Making the Grade

by Jenn Bergin

As an independent sales rep in the education market, 20-year industry veteran Kay Cameron has seen it all.“I visit a lot of really special people and stores,” she said in an email to Educational Dealer last year, “but there’s one that stands out.” She said our readers needed to hear about it. 
Well, we were all ears. Kay suggested we talk to Cyndi Markovich, owner of Classroom Plus in Naples, Florida. “Her store is absolutely gorgeous and so inviting,” Kay said. “Just driving by makes you curious, and that’s an understatement! Every time I visit, Cyndi shares ideas and tips for sell-through that I can share with other dealers.” 
Kay’s enthusiasm for Classroom Plus was contagious, so we followed up. Here’s what we discovered.   

The idea for Classroom Plus first came to Florida businessman Jeff Maroon after he noticed his wife, a first-grade teacher, struggled to find materials for her classroom. She lamented the lack of a local teacher store, so Jeff partnered with friend and former coworker Cyndi Markovich to create one. They opened Classroom Plus,
a teacher and children’s educational supply store, in southwest Florida in 2004.

Jeff’s wife offered them advice on what to sell, and they asked their customers – 80 percent of whom were teachers – for input. “After a few months, I had a good feel for what we needed,” Cyndi says.

Conveniently, EDexpo was held in Orlando that year, just three hours away, Cyndi recalls, “We bought quite a few of their booths for ready-made décor, and voila!”

The original, 2,400-square-foot location was in a strip mall, next to a kids’ karate studio. “We quickly realized we had an untapped market for toys and games,” Cyndi says. At the time, the store’s school supply sales were booming. The combination of toys/teacher resources caused Classroom Plus to outgrow its space in less than five years. In 2008, they moved the store into a free-standing 7,200-square-foot building nearby.

“The teachers are who we originally opened the store for,” Cyndi told the Naples Daily News at the time, “but we have definitely increased our business with parents and grandparents.”

Room for more

“Anything I want, I can pretty much find here,” said Sandy Crowley, a second-grade teacher, in the same Daily News article. The larger store allows for better organization, she added, but “even when they had the smaller store, they had a really good inventory of material and resources.

“Access to great materials is so important because if you don’t get kids interested and excited, you’re going to have a miserable year,” said Sandy. “They won’t want to be at school if it’s not fun and creative.”

The store is divided into two sections, one for classroom materials and one for toys. On the classroom side, 80 feet of bulletin board sets in more than 500 styles line the wall. They’re organized by subject or type: banners, related arts, science, social studies, language arts, math, general decorative and classroom management. Books are organized in the same way, and back stock is stored underneath the shelves for a clean appearance and easy restocking.

The bulletin board sets decorate the store and give teachers good ideas, Cyndi says. Teacher friends are invited to create their own for display, and then their creations are mounted on 4- by 8-inch foamcore boards. “We provide the supplies and they receive a $20 gift card for their time.”

They’re good to their teachers. “At the old store, they had to sit on the floor to look through materials,” Cyndi explains. “When we moved into the bigger space, we could give them a place to sit, peruse the books and lay things out. They needed a place to relax.”

The “teacher’s lounge” at Classroom Plus features a large conference table where customers can sit and punch out products they want laminated (the store offers laminating services for $1 per foot). They can also reserve space to hold grade-level team meetings in-store. With built-in mahogany bookshelves and a leather couch, the lounge looks more like a professor’s study than part of a store. “There’s even a TV,” Cyndi says, “for the husbands who really don’t want to shop!”

Learning and playing

There are also designated play and reading areas. Classroom Plus invites local authors to hold story times for students, and Cyndi encourages creative learning in the play area with best sellers like Fun Thinkers Big Book self-checkers, Quiddler and Bananagrams games; and videos like Preschool Prep – Meet the Letters. A jungle-themed puppet theater encourages active imagination.

The fun doesn’t stop there. Classroom Plus has 18 feet of cabinet space for storing demo games like Hot Dots from Educational Insights and Tenzi from Carma Games that are easy to cross sell and popular with both parents and teachers. “Playing games with customers helps us sell them,” Cyndi says. “If they get a feel for how to play and enjoy it, chances are they’ll purchase it. Nobody likes reading directions!”

The store also hosts in-store events like Calico Critter Day with story time, crafts, food and giveaways; and a visit from Swurfer on its U.S. tour, with free rides and product discounts. The Classroom Plus trailer can be seen around town at events like the Stone Crab Festival and in parades. Future plans include monthly scavenger hunts in-store, as well as craft days and game nights. For outreach, Cyndi would like to hire a salesperson to visit schools.

The one and only

Classroom Plus is the only parent-teacher store within 100 miles. Other options in southwest Florida – a warehouse where teachers could purchase products on their class supply lists, and another teacher supply/ toy store – have closed.

“I like to think we’re still here because of the selection we offer and our customer service,” Cyndi says. “We learn all our teachers’ names; like ‘Cheers,’ we have ‘the place where everybody knows your name.’”

In addition to Cyndi, there’s one other employee; maybe two during back-to-school. She admits that with a 7,200-square-foot store, it’s a challenge, but they make it work. “Playing demo videos throughout the store from Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty, Waboba, Speed Stacks and Swurfer is like having an extra salesperson on the floor.

“For the first five years, we were open seven days a week,” she adds. “Eventually, we decided to close on Sundays – even though it was our best day given the shorter hours we were open.”

During the back-to-school season this year, the store will stay open as long as it needs to, and Cyndi will work the extended hours herself. “But I don’t post the hours. If customers call or come in before our normal closing time, we’re happy to stay open late for them. They know and appreciate that, and it seems to work. In the past when I’ve posted extended hours, nobody came in.”

Within her duties, Cyndi makes time to stay involved in the industry. “I love attending tradeshows,” she says. “From seeing new product and deciding what to bring in, to meeting with old friends and making new ones – it’s nice to be able to bounce things off store owners in other areas.”

Marketing, and the online competition dilemma

Two years ago, Classroom Plus joined The Good Toy Group. “They help us secure better terms with vendors and create beautiful catalogs for us four times a year,” Cyndi says. She’s participated in their holiday catalog, which brings in customers during the off-season, and she’s considering the summer edition.

“See It Here, Buy It Here, Keep Us Here!” is a tagline she’s added to the store’s promotional material this year. “It’s still a challenge to tap into school purchase orders – they all seem to buy online from School Specialty,” she explains. To give local schools an online option with her store, Cyndi set up accounts for them that show them their store discount. While she receives a few online orders during her busy season, “My goal is to get more of that business,” she says. “Local schools don’t ask School Specialty for donations for special events and fundraisers, they ask us. My feeling is if we support you, you should support us.”

Each July, Classroom Plus invites the community to its annual anniversary sale for big discounts, grab bags, special buys and food. Other events, like the recent Just Because Day sale, give everyone a boost. It’s easy to notify customers quickly using Constant Contact and Facebook.

“We try to make sure our service – free gift-wrapping and more – keeps customers coming back. We make sure the store is bright and exciting, and our products are fresh and fun. Finding and buying new products, and then showing them off in the store, is my favorite! My enthusiasm is contagious.”

We would have to agree.

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