I Remember When…

The beginning of a New Year seems to remind us of hopefully where we have come from and help us plot where we intend to go.

So I want to start with things that have popped into my brain over the last couple of days as I look forward to the start of a new business year.

I REMEMBER GOING TO MY FIRST TRADE SHOW

For a Michigan-based business, the closest trade show for gifts and decorative accessories, where giftwrap and stationery is part of the mix, is inChicagoat the Merchandise Mart.

It was the same weekend as the Super Bowl- so as a concession to my husband and my son, who was young at the time; I flew toChicagoSunday morning and came back the same day.

I had no idea what to expect as I had only gone previously to a local showcase.

It was in a word: Overwhelming. Especially to someone who was a novice retailer. At the end of the day, I was totally exhausted- visually and mentally.

As the day went on, I got my story about my business to be short and concise. For those vendors who were not interested in dealing with a home based business, I learned to move on.

Gratefully, I met a company, The Stephen Lawrence Company, who welcomed me. Their sales rep was extraordinarily knowledgeable and helpful- and for that singular reason I stayed a faithful buyer for years to come.

Lesson learned- you never know who will become your best customer. So treat any prospective customer with dignity and excellent customer service. And hopefully the same will be returned to you.

I REMEMBER MY FIRST CORPORATE CLIENT

I originally started out teaching gift wrapping classes through local venues, like community centers, Parks & Recs, local organizations and alumni groups- heck anyone that might want to learn more.

Because of the catalogs of classes that many of these organizations published, I got a lot of media attention. I attribute some of this interest to the growing phenomenon of Martha Stewart, and the fact that gift wrapping was an unusual and new idea for a class.

A reporter came to one of my classes and took the class along with the rest of the attendees. She also brought along a photographer and they stayed for the entire class. ( I would dare say that wouldn’t happen today with the stress of “immediate” news).

The subsequent article netted me my first corporate client. THe accompanying photo to the article was not flattering- my mouth was at a peculiar angle probably imparting some gem of wisdom- but it served as a “glowing testimonial” to my skills at gift wrapping. The corporate client who followed up and called me because of the article was short on time and in need of my services for the company’s annual Christmas party.

Next lesson: Never underestimate what a photo or article can do for you. Say yes to the media and then figure out how you are going to do it. Always deliver more than you promised and they will call back for more help.

I REMEMBER HOW I GOT MY FIRST CUSTOMERS

So after two years of giving classes, my students started to ask for help in preparing special gifts with that extra oomph of glam, glitz or glitter. I hadn’t really thought about offering gift wrapping as a service but frankly it kinda made sense- I mean it was really an extension of what I was teaching by doing.

Many of my students would confess that they loved the class but felt either through lack of time or the ability to develop this skill that they might never attain the look they envisioned.

And I so began to wrap for my customers.

Diversification is a wondrous thing- it can add another source of revenue. Or just allow others to see and hear about your work.

No struggling artist would want to work in a vacuum without the world seeing their artistic efforts.

Same for me.

So every time I did work for customers, I’d always ask them to tell their friends and family about me.

I still have many of those first referrals. They are like family to me as I know them, their children and sometimes their grandchildren. And this year, I added a great-grandchild to my list.

Another lesson: don’t be shy- talk about your work. Come up with your 30 second “elevator pitch” – maybe several depending on who you are talking to- and practice it often.

Because you’ll never know where it will take you.

I REMEMBER HOW I GOT THE NAME “WRAP ARTIST”

As part of my mission to learn everything I could about retailing, I worked at every place that offered gift wrapping services.

Maybe it was a volunteer stint as a fund raiser for our local PTA/PTO. Maybe it was through a friend that brought me in on a call-in basis. My final stop was working part time in the wrapping department and then in the shipping department at Neiman Marcus Troy, Michigan.

Every experience taught me something.

The experience at Neiman’s remains the most complete and detailed learning experience. I loved Neiman’s and they were willing to let me experience as much as I could handle. I would work for them in a heartbeat- they were so good to me.

Especially the customers. They were and are the envy of every retailer- good or bad.

My favorite story was working the seasonal gift wrap room which took some effort on the customers’ part to find since we were the “M” stop on the only elevator in the store.

When they found us, they loved hanging over the half door watching the process. That’s when I learned that dead silence is not a good thing- as it makes the “wait” seem interminable.

So I found out that asking a couple of questions- like who the gift was for and how they picked that particular gift- would get them yakking. I would have only to nod or give a brief “really?” to keep them talking and me wrapping.

One particularly chatty man, who had apparently been sent to get this chore done while his wife continued to spend without oversight, decided he was a comedian.

He decided then and there that I was the Queen of Wrap. I said maybe he had me confused with Aretha Franklin, aDetroitnative and the Queen of Soul.

No, he insisted, I was definitely the Queen of Wrap. So, O.K. I went along with the flow and agreed. I bet I was his favorite story for weeks on end.

But guess what, I use that moniker with my staff, my ever creative Wrap Artists. And our customers love it as it has two meanings- wrapping and rapping.

Next lesson to remember: A casual thought can turn into an opportunity. In my case a 50’ish, White Female bordering on the slightly chunky side gets a second look when she claims to be a “Wrap Artist”. Yo-Yo-Yo!

I REMEMBER THE BIG BUSINESS DECISIONS-
OR SO I THOUGHT AT THE TIME

First biggie- an answering machine and a second telephone line to be my home based business’  “official” presence. (Yeah- dinosaur time here!)

Then a Yellow Pages listing- and being the only one in a category that didn’t exist they had to do some research to determine a SIC (Standard Industry Code). The good news was that I was the only one- so my listing expense was reasonable. But it was my first advertising- Yikes! Huge leap for this home based business. And again the answering machine conveyed to me (and hopefully those that would find my incredibly specialized service) a REAL business.

Then going to trade shows to find products.

I had sales reps like Franci Lopatin from Stephen Lawrence orMikeFallsfrom Packaging Services come to my business aka my basement and help me make intelligent purchases designed to grow my business.  Franci is still in