Meet teacher store owner Dorothy Schwartzer, one of a new breed of independent merchants who are finding creative ways to start and sustain their specialty retail businesses. Dorothy taught second grade and kindergarten for 10 years before opening Tidewater Teacher Supply in Virginia Beach in 2014. Since then, the business has operated as an online ordering/local delivery service for teachers and parents. This year, it “graduated” from above the Schwartzer family’s garage to a 10-by-10-foot booth in a new retail concept space called Painted Tree Boutiques. Here’s Dorothy’s story.
Why did you start Tidewater Teacher Supply?
When I had children of my own, I felt torn between the hours needed for my job and being present for my own kids. With the support of my family and friends, I started the business and was able to work from home. Today, my son is 13 and my daughter is 10. They’ve been watching and helping me with the business since they were little and have great ideas for businesses of their own.
When I was teaching, I would look for the best price for supplies for my students, which sometimes took me to Walmart and The Dollar Tree. I also shopped the teacher/parent store here in our city, but it went out of business right before I started Tidewater Teacher Supply. Teachers and parents were left without a local resource and I thought I could fill the void. There was never enough time in one day to accomplish all the tasks associated with being a teacher, so I designed my business to be both a time- and money-saver for teachers throughout the year.
“We are the teacher supply store that comes to you,” is Tidewater Teacher Supply’s motto. It began online, where people would shop products and place orders. For customers within a 30-mile radius, I deliver orders within 24 hours.
Surprisingly today, I get a significant number of orders from the West Coast. I pack them up, usually within 24 hours, and ship them through USPS.
Didn’t you also do pop-ups?
Yes. A few years after the business opened, I started “popping up” at community events during the summer when teachers shop for new classroom supplies. Then I reached out to local schools and offered to do pop-ups during teacher workdays before the start of the school year. In return, I donated a portion of my profits to the P.T.A. or brought the teachers breakfast during the school year.
Where was the store’s home base?
I was working out of a room above my garage. That’s where I keep all my inventory. My husband remodeled it to add shelving and a workspace so I wouldn’t have to rent a warehouse.
When did you set up in Painted Tree Boutiques?
Just a few months ago in May, in an 8 by 10-foot booth. It will be open all year long, seven days a week. Having that space provides great exposure for the online store, too, but the in-person side of the business has become the bigger generator of sales.
What products do you carry?
The online store sells basic teacher supplies: bulletin board paper, border, cut-outs, posters, bulletin board sets, etc. I also offer a color printing, cutting and lamination service.
At Painted Tree, I sell classroom supplies plus teacher gifts, fidget toys, games and STEM kits. I also sell trendy teacher t-shirts I source from wholesale company Faire.
I have so much fun selecting what I think teachers will like!
What was your best seller during back-to-school?
It was border, especially the Schoolgirl Style Industrial Chic Shiplap from Carson Dellosa Education. The black and white color combo in borders was a big trend this fall.
We keep a great selection of border in stock all year. Same for cut-outs.
I follow social media geared towards educators so I can stay current with trends and topics of interest to teachers. Teaching continues to evolve in terms of technology, trends, and strategies.
About how many SKUs do you carry?
There are about 225 different SKUs in my inventory. Managing them all was difficult at first until my husband, who has a degree in business administration, stepped in to help. Today, we track online sales through the WooCommerce website, and Painted Tree has a computerized system that keeps track of inventory and the sales I make there. I combine the monthly inventory sales data and track it on a spreadsheet.
What are your busiest times of the year?
The summer months for sure. Holiday time never was, but now that I have the booth at Painted Tree, I can promote fun and educational gift ideas to parents. I also promote gifts and cards for teachers because they need all the support, encouragement, and thanks they can get.
Where would you like to see Tidewater Teacher Supply in the future?
I am always dreaming of different possible ways to support teachers searching for great products for their classrooms. I would like my business to join more Painted Tree locations, especially in communities where there are no local teacher-supply stores.
A Mart for Mini Stores Takes Root
Painted Tree Boutiques is a chain of marketplaces with shared spaces for small independent stores that sell gifts, home decor, and boutique clothing. In seven years, the Little Rock-based company has grown to 27 locations, mostly in the West and South. New ones continue to open across the country as the company works toward its goal of 200 locations.
Painted Tree has helped thousands of people live out their entrepreneurial dreams. Rates to rent booths like Dorothy’s range from a couple of hundred dollars to $1,000 – far less than a retailer would have to pay for a standalone store. The company also handles all the purchases, including sales tax collection, so individual vendors don’t have to. It does not set prices, nor dictate what merchandise is being sold, but it takes a 10-percent cut of all sales.
Dorothy’s Painted Tree in Virginia Beach opened this year in a shopping center’s vacant Stein Mart. Each local vendor – there are more than 200 of them – has a booth with unique products, reports The Virginian-Pilot, and in no way does it resemble a flea market. “The beautifully lit space presents like a stylish showroom.”