Latta’s School Supply in Huntington, West Virginia, sells teacher supplies, art tools and toys throughout its Tri-State area, including Kentucky and southern Ohio. Meeting the needs of customers in different states – with different back-to-school schedules – creates a unique ebb and flow at the store each year, says Mike Mullarky, president and owner of Latta’s.
The season kicks off in early summer, when area religious educators bring in Vacation Bible School business. The school year in neighboring Kentucky counties starts at the beginning of August, so while many retailers are still stocking their shelves in early June, business at Latta’s is already in full swing. Just as things begin to settle down in late-July, back-to-school buying begins for local teachers in West Virginia and nearby Ohio, and the store is packed again until their new school year begins in late August/early September.
“The staggered openings help us reload our inventory. We increase staff, postpone vacations and put on our game day faces,” Mike says. “Latta’s is fortunate to have many seasons to spread the overhead.”
A teacher store and more
“I used to consider us a teacher-parent store, but these days, if all we had was teacher stuff we would have closed the doors years ago,” Mike says. Latta’s 7,500 square feet of retail space in downtown Huntington includes three separate 2,550-square-foot rooms for fine art, teaching aids and toys, respectively. During the back-to-school season, sales of art and teacher supplies are close to equal.
The store is located one block from Marshall University, where 3,000 new students enroll each fall. The university recently opened an art facility nearby, and students walk past Latta’s on their way to art classes.
“College students swarm our Art Room the last week of August to pick up kits and supplies that we’ve prepared ahead of time,” he says. “They come and go like a hurricane. Luckily it’s after the teachers are settled in their classrooms!”
Latta’s also has a niche in the early-childhood furniture market, and is always looking for new equipment for Head Start programs. Their visit to EDspaces in Tampa last year was great for the store’s contract division, Mike says. “Our whole sales department attended and picked up new lines to represent. The business of school furnishings is changing quickly with new styles and colors to create an inviting learning environment.”
Still, in the furniture business, jobs seem to be bigger and fewer in recent years, Mike says. “We often spend months on a project, some are fruitful and some not. Most major playground and furniture projects are one-time orders, meaning we don’t count on them next year. What sustains us are smaller orders like window shades and floor savers that can be sold day in and out.
“We all know who the ‘big boxes’ of our industry are,” Mike adds. “Our strategy is to just get out of their way and look for other projects that aren’t on their radar.”
A long history in Huntington
Despite its diversification, Latta’s is a typical “mom and pop” shop, and Mike’s son Jack and daughter Mary work in the store. His grandfather brought the business to West Virginia in 1931, from Cedar Falls, Iowa, where it was founded in 1898.
“Downtown Huntington has really come to life over the past 10 years,” Mike says. “It’s a city of 54,000 people, where everybody knows everybody. But it’s also a vibrant college town, energized by entrepreneurs.” Active local development included new streetscapes and lighting, and made the town more bike- and pedestrian-friendly – which attracts residents to lofts in the downtown buildings, and new local restaurants and craft pubs.
The 10,000 square-foot store is located on the first floor of a two-story building. In the “good-old days” before discount chains, the store had 50-plus employees, offices on the second floor (now leased to a community church) and a 40,000 square-foot distribution center (it closed in 1994), Mike recalls. One employee has been with the company since the Vietnam War, and another recently retired after 50 years. Mike took over in 1997.
“I grew up working in the business,” he says. “My first paycheck is on display, from when I was making 80 cents per hour in 1967. People call and ask for the owner and I love to tell them I’m the janitor, because that’s where I started, and some things never change.”
Going with the flow
“It’s a challenge to balance my time and resources to keep all the balls in the air at the same time,” Mike admits. “New balls that are heavier are always coming – some I’ll dodge, some will drop.”
Nothing could have prepared Mike for this year’s back-to-school season, when business decreased because of a store remodel gone wrong. “We wanted asbestos tile removed and the concrete floor polished, so we pulled the carpet up in May, as soon as school was out,” Mike explains. When the contractor backed out unexpectedly, Latta’s was left with an ugly, unfinished floor – just before the first wave of back-to-school business. “I unsuccessfully scrambled to find someone to do the job,” he says. “I ended up buying a $6,000 concrete polishing machine and hired a handyman to complete the project.” They weren’t able to reopen the store until late July.
Overall, Latta’s retail business is shrinking, while its mail and contract business grows, Mike estimates. But online sales account for just 10 percent of business, which he finds disappointing. “We don’t have the resources to invest to propel it to the next level, so it’s slow growth,” he says.
After many years with a distribution/mail-order software company, when monthly maintenance topped $600 a month, Mike had to find another system. He chose a Microsoft RMS program to manage the store’s POS and control inventory.
“Educators Resource is great for our mail order fulfillment; we combine stock and local orders weekly to keep things turning fast,” he says. “We still dive into the dating orders for BTS, but are careful to reorder bestselling items to meet demand.”
A value-added experience
According to a recent study from Agile Education Marketing, teachers spend an average of $490, out of pocket, on back-to-school supplies and 89 percent will go out of their way to spend that money at stores offering teacher discounts. Latta’s has a loyalty card and teachers receive a 10-percent discount and coupons.
“I would rather spend money on results that bring a smile to a customer’s face or pocketbook,” Mike says. “It must be measurable to warrant resources from our limited marketing budget.”
To connect with customers, Latta’s focuses on Facebook and Constant Contact, along with in-store events and drawings. They had their first annual Teachers’ Swap this summer, which brought great traffic during the busy season and raised money for a children’s charity. Mike works with the local Chamber of Commerce to promote an Art and Crafts festival for kids and Neighborhood Toy Store Day.
“Customers like to see changes and a new product mix, which always gives us a fresh look,” he says. During the floor upgrade, they flipped the Teacher Room and Toy Room entirely.
“Our fixtures are on wheels and we constantly move them around with seasonal displays, and rotate our bulletin board displays monthly,” he says. “We even get compliments on the way our bathroom is decorated.”
Mike gets ideas and inspiration from other retailers. “I love to visit other stores in our industry, take pictures and talk to other owners,” he says. “Mountains of knowledge can be gained from the experienced experts in our industry.”
He attends EDexpo and EDspaces to network with these experts. “Because we serve the college market I like when tradeshows combine such as CAMEX/NAMTA,” he says. “I just want a head full of new ideas and products to roll out!”
by Jenn Bergin