When Beverly Seckinger and Lee Buford started their gourmet-cookie company, in 1985, they had no money to spend on fancy packaging. Instead, the partners always carried a tin of their tasty cookie biscuits on their sales calls to the Ritz-Carlton, Saks, and Neiman-Marcus. The two wrote nearly $2,500 in first-time orders. However, over the next two years, Atlanta-based Seckinger-Lee lost several retailers and failed to sell to such larger players as Macy's in New York. In some small retail stores, the biscuits sold well during in-store taste tests but otherwise sat on the shelf.

Seckinger and Buford had begun to hear complaints about the somewhat-stark package design of their products, though sales continued to grow. Seckinger traveled around the country holding in-store taste testings to build a loyal following, but by 1994, sales were flat at $2 million.

The partners could ignore the problem no longer. In August 1994 they hired a design firm that conducted a survey of the 4,500 retailers selling Seckinger-Lee biscuits. "The results slammed the fact in our faces that we needed to make a change," says Seckinger. "We no longer wanted to broadcast that we were a bunch of hayseeds from the South." They needed a softer look, a color scheme to match the stores' other gift items, and a picture of the product on the package to cultivate product identity. They got all that from their design firm, which commissioned artwork to be used on the tins and boxes. The new packaging also includes an 800 number through which callers can find local retailers that carry the biscuits.

Seckinger-Lee spent $250,000 -- or about 12% of sales -- on the entire process, including materials and the rights to the art, all financed through an extended line of credit from the bank. Previously, the company spent only 5% of revenues on sales and marketing yearly. But the new look has paid off. At the Fancy Food trade shows in Atlanta and New York City last summer, the company booked $100,000 worth of orders, a 50% increase over the previous year's shows. A buyer from Macy's stopped by Seckinger-Lee's booth and decided to put the product in the New York store after almost 10 years of courting, citing the new packaging as the reason.

At the Atlanta trade show there was even a rumor that Seckinger-Lee had been bought out, because of the sleek, urban packaging. Not true, but Seckinger does expect her sales, now at $2.8 million, to double in 1996 thanks to the new design.

-- Sarah Schafer