Chicago School Supply in the News: School Supply Dealer 2.0

Michael Ockrim has a lifetime of experience in school supply retail. It’s a familiar story: Until he left for college, Mike helped out in his mother’s teacher store, The Education Depot. He assisted customers, stocked the shelves and worked the register. When he graduated, he returned to help his mother run the store.

Over the course of six years, with Michael’s help, the store’s size doubled and revenue tripled. The Education Depot established a Web presence and brought in catalog sales. There was just one problem: It was moving too fast for mom, and too slow for Michael.

“My mom, Deborah, is a retired teacher and she always enjoyed running the store. She likes working with the teachers and setting up the bulletin boards. Her outlook on the business is much simpler than mine,” he explained. “When it got bigger, she became overwhelmed. We started working on a transfer of ownership, but we just couldn’t come to a meeting of the minds.

“In August, 2006, I spun off and started Chicago School Supply,” he continued. “I took a few of the niche markets I was serving with me – Title I programs and staff training and professional development for educators and administrators. My mother wasn’t interested in those markets. I partnered with a well-established school supply dealer to sell via a 600-page full-line catalog and built a website from scratch called SchooDoodle.”

Chicago School Supply’s competitors are the bigger dealers in the industry and big box office stores. Thanks to Michael’s business philosophy and fresh perspective on the school supply industry, he can get and maintain market share.

“Some vendors may be able to provide books and an easel stand, for instance, but they don’t provide ink or computers,” he explained. “That’s where we’re different. We try to be full service for our customers. We sell large volumes of software, computers, printers, ink … we sell big copy machines! There are all different budgets within the Chicago Board of Education. I get my clients what they want.”

Michael enjoys working with the Chicago City School system, “a huge bureaucratic machine” that allows for a significant number of players rather than just a few vendors. Michael’s modus operandi is to establish relationships with the decision makers in the school system, working with the administrators on down to the teachers.

“We do e-mail marketing and direct mailings, but I find that forming relationships does the most to build the business,” Michael said. “I try to remember what’s going on in my clients’ lives so that we can chat about it when we meet. I know it sounds cheesy, but for me it works. That kind of marketing has been very valuable for me.”

In terms of overlap with his mother’s store, yes, there is some. Mike has found, however, that The Education Depot customers are the kind of people who want to look around in a store, as opposed to shopping online. “We got a call today from a lady looking for a specific resource book,” he told us. “I told her we were affiliated with The Education Depot and I gave her the store’s phone number. By the same token, when my mother gets requests for furniture and equipment kinds of things, she forwards them to us.

“Our customers go online to buy, not browse,” he added. “But what they buy is all over the map. That’s why we have to offer such a broad line of products.”

Follow the money trail

In addition to Chicago School Supply, Mike owns two other companies. One is a real estate management company; he owns the strip mall where The Education Depot is located. “I’m actually my mother’s landlord,” he said.

The other is called Chicago Education Consultants. It came about simply by following a money trail. “There’s always money for education, you just have to know where it is and follow it. In doing so, you find the niche markets,” said Michael.

It started this way: Among Chicago School Supply’s clients was a particular group of educators who had significant funding for classroom materials and furniture. Even after he filled their order, a large chunk of money remained on the table, earmarked for specialized educational materials and additional instructors. Michael thought he could help them spend that money. “On a whim, I put together a proposal for the Chicago Board of Education for some field trips. They accepted it, and I’ve done a series of field trips for disadvantaged kids living in a group home,” he told us. “We hired guides and took them on tours that taught them about the architecture, the culture and the ethnicity of Chicago. I’m really enjoying it, it’s needed and it’s rewarding to me personally. I get to see the kids’ faces light up when we take them out on a boat. It’s a cool component of our business that I’d like to see grow, once I contend with issues like liability.”

It’s not the only area of the business with growth potential, but the challenge going forward is to manage all the irons in the fire with limited human resources. Michael doesn’t appear worried about it. “I like being able to control my own destiny,” he told us. “I like to follow what looks good to me. I’m young enough – 28 – to have no fear of risk. I might fall on my face, but I guess if I’m going to do all this stuff, it’s good that I’m doing it now.”

Commit to the Internet

In order to see significant revenue from online sales, school supply retailers must commit to their websites. “I understand that there are a lot of dealers in our industry who see it as a side component to their physical store, but they don’t understand the full potential,” said Michael Ockrim.

He does. “We’re building a huge footprint online,” he said. “I’m trying to build the brand. We have half a dozen websites that serve different purposes and draw people to our online community.”One of them, SchooDoodle.com, offers online sales of educational materials, school supplies and learning resources for parents, teachers and children. Michael and his assistant maintain SchooDoodle.com in-house and when we conducted this interview, they were in the process of increasing their online offerings by 30 percent. “We wanted our website to be uncomplicated enough to be able to add anything ourselves anytime,” he said.

The name “SchooDoodle” is sometimes difficult for people to understand when you’re saying it to them but there was method to Michael’s madness. “Once somebody finds it or uses it, they ‘get it,’ and remember it,” he told us. “We try to brand it pretty well with Chicago School Supply.

“Company names are important,” he said. “Too many retailers in our industry come up with a clever name for their business, then all the clever names blend together and become un-memorable. In the case of Chicago School Supply, where we’re trying to compete on an administrative level, I wanted it to be easy to remember. It’s simple and says, ‘Here’s what we do.’ But with the Internet, I discovered it’s just the opposite. People don’t remember plain names.”

Hang Around Smart People

The advocate of relationship marketing has been an active member of the National School Supply and Equipment Association (NSSEA) for many years. A current member of the Board of Directors, Michael served on the association’s Retail Store Council when he worked for The Education Depot, and is a founding member of the LEAD Committee.

That involvement, he says, is invaluable. “I’m a firm believer that hanging around with smart people makes you smarter,” he said. “I recently attended the NSSEA Fall Leadership Meeting in New Orleans, and while I was sitting in on a distributors meeting, a guy named Greg Cessna came in and started imparting all sorts of wisdom. Suddenly I realized that he’s the president of Education Essentials of School Specialty. Not only am I getting all sorts of information from this 800-pound gorilla in our industry, but I’m also listening to the president of a Fortune 500 company in this intimate setting. People would pay a lot of money to be involved in that scenario. It was so helpful for Chicago School Supply. I realized that we have a lot of the same problems in common. His numbers are just bigger.”

Jump Onto Furniture

“Furniture is definitely a nice add-on sale. I don’t know why more dealers don’t sell it,” said Michael Ockrim. “Many of them have stores large enough to put a few desks and chairs in a corner. No, they’re not going to outfit an entire school, but a classroom might need 20 chairs and that’s a nice little sale. You don’t have to warehouse the stuff or worry about shipping; it’s all drop-shipped from the manufacturer. I would strongly encourage anyone attending the School Products Expo in March 2008 to take time out to walk over to the furniture side. This is the last time both shows are going to be under one roof.”

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