by Jenn Bergin
Paola Pearce was a space planner and product specialist for a furniture dealer when she met David, who worked in sales for the same company. “I’m a really good salesman,” he says, “I talked her into marrying me!”
Years later the couple formed another partnership when they opened Contract Office Solutions, a school and office furniture dealership, in 2008. Then the economy took a nosedive. “The market changed and there was more competition for smaller projects,” David explains. “Margins were cut. As a small dealer we felt squeezed by the manufacturers.”
Instead of tossing in the towel, he saw an opportunity to diversify based on his years of experience as a territory manager for School Specialty. “Teachers were asking us if we sold other things like globes or bulletin boards, so as an add-on we decided to sell classroom supplies through a catalog.”
In 2009, David and Paola started School Works as a catalog service, but today, catalog sales are less than 10 percent of the business. In 2013 they opened a 2,500 square foot store in Pensacola, Florida.
“Having a brick and mortar store gives us a different perspective,” David says. “It has given us a higher profile and more exposure within our community.”
It’s located in the westernmost city in the Florida Panhandle, known for some of the world’s whitest beaches. On the Gulf Coast, Pensacola is a relatively conservative and quintessentially southern city.
It’s also somewhat transient, with several military bases nearby including the first stateside United States Naval Air Station and the National Naval Aviation Museum. Paola is a self-proclaimed “military brat” while David is a “country boy” who grew up in nearby Mobile, Alabama, 45 minutes away. Military jobs and small business make the local economy prosperous, but there’s no large industry in the area.
While David and Paola still have their contract furniture business, they devote most of their resources to the School Works retail store. “It’s more marketable, so that’s where we put most of our money,” David explains. “In the store there’s more volume, and we can make a 30 to 50 percent margin versus 10 to 12 percent in contract furniture.
“Owning a classroom furniture dealership is so different from owning a retail store, and the way we get to market has changed,” David adds. “It’s all about adapting. They moved our cheese, so we had to look for another pile.”
Despite the success of their store, the back-to-school shopping season was a disappointment this year, admits Paola, due in part to an earlier-than-usual school start date. Under Florida’s previous school-start-date law, most school districts couldn’t begin classes any earlier than two weeks before Labor Day. This year the law changed, and public schools were allowed to start classes on August 10. Local leaders pushed for the schedule change to give students more class time ahead of state testing in March. Although the state of Florida didn’t adopt Common Core, teachers do have to meet Florida Standards.
While Paola and David strive to remain neutral, the politics surrounding education impact their store in ways they never expected.
“Every year, the district calendar seems to change,” Paola says. “This year, teachers were caught off guard. Many decided to go with the supplies and resources they already had, and just get into the classroom.”
To encourage early shopping, they held their back-to-school sale on Memorial Day. “Monday Madness” was the store’s biggest event – ever. “There were lines outside before we opened, and the line to the register wrapped around the store!” They worked with manufacturers to create four themed raffle baskets – math, language arts, STEM and patriotic (since it’s an election year) – each valued at more than $100. Employees wore tags that suggested “dares” to customers who were waiting in line. By singing a Disney song, speaking in a pirate voice, or putting on a puppet show, the shoppers earned raffle tickets. It also alleviated their irritation about waiting in line.
The event was so successful that they’ll do it every year.
A second wave of back-to-school business is expected this fall, thanks to Florida’s two-year-old Teacher Lead Program. At the start of the school year, the district allocates money for public school teachers to offset the cost of classroom supplies. In Escambia County, for instance, $240 was distributed to each teacher on a prepaid debit card this year.
At School Works, all Lead Program purchases are tax-exempt and 10 percent off – a discount that big box retailers don’t offer. It encourages teachers to use their debit cards in the store.
“We hope to capture about half of that $240 from the teachers in our area, excluding what they spend out of pocket,” David says. “Within two counties there are 4,300 teachers, and two-thirds teach grades K through 8. That money makes a difference.”
Teachers can lounge
Paola and David chose a great location for School Works. They leased space in a strip mall on a main road near the University of Western Florida, at the foot of a bridge crossing into the next county. Teachers often pass through to or from work across town. The mall contains an eclectic mix of businesses that includes a holistic wellness store, a beer-cheese-wine maker, a nail salon, a chiropractic office and a weight loss clinic. None of them directly complement a teacher resource store, and there is no anchor store. “We’re truly a destination location,” Paola says, “and three years after our grand opening, our biggest challenge is still making people aware we’re here.”
They market directly to schools – re-introducing themselves and their store yearly at new teacher orientations – and have a strong social media presence.
“From the beginning, our goal has been to encourage teacher appreciation,” Paola says. They celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week every May, and the store features a “Teachers Lounge” with a coffee bar, snacks, lounge chairs and a cafe table. “It’s a comfortable corner for teachers to peruse resource books or just chat. We also call it the ‘Spouses Lounge’ because non-teachers make a beeline for it, too!”
One side of the store is filled with decorative items like trim and bulletin board sets. The other side is stocked with educational toys, games and core curriculum items, with sections for science, math and language arts. A round table in the center of the store displays popular educational toys like the Code & Go Robot, so kids (and teachers) can experience them hands-on.
“We like to switch things up,” Paola explains. On the decorative side, the fronts of the aisles face the store’s windows, so featured themes are displayed there. New products from manufacturers are merchandised on endcaps. “Right now we’re displaying a Dr. Seuss-themed patriotic mix, with all kinds of odds and ends, from trims and borders to stickers.”
Paola and David purchased the cashwrap and most of the store’s fixtures from a Kmart store that went out of business. Displays on a shelf behind the cashwrap are changed seasonally. For Halloween this year, the shelf displays foam pumpkins “carved” by each employee.
