Innovative Thoughts + Custom Designs = Success
It was almost 20 years ago when I committed myself to being a full-time retailer. I grew up in a retail setting in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin in the 1950s and 60s with parents who were full-time, seven-day-a-week retail professionals. With my parents as role models, the many hours this career would demand and the stamina it would take to persevere came as no surprise to me.
My initial dream and goal was to open a fabric store with an emphasis on home décor. (My degrees were in interior design and marketing.) I thought fabric was the most wonderful artist canvas that I could ever imagine working on. I felt I could create anything I ever wanted with a piece of fabric, a good sewing machine and a spark of imagination. Well, time and fate would alter my thinking and my path. Now I feel that paper has taken over as the fabric of my soul!
During the time that I was contemplating a fabric store, I was still in school, and I decided to go on the street and interview the owners and managers of local and nearby city fabric stores to learn about the feasibility of existing in this category of retail. What I learned was that JCPenney stores were a mainstay fabric provider, and the small fabric stores where I so enjoyed shopping were struggling to keep their doors open.
It was my market research that steered me into a different direction of retail business. I opened my first retail gift store in the mid 1980s. I was able to focus on home décor, lots of art with both local and national flavor, and the opportunity to develop my own art and ideas to complement my store setting. I immediately started to design giftware to offer in our stores so that I had something unique and different to offer my customers. One of the strongest assets I carried with me was having had the opportunity of growing up in beautiful Door County, where art surrounded me in every direction and every corner of our peninsula. What a phenomenal gift! I never even realized the impact it would have on my road in life and in my career.
First Rubber Stamp Store
It was in my first gift store that I included a tabletop wooden Delafield Display filled with those little wood blocks with wonderful rubber designs attached. Add eight great basic ColorBox stamp pads, and viola! I had a rubber stamp "section." A year later, the PSX floor-standing display appeared, then another and another and finally another retail location! By this time, I had stores in Door County and Appleton. Wisconsin. When my seasonal stores closed, I moved my inventory into the year-round Appleton stores. By 1990, my 8,000-square-foot gift store included about 600 square feet to house the rubber stamp business.
After going through one holiday season with our gift customers not having space to walk around the growing rubber stamp area, I knew we needed to expand the rubber stamp business and allow it the room it was demanding. Fortunately for me, my store layout allowed me to designate a full rubber stamp store within my perimeters. My first store devoted entirely to rubber stamps opened in 1991. It grew in both size and inventory by leaps and bounds. Within two years we had outgrown our building and classroom, and our business moved and became a standalone rubber stamp store near one of the largest malls in Wisconsin. By that time I had also added two rubber stamp stores in Door County: one seasonal location in Fish Creek, Wisconsin, and one year-round store in Sturgeon Bay. I have to thank my customers for helping steer me; as their requests and desires increased, my inventory grew into a very diverse collection of rubber stamps and the latest art materials. I carried more than 400 companies, offering the best variety in the Midwest. I spent many a night until four in the morning working on orders so that we could satisfy our customers' wants and needs.
Custom Design Market
In addition to our customers' interests, I started to develop my own collection of rubber stamps sold exclusively in my stores. Being in the gift and collectible business proved to be a big asset in aiding me in rubber stamp design. I would watch the trends in the gift world, and I chose to accentuate these categories with rubber stamp designs. With local lore, I created all of the lighthouses of Door County. Next, I added a line of Santa Stamps—designs from one of my special artists whose works I carried in my gift store—and, of course, the almighty and universal snowman! Lighthouses, snowmen and Santas were very strong gift-store items; they proved to be strong rubber stamp categories as well. Innovative as I enjoyed being, I brought in a local artist, Julie Young, who started drawing our Door County Kids™ designs. I shared with Julie the experiences I remembered from my childhood growing up in Door County. Julie would then go home and start to draw illustrations from my descriptions. The next thing I knew, we had a wonderful collection of "DC Kids." To this we added Door County Snowmen, Angels, caricatured Red Hat Ladies (again, in Door County settings), Contemporary Ladies and a new style of Victorian Ladies. A full line of Nautical and Door County designs was added to our inventory over the past year.
The idea is to continue to offer something new and teach our customers that they will need and love what we have to offer. It is a proven fact that millions of people love Door County, so to choose the Door County theme to emphasize seemed pretty logical to me.
Along with our Door County images, we have developed hundreds of word stamps to complement and complete our signature look—whether it be on a greeting card, gift wrap, altered book or scrapbook page, we have developed all of the elements to present a completed project. Our customers love that they can stamp their pages to read: "Our Door County Memories," "Strolling the Door County Beaches," "Celebrating our Family Reunion in Door County," "Our Door County Honeymoon" and so many more phrases that pertain to their family vacations spent here, in our own little Door County paradise. I expanded by including our area schools, creating fun phrases that supported each school district.
