by Jenn Bergin
Laurie Uherek, EDmarket’s board chair from 2015 to 2017, grew up in a family of teachers. Her aunt would take Laurie along when she shopped in parent-teacher stores for her classroom supplies, and Laurie fell in love with the products. Her childhood experiences inspired her to open her own store, Educate & Celebrate, in 1991. Twenty years later, in an article about her three successful locations in Maryland, Laurie told Southern Maryland News, “I learned there was nothing better to sell than education.”
She feels the same way today, even though she made the decision to close her storefronts nearly four years ago. “The stores had so much personality; they were a part of the community. I was sad to lose them,” she admits, “but I quickly found myself looking at different needs within the educational industry that I could fulfill.”
A familiar story
Like so many dealers and storefront retailers in our industry, Laurie recognized the opportunity and power of e-commerce. She invited her customers to shop on the Educate & Celebrate website as well as in store, and that omni-channel approach worked well, for awhile.
“We had our best year in 2008, but then the economy turned,” she recalls. “We remained cautiously optimistic – the back-to-school season was still lucrative – but the remaining months of the year became leaner. We saw a sharp decline in the number of daily receipts and average sales in general.”
By that time there was Amazon, of course, along with teacherspayteachers.com, teachhub.com, sharemylesson.com, and many other websites that offered teachers low-cost and even free resources.
Laurie hired a consultant to analyze her business, including its current financials and projections for the future. He determined that while the store’s school purchase order business was growing, monthly retail sales were declining. What’s more, he said, the number of shoppers who preferred making purchases from their homes was likely to increase.
Realizing that her traditional retail business model – one she had operated successfully for decades – was becoming obsolete, Laurie looked for ways she could adapt and change. How could she make a living working in the industry she loved?
“I figured sustainability may not exist in a way that’s familiar to us, but I also knew that all my years of experience still had value.”
Adjusting the concept of retail
Leveraging the knowledge she had gained over the years as an entrepreneur, saleswoman, teacher supply expert and EDmarket leader, she developed a new business platform for Educate & Celebrate that takes the changes in our industry into account. She kept the online and purchase-order side of the business (you don’t need storefronts for that), but knew they were not going to be enough. “A number of businesses have dedicated time and capital to creating lucrative online platforms,” Laurie explains. “However, it’s hard to position any one of them against Amazon’s progress in meeting consumers’ demand for all sorts of products, delivered the next day for free.”
Two years ago, she took an in-depth look at all of the channels through which educational products are sold. “What I learned first and foremost is that the dollars earmarked for education have not gone away,” she says. “Education is still being funded – the money is out there. Somebody has to go the schools and get their orders; help them spend their money wisely.”
It might as well be her.
“I started cold-calling my very best customers – repeatedly – to let them know my retail services were still available to them,” Laurie explains. “Interestingly, I learned that they assumed we were no longer in business because our storefronts were closed. I had to work through that – and it took some time. I asked them to consider me their ‘concierge representative,’ and they’ve kept me busy ever since. I continue to send them catalogs with samples to enjoy and I email them often.”
It works like this: “I say yes to everything they ask for and then I find a way to get it for them,” she says, using vendors whose products she carried in her store and others that are brand new to her. “So far, I’ve procured a variety of special supplies, ranging from Wilton cake decorating tools for a summer camp at a college to rocket-launching supplies for a summer-school STEM program.
“I’ve diversified my position in the educational industry,” she continues. “That’s been the key to creating additional opportunities for my business.” Her goal is to grow market share by being open to a complete shift in the way a ‘store’ sells product to customers.
Most of the products are drop-shipped to the customers, “but I do have many orders shipped to Educate & Celebrate to take advantage of free-freight specials,” she explains. Laurie maintains a small warehouse, but stocks very little inventory – only the staple items that she knows are on most orders. In the spring, she stocks summer bridge and summer express books specifically because she receives orders for them every year.
