by Victoria Ritter
When David Sharp and his wife Martha founded Sharp School Services in Hobart, IN in 1989, they knew they were taking a chance. Nearly 35 years ago, their work has paid off as they have become a trusted resource for educational supplies and furniture.
The Sharps were contemplating a career change when long-time family friend Jake Stephic mentioned he was putting his business, Stephic School Services, up for sale. The school supply store had been in business since 1976 and Stephic was looking forward to retirement.
While Martha was a first grade teacher, Sharp had limited business experience; he was working at a chemical company and had a biology degree when Stephic presented the opportunity. However, the couple was confident they could succeed, as they had a good customer base for furniture sales, a thriving retail store, mentoring from Stephic and an experienced workforce.
Sharp credits his entrepreneurial spirit to his exposure to his father’s veterinary practice. “I realized later that it wasn’t the science that I enjoyed about working in his practice,” he recalled. “It was the customer interaction and the small business atmosphere.”
Today, business is going great, according to Sharp. In addition to schools and educational institutions, Sharp School Services caters to hospitals, restaurants, retirement communities and more. It attends several educational shows including EDspaces, We Connect, ACD Games Day and Chicago Toy & Game Fair.
“Our retail store continues to provide an outstanding value for our surrounding community,” Sharp said. “Our school furniture and equipment efforts have continued to grow throughout the state of Indiana.”
Building on the past
Prior to being a school supply store, the 4,000-square-foot building used to be a corner grocery store. The Sharps have made use of the retail space in addition to a 2,500-square-foot house at the back which serves as storage, offices and a warehouse.
“It’s not huge, but we use every square inch and try to be efficient with our use of the space,” Sharp said. “We’ve always had the brick-and-mortar store. It makes us a complete, full-line company for our school customers.”
When Sharp School Services began operating, it was staffed by five people. Today, it employs 21 full-time and part-time staff members.
The workforce increases by about 15 part-time employees in the summer. In the warmer months, Sharp hires high school and college students to help deliver items to schools and install furniture. “We’re fortunate that some of these young men and women can start with us in high school and keep coming back every summer through college,” Sharp said. “It’s a fun time of year. They’re a fun group.”
A mixture of products
There are more than 6,500 SKUs in the store, encompassing “everything a teacher would need to run a K-8 classroom,” said Sharp. He went on to describe the inventory as “educational eclectic,” with products including office supplies, puzzles, puppets and games. Brands include Eureka, Creative Teaching Press, Teacher Created Resources and Scholastic, among others.
“We focus on quality products that will generate the most education impact on students,” Sharp said. “We’re looking to fill any niche we can that fits within our general overriding principle of providing the best educational products to as many people as possible.”
The popularity of certain products fluctuates with certain periods. During the back-to-school season, the vast majority of in-store sales are decorative items for classrooms. The holidays herald an increased interest in gifts such as puzzles, games and active play products.
Vendors, sales reps, educators, customers and kids of employees keep Sharp and his team abreast of what is trending. In his 34 years of running the business, Sharp has seen several trends come and go. A current focus is on collaborative and flexible classrooms, in addition to ergonomics and choice seating, according to Sharp.
“We started with duplicator books and are now moving everything to a digital format!” he exclaimed. “A warm, inviting classroom decorated with a theme – but not too distracting to students – will remain the strongest trend. Our customers do a terrific job combining multiple products in our store to achieve this result.”
However, the majority of Sharp School Services’ revenue comes from furniture sales. The business provides student desks and chairs, teacher and office furniture, cafeteria tables, media centers, markerboards and tackboards. It features brands such as Jonti-Craft, VS America, AmTab and Fomcore. “We have also begun to provide some furniture for home offices, home schooling and pre-schools through our retail store,” Sharp said.
Sharp School Services provides furniture to the whole state of Indiana with a team of six representatives and an installation crew. Meanwhile, its school supplies are distributed primarily around the northwest corner of the state.
Catering to customers
Customers of different demographics rely on Sharp School Services, including parents, grandparents and home schoolers. Teachers constitute the largest group that does business with the store. “Just like our product mix, our customer base is a bit eclectic,” Sharp said.
“We also learned this is a great industry in which to be involved,” he added. “Customers are knowledgeable, professional and most often optimistic happy people.”
While in-store traffic outpaces the business’s online traffic, office supply sales are driven almost completely by sales flyer orders, Sharp reported. The Sharps began the sales flyer program several years ago when they realized how much work school secretaries put into coordinating supplies for teachers.
Through sales flyers, the Sharps provide an eight-page list of commonly-needed items at discounted prices. Outside reps distribute the list to schools, which send it back with the orders, detailing to which teachers or grades the supplies go. The items are then shipped to the schools, with everything pre-packaged according to the specific classrooms outlined on the form. “The real selling point on it is service,” Sharp said. About 30 to 40 schools participate in the program.
The store participates in area festivals, teacher orientations and school-based occasions via a sales booth. A popular event is Game Night, which the Sharps coordinate with a school or PTO. The Sharp School Services team will set up six to eight sample games in the school cafeteria or media center and teach volunteers how to play. In turn, the volunteers will teach the game to teachers and families; the store will also sell the games. Game Nights act as a fundraiser, as 20 percent of the proceeds go back to the school or educational organization.
“Games are a great learning tool; they have a great value for teaching skills,” Sharp said. “Our goal is to get games into homes and have families interact with each other. It gives something for parents and children to do together that’s both fun and educational.”
At the end of the day, Sharp is all about providing a resource for teachers and parents to make learning fun. “We feel that we are a great resource in the community. Parents and grandparents should always think of their local educational store when looking for birthday gifts and things to get their children. There are so many good tools in our industry that help students learn without them even knowing it.”