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School Work

For many retailers, the upcoming busy season is a blessing and a curse. It’s an exhausting time, but one that can keep their business in the black for the year. If you don’t have schools as customers, you probably don’t share the bounty of busy season. To do so, you have to offer the right products for the right school level, create and leverage relationships, and overcome obstacles to getting new customers and getting paid.

School Work

Retailers share tips for securing school business to maximize busy season and beyond

Julie Rogers

(Originally published in the March 2016 issue of Insights.)

For many retailers, the upcoming busy season is a blessing and a curse. It’s an exhausting time, but one that can keep their business in the black for the year. If you don’t have schools as customers, you probably don’t share the bounty of busy season. To do so, you have to offer the right products for the right school level, create and leverage relationships, and overcome obstacles to getting new customers and getting paid.

If you can strike a balance, schools can offer you work all year round.

At I.B. Trophies & Awards/J.E.S. Engraving Company in Imperial Beach, CA, owner Judy Sisson’s calendar is largely determined by school and school sports needs: fall sports in November and December; school and district awards at the end of the first semester in January; winter sports in January and February; spring sports in May; and school and district awards at the end of the school year in April, May, and June. About 65% of her business is related to school and education.

At I.B. Trophies & Awards/J.E.S. Engraving Company in Imperial Beach, CA, owner Judy Sisson’s calendar is largely determined by school and school sports needs: fall sports in November and December; school and district awards at the end of the first semester in January; winter sports in January and February; spring sports in May; and school and district awards at the end of the school year in April, May, and June. About 65% of her business is related to school and education.

Working 80–90 hour weeks for seven weeks in busy season, Sisson explained, “It’s nonstop orders, all needing to be done at the same time.”

Charlie Moss’s K2 Awards & Apparel in Richmond, VA, is an online store but still experiences a bump in academic products from “mid to late April through May.” He estimates school-related business accounts for 15-20% of revenue.

Like Sisson, Joe Santa of TrophyCenter Plus (TCP) in Huntington, IN, can plan his work schedule based on academic and school sports seasons.

“In Indiana, the fall sports season begins in early August so we start cranking up our fall tournament awards at that time, which is great because it comes off of the busy summer baseball and softball time frame,” Santa said. “School sales will be fairly consistent throughout the school year, with season-ending awards fitting nicely into the time frame right before the next season begins.”

Santa retired from a position as a high-school athletic director after 25 years and started TCP in November 2010. “Because of my background as an educator and athletic administrator,” he said, “probably two-thirds of my business centers around schools and youth sport organizations.”

WHO BUYS WHAT?

By and large, the schools buy awards for scholastic, extracurricular, and athletic achievement, but retailers have found ways to expand the range of products purchased to create a revenue stream outside of busy season.

For the most part, Santa’s TCP and Moss’s K2 sell medals, trophies, and plaques to schools for academic and sports use. Santa added screenprinting and embroidery services, increasing his apparel sales to schools as well.

Though she doesn’t sell apparel, Sisson’s one-stop shop lets schools buying “everything from small signs, plastic or metal letters for walls, name tags, ribbons, medallions, certificates, award and membership plaques, trophies, resins, acrylics, crystal, diploma plaques, custom perpetuals, Hall of Fame awards, and fundraiser items (ornaments, key chains, dog tags, mugs, and promotional products).”

Not all products are popular at all levels. Retailers seem to agree that smaller kids tend to get smaller awards and more trophies than bigger kids.

K2’s elementary-school customers purchase academic medals for honors and activities, like perfect attendance and music, while his high-school customers tend to purchase more sports awards.

Santa also sees elementary schools ordering a lot of medals, which he customizes with full-color inserts featuring the schools’ colors and logos. Other than the increase in medal usage by elementary schools, Santa said the schools he serves often purchase the same items but “the size and cost is comparative by level. On occasion we will sell the acrylic pieces to recognize staff or outstanding accomplishments by a coach, teacher, or administrator. Year-end awards are usually a little more distinctive.”

Sisson’s customers have similar demands. “Elementary and junior high/middle schools tend to use ribbons, certificates, medallions, and trophies the most, but they do also give out plaques and some acrylic awards for the bigger honors,” she said. “High schools use plaques the most along with some acrylic and crystal awards for the bigger honors. High-school team sports use plaques, resins, and some trophies.”