Before opening the store, Paola and David consulted with the folks at Florida’s Small Business Development Center about logistics. They gained invaluable retail and marketing advice from the Educator’s Resource School Place Program.
They didn’t attend EDexpo before they opened, but wish they did. “There’s such great information at the show, which would have alleviated a lot of headaches,” Paola admits. “We’ve gotten so many ideas from networking there – just picking the brains of other store owners and sharing ideas. It’s hard to ever prepare completely, but I think we did pretty well.”
All in the family
The business is a family affair. David and Paola’s three daughters and daughter-in-law work there, and their son helps out with some of the “grunt work.” The store’s four part-time employees are considered members of their extended family. One is a preschool teacher and another is a dance teacher – jobs that Paola has held herself. One is a mom of three, and the other is a college student who works mostly from home to create the store’s newsletter and post on social media. On the store’s Facebook page, she includes fun things customers can find each week, like “Monday Funnies” and “Wisdom Wednesdays.”
Once every few weeks, the team meets to brainstorm ideas for the next quarter, and to plan marketing and promotions. “We want our employees to take ownership in the store and be part of things, not just clock in and out,” Paola says. “We encourage them to come up with ideas, whether in-store events, Facebook contests or décor. Some ideas work and some don’t, but there’s always something to learn from and improve upon.
“It’s also important because everyone has hidden talents to share,” she adds. For example, one employee impressed everyone with her talent for wood cutting, and now leads the store’s popular monthly Paint Night classes.
Paola makes sure to make work fun. She recently held a hashtag contest where employees came up with hashtag names for each other. Paola surprised each of the staff with a t-shirt inscribed with their new hash/name tag. The staff Harry Potter fanatic is now #HogwartsAlumnus, and the store’s resident Disney princess is #StraightOutOfDisney. Paola, of course, is #TheRealBoss.
“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” she says. “I want everyone that works here to feel that way, too.”
Looking toward the store’s fourth quarter, “our next big jump is to create an environment that really makes sense for parents to shop here,” David says. “That market is our next big expansion – providing solutions for parents helping their kids, and introducing the idea that the toys and games in our store are more than your typical electronics or throw-away stuff from big-box stores. They have quality built in.”
Small Business Saturday will kick off fourth quarter sales, David says. The store doesn’t even try to compete on Black Friday – it’s closed. On Saturday, it offers giveaways and drawings at the register for 5 to 30 percent off purchases.
Throughout the holiday season, School Works hosts Polar Express Days where everyone wears pajamas, enjoys a hot cocoa bar, book reading, and receives free jingle bells. They also offer cookies and pictures with Santa (for free, unlike at the mall). If kids make a Wish List and parents bring it back in (like a coupon) to purchase from it, they receive a discount on the items.
“We’re never going to beat the Amazons and Walmarts – so we don’t try,” David says. “Instead we focus on customer service,” like the store’s easy return policy. “We take anything back, with smile. Customers don’t have to send it off in the mail, or wait two weeks for a refund. We take care of it and they’re done.”
Customers are loyal, he adds. “Teachers and parent educators are an exceptional type of customer – there’s an aspect of integrity. They like to touch and feel products before they buy, unless they’ve used it before.”
Around January, after report cards, School Works sees a surge in the number of parents looking for ways to help their kids develop skills, like multiplication. There’s a huge home school community in the area as well, a market they hope to serve more. “It’s a challenge,” they admit, “because manufacturers mostly sell class packs of 30, when home school teachers just want one. So we focus where we can help – with resource books, flash cards and manipulatives.”
“Our motto is the same as it was on the day we opened: ‘Every day is teacher appreciation day,’” Paola says. “And appreciate your employees. Those two things create success. I try to treat our customers and employees like gold. Without them, I couldn’t – and wouldn’t want to – do what I do here.”
Words of Wisdom
David Pearce gave an EDtalk at EDexpo last spring. Here are some of the tips from his presentation, “Life Lessons,” learned during School Works’ first year in business. We think you’ll find them helpful whether you are an experienced retailer or just starting out.
- Find ways to laugh. There’s plenty of time for tears – and there will be tears – but don’t let the hard times overwhelm you. If you can laugh, the journey will be easier and worth the struggle.
- Cultivate the things that matter. Take time to dance with your spouse. It’s easy to get caught up in the struggle and place blame, and it’s easy to find distractions from your hardships. But those don’t last. What does is the love of family and true friendship.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. You will mess up. You don’t know it all, despite what you told the bank. Be flexible, adjust and listen to the advice of friends, even if you’ve heard it all before. You never know what nuggets you might unearth when digging for gold.
- It (whatever your circumstance is today) happens a lot. Don’t think you’re alone. Your mistake is thinking that no one has ever had to compromise with someone in your position.
- Letting an opportunity pass is not always a bad thing.
- In your first year, you’ll feel pressured to take advantage of everything that comes your way. That’s not always good, because it will force you to over-commit. Let some opportunities slide and you might be surprised that you can survive without them.
- People want you to succeed, even when you don’t think they care. No one else is as invested in this as you, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want you to succeed. It’s your job to keep them informed, so they can support you how they choose. People are in business to make money, not fail. It does not behoove them to invest in your failure.
- Be willing to say “No.” Money is money. Time is time. Both are limited resources, so tell yourself “no” three times before you commit significant amounts of either. If you’re still convinced your commitment is worthwhile the fourth time, then consider it seriously and act reasonably.
- Find God. Belief in your higher power will strengthen you and give you courage.
- Believe in yourself. Have courage in your convictions. Failure is not the worst result, but giving up will never bring you the answers. You will know when it’s time to stop trying – it will be obvious. Until then, do whatever you can and whatever you know, and the results will prove your convictions.