Looking Both Ways

Bob and Sherry Phipps celebrated the 25th anniversary of School Crossing.

School Crossing’s parent-teacher product mix broadens its customer base

 

By Jenn Bergin

 

Last spring, Bob and Sherry Phipps celebrated the 25th anniversary of School Crossing, their 3,000-square-foot parent-teacher store in Virginia. Located in the affluent city of Williamsburg – the historic heart of the American Revolution – the store is close to Colonial Country and America’s second-oldest university, the College of William & Mary. Other tourist attractions like Busch Gardens, plus an abundance of golf courses and southern charm, bring visitors to the area.

“I’ve known some of our customers since they were babies,” Sherry says. “People raise their children here and stay.” Families on vacation often return to the area annually, she adds, and School Crossing is one of their regular stops.

“Parent-teacher stores in many of their hometowns have closed, so they shop here,” she says. “When we started out, there were six stores similar to ours within a 30-minute drive. Now there’s just one, 20 miles away. The next-closest is more than an hour’s drive.”

The secret to School Crossing’s longevity is this: “We’ve learned to be flexible and adjust,” Sherry explains. “As classroom needs changed, we understood the need to broaden our customer base.” Over time, they gradually added hands-on manipulatives and “toys that teach” to their product mix.

“Our store has become a one-stop shop,” she says. “Teachers can purchase items for their classroom and, at the same time, grab a birthday gift or learning game for their own child. Everything’s under one roof.”

 

The challenges of an ever-changing curriculum

After working with schools, teachers and students for more than two decades, Sherry and Bob say that meeting the needs of teachers whose curriculum is always changing is their biggest challenge. “Our store opened in 1990, during a time of whole language and phonetics; a very hands-on approach to teaching,” Sherry explains. Today’s schools are teaching to standards, but in Virginia, a state that did not adopt Common Core, teachers must meet Standards of Learning (SOL). “SOL testing took away their ability to plan,” explains Sherry. “Now, teachers have a syllabus and pacing guide. They have to teach for the test.”

As a result, sales of resource books declined. Major manufacturers geared their products toward Common Core, and School Crossing couldn’t sell them to its teachers in Virginia, who weren’t following the curriculum. “When all the companies came out with new Common Core materials, products that had sold well, like Evan Moor Daily Books, stopped selling here,” Sherry says. “After Common Core verbiage was added to the cover, although content changes were almost unnoticeable, products just sat on the shelves.”

Compounding the problem is that more and more teacher resources including worksheets, lesson plans and classroom décor, are available for free on the Internet.

 

Toys are teaching tools, too

As classrooms continued to evolve, so did the store. With technology taking over, Sherry and Bob noticed that parents were looking for tech-free alternatives to educate and entertain kids at home. They saw a need for high-quality learning toys, and felt the products were a natural fit for their store.

“Learning doesn’t only happen at school, and our product mix reflects that,” Sherry explains. “Not only do we sell classroom decorative and resource materials, but also hands-on tools like toys for classrooms, and classroom items that parents can use at home.” Here’s an example: Schools don’t teach cursive in third grade anymore because it’s a big testing year. Sherry sells cursive teaching tools to parents who want to teach it at home.

You won’t find advertised toys like Barbie dolls or the latest licensed products at School Crossing. “The idea is to take a toy and present it not just as a toy, but as a teaching tool,” Sherry explains. “For example, I pair math workbooks with Genius Cards from Blue Orange Games. Practice then becomes hands-on, versus just a workbook.

“We use our products and play the games we sell,” she adds. “That knowledge differentiates us. Regardless of the learning or developmental issue being addressed, because we know our products, we can find something that meets that need.”

 

Flipping the merchandise ratio

School Crossing has 2,800 square feet of showroom space. The store’s proportion of toys to classroom resources depends on the time of year. “December is our busiest month,” Sherry says. “But in August, back-to-school is like a second Christmas.”

Right now, they’re focused on buying for back-to-school. “By June, the store will be 60 percent educational materials and teacher supplies, and 40 percent toys,” Sherry explains. “After back-to-school, I place an immediate order to fill me in through the end of the year. But then I begin to stock up on educational toys, and the store flips 70/30.”

