For more than 28 years, Educators Resource has been the leading wholesale distributor in the school products industry. Teacher stores have come to rely on the Mobile, Alabama-based company for fill-in and backdoor business. “Primarily, they buy from us whatever they need to fill purchase orders from schools and teachers faster, or to keep shelves stocked in between direct orders,” explains Brad Summersell, executive vice president. “Many will consolidate vendors they wouldn’t normally buy from weekly, and purchase smaller quantities more frequently to make sure their shelves aren’t empty.”
Over the years, Educators Resource earned a reputation as an innovator and early adopter, beginning with its giant leap into ecommerce fulfillment in 1997 – just three years after the launch of Amazon.
Today, with more than 18,000 SKUS from 250-plus suppliers, it offers blue-chip e-retail customers the “Endless Aisle” model. “The model enables e-retailers to list a virtually unlimited selection of products at no incremental cost,” Brad added. “Third-party fulfillment partners, such as Educators Resource, control all the inventory, shipment, and logistics for delivering the product to the end consumer. This allows ER’s customers to offer a broader assortment of products to meet the demand of a wide customer base, as well as to reduce inventory risk and cut down on duplicative shipping costs.”
2020 has taken Brad and his brother Jack on an interesting journey that continues to present them with opportunities. Here’s what they’ve been up to.
Ed Dealer: How’s business?
Brad Summersell: We are extremely blessed to have survived the COVID changes and we believe we may even hit our annual budget targets established pre-COVID. Business is steady and starting to get back to somewhat of a normal pattern, albeit I don’t believe we’ve seen the last major disruption to schools being in-person. That said, we feel we’re in a great position because our expertise is drop shipping to teachers, schools, or parents on behalf of the retailer, whether they are brick-and-mortar-based with drop shipping needs or purely focused on B2C or B2B online.
I read that you partnered with a drop-ship automation company this summer. What will that do for your business?
LogicBroker, like several retailer sourcing platforms we work with, allows us to seamlessly help their retailers add products online including content. It allows us to deploy EDI quickly, and begin drop shipping through Educators Resource within a few weeks. In most cases, these ecommerce businesses do not carry inventory and are able to optimize their resources – time and money – towards capturing online sales.
As we’ve all seen over the last 10-plus years, the growth in e-commerce continues to attract interest from retailers that already sell products in adjacent categories: arts and crafts, office and school supplies, paper, toys and games, etc. We hope to connect with viable retailers wanting to sell an extended offering online beyond what they stock today.
Were you operating during the COVID shutdown?
Yes. Fortunately, we were designated an essential business and were given the green light to continue operating at 100 percent. Even after we put in place all the right protocols, we contracted with a third-party expert to double check that we were taking all the necessary precautions to protect our employees and customers. We’ve had very few instances of positive tests among personnel, or contact with suspected positive people, and have had no interruptions due to COVID. We mobilized quickly and put in place the infrastructure to allow our office employees the ability to work from home. For those who preferred working in the office, we put in place strict safety protocols that adhered to CDC guidelines.
The ability to continue our operations helped our customers in ways we hadn’t anticipated. For instance, parents have had to seriously supplement the learning process at home while schools are not operating in-person. Realizing this, stores in our industry looked for ways to attract dollars being spent by those parents on resources and supplies. Since the majority of our business comes from e-commerce retailers drop shipping to end users, our data reflects what parents and teachers are buying. Using that data, we helped our customers identify and shift their promotion/marketing efforts towards the best sellers in the home-learning environments. Using that information going forward, we can assist retailers looking for insights into the trends at the category or item levels.
How was your back-to-school season?
This year it stretched out further into September because schools started later than usual. Our overall back-to-school season in 2020 grew compared to 2019, largely due to the parent demand for remote learning materials that augmented purchasing made by teachers. The challenge was adjusting to the unusual part-time labor needs for that extended season, but since we operate three expandable shifts between 3 a.m. and 10 p.m., we were able to keep up.
How do you think consumers’ increase in online ordering will affect teacher stores and other brick-and-mortar locations that sell things to schools?
You may recall that for five years, we attempted to create an “Ace” or “True Value” concept to connect the brick-and-mortar stores in our industry to build a national presence. The idea was to create a co-brand they could share for national advertising, ecommerce, and marketing purposes. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough buy-in from the retailers, so we sadly had to back away from that investment.
From our perspective, the retailers that remain in business after e-commerce established its presence years ago are the strongest, most business-minded retail operators who understand the market and their customers. By now, all of them should have developed a strategy to service their customers and compete online for new customers.
There will always be a need for teacher stores, but it may not look the same or be on the same scale as ecommerce continues to grow and be the primary way consumers shop. The brick-and-mortar retailers understand that they must have the appropriate size and assortment to support the sales that flow through any location they operate. If they are paying to own or rent a space for consumers to physically walk in and shop, the budget to support that needs to be tracked separately from the revenues that may be coming through school POs or online orders. That way, the retailer truly understands what is needed to support the location(s) and the profitability per square foot. Overall I think these brick and mortar-based retailers have already been through so much change that they are more than ready to adapt to continued impacts from e-commerce.
Besides the pandemic, did other outside forces disrupt your business this year, like the weather or protests?
Hurricane Sally hit our area directly and we lost three days to power outages. By mid-week after the storm, we were caught up. We’re used to this kind of thing, and have the right people on our teams to make sure we can shut down properly in advance to make reopening seamless. In our neck of the woods, that is critical.
Our community has only encountered the peaceful protests, and fortunately has not seen the ugly side that has encroached upon, and in some cases, overwhelmed those voices that should be able to be heard.
How will the cancellation of in-person tradeshows impact manufacturers in our industry?
Although there will be some impact on finding new brands, quite honestly, I really don’t see a huge impact overall. First of all, the timing of the trade events in the last 20 years has not even coincided with new product introductions. Because of that timeline, the retailers have already seen the new products and have met with sales reps about them before the trade event has occurred. That’s why We Connect was held in the fall, which I think was very smart.
The face-to-face time can be replicated with technology, and I have actually seen the productivity of it, thanks to on-line technology, as being more effective than in-person.
That said, there is nothing like breaking bread with customers and suppliers and developing those personal relationships.