School House in Green Bay is Wisconsin’s largest educational retailer, and recently it celebrated its 40th year in business. “Back in 1975, if you could even find products for your classroom, they were only available from a mail-order catalog,” explains Tom Sieber, whose parents, John and Sally, founded the business. “They wanted to offer local teachers the opportunity to see things before they bought them, and that philosophy remains central to our business model. It’s gotten us where we are today.”
Tom began working at School House when he was in high school. “I started out cleaning the toilets, loading and unloading trucks and organizing stock,” he says. “I learned from my parents along the way and worked my way up. They helped me and showed me the ropes.”
Since he took over the business three years ago, Tom has dealt with the challenges of declining school budgets and teacher morale, but School House is rebounding. He was optimistic during back-to-school. “Teachers seem to be getting back into the swing of things,” he told us. “There’s excitement again about going back into the classroom.”
Under Tom’s direction, School House increased its online presence and number of in-store events. “People are talking about the store. We’re more relevant in the community,” he says. Shoppers use the store’s website, EducationMakestheDifference.com, to get an idea about products before they travel to the store. “Our customers check out our merchandise online and then come in to buy it,” notes Tom.
The “Bees-y” Season
School House started preparing for its number-one selling season in February. By the end of June, Tom and his staff were putting the final decorating touches on the store. Each year, they choose a different theme for back-to-school. This year, bees are creating the buzz. Bulletin boards are decorated in bright yellow construction paper, and to welcome customers into the store, a sign reads: “The best place to BEE!”
“We match our back-to-school mailers and promotional materials with the theme of the store décor,” Tom says. “Everything is cohesive – it helps celebrate the season and really make it an event.”
Staff decorated the store’s seven large front windows with a variety of bulletin board sets they think will be popular this season, and offer teachers ideas for classroom décor. In addition to promos and in-store coupons, the store also offers goodie bags filled with freebies like notebooks, lanyards and calendars.
The 10,000-square-foot selling space is organized into teacher supplies, office/art supplies and educational toys. “Products on the teacher side are presented in long aisles for a classic, large-department-store look,” Tom explains. “We use vendor-supplied shelving like bulletin, notepad and cheap-chart racks. The toy side is arranged in a U-shape with shelving and unique displays. We try to create a small-toy-shop feel with play areas.”
Office and art supplies are located in the center of the sales floor.
School House has carried educational toys from manufacturers like Playmobil and Educational Insights since the 1980s. Today, the store’s learning toys are targeted to children 12 and under, and hands-on is the norm. “We’re always happy to open products for our customers, so they’re confident it’s the perfect gift or learning tool for their child or classroom,” Tom says.
Sales are split 50-50 between teacher supplies and learning toys. The mix guarantees that School House isn’t left out in the cold during the winter months – it also has a busy holiday season.
Regardless of the time of year, there’s always something happening in the store, Tom says.
Tom and his staff work hard to build relationships year-round, and events play an important role in that process. Examples include School House’s Teacher Swap “garage sale” at the end of the school year, where teachers can sell or trade supplies cleaned out from their classrooms. Another event, Teacher Appreciation Day, offers customers mini-massages, flowers, candy and other services donated by area vendors.
“Teachers may not buy anything from us during those events, but it gets them in the store and earns us goodwill,” Tom explains. “When it’s time to get back into the classroom, they remember us and make the choice to shop here.
“We use any excuse to have an event,” he adds. With the exception of July, August and December, School House hosts at least one “big” in-store experience each month, and offers free weekly activities including Story Time each Wednesday and Fun Time each Thursday, when preschoolers do a make-and-take craft activity.
“Events are top-of-mind advertising,” Tom says. “We prefer them over traditional marketing – we would rather let our customers do our advertising for us. Parents take a picture of their child doing an in-store activity and post it on social media, and that creates a buzz.”
The store has a staff of 14 employees, four of whom are full-time. Most are parents, teachers or both. “We take pride in having a helpful, educated staff,” Tom says. It comes in handy, especially when business doubles during the busy seasons. “Our employees are experts on our product mix. It takes time to learn, so we don’t hire seasonal help. Instead, our experienced and knowledgeable long-term employees work more hours in the busy seasons so that we can consistently offer customers the best service possible.”
For Tom, it’s more about the people than the products. “My passion is working with our employees and sales reps who have become like family, and meeting new customers who become friends.”
Quite a colony
In addition to having one of the largest sales floors in the entire Midwest, School House has an additional 4,000 square feet of space that is used for a warehouse, offices and restrooms. “The large sales floor allows us the opportunity to stock more products than an average teacher store,” Tom says. “We have room to display both best-sellers and new products, so customers can try before they buy.”
To keep track of merchandise, the store uses a POS system. Staff also circulates through the warehouse monthly – or on a weekly basis in July and August – eyeballing the shelves to make sure they’re stocked.
Its two buyers also merchandise the products – before they make a purchase, they have an idea of where it will fit into the store and how it will be displayed. “Our buyers know how products look and where they should go,” Tom says. “We look through the ads in Educational Dealer and parenting magazines, and our buyers do trend research and read online blogs. We look for ideas beyond the traditional.”
School House is located in a major retail area of Green Bay, across from the Bay Park Square mall where specialty shops and restaurants do business alongside chain department stores like Kohl’s. Historic Lambeau Field, home to the Packers, is just a few blocks away. Residential neighborhoods are located within the 5- to 10-mile surrounding area.
“This is a working-class community,” Tom says. “It’s an industrial city that started with paper mills and meatpacking plants, and some remain. Manufacturers and companies like Schneider Transportation, one of the country’s largest truckload carriers, are headquartered in Green Bay.”
With School Specialty and its house-brand furniture division just an hour away in Greenville, School House does not sell office or classroom furniture. “Online and big-box stores are our biggest competition,” Tom explains. “If we don’t have a certain product in stock, the customer will find it online and we lose the sale.
“We survive in our own little world because customers prefer to come in and look at our products,” he adds. “No one else is doing what we’re doing.”
by Jenn Bergin