by Tina Manzer
“Our store is a work in progress. It’s evolving and reinventing itself,” said Margie Wilson, owner of Brainstorm teacher store in Lindenhurst, Illinois. “I think that given the times we’re living in, our open-ness to trying new and different ideas helps keep us in business.”
Here are examples of “the times” that Margie, a former teacher, is talking about.
Founded in 2002, Brainstorm originally opened to sell resources to teachers. The 9,000 square foot building, which Margie and her husband own outright, includes a 7,000 square foot sales floor featuring products from more than 250 vendors. There’s also a 650-square-foot classroom for group learning, and a 1,100-square-foot warehouse for receiving and processing merchandise.
The product mix is about 45 percent educational materials, 35 percent toys and games, and 20 percent gift items.
The customer mix today is about 50 percent teachers; 50 percent parents, grandparents and gift shoppers.
When it first opened, there were eight stores similar to Brainstorm located within an hour’s drive. Only one, Lakeshore Learning, remains open.
Business at Brainstorm started to decline in 2009. Since then it’s been a struggle, admits Margie, and she attributes it to three things –
1. teachers are spending less of their own money for classroom materials;
2. Brainstorm can’t compete with the prices and other deals offered online;
3. there are fewer children in her community today. “For the past nine years, houses haven’t been turning over like they used to,” she says. “In other words, the people whose children have grown up are staying in their homes longer, so there are fewer housing options here for young families. The result is a population of older people who do not yet have grandchildren. They don’t need the educational materials we sell, or the toys and games. Preschools have closed. Our loyal customers tell us, ‘We love shopping here, but we have no one to purchase your products for.’”
“But I am blessed with a wonderful staff that cares about the success of this business,” Margie says. “Teachers talk about our helpful and informative employees, and the variety of products that we carry.”
She is full of energy and good ideas on how to build up Brainstorm’s business, and has already started to implement them. Here are just a few of her tips.
Keep current customers happy
For Margie, that means teachers. Even though educational supplies make up less than half of her mix today – down from about 90 percent originally – she watches product trends and her customers’ purchasing habits carefully to make sure she is stocking what they want and need.
“When you asked me about our bestselling product, the first thing that came to mind was Mahvalous Tape!” she exclaimed. “Yes, a $4 item! Everyone can afford that!”
Affordable price, combined with practicality and functionality, is just the ticket for teachers. “Little things like tape make their lives easier and don’t cost a lot of money. The same is true for organizational items, like the storage products from Romanov.”
Other observations on teacher purchases have resulted in more tweaks to her mix. “We used to sell a lot of books on professional development, and books with supplemental materials,” Margie notes. “A lot of the purchases were focused on curriculum and not instruction, but not anymore.”
Behavior-related items are a growth category, including scented items, stickers, pencils, bookmarks and other things that encourage students to focus and behave, fidgets like Boinks are popular, along with Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty.
Pointing to another trend, she says, “Today, the focus is decorative. Teachers want to make their classrooms comfortable for themselves and for their students. They want to make sure it’s a space everyone enjoys being in all day.”
When teachers shop has also changed. “In the past, sales during back-to-school in July and August were strong enough to maintain us for a while. We did pretty well at Christmas, too,” Margie explains. “Today, teachers they’re starting their back-to-school shopping earlier – June sometimes, but even April and May – when they see the items come into the store.
“They’re also spending less money. It’s their own money, usually. Instead of one or two big shopping sprees, they make more – but smaller – purchases stretched out over a longer period of time. Our business has been very dependent on teachers who spend their own money here.”
Margie is often surprised at how far they will travel to shop at Brainstorm. “While most of our customers are within a 10- to 20-mile radius, we do see shoppers from as far as 50 miles away. There are teachers who take a field trip here every summer.”