Door County is known as "Cherryland." With this in mind, I developed a small cherry design paper that has served well as a complement to our little cherry girl rubber stamp and its complement stamps of cherries in different sizes, plus the cherry pail. These are samples of greeting cards that mix and match with both the custom papers and the Door County Kids designs in the cherry theme. When tourists are traveling our area, they just love to see customized greetings that they can purchase made up or acquire the stamps and papers and develop their own cards to send home to friends and family.
As every rubber stamper knows, the stamp is only as important as the paper/media on which it is stamped and framed. Our newest venture has been to design our own papers for cardmaking, paper arts and scrapbooking. Once again, the obvious was sitting right in front of me—let's celebrate Door County! And that is what we are doing. The paper designs that have evolved are designs that represent the best of Door County. These papers have been a great boon to my business. I am also adding custom Door County dies, ribbons and accessories to our inventory. I am a small proprietor and do not have the time or expertise to create the add-ons that make my collections complete, so I have called on the experts and have had wonderful and successful relationships with these supporting companies.
I have had the opportunity to work with some very exceptional companies to whom I can outsource the services that I do not have the time or expertise to perform myself. This has allowed me to have the product and design that I am looking for with a professional and high-quality end product. Paper for Designs has been my biggest asset, as they have provided me with design assistance and printing; Laser Dreamscapes has filled my void in paper dies. I have just joined up with Apple Pie Memories to add custom accessory accents.
Because I am pro-American-made products, I am looking to keep my custom work done in the United States and will support our fellow entrepreneurs in the Midwest in any way I can. When I feel I have the right mix of custom accessories, I will be building Door County Kits to offer to our customers.
Scrapbooking—A Place in the Rubber Stamp Store
I have drawn more scrapbookers into my store and have exposed them to Door County scrapbooking, along with showing them the specialty touches that only rubber stamping can offer on a scrapbook page. I find it challenging and exciting to utilize both designed papers and rubber stamps to create a wonderful scrapbook. It is an exciting marriage that works.
What has evolved and worked for me has been uniqueness in product and service. Customers always want to see new products! Customers always want to see something unique and different! Customers always want to experience new art techniques and results. By creating custom designs, I am able to keep my customer's attention. With our Door County Rubber Stamps and Papers, I am able to create unique home accessories, desktop accessories, local personalized school accessories, books, etc. I may be using a technique from 20 years ago, but because I am applying it to a brand new design of my own, it is once again a new product.
Overhead Control—Wearing Multiple Hats
I have learned (with the help of some challenging experiences) that the key to keeping the doors open is to keep a good inventory control and a cap on the monthly/annual expenses. One of the biggest costs today is wages. I am the main employee at my business—hence, I wear multiple hats, and devote many hours to the business. I call in additional help for my special events. Because I am a seasonal business located in a tourist area, I use my winter months for creative thinking and designing, production of our rubber stamp line, designing new products and producing annual events.
Our society today loves to be entertained. I always say that to be in retail is to be on stage. The scenery needs to be changed regularly, and the production, exciting enough to keep the crowd's attention. This takes a lot of time and energy. To be a seven-day-a-week retailer, adding a special event seasonally, can be a challenge. However, I think it is important and helps put us on the map, emphasizing the Rubber Stamp & Paper Arts interests.
Last year (July 2006), we held our First Rubber Stamp/Scrapbook/Paper Convention on the shores of Sturgeon Bay. "Burnin' Rubber on the Door Peninsula" was welcomed and a wonderful success. We will schedule a full convention again during the summer of 2007.
This year we hosted "A Door County Rubber Stamp/Scrapbook/Paper Escape," a three day/night celebration of classes, workshops, round robins, crops and a Door County challenge course for those who were looking for that extra art-filled challenge!
In addition to the above, a website is a necessary tool in marketing a business today. Not only do I have my product up on our site and Web store, I also utilize group mailings via e-mail rather than hard mail. The cost of hard mail has become prohibitive for me as a small retailer, although I do send them out on request to the individuals who do not have a computer accessible to them.
Looking Ahead for Something New!
This will be a year of designing and coordinating rubber stamp card kits as well as scrapbooking kits. These are the most requested items in my store today. So, as I continue to look ahead, I do know that I will stay busy and warm over the upcoming snowy winter season. Although it is the time of the year that foot traffic is down and I should be able to take a breath, I also know that the clock continues to tick and the expectations and product needed for next year's season depends on productivity during the quiet and serene months of January, February, March and April.
Consulting with Other Businesses
The off-season tourist months are also the time when I make myself available to be a consultant for other businesses that have a desire/interest in developing their own customized products. The custom package has been good for me, and I am interested in sharing my expertise in this area with others so that their businesses, too, can experience a breath of fresh air and new successes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Oscar Hansen is the owner of Door County Rubber Stamps LLC, 751 Jefferson St., Sturgeon Bay, WI 54235; 920/746-9080; FAX 920/746-9088; e-mail:
Copyright © 2007 Marking Devices Publishing.