Meet the Tenant: A2Z School Supply Store
How does one local school supplies store compete with big-box online retailers?
This article tells not only the story of A2Z School Supply, a tenant of Mitch Cox Companies located in Johnson City, TN, but also why brick-and-mortar small businesses have a chance — and advantage — against big eCommerce businesses.
From Teachers to Entrepreneurs
Two teachers at the Sundale Preschool would always visit Kentucky School Supplies (KSS) in Bristol, Virginia every Saturday to buy decorations and supplies for their classrooms. Because they worked all day during the week, they stayed for hours on Saturdays. Every time they left with bagfuls of supplies, they said to another, “Boy, Johnson City needs one of these.”
Penny Merritt and Karla Smith visited SCORE, an SBA-supported nonprofit association dedicated to helping small business owners, to learn about entrepreneurship. After meeting important contacts and obtaining advice for licenses and starting a business, the pair launched into building a school supplies business in Johnson City.
In 1998, Penny and Karla co-founded A2Z School Supply, Inc.
The owners approached John Speropulos, President of Mitch Cox Realtor, Inc., for a location for their vision. A2Z School Supply started in a one-room retail shop on North Roan Street (now occupied by Urgent Care) in Johnson City. The business grew and the owners moved their store into a bigger space on North Roan Street (now occupied by Buchanan’s Auto Sales). In 2004, Mitch Cox Realtor found A2Z a bigger space in the former Union Planter’s location in Boone’s Creek. In 2008, the growing small business opened a second location in Linville, NC. In 2010, A2Z expanded its flagship store when it bought out neighboring tenant Columbia Beauty Supply. A2Z’s current size is 5500 SF located at 2898 Boones Creek Rd, Johnson City, TN 37615.
In the last five years, the local brick-and-mortar school supply industry fell upon hard times. Georgia-based, The School Box, with 13 locations in Georgia and two locations in Tennessee (Knoxville and Chattanooga), filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2013. The local school supply shop in Asheville, NC, Teacher’s Edition, LLC also closed in 2011. Even A2Z felt the contraction and closed its Linville store after two years in 2010.
Karla and Penny believe the Internet and its retail giants are eating up the sales of local businesses, including their own.
“We can’t compete with them on price and our inventory is limited to our four walls, whereas, companies like Amazon and Wal-Mart can undercut our prices, offer more products, and turn over inventory much faster than we can.”
And yet Karla and Penny just signed a lease for another five years with Mitch Cox Realtor.
Can A2Z compete with Amazon?
The co-founders said that they see teachers and parents across three states and 30+ counties visit their store each month. For example, during the interview, a father purchased writing supplies for his two homeschooling girls.
Additionally, A2Z sees businesses and organizations come by for motivational posters and tools. Some of these customers include McDonalds, Dick’s Sport Goods, Kmart, CenturyLink, and nursing homes.
Two indicators of growth for A2Z involve one of the biggest nationwide conferences for school supplies vendors — the invitation-only ECRM’s School and Office Supplies Annual Conference in Orlando, FL. For the first time ever, Karla and Penny were invited to attend the conference of more than 580 vendors.
The second indicator of growth is an inaugural A2Z catalog from which customers can make orders over the phone anywhere in the country. The catalogs are expected to arrive in January 2015.
While A2Z has an expanding geographical reach, an upcoming national conference, and a catalog on the way, the biggest advantage it has over Amazon is sensory. Karla said, “You can come and see, feel and touch what you are buying. After you buy it, you walk away with it in your hands (no shipping).”
And that’s not all. She continued, “As the owners, we get to add a personal touch to our business by knowing our customers by name and recommending the most helpful products.”
Big box online retailers may offer lower prices and even better products, but Karla and Penny can shake your hand and make you laugh. Everybody has their own shopping preferences, but it’s a stretch to say the convenience of the digital world will board up the genuineness of the human experience. With a physical store opening in Manhattan, Amazon seems to think so, too.
To learn more about A2Z School Supply, visit their website or call 423-952-0889. The store is located at 2898 Boones Creek Rd. Johnson City, TN 37615