about SEO—search engine optimization, an online marketing tactic—and about click-through rates and how sites are laid out. I had to order most goods by the case [even though construction firms with one or two female employees are unlikely to order a 100-count case of pink safety glasses]. And I self-financed everything, reinvesting revenues back into inventory. It helps to get to know your shippers, particularly now that we have customers in Europe.

What makes you the qualified person to do this?
TP: First and foremost, this is about safety. If a woman is forced to wear a man’s bomber jacket or safety vest, the loose fabric can get caught in machinery. This is something I had to be concerned about as a safety manager. Also, I think women are more comfortable getting advice on fitting and function from another woman.

When you began to build this e-business, did you mostly have supporters or naysayers?
TP: My husband was supportive. Some people in the industry told me how this had been attempted before but failed because women make up only one to two percent of the industry workforce. But that was before Internet-based retailing. One manufacturer’s rep tried to convince me to sell a broader line of goods, but after the first year of sales success, he came around. Now, new vendors seek me out and request that I carry their new women’s gear.

Your mission goes beyond simple retailing, addressing the broader issues of safety wear for a workforce of diverse sizes. How do you approach these problems?
TP: I’m passionate about helping women and men in large and small sizes. This comes from my safety background. I listen to their concerns and needs for solutions—then communicate that back to manufacturers. They need to know that women are sensitive to fit and appearance.

What do you see in the future for your business? Is it about more women getting jobs in the trades?
TP: We are already finding different customers, [including] dental hygienists, artists, jewelry makers, and teachers who need leather aprons and safety glasses. So we have become the designated distributor of women’s gear for companies like Turner Construction [Company] and smaller local contactors. We also have an eBay store and are now working towards a mobile e-commerce function. The benchmarks keep moving.

We also supply online safety courses through CharmAndHammer.com. These are highly interactive courses that are OSHA-compliant and accepted. I participate [in] and speak at events for women in the trades, including those sponsored by the National Association of Women in Construction. Particularly where unions are prevalent—throughout California and in Seattle, Portland, and Chicago—there tend to be more women in the trades. ABQ