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Merchandise engagingly displayed at a Tender Loving Empire location. “We have a great merchandiser who comes in regularly and gives the store a nice facelift to present different artists, and we put a lot of time into window displays,” a manager said. Photo by Jaclyn Campanaro.
By Hilary Danailova

hen today’s customers choose to put sentiments on paper rather than sending a text or email, that paper matters. It’s a deliberate expression that calls for more personalized, distinctive stationery.

“The demand these days is for custom products,” affirmed Princy Agrawal, who sells made-to-order cards, journals and other paper crafts at her recently opened Bellevue, Wash., business, Kraftgali. “People want something with their name on it, with the kid’s or the friend’s name on it.”

From cards to calendars to wedding invitations, personalized papers are also what sell best for Katie & Co., a Houston stationer. “People like to have their name printed on stuff,” said Owner Katie Hackedorn, whose 1,000-square-foot store generates annual revenue upwards of $250,000. “It doesn’t have to be something expensive, but it shows you put some thought into it if you put someone’s name on it.”

Across town, personalized stationery is also the category best-seller at Avalon Stationery & Gifts in Houston, where Manager Charlene Littleton said her Southern customers still cherish old-fashioned, handwritten letters and cards - along with one-on-one service.

“We’re in an area that still understands the importance of being gracious,” reflected Littleton, who said she thinks handwritten communiqués are more popular in the South. “They still do write thank-you letters.”

Since her customers appreciate personal gestures, Littleton has upped Avalon’s service game in a bid for patron loyalty; in addition to wrapping gifts, she’ll address and mail out invitations for stationery clients. “People go into a store because they want to be waited on,” she explained.

An exterior view of Tender Loving Empire, which has three locations in Portland, Ore. Handmade cards are in high demand at the stores. Photo by Jaclyn Campanaro.

And while Avalon - like many stationers - has expanded its giftwares, upscale stationery is still the core of its business. Littleton said boxed invitation sets are a popular choice for showers and parties, while monogrammed letterhead from upscale lines like Crane’s are a consistent strong seller. Calendars, which start at $20, also do well at Avalon and other card shops around the nation.

Artisanal or handmade cards are another way to express personal style - and they are in high demand at stationers like Tender Loving Empire, which has three locations in Portland, Ore. Meghan Westby, a manager at the downtown store, said cards from local artists and a Portland company called Eggpress do well, along with cards handmade in-house.

With a strong tourist business, Tender Loving Empire sells a lot of cards with Portland and Oregon themes, as well locally crafted pins, T-shirts and magnets. “That’s a huge percentage of what we sell in this store,” said Westby. “We have a great merchandiser who comes in regularly and gives the store a nice facelift to present different artists, and we put a lot of time into window displays.”

Non-paper gifts are a strong addition to stationers’ bottom line, sold to complement cards and to create a one-stop gift shopping experience. At Paper Moon in McGregor, Iowa, Owner Louise White said that while her three best-selling categories - novelty socks, triple-milled lavender soaps and funny cards - might not have much in common, they all contribute to a happy ambiance that’s inviting to shoppers. “The way the salespeople are, the lively way they interact with customers, we play real upbeat music. And of course the soaps have a nice scent,” said White, who also relies on daughter Jennifer’s attractive displays.

Even with the popularity of gifts, paper remains essential to most stationers. “When it’s slow, some days all we sell are cards,” said Jennifer White, who estimated that stationery takes up about 10 percent of the 2,500-square-foot, three-level store. White merchandises greeting cards on spinners, complemented by two walls of stationery, including journals and boxed sets.

Novelty socks, soaps and funny cards are all successful additions to the inventory mix at Paper Moon in McGregor, Iowa. Shown, from left to right, Co-owner of 18 years Jennifer White, with Co-owner and her mother Louise White, and Sales Associate Ashley Christenson. Missing from the picture are Sales Associates Stephanie Fox-Dixon and Colleen Bouzek.

