by Jenn Bergin
As a former charter school principal, Christy Messer learned to be a creative marketer. “Kids weren’t assigned to our school – they had to choose it,” she explains. “I was always looking for unique ways to get them to come to us.”
After spending 30 years as an elementary teacher and administrator in Miami, Christy brought her creativity to Asheville, North Carolina. In July 2015, she opened Everything Teacher. It’s the only parent-teacher store in the midsize city, nestled in western North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
“Our community is very spread out – some of our customers drive more than an hour through the mountains to visit our store,” Christy explains. “So, we decided to go to them!”
She and her husband Greg renovated an old mini school bus and turned it into a mobile store on wheels. It’s only been in business for a few months, but it’s already booked for school visits throughout the next academic year – and currently accounts for 60 to 70 percent of the Everything Teacher’s overall business.
Busloads of business
Christy’s “aha moment” came when she and Greg were visiting her mother. “She loves those ‘tiny house’ shows on HGTV,” Christy explains. “We watched as they converted a school bus into a tiny mobile home. Then we looked at each other and a light bulb went off!
“Before we moved forward with the mobile store concept, we took the community’s pulse by asking school principals for their feedback. All of it was 100 percent positive. Everyone thought our idea was a great solution for their teachers.” One principal immediately booked them for a visit during Teacher Appreciation Week, May 1 through 5, and plans to surprise teachers with $50 each to spend on the bus.
It took months to find a suitable vehicle – many weren’t in great shape – but they eventually paid $5,500 for a used 2000 Chevy mini bus with a diesel engine and relatively low mileage. “We looked at a lot of buses – we needed one that was safe, and we knew it would be a reflection of us and our store,” Christy explains. “The one we chose was previously owned by a daycare, so it was kept in good condition to meet state guidelines.”
The first task was renovating the interior. “Our biggest challenge was getting the seats out!” Christy says. Greg eventually just sawed them off from the legs at the bottom. The two used interlocking foam puzzle mats as flooring and hung curtains on the emergency-door windows in the back. Greg built a bulletin board rack to hang borders and they installed a bookshelf and other retail shelving.
The bus is stocked with many of the same parent-teacher tools sold in their 1,200-square-foot brick-and-mortar store, and they add seasonal items. Teachers can also preorder from their online catalog, published by Catalog Solutions, and purchases are bagged and waiting when they come to the bus.
It takes Christy just five minutes to set up shop when she arrives on site. She arranges a table outside to display extra product in easy-to-pack bins. Only one or two teachers fit into the bus at a time, so shoppers browse through the bins as they wait in line.
“When schools schedule us for a visit, we ask for a ‘point person’– sometimes it’s a teacher or secretary, sometimes the principal – and they handle scheduling, order forms, reminders,” Christy explains. “We work with each school’s individual schedule. Some ask us to visit during the day and teachers stop by at lunch or free periods, or on teacher work days. Others ask us to come at dismissal – we get right in the bus loop and teachers hop in as the buses roll!”
It’s easy to keep the mobile and brick-and-mortar stores connected. “Our POS Quick Books allows for a mobile unit that links to the store, so we use an iPad on the bus – it’s almost like having two registers. It communicates with the in-store desktop, and any sale that’s made on the bus comes straight out of the store’s inventory. I print one end-of-day report for both the bus and store and credit-card payments are kept together for deposits.”
Everything Teacher’s brick-and-mortar store is located in The Shops at Reynolds Village in Asheville, “a neighborhood of local businesses with tree-lined streets, free parking and fun community events.” The ground floor has restaurants and stores like a kids’ consignment boutique and florist shop. Above are the Lofts at Reynolds Village, four floors of residential apartments. It’s a unique concept that’s increasingly popular in the area, Christy says.
Their initial goal was to move the store into a bigger location, “but now we may just need a bigger bus!” It’s something they will consider if their business model continues to grow in that direction, although a CDC license is needed to drive a long bus in North Carolina. “In that case, we would hire a retired school bus driver – right now we just take turns!”
Everything Teacher is definitely a mom-and-pop operation, Christy says. They have one employee, Peyton, a college student who works one day a week. Christy’s sister-in-law, a teacher, volunteers her time.
The mobile store doesn’t operate in July or August because it’s all hands on deck at the store for the back-to-school season. But in the spring, business is slow – mostly homeschool parents during the day – and the Messers are considering opening only on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Right now, they sometimes close early to take the bus out to the schools. It can quadruple an ordinary day’s sales.
On Mondays the store is closed, so Christy spends that time networking and reaching out to customers near and far. Some of the six school districts they serve are two hours away, even thought the store is surrounded by residential neighborhoods with schools and big-box retailers, and is easily accessible from major highways. “Initially, it was challenging to get schools and districts to order from us,” she says. “As a former principal, I understand – when you’ve done business with a certain company for years, it’s hard to make a change.
“The mobile store helps get our name out there, but to really build relationships and remind customers that ‘we’re here and we’re local!’ we invite them into the store for events.”
Everything Teacher is hosting an in-store open house soon, and more than 50 public and private school principals, teachers, administrators, and district buyers have responded. “That’s 50 opportunities for new sales!” Christy says. “We invited everyone because you don’t always know who the decision maker is. When I was a teacher, if my school needed 10 rolls of yellow bulletin board paper, we let our bookkeeper know and she decided where to buy it from.
“If a district plans to buy for all its schools, why not buy local from me, rather than straight from the manufacturer? We give them free delivery!”
As the Messers approach their second year in business, Everything Teacher is doing better than last year – and better than anyone expected.
“Last year was our first time at EDexpo, and we left somewhat mesmerized,” Christy explains. “People told us we were crazy to open a new store.” At this year’s show, however, she was excited by the response to her mobile-store concept. “Retailers asked for our business cards and want to call us for details on how the bus works.” She’s happy to help.
“Some say our industry is suffering, but our store’s been well-received and we’re doing well. If all stores do well, the industry does well.”
When we spoke to Christy, the mobile store was scheduled to visit four schools in one county during a teacher work day the following Monday. She was also scheduled to set up at a 200-family homeschool conference. A parent had noticed the Everything Teacher bus on the road, and when Christy stopped for gas, the parent followed her in to ask for information.
Christy’s decades of experience in schools taught her that teachers are “touchy-feely” people, so she never felt a sense of worry about succeeding as a storeowner. “Teachers want to hold a product in their hands to decide if it’s something they want. How does the texture feel? What’s the exact shade of blue? Those questions can’t be answered online.”
It just took a bit of her signature creativity. “It’s the little things,” Christy says. “We gave bookkeepers in every district a plastic apple (with our logo) filled with candy. When we visit them or drop off a new catalog, we refill their apple. Whether it’s the candy or the bus – our customers are always excited to see us!”