When a program on Ancient Mesoamerica was held in the vast conference room, it featured a Mayan pyramid and banners representing the Mexican sun.
While studying education at De Paul University in Chicago, Greg Laufer designed Team Quest: The Ultimate Academic Challenge – an academic competition for gifted and talented (GT) students that incorporates teamwork, creativity, imagination and engineering. The program was so well-received that Greg never finished his student teaching. Instead, he combined academic challenges with education consulting and established the firm Adventures in Learning in 1994.
In 2005, Greg moved his company from Chicago to El Paso, Texas. He offered workshops for students, teacher training, academic competitions and instructional materials. As his work in the educational community expanded, he recognized the opportunity to sell to local school districts on contract. But, he needed a storefront.
“In Texas, to do business with a public entity like a school, you need to have a store and work with a purchasing department to submit contracts,” Greg explains. “We found our niche with instructional materials, books, games, puzzles, arts and crafts. We were already set up as a vendor with most companies, so we figured, why not?”
A firm foundation
Greg didn’t just find a storefront. Adventures in Learning (AIL) occupies a double suite with 2,000 square feet of retail space and a 2,500-square-foot consulting room, large enough to comfortably fit 80 students or teachers. Plus, it’s one of the only buildings in the city with a basement. That additional 5,000 square feet of space is where staff puts together curriculum kits that the store bundles for teachers, and is also used as a warehouse.
It’s located in a strip mall on an access road off the El Paso freeway, an area that has seen recent retail development. The mall features five other businesses including a jewelry store, an insurance company and a print shop. Across the freeway is a high-end mall, unlike anything else in the area, with boutiques and big-box stores like
Barnes & Noble and Best Buy.
“I was looking for something cheap, and we moved in because it was affordable for the space,” Greg says. “That allowed us to invest in the interior. I wanted to ‘wow’ our customers.”
He looked at other stores in the area and worked with the building’s landlord to create a unique retail space. “I put down hardwood-floor-looking laminate throughout the building,” Greg explains. “I didn’t use fixtures used in other stores. I wanted consistency throughout, so we bought everything from Ikea. It sets us apart from other retailers.”
He made the long drive to Ikea stores in Phoenix and Dallas, nine hours away, for everything from tables to bookshelves. Four-foot-tall cubby bookshelves, with six or eight bins, are placed throughout the store. “We put smaller items in the cubbies and taller items on top,” Greg explains. “Everything is low enough so customers don’t have to strain to see. It’s all at their fingertips. People love the look, it’s cool and different.”
Support for schools and teachers
El Paso is just two miles from the Mexican border. The community is 80 percent Hispanic, and Greg estimates that half the local students speak Spanish. His store caters to that demographic in a way big-box stores can’t. Even so, the local school district spends $150,000 to $200,000 per month at Office Depot. Greg admits he can’t compete on price.
“So we focus on selling things they don’t,” he says. “For instance, Barnes & Noble won’t go out and find a specific Spanish-language book from a small publisher. We will, and that keeps schools coming back to us.”
Adventures in Learning is the only store of its kind in the area. Some smaller stores, selling primarily classroom décor, have recently downsized or closed, and Greg understands the pressure. “Sometimes we buy at retail and have to mark it up,” he admits, “but customers understand. They know they can’t get these items anywhere else.”
Adventures in Learning serves nine school districts, with 80,000 students in the largest one, and works closely with GT students in grades 3 through 8. While its core customer base is teachers in GT education, Greg also reaches out to other parents and teachers in the community, and offers products and half-day programs for kindergarten through second grade.
Still, 85 percent of the store’s business is done with schools. Therefore, the AIL website is compatible with school districts’ methods for online procurement. Quotes can be submitted directly into the system and schools can build orders. Purchase orders (30-day net) are accepted, and teachers often bring open POs into the store, which receive a 10-15 percent discount under contract.
A store for all seasons
“The education market’s been tough recently,” Greg admits. “Sales are great July through September, but if you only sell back-to-school inventory year-round, it’s a struggle. We keep things fresh to avoid the trap.”
Every quarter, Adventures in Learning opens a “new” store, he says. “We’re set up like a teacher’s store,” Greg explains, “but through the year, we rotate in and emphasize new products based on the season. January through March is toys that teach, April through June is STEM-related and can translate into July through September back-to-school, when we have everything to stock the classroom. As the holidays approach, the focus is on educational toys and games for parents to buy as gifts.”
At the end of each season, all remaining merchandise is discounted 50 percent and the store is cleared out entirely. It shuts down to “rebuild” and have a “grand opening” to introduce and celebrate the new season.
“We keep cubbies filled year-round with teacher basics like banners and posters, but we really try to keep the store fresh, unique and different from a ‘traditional’ teacher’s store,” Greg says.
In 2010, Greg was recognized as the region’s “Advocate of the Gifted” by the educational community, and the heart of his business remains teaching. Other states have expressed interest in Team Quest and he plans to build on the academic challenges. Adventures in Learning also offers a summer camp for scholars and works with schools to develop hands-on field trips for an immersion-like education experience.
With a staff of four employees in sales and curriculum development, Greg is developing a full robotics curriculum and competition to accompany step-by-step teacher guides and products sold in the store. “We had STEM-related materials before STEM was a thing,” Greg says. “I’d rather sell a kit with a book and all supplemental materials, than leave teachers discouraged and bewildered with just one piece of information. We anticipate what teachers need and bundle everything together.”
Greg and his team attend trade shows like Toy Fair and the Dallas Home & Gift Show, but it was a recent trip to EDexpo – their first – that made the most impact. “We expected to be bored at EDexpo and see the same things, but instead, we got so many ideas and a whole different perspective,” Greg explains. “It pushed us into the office supply market.”
In 2012, Adventures in Learning expanded to include AIL Office Supplies, a source for business needs including office furniture, breakroom supplies, janitorial services and business technology products.
“It takes a team to make everything work,” Greg says. “Each person brings different professional skills and personal interests to the job. We work well together and that’s contributed to our sustained success.”
by Jenn Bergin