Her strategies include working with vendors who don’t require large minimum orders. “With six of each, they don’t get as beaten up,” White explained. Other tips include stocking humorous cards - White said funny designs are “the majority” of individual card sales - and price points of $20 or less.

In Houston, Katie Hackedorn of Katie & Co. has turned to social media to drive sales. “We do a lot of posting on Instagram and Facebook, and we try to update regularly,” said the Katie & Co. owner, who also advertises in wedding magazines. “We try to stay relevant that way.”

When it comes to display, Gyalzen cross merchandises her home decor items with other items to shape a story for customers. “I’ll put a mug, some plates, some pretty tea towels all on a table. Or I’ll match a mug with jewelry items. Sometimes we’ll have a color table that tells a color story.” Display technique aside, Gyalzen said, “The most important thing is to keep displays fresh. We change our displays a lot.” Another tip: “We’ll put a decor item in a featured section of the store toward the front at a main table, so that when you walk in, you’ll see the item immediately. We’ll also put home decor items in our window.”

Micano, in Reno, Nev., offers unique steam punk items and hand-crafted art as well as furnishings and home decor in the 1,400-square-foot shop, which also features an outdoor garden area. Owner Sam Sprague said the best technique for displaying home decor items is to set up an area of the store that looks like a room in a home. “We’ll put items on a table in a spot next to the couch so that people can visualize what the decor will look like in their homes. We also have like-products grouped together on upcycled displays that we’ve created.” His top-selling home decor items are lamps. “I think people are looking for a fairly easy way to express themselves, and lamps are small accent pieces that work well for that. Our entire store is art driven, and the lamps reflect that.”

In Anchorage, Alaska, at Grass Roots Fair Trade, Owner Liz Dean carries home decor items which, like all of the items in her shop, come with their own story of how they were made, and how they empower the artisans who make them. Her top selling item is a star lantern. “The lanterns do very well for us in part because they are both beautiful and very moderately priced. They’re in the $20 price range. ...We have lamps that are beautiful, and they do draw people into the store with the way they look, but they are in a higher price range and don’t sell as well as the lanterns.” Other strong sellers are decorative alpaca throws and blankets.

An exterior view of Katie & Co. From cards to calendars to wedding invitations, personalized stationery items sell best for this Houston, Texas, store.

When it comes to display, Dean tries to mix things up in her 2000-square-foot store. “We will sometimes do color coordination, or we’ll put together a display that provides examples of how an item will look in your home. Overall the most important thing is to keep people on their feet and show items in a different light, change things, keep displays fresh.” She noted that a customer may have seen an item twenty times, but when it is moved to another part of the store or placed in a different display, the customer will notice it as if for the first time. Dean does keep her items within certain categories in the store however, rather than mixing home decor items with another category such as jewelry. She’ll keep home decor for the kitchen with other kitchen items, for example. “We could put a decorative clay pot next to placemats, plates, a trivet,” she explained. “Or we could take a vase and put that in a table setting.”

In Honolulu, Hawaii, Jill Hatch owns the bright and airy Sugarcane Shop in the Kaimuki district. Hatch sells unique items from bright towels to pineapple swizzle sticks, children’s toys, coffee face scrub, books, calendars, and beach bags. Her Hawaii-themed gifts appeal to locals and tourists alike. And when it comes to home decor items, she has one decisive answer as to her best-seller. “Our pillows definitely do the best, because of the colors and designs. The fact that they are locally made also enhances sales,” Hatch stated. Other strong home decor sellers are lamps and wall hangings. While Hatch cross merchandises some items at the Sugarcane Shop, she keeps her best-selling pillows in one section of her 500-square-foot shop. “I display them in a group. They’re all together, it’s basically a wall of colorful pillows.” According to Hatch, “I think the most important thing in terms of display is to move merchandise around to keep it looking fresh.”

While best-selling home decor items themselves may vary in gift shops, the importance of keeping displays fresh and appealing doesn’t change. Creating a setting that lets customers imagine how decor will look in their own homes, changing the location of displayed items, and telling a story about the items are all key for sales success with home decor.

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