by Victoria Ritter
When Christine Persson started her teaching career 35 years ago in Georgia, she had to make her own learning games and hands-on teaching tools because she couldn’t find any materials readily available. To fill that void, she founded The School Box in Marietta, Georgia in 1990. The shop provides “expertise and unique products to help young minds grow.” Her goal was to help teachers and parents become passionate about instilling a love of learning in children.
Today The School Box includes three retail locations, a catalog and two websites (schoolbox.com and schoolboxkits.com). It has been voted “Best Educational Store” by Marietta’s Cobb Life Magazine for four years running.
Tapping into the Market
The business expanded over the decades. At one point it operated 17 brick-and-mortar storefronts – most located around the metro Atlanta area, one in Tennessee, another in Virginia – and a mobile store that drove to rural schools. Most of those stores closed over the past decade; during the COVID-19 pandemic, four more of its locations closed as its web business saw “a big increase,” according to Persson.
“As the retail landscape has changed and more of our customers are shopping online, we have had to pivot our business and put a good bit of energy into our website,” Persson said. “We have kept our strongest stores and they are showing an increase in sales over last year.”
While many of The School Box’s customers enjoy holding and interacting with products before they make a purchase, the business’ online traffic is growing. Persson has seen online orders come in from customers across the country, from California to New York. She feels “grateful and blessed” to see the benefit of a website and to have the ability to reach a variety of customers.
Trends in educational materials have been “all over the place,” according to Persson, but there are a couple that remain constant. One is the desire among teachers to create thematic classrooms via decorative items. Another popular approach among both teachers and parents is hands-on learning and physical teaching tools, or “manipulatives.”
“They want their kids off the computer,” Persson said.
Through it all, Persson attributes The School Box’s longevity to her team, which she views as its most important asset. “Engaged and happy employees take good care of customers,” she said. “We have an incredible team and we are here because of them. I have a vision and real passion around what we are doing and that has greatly contributed to our success.”
She and her team generate ideas for their inventory by listening to customers, networking with their sales reps and other businesses and attending trade shows including WeConnect, Toy Fair New York and ASTRA Marketplace.
The School Box’s three stores are situated around the Atlanta, Georgia area in Tucker, Morrow and Kennesaw, with about half an hour between them. On average, each store is about 5,000 square feet. Of the 17, they were the best performing in terms of sales and customer count and have been in business for more than 28 years.
“I love the diversity of the communities we reach,” Persson said. “I have learned it doesn’t matter a person’s ethnicity and socio-economic status; we all care about our children’s education and want the best for our kids and students.”
The three locations carry the same mix of products, just in different quantities. “Our Morrow store sells three times the Black History products than our Kennesaw store,” Persson elaborated. “One of our stores sees a lot more preschool directors than another and will sell more early childhood products.”
The School Box carries brands including Carson Dellosa Education, Crayola, Creative Teaching Press, Fat Brain Toys, Joy Carpets, Pacon, Schoolgirl Style, Teacher Created Resources, ThinkFun, Trend Enterprises, Wood Designs, Charles Leonard Inc., and Do-A-Dot Art. Spectrum and Evan-Moor Educational Publishers are its top-selling workbooks. Another popular brand is Better than Paper from Teacher Creative Resources – a write on, wipe off bulletin board material which appeals to teachers, businesses, colleges and schools.
The business carries approximately 7,000 SKUs on a regular basis, increasing to 8,000 during the back-to-school season. In addition, the 40-member staff – encompassing store and warehouse employees – doubles from June to August.
A central warehouse in Marietta, Georgia, supplies each of the stores and fulfills internet orders. A driver makes trips to the three stores and also delivers for free to schools and businesses within a 30-mile radius of the warehouse. In addition to the warehouse, The School Box utilizes Educators Resource to ship items that it doesn’t carry in the warehouse. There are plans to start shipping some online orders from the Tucker store in the near future. “With three locations (School Box Warehouse, Educators Warehouse, Tucker store) shipping our internet orders, we will get our customers their orders much faster,” Persson said.
Fostering Learning Through Play
Kids and adults alike can do more than just shop at The School Box, as they are encouraged to explore through playful learning. Though open play causes messes and the occasional damaged demo, the benefits outweigh the inconveniences. “We want the kids to play and learn and bring that learning to life!” Persson said. “Over time, our staff has seen the benefit of playing with our toys and games and it definitely contributes to a better customer experience and greater sales.”
The School Box hosts special events to foster a fun learning environment. Toy Testing Days provide an opportunity for youngsters to play with favorite products while parents receive discounts. During monthly STEM Saturdays, kids can participate in free STEM activities including making slime and creating paper circuits. “We want our stores to be a learning playground for kids and adults too,” Persson said. “We have Toy Testing events and STEM Saturdays because we want you to have fun while learning. Our goal is to bring learning to life through these exciting events.
“In addition to those events, we like to bring in local authors and have book signing events. The workshops we offer on occasion set us apart as not only an educational store but an educational resource for parents and teachers.”
Reinvesting in the Community
A part of The School Box’s outreach includes its School Box Kits division, where the business partners with schools to provide specialized supply packs based on teachers’ and students’ needs. Items may include writing utensils, notebooks, scissors and rulers, among other items. The kits are then delivered to the school while a percentage of the kit’s price is donated to the school’s PTA.
Persson began School Box Kits five years ago and it continues to grow. “We sell thousands of them each summer,” Persson said.
While the majority of The School Box’s customers are parents and teachers, it caters to preschools, local businesses and assisted living communities which buy decorative items. It also works with nonprofits including the Boys & Girls Club and Big Brothers/Big Sisters and has donated gift cards to educational organizations.
“Investing in our community is a great way to give back to those who have helped support our business,” Persson said. “We have built relationships in our community that have brought business our way.”