by Claire Sykes
Macon, a city smack dab in the center of Georgia, is served by three interstate highways: I-16, which connects to Savannah and the coast; I-75 from Atlanta to the north to Valdosta to the south; and little I-475, a 15-mile-long, six-lane bypass that takes travelers around the city on their way to and from Florida. For Ed and Diane Vogel, that short stretch of road has been a lifeline pumping teachers and parents into their store, GA School Supply. “You never know who’s going to walk in the door,” said Ed in a recent interview. He and Diane have owned the 51-year-old store for the past decade, and they’ve served all kinds of people. Here’s their story.
Educational Dealer: Tell us about your location.
Ed: We have a corner lot on one of the main streets in Macon just three-quarters of a mile from Interstate 475. It’s the bypass for drivers from Atlanta, about 100 miles away, and also from farther north for people going to Florida.
Atlanta is a movie-making hub, so we’ve helped prop people select school-ish items – posters, décor, and other classroom staples – to trick out their sets.
Did you ever see a program called “7 Little Johnstons”? It’s a reality show on the TLC network about a family that lives about 20 minutes north of us. When the associate producer wanted to video them shopping for school supplies, they came here. It was for the last episode of the fourth season, which aired last November. The camera crew and director roamed through the store with them. I made it onto national TV by pushing the cart full of purchases to their car!
There are no teacher-supply stores within a 60-mile radius of us. Shoppers sometimes drive here from two to three hours away, and you never know who is going to walk through the door. Church groups come here to purchase supplies before they go on mission trips, and we once served a Secret Service agent for Jimmy Carter. The former U.S. president lives about an hour-and-a-half away in Plains, Georgia. He and his wife are involved with Habitat for Humanity, an organization that helps provide homes to people around the world.
What’s the store like?
It’s a freestanding building in an industrial area. Next door is a tire store; behind us is an overhead-door-installation business. Harley Davidson is a block away and Capitol Cycle, another motorcycle dealer, is across the street.
The building was constructed in 1981 and purchased then by the previous owners. Our showroom and office are about 4,000 square feet and our warehouse is 6,000.
It’s great to have so much storage space. When we bought the business, the warehouse contained 90 shelf units with three to five shelves each. We’ve been able to purchase large quantities of product during supplier specials and free-freight deals, and we have a loading dock for pallet deliveries.
How many employees do you have?
Besides Diane and myself, we have two fulltime and three part-time employees. Three of them are current or former paraprofessional educators. During back-to-school, we add one or two more part-time people.
What kinds of products do you carry?
We carry classroom décor, teacher and parent resource books, arts & crafts supplies, manipulatives for early childhood education, and more. Our biggest categories are rolled paper for bulletin boards, construction paper, and resource books.
Our current number-one bestseller is anything in the Confetti line from Teacher Created Resources.
In terms of furniture, we stock rest mats, cots and some activity tables, and we’ll special order other furniture, equipment and rugs, that can be drop-shipped right to the customer.
Diane really listens to what shoppers ask for, and if we don’t already carry those items, we try to order them. We bring in new lines often as suppliers create new products. We shop their catalogs and see their merchandise at We Connect. Our sales reps have always been helpful.
What led you to buy the business?
I was an accountant/controller and former CPA, but I was only working part-time in 2008-2009 due to the recession. Diane was a third-grade teacher for gifted students.
I had talked with a banker friend about starting a propane company, but he encouraged us to look at the local school-supply store that was on the market. It was a natural fit given Diane’s background in education and mine in finance. Plus, “There will always be teachers,” we told ourselves.
When we took it over in 2009, it was already 41 years old. The stock was limited and its computers and software were outdated. The system crashed three months later! So we got a new one and gradually increased our inventory with everything from arts & craft supplies and language arts books, to STEM products and teacher resources. Our customer base started to grow with the help of loyalty punch cards, coupons and sales.
Diane kept teaching while she worked at the store, then retired in 2013 after more than 40 years in the public-school system. She was a substitute teacher up until last year, to keep abreast of current educational practices. Her knowledge of teachers’ needs remains a real plus. She also can offer ideas to parents looking to help their children learn.
Diane places the orders with four of our top five suppliers and I handle the financial paperwork, among other store tasks.
Together, we make a good team. Our business is stable; 2019 started out very strong for us – so far, walk-in traffic increased five percent over last year. That may be small, but we’ll take it!
Who are your typical customers?
Primary and elementary schoolteachers are here most often. Since teachers need to change the look of their classrooms for the next holiday or season, we can see the same ones five to 15 times a year.
During the school day, our customers are from daycare centers, parks & recreation departments, senior centers and nursing homes. After school, it’s parents and teachers. They tell us they appreciate our convenient location, the selection of products on display, and the individual attention we give them.
About 95 percent of our sales are in-store; the rest is online and from our catalog, handled by Catalog Solutions. We do receive a lot of purchase orders from schools. Every back-to-school season, one particular primary school sends in four to five teachers with a PO. We also receive POs from state and federal institutions.
How has your business changed in the last 10 years?
We’ve added more than 30 4-foot shelves to display more items in our showroom. We’ve also added a reduced price/clearance room, and a room dedicated to religious material.
Today, we consider Amazon a competitor, but only somewhat. Many of our customers won’t order from the internet because they want to see the product in person. Former competitors including Target, Toys “R” Us and Kmart have all closed in our community. We still have Walmart, but many of our customers tell us they don’t like the lack of help there, so they’ll come to us.
Our biggest challenge is making it through the busy-ness of the back-to-school shopping season. During the last week in July we have to open a third register because our lines are so long.
The biggest reward is the ability to be our own boss, and we just love working together! We also enjoy seeing the results of our hard work.