The Human Touch

As a new store owner, Cheri McGuire (center) is focused on making a connection with her customers. She listens to their needs and designs in-store events to be engaging, and purposeful.

In 2013, Cheri McGuire, a certified K-12 art teacher, was considering leaving her hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania for a job out of state. When she was offered the opportunity to purchase Teaching Touches, the local parent-teacher store, she decided to stay. “The store had been in business in Erie for 20 years,” Cheri explains. “It was important to the community, and this community is important to me.”

Cheri grew up in Erie, the fourth-largest city in Pennsylvania, and was familiar with the store as a teacher. When she decided make the move to retailer, she brought along her best friend, Tracy, an early-childhood educator, who grew up across the street from Cheri and taught alongside her at a local Montessori school. Another employee, Scott, a history teacher, was Cheri’s high school prom date years ago. More friends – and their children – help out, too, and Cheri’s mom cleans the store once a week.

“It’s a fabulous partnership to work with people you love, who have your back on good days and bad,” Cheri says. “Facing challenges in business, it’s a blessing to have the support of your friends.”

And starting out, Cheri faced her share of challenges. Thankfully, she also had the support of the store’s previous owners. “They really mentored us in the beginning,” Cheri explains. She bought the store in May, and immediately began preparing for her first back-to-school season. “We were late to the game that year so the previous owners helped us with back-to-school purchasing and the overall conversion, allowing us to take care of our  customers’ needs that crazy first year!

“It took a couple back-to-school cycles to get our footing,” she adds. “First we just wanted a smooth transition for our customers. Now it’s been almost three years, so we’ve had enough time to start and end things, and in some cases, start again. Sometimes not knowing what’s considered ‘normal’ is a blessing.”

Today, Cheri is reflecting on what she’s learned and taking a look at what can be improved. While she acknowledges the industry is changing – and admits she’s gotten some funny looks for purchasing a brick-and-mortar teacher store in the age of Amazon – Cheri is optimistic for the future. And she knows what she wants to focus on.

Here are a few of her plans.

Specialized inventory

To build business and adapt to a changing industry, “some people bring in more gift items, build a party room or add an ice cream shop,” Cheri explains, “but we’re staying with what we have. Our city’s fairly large and there are plenty of places to shop, so we’re
specialized in what we carry. Our inventory is built around things you can’t get anywhere else.”

The store’s inventory is cross-curriculum with a focus on autism and special needs students, gifted learners, Pennsylvania’s early childhood Keystone STARS grant program and homeschoolers. It’s also cross-generational, with an emphasis on supporting the learning needs of the elderly community.

“Some retailers see language cards as just for preschoolers,” Cheri says, “but when a customer comes in whose mom needs help re-learning to communicate because of a stroke, a light bulb goes off.”

Cheri plans to reach out to healthcare facilities to offer not only bulletin board materials, but a full range of products that support geriatric learning. “Every customer is an individual, it’s critical to listen to what they need to match them with the right products.

“Talking with our customers, it’s clear that many of the same products bridge with different demographics. So we’re taking our inventory in that direction to support our community in that way.”

Going “on tour”

This year, Cheri and her team plan to take the Teaching Touches “Traveling Tour” on the road. It’s a mini pop-up store that’s tailored to a specific school’s needs. “Instead of them coming into the store, we bring the store to them,” Cheri explains. “We set up in a school or business, at a teacher in-service or event, for a week or a day, and teachers can take time to explore as it fits their schedule.”

Depending on the setup chosen, Teaching Touches can provide employees, sell as cash and carry, use a Square for credit card sales or work with schools on purchase orders. Teachers are welcome to borrow games or other learning tools to “try before they buy” and use in study halls or open periods.

Connecting with customers

Parents and grandparents used to wonder if they were allowed in the store; they thought it was just for teachers,” Cheri says. “Word is getting out that we’re open for everyone.”

But it’s not always easy, she admits. “Back in the day, you could make coupons to stuff in teachers’ mailboxes or bring pizza to the schools,” she says. “Now everything has to be approved by a board.”

To promote the store she took out a profile in The Erie Book, an online showcase of “the best in Erie,” to introduce the store’s new ownership. She ran an advertisement in the local alternative newspaper and featured a coupon. She also started a “Loyal Customer” program where every $10 spent earns a stamp that turns into a $10 coupon. “Customers love that they don’t have to search and cut out coupons,” she says. “They create their own coupon every time they shop.”