When it comes to teachers, coaches, and administrators, “all school levels use crystal awards and plaques for employee items like employees/teachers/volunteers of the year and retirees” Sisson said. Her customers at all levels also purchase name tags, name plates, small signs, and gift items for staff and volunteers.

Colleges and universities are a different animal. They may purchase more higher-pricetag items, but do so less often.

TCP services a small university, providing trophies and plaques for tournaments and events, many acrylic recognition items, and large perpetual plaques to highlight seasonal awards.

Sisson’s college and university clients use “more higher-end awards, including plaques, acrylics, crystals, and art glass. College team sports use a combination of resins, plaques, acrylics, and occasionally trophies.”

A DEFINITION OF BUSY SEASON

“I tell people that as soon as you get your taxes done the rush begins; for many it ends June 1 and for others July 4th … Many people, they do twice the volume of business in that short period than the rest of the year.”
Roy Brewer of Engraving Concepts explaining his customers’ busy season

GETTING INSIDE

Because Sisson and Santa worked in the educational system for years, they have great contacts and a unique understanding of their customers.

“My strength, without a doubt, has been my understanding of what their needs are and when they need it,” Santa said. “I’ve tried to set up my approach to making the process of awards as streamlined and effective as I always wanted it when I was an AD. I can also offer ideas to athletic directors when they call for help on an awards-related question.”

Sisson purchased her business from the company that provided awards to the school she worked at. “Schools were a perfect fit for my business from the beginning thanks to my experience working at a school district office and in our local high school’s ASB (Associated Student Body) for almost 20 years,” Sisson said. “I was blessed with instant business from friends and colleagues who were looking for a new company to make their awards. Referrals moved the business forward at a brisk pace.

“My background benefited me greatly in understanding the procedures, schedules, sport seasons, ordering ‘chain of command,’ and the importance of school colors/mascots. The direct access I had to the schools was greater because of my having been an employee—but the same could have been said for a volunteer or anyone else who had spent time getting to know the staff.”

Building relationships with staff builds trust. “I provided them with someone they trust to do a good job because I had developed a positive relationship with them for so many years,” Santa said.

That trust is built in a different way when you’re an online business that isn’t dependent on schools within a certain locale. “Selling on the Internet is highly competitive with price, transit time, production times, shipping costs, inventory levels, return policy, advertising levels, etc., all being very important,” Moss said. “Since we devote so many resources to selling on the web, we do not allocate significant marketing resources to local schools.”

Moss sells to schools the same way he sells to anyone—through online marketing. “Rather than selling to schools, we look at the academic business as offering compelling products to specific groups within the schools, such as chess clubs, bands, athletic directors, etc. Reaching the leaders of these groups is a combination of targeted Internet ads and relationship building with our customer base.”

As all retailers should, Moss’s company keeps excellent records of past orders for ease of reorder and uses them to ensure his company stocks products that schools are likely to reorder annually.

“Other schools like something new every year so we attend the Vegas show every year to make sure we are not missing any good new items,” said Moss, who will attend the 2016 International Awards & Personalization Expo.

Often, brick-and-mortar stores see web-based stores as having an upperhand by having lower overhead. When it comes to marketing, however, they face an uphill battle. “There is no doubt that Internet marketing is constantly evolving and increasingly expensive regardless if you are targeting schools or any other segment,” Moss said. “We test a bunch of different advertising strategies and invest heavily into strategies that work. Unfortunately, some strategies that worked great a year ago no longer are affordable.”

GROWING BUSINESS

With schools, you create your opportunities to move beyond trophies. It’s not enough to offer other products; you have to make your school contacts aware of what you can do and give them concrete examples of products and uses.

“Selling to schools can open up opportunities to sell other types of products besides awards,” Sisson advised. “With the endless fundraising schools must do to keep afloat, it’s always a great idea to give them samples of items you can make or get from a vendor that might be a good item for selling as a fundraiser. Everything from jewelry cut out of acrylic in the shape and color of their mascot to foam hands, seat cushions, key chains, ornaments, stickers, decals, and so much more.”

For products you choose not to supply, refer the schools to a reliable retailer, Sisson suggests. This keeps your customer happy and builds trust.

Rather than referring schools to other retailers for apparel, TCP expanded to keep the business. “It fits so well with our awards product line. School personnel don’t have a lot of time to shop around. They like the one-stop shop, a place where they can go to get their needs met across the board,” Santa said. “The other avenue that our connection to coaches has helped us is it opened the door to their parent support groups, so we now work with them prior to the start of their sport season on apparel including our online stores which allows them to pick from many apparel items that support their child’s team.”