Repping brands to schools
The point is, Laurie calls on schools. That’s important to Steps to Literacy, a New Jersey-based supplier of a custom classroom collection of books and educational materials, who hired Laurie as territory manager.
In addition to educational materials, Steps to Literacy began selling early learning furniture including carpets, storage units, and seating. “My furniture sales began to grow and before I knew it, I was helping customers make informed decisions about furnishing 21st-century classrooms.”
She has attended EDspaces for the past five years to learn more about the furniture and equipment side of school sales. With topics like “How Schools Buy” and “Furniture Specification Training,” last year’s Pre-conference Educational Dealer Bootcamp proved to be particularly helpful. What Laurie found most useful was the deep dive into the fine details of furniture specification, including steel, plastic and wood construction. Also covered were the types of finishes and edging, and the standards of grading in furniture – so important to know for selling furniture to schools.
“I’ve learned more than I ever wanted to know about things like wood and steel finishes, but the importance of knowing that for your customer’s sake is priceless!” Laurie says.
EDspaces also offers important networking opportunities, and last fall, Laurie met Mark Lewis and John Shiffler from Ohio-based Shiffler Equipment Company. The 40-plus-year-old firm supplies schools with floor protection components, classroom accessories, lockers, whiteboards, tack boards, and restroom partitions and accessories. They also have an LED lighting solution business, safety and security products, and offer complete installation services. As they discussed the idea of growing their businesses together, the three got excited about the potential, and Laurie became Shiffler Equipment’s independent rep covering Maryland, Virginia and D.C.
A few months ago, she became a business development executive for Advantage by Design (ABD) Furnishings, a start-up manufacturing group and Shiffler affiliate. Its focus is on manufacturing high-quality, but low priced, seating and desks for classrooms.
“Leveraging the combined resources of Shiffler Equipment Company – a distributor, the ABD founders, and their respective China and U.S. operations with Laurie and other dealers, provides growth, while gaining efficiencies,” notes Mark Lewis. “This structure allows us to work together and provide a growth platform for all the individual entities.”
“I suggest that all retailers remain as open-minded about commission-based selling opportunities as Laurie has,” he adds.
When it comes to classroom furniture today, experts recommend looking first for durability. “Good furniture can last for 20 years, and with limited budgets, it’s a challenge to marry quality and price,” he says. “Retailers should shift their focus from short and seasonal selling seasons to potentially involving themselves in projects lasting over the course of maybe two years. They can position themselves to sell the highest quality of furniture their customers’ budgets can afford.”
To remain top-of-mind with her Shiffler, ABD and Steps to Literacy customers, Laurie creates mailers, and sends them catalogs with handwritten notes. “The literature each company provides is designed for 21st century learning environments,” she explains. “There are also monthly and quarterly promotions to announce, which is great for making cold calls.”
Not surprisingly, “My greatest challenge is finding time to fit everything in,” says Laurie. “My cell phone is now my office phone, and the days can be very long. But they’re fulfilling.”
She hopes that she can expand into larger territories with ABD Furnishings and Shiffler Equipment Company. “I enjoy being a sales representative for a reputable company, and I’m excited to be a part of the growing ABD team.” ABD is currently seeking furniture dealers to rep their classroom line. More information is available at abdfurnishings.com.
Educate & Celebrate’s new business model is succeeding because schools today need expert guidance on choosing the right items, especially big-ticketed items like furniture and equipment. And the needs are changing every day. “Both my business model and the educational industry are evolutionary,” she says.
Another reason it’s working is that, simply, her business is sales – and sales is simply meeting needs. Call it retail, but without the showroom or the guessing on inventory.
“As the educational industry moves forward, I see consolidation, but also opportunity to be sustainable if you are willing to shift your business model,” Laurie concludes. “Storeowners need to be willing to step outside their comfort zone and network – with their community, schools, churches, peers, manufacturers, and other business owners. They need to be willing to adapt and learn a job all over again.”