The store’s most successful marketing tool is SnapRetail, a Pittsburgh-based email, web and social media platform. “They develop our e-newsletter that goes to customers’ email inbox and links to their Facebook feeds,” Cheri explains. The store’s Facebook page has seen an increase from 200 to 800 “likes” since they started using the service.

They use the e-newsletter to promote events and sales, new products and coupons, and connect with customers. When Cheri couldn’t open the store one day because her son was sick and her staff was unavailable, she quickly sent notice to her customers through e-news.

“It was so stressful to me,” she explains, “but I received several emails back with well wishes for my son and commending the honest email. It was a turning point for me. It showed me the true importance of connecting with my customers, that it’s okay to ‘talk’ to them and form a real relationship.”

Making room for new ideas

“We take tons of special requests,” Cheri says. “It allows customers to create a vision for their classroom or learning center at home.” Teaching Touches also helps pull all the plans and products together.

The store has an “Idea Center” with a large table and chairs that teachers can use as a “studio” to design their classroom. “Customers have been known to sit on the carpet with a yardstick, lay out materials and figure things out in the store,” Cheri explains. “It’s a fun and creative process and they make themselves at home. They feel comfortable with us because that’s how we want our store to be – a place where they can relax and know we’re here to help them figure everything out!”

A new twist on teacher gifts

“We can’t compete with the gift selection big-box stores carry, and I’m not selling the same old ‘made in China’ teacher mug,” Cheri says. While Teaching Touches gift certificates are the most popular gift sold in the store, this year they also plan to offer a selection of teacher gifts that support the local community.

Teaching Touches will accept applications for student/teacher teams to collaborate on an in-store art show, and host a “friends and family day” for the winning school. The artwork will then be sold in the store as classroom décor and teacher gifts.

“We’ve been connecting with local artists and looking for artwork at a good gift price point,” Cheri adds. “We all create, and I want to support creativity and learning no matter what the art form.”

Events that engage

Saturdays are pretty special at Teaching Touches. Every weekend, hourly giveaways offer customers a chance to win product samples donated by sales reps, and great finds that Cheri and her team bring home from EDexpo.

Customers are entered in seven drawings throughout the day, from 10 to 5,” Cheri explains. “Even if you stop by early, there’s still a chance to win at 5 o’clock.” Customers who spend a certain amount are also entered into a basket giveaway, and local bakeries serve snacks and samples in the Idea Center.

To promote discounts, the store has a guessing jar, usually tied into a sale theme. For a Halloween sale, customers guessed the number of candy corn to win a Halloween-themed prize. For a paper sale, customers guessed the number of origami shapes.

Teaching Touches plans to host an Education Night, a monthly meet-and-greet with local teachers. “They can introduce themselves and discuss what they teach,” Cheri explains. “This gives us a better idea of what our community needs from us, their local supplier. And it’s how we form relationships with teachers and schools, find out about changes in curriculums and new themes being explored in schools, and just get to know one another.

“We want to create meaningful connections with our customers,” she adds. “You can’t do that if you don’t engage with them, ask questions, or learn what they need and what they’re passionate about.”

The store will also host an “Insert Your School Here” Friends & Family Day for select schools, where 20 percent of the day’s proceeds are donated back to the school. They will compile teacher “Wish Lists” to make holiday or end of the year gift-giving easier, and teachers from the school are invited to read a book or host an activity hour. “If the kindergarten teacher reads at 6 p.m., the first grade teacher reads at 6:30 and the math teacher leads a Sudoku challenge at 7, students and families become engaged and it turns it into a bigger event,” Cheri explains.

She even plans to host a screening of the documentary film Reuse! Because You Can’t Recycle the Planet, to start a dialog with local teachers and discover ways to support each other in an eco-friendly way. “Teachers have materials and supplies that they don’t need, or they need paper towel rolls, wires and nails or cereal boxes for projects or maker spaces,” Cheri explains. “It’s all part of our effort to support local, small business and sustainability.”

“Lifelong learning is fun,” Cheri says, “and it doesn’t end at a certain age.” She’s proof of that. It’s been almost three years since Cheri bought Teaching Touches and every day is an adventure. She’s still learning and coming up with new ideas.

Perhaps her greatest lesson came from the advice she was given when she bought the store.  “Forget being new to business or not having a business degree, don’t let that shake your confidence,” she was told. “Be real, conduct business from your heart, connect with your customers, collaborate and support one another.”

It’s true, Cheri says. “What you put out, you get back in return.”


by Jenn Bergin

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