As an online company, K2 Awards & Apparel sees this growth in a different way. The company’s high customer service ratings matter not just for getting new customers but for getting customers to order additional products. “We find that the same people who take a leadership role in school booster clubs are also leaders in other parts of their communities,” Moss said. “These leaders tend to be our best customers for lots of different products.”

THE ACADEMIC FORECAST

With busy season occupying so many retailers, it might seem that there is no more room for businesses to get their share. But retailers have gotten used to dealing with tighter school budgets, and some think that things will improve soon. “My sense is that it is growing slowly,” Moss said.

“They are currently operating under their leanest budgets yet they are still purchasing awards and have expressed their desire to continue to do so,” Sisson said.

Santa, however, is seeing awards sacrificed as schools apply money to costly mandatory items, even when they rely on fundraising to pay additional costs. Even in his days as an athletic director, “I found myself spending less on awards because everything else was costing me much more, including officials, workers, and equipment. It’s such a tough balance.”

Sisson saw a big cut last year, when “the almost nationwide change to Common Core State Standards testing took away the need for rewarding the students as done in the past with traditional testing.” The change resulted in a substantial decrease in the sale of testing medallions, but Sisson hopes it was a one-time thing for the switch to the new tests—“but we won’t know for sure until closer to April.”

“If we have reached the lowest level of demand due to budgetary constraints,” Sisson said, “then there is certainly room for growth as finances improve.”

The Challenges of Selling to Schools

It can take time to win schools’ business—and hard work to keep it. “What I found was that school coaches and administrators don’t change their places of business on a whim. They use people they trust and those who have been good to them in terms of customer service. Even though I worked with many school personnel for 20- plus years, that didn’t mean they were going to switch to me just because I was a friend,” Santa said. “I’ve had to prove myself to them and provide them with outstanding service as well as top-of-the-line products. I’ve been able to turn some of them, but not all of them—but I’m still trying!

You must know who is allowed to make purchases—or you’ll be left holding the bag. “With so many cases of embezzlement and misuse of funds going on in the schools, many extra restrictions and requirements have been added on to the purchasing process,” Sisson said. “It is extremely important to know and understand how it can affect your doing business with coaches and staff members. So many award shops have established relationships and friendships with coaches, and they would not bat an eye at taking an order directly from them.” Schools, however, may require prior approval and a purchasing order before an order can be placed. If the rules aren’t followed, the school can deny payment. Then “you are out of luck unless the coach can pay you personally. I cannot express how important it is to find out what the rules and procedures are from the employee who has the authority to give it to you. It will save much time, hassle, and embarrassment,” Sisson said.

Verify the budget. A coach may not know the approved budget for awards. If you can get it verified by someone in administration, Sisson suggests, you can avoid overselling something the school won’t pay for or underselling and leaving money on the table.

Rethink discounts. “As most of us know, budgetary constraints are one of the biggest hurdles when working with schools,” Sisson said. “It’s a given that they want donations or deep discounts, however, it’s not always necessary to offer them because sometimes they do have a designated budget. The key is to having some regular priced items to show them and then a budget-minded option and let them decide which is more important to them—price or product. As you get to know your schools, you will get a good sense of their situation—if they have a good financial support system through alumni, sponsors, parent groups, and the district or if they don’t.” If the money can’t be found, “that’s when I can step in and offer a special deal or I find a local business or organization to financially sponsor their specific awards, which is beneficial all the way around,” she said.

Schools can pay slowly. “Schools each have different payment policies so we try to be flexible in accepting purchase orders and offering terms,” Moss said. “Some schools pay really slowly, so we have to manage the receivables.”

Don’t wait for orders. Go get them! If you have relationships with school staff, drop by the school “because many times they need to place an order but are so busy they forget to call. Be sure to bring an order pad with you just in case. If you don’t have or want to take the time, a quick reminder e-mail or phone call can accomplish the same thing,” Sisson said.

Staff changes mean school business is never a sure thing. “It’s important to check in annually to see if you need to meet the new person because they usually have their own vendor they’ve used in the past, they don’t know who the school has purchased awards from previously, or they don’t want to do anything the same as their predecessor did,” Sisson said. “If they don’t know you, it’s easier for them to drop you.” When someone that trusted your business leaves a school, there can be an upside if the person has been hired at a different school or district. “There can be an advantage to the change—it can spread your business into another school,” Sisson.

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