by Michael Nocella
Thirty years ago in Raleigh, North Carolina, Diane Weisbrodt was having a hard time finding educational toys for her kids. No store in the city sold the kinds of products the teacher-by-training was looking for, so she and her husband Rich opened their own. Over the years, the “Teach Me” Store for teachers and parents seems to have adapted to every curveball thrown its way. It has outlasted its closest competitors, survived a pandemic, and is ready today to face the new normal. When Rich decided to step back from his role in the business, their son Chad stepped up. He’s been managing the store since the early 2000s. We talked to him recently about “Teach Me’s” longevity and what the Weisbrodts do every day to make it successful.
They know what their customers need and want
“Customers are always first,” explained Chad. “We make time for everyone who walks through our door. Whether they are looking for classroom supplies, need help with a particular subject, or are selecting a birthday gift, we listen to their needs to help find the item or solution that works best for them.
“We base our extensive product selection on what we hear from our customers,” he continues. “Because our essential focus is on educational content, they know what we offer has value – not the hottest fad or the kind of toys sold in bog box stores.”
As for the kinds of people who shop at The “Teach Me” Store, it’s easier to list the kinds who don’t. The store serves parents, grandparents, teachers, tutors, homeschoolers, and children. “They choose to buy from us for a variety of reasons, but I’d like to think it’s a tie between how they are treated when they’re here and our understanding of what we carry,” says Chad.
Out of the store’s six employees, four work part-time. Their years of service at “Teach Me” range from two to more than 25, off and on. “We only hire personnel who have had prior experience as a teacher, or who are currently teaching,” he explains. “Their understanding of students’ needs is a great asset when it comes to making product recommendations. We strive to build long-term relationships with our employees so that customers can count on them whenever they visit.”
Their product mix is extensive
“First and foremost, we make sure that every item sold in our store serves a purpose,” Chad says, explaining that each product must be educational in nature, and must add value to either a child’s day or a teacher’s classroom. “That being said, we offer a huge selection of teacher supplies and resources, materials to reinforce/facilitate learning at home, plus educational gifts, toys, games, and more. We sell classroom decor, workbooks, learning games and manipulatives, science kits, puzzles, globes, arts & craft supplies, preschool toys, a ton of children’s books, both fiction and nonfiction, and a whole lot more.”
Fidgets and children’s books sell very well throughout the year, but classroom decorations are the solid number-one during July and August. In 2021, the store had its best back-to-school season ever, reports Chad. The hottest sellers were classroom decorations. “2021 was so crazy. By the time back-to-school season came around, teachers were ready to put virtual behind them and start fresh in their classrooms with a brand new look.”
“We could have had an even greater amount in sales if there not been so many product shortages and order delays,” he continues. “We would have stocked up early if we knew it would be so strong. But there was too much uncertainty leading into the ’21/’22 school year due to COVID and the ever-changing policies of our local school system.”
2022 already feels like things are returning to normal, Chad says. “We are expecting more requests for educational items for the home, and decor and resources for classrooms.”
In the 1990s, Christmas was also a big selling season for “Teach Me.” “It’s no surprise that nowadays, competition from the internet and big box stores have slightly diminished our sales during the holidays,” says Chad. “On the flip side, our back-to-school season has increased each year. More and more families are moving into the Raleigh area, which has translated into more schools and more teachers.”
Their store is large, but easy and fun to navigate
Customers who walk through The “Teach Me” Store doors will find a lot of store. The 12,800-square-foot space – located about 7 miles north of downtown Raleigh – is very visible and easily accessible from several major roads.
The store wasn’t always huge. Diane and Rich started with 2,800 square feet in a local shopping center. A year later, they expanded next door to add 2,000 square feet. Looking to expand again in 2008, they moved to their current location.
“It was a risk to nearly triple in size,” Chad recalls, “but we were able to bring in tons of new products that we didn’t have the capacity for before. At least 11,000 square feet are dedicated to retail space. It’s open and colorful to invite exploration, and it’s easy for customers to navigate – we’ve color coded the sections of our store based on product type and/or a child’s age.”
That’s where the fun begins. For instance, the area with orange walls is dedicated to preschool products and puzzles. The green area is dedicated to science and nature-related items. Yellow is grade-school workbooks, manipulatives, and classroom decorations, and the blue area features children’s fiction, felt sets, plush, puppets, and musical toys. There’s also a section with fidgets, history and geography items, arts & crafts, Christian material, and teacher/classroom supplies.
Within each section, every row or aisle is organized by product type or theme (games, rocks & minerals, community helpers, poetry, etc).
“Our aisles are spacious and open, and products are easily accessible and well displayed,” explains Chad. “Our counter is located in the front center, so that customers can stop there and ask for help during their visit, and have their purchases gift-wrapped with no additional charge.” Also fun is the store’s ceiling, an open tile-grid affair in which dozens of interesting items have been hidden for visiting children to discover.
Their website is appealing, technically and emotionally
You can have the most creative brick-and-mortar in the world, but you can’t make it in 2022 without also having a strong website presence. The “Teach Me” Store is no exception. Thanks to Chad, who designs and manages the store’s website, teachmestore.com is as helpful to shoppers as the store itself.
“For a while we relied on third-party designers and then Creative Catalog Concept’s web-store platform, but the results either did not adequately reflect our in-store experience and/or had technical issues,” he explains. “Eventually, I decided to give it a go myself, and designed our current site using WIX.”
The first iteration did not have a shopping cart option – its goal was to provide a clean, bright, and colorful depiction of the physical store. “We saw it more as a necessary advertising opportunity that would, hopefully, entice local customers into our store, rather than keeping them watching a screen as they browsed our many items.”
When Chad eventually added an e-commerce component, it ran well for a year or two. Then they noticed a steep decline in business from certain school systems. “The website worked, technically, but there was never any joy in running it. It completely lacked the human side of helping customers.”
Luckily, Diane and Chad figured out the perfect recipe for their website menu just before the world – and their industry – changed. In 2019, they reached out to Catalog Solutions, and launched a new sales/catalog component.
“We had no idea that only a couple of months later, we would find ourselves relying so much on our website to reach customers and bring in sales. The paired approach – using WIX to create a personal and welcoming site, combined with the full spectrum of sales-based tools from Catalog Solutions – has worked quite well for us. Right now we’re comfortable knowing we can update our website as we choose or as needs dictate.”
They stick to what they know
Going forward, Diane and Chad will continue to lean on the retail skills, product knowledge, and customer service principles that have served them well thus far. Chad acknowledges that it remains a crazy time for the classroom supply industry, which leads to uncertainty.
“I have traveled the state a bit in the last year and have found that while certain independent businesses are thriving, others have shut their doors for good,” notes Chad. “I believe each independent retailer needs to keep a thumb on the pulse of their community/market, and work hard to actively engage with their customer on a regular basis (in-store and via social media). Yes, the internet continues to cut into small-business sales, but people still love the experience of visiting a good, local store. We’re just gonna keep focusing on our customers, and provide them with the best product selection and level of customer care that we can.”