Sometimes it seems like the local schools are working against Margie and Brainstorm. “We email-blast our customers, and we pass out fliers at the schools that allow us to do that,” Margie says. “They balk at supporting a for-profit business, even though teachers are begging me to send them coupons. We tell them to talk to their administrators.”
Remember that parents are teachers, too
During the summer, Margie’s staff of eight part-timers expands to 12. In addition to selling back-to-school supplies to teachers, they also help parents who ask for “things to do with their kids to keep their brains going,” Margie explains.
She’s seen an uptick in sales of individual logic games and brainteasers, compared to fewer sales of puzzles and games that families play together. “Parents are looking for games that kids can think through; that require them to think outside the box,” she notes.
Parents are also buying a lot more science items and more open-ended arts & craft kits that help kids create multiple things instead of just one. “They like kits that do not require them to follow rules or a set of directions that leads them to one end result. More and more, their goal is to encourage kids to use their imagination.”
Attract new shoppers with new categories
Remember the older residents we mentioned earlier – the ones who love Brainstorm, but can’t use the products it carries?
“We want to keep those loyal customers coming in, even after they’ve retired from teaching or their kids have grown up, so I decided to add something to the product mix that they could purchase. It has evolved and really taken off,” Margie reports.
The secret ingredient? Gifts. Popular items include coffee mugs embellished with funny sayings, journals, and inspirational signs that people display in their homes or offices. “Our teachers love it because the gifts they get from students are so much better,” Margie laughs. “When I was teaching, I received so many ornaments at Christmas, but we offer a wide variety of things to choose from.”
The gift store-within-a-store occupies about 1,500 square feet and continues to grow. To go along with it, Brainstorm offers free gift-wrapping and other customer-service “musts.” “I train the staff on how to play all the games, and how to use the other products we carry.”
To find new items to bring in, Margie attends ECRM and ASTRA Marketplace, as well as miscellaneous trade shows in the Chicagoland area. “For me, the point of going is to find new vendors,” she explains. “By the time I go, I already have some of my orders in, particularly the ones with bigger companies. I have to make sure that the expense of attending is worth the new products I’ll find to bring back here and sell.
“After the economy tanked, I had to think twice about attending trade shows,” she adds. “I have become more dependent on my customers’ product suggestions, my own research, and my reps’ ideas.”
Lure them in with clever marketing and in-store events
“We want our store to be a community hub,” Margie states. “That was our goal when we opened and it remains our goal today. Giving back to the community is the best part of my job. I do it not only with the educational products I carry, but also with the classes here, with our weekly story time, and even the jobs that I provide to local people.”
Summer-school classes and engineering classes for kids take place in Brainstorm’s classroom, along with game nights and other activities that bring people into the store. One workshop, called “Twitter for Teachers,” was particularly well-attended.
Word of mouth has proven to be effective for Brainstorm, so Margie and her staff encourage teachers to talk about the store on social media. “We offer shoppers a 5-percent discount if they check in on Facebook when they’re in the store. It shows up on their newsfeeds and their friends comment. It’s been a huge help to us.”
Now that her youngest child is off to college, Margie can devote more time and energy to Brainstorm. Efforts are underway to create am ecommerce site, “but I push back on that a little,” she admits. “I know we can’t compete with Amazon and other internet stores. We have overhead. If I offered free shipping and lower prices like they do, it would be like paying shoppers to buy from us.
“We don’t expect that a shopping cart will make us into a huge retail organization, but we will use it to show potential customers what we carry, and put more of it to see on our website. We also want to show more of what we do for our community.
“When I see stores close, it’s just sad,” Margie continued. “People seem to be sacrificing the excitement of ‘going shopping’ for waiting; waiting for their order to arrive. I hope more people will say, ‘I like to shop, see the product right in front of me, and then take it home.’”
She’s excited about the future. “I want to focus on making Brainstorm an environment that shoppers gravitate toward – an experience. I believe that offering customers a memorable shopping experience every time will be the edge mom-and-pop stores need to compete.