It requires a lot of rearranging, condensing and moving, she says. “In June, everything teacher related is right up front. But after back-to-school, the focus is on educational toys. It looks almost like a different store!

“We’re always reinventing ourselves,” she adds, “and we ask ourselves what we can do that’s different.” Before they opened School Crossing, Sherry and Bob visited similar stores. They noticed that products were mostly arranged in straight lines – so they set up theirs on a diagonal. Rows of gondolas and custom book racks are organized by category, with hands-on products in the center. The outside perimeter is filled with teacher essentials like resource books and classroom décor.

Sherry also works to put product together for her customers. She displays around 10 themes each season by pulling together everything related she can find in the store. Last year for back-to-school, she organized trendy chalkboard- and superhero-themed displays.

“Regardless of the manufacturer, if it was superhero or chalkboard related I put it with the display. Even if it’s not a traditional classroom item, instead it’s a game or a cape … that gives teachers new ideas. If they come in for one thing, but are drawn to something else in the area, the sale increases.”

When Sherry noticed many of her customers were looking for sensory-related products, she created the store’s Sensory Station. She pulled together a variety of items from different areas of the store that help with sensory development, and make the skills fun to practice. Some of those products include Crazy Aaron’s putties; Tangles for fidgeting; fun whistles for speech therapy; and “magic” chopsticks for motor skill development and coordination. “It’s turned into one of our biggest sections,” Sherry says. “Most importantly, teachers and parents really appreciate that we’ve organized everything together for them.”

 

Many ways to make shopping an experience

Sherry and Bob are hands-on storeowners; they work on the sales floor and develop personal relationships with their customers.

Every August, they hold a weeklong Teacher’s Open House. They work with reps to secure hundreds of $10- to $40-products to give away. Lucky teachers who find a stamp on the back of their receipt get to pick a prize from the ones showcased on a table. Bob finds the exercise very helpful. “The products are often newer things that I hadn’t considered as a buyer,” he says. “It also gives teachers a chance to look at materials under a different light. They notice things they never would have. Often, they become the best spokesperson for that product – not just to other teachers, but to parents.”

The store also runs a Teacher of the Month program in collaboration with WilliamsburgFamilies.com, a website that lists local family happenings and things to do. Winning teachers receive a School Crossing gift card, and their picture appears in the local newspaper and on the store’s Facebook page. Teachers can read the comments from parents, and nominees answer questions about their teaching philosophies.

“It’s a way for us to give back to teachers,” Bob says, “but it also works for self-promotion and marketing.” When the store posts a picture of the Teacher of the Month on Facebook and tags the teacher’s school, that photo can get dozens of “likes”
and “shares.”

Every month that has an extra Saturday, about five times a year, the store has a shopping bag sale – anything that fits in the bag is 25 percent off.

There are 15 public schools, plus several private and Montessori schools, in the Williamsburg area, but School Crossing’s customers come from all over the state. Last year, the principal of a school three hours away sent a school bus full of his teachers to the store. They were served donuts and coffee, received prizes and had free reign of the store before it opened.

Teachers aren’t the only ones having fun. Kids get in on the action, too. The store has partnered with Sylvan Learning Center for workshops on LEGO robotics; created an in-store petting zoo with alpacas and pigs from local farms; and hosted exhibits from the Virginia Living Museum. Teachers help spread the word in their classrooms.

Events and word-of-mouth marketing are the store’s best advertising tool – School Crossing no longer uses direct mail because of the price of postage. Instead, like many stores, Sherry and Bob send e-newsletters – theirs goes to more than 8,000 customers and education professionals. “We don’t use it to promote products or sales,” Sherry says. “Customers want to know what’s in it for them, so our newsletter is more like a blog.”

With the money they save on postage, Sherry and Bob implemented a Six Block Savings program. The store keeps a card for every customer on file – they don’t have to remember to bring in a coupon or punch card – and the pre-tax amount of every purchase is recorded. After six purchases, customers receive 10 percent of that total back as a store gift card.

“If we have a fun event or promotion, it gets people in the store, and they remember it,” Sherry says. “And the next time they need something, they think of us.

“We want to make the store an experience,” she adds. “We take everything into consideration,” including dancing down the (diagonal) aisles, which customers do, when she plays KC and the Sunshine Band on Pandora.

“It’s our motto – discover how fun learning can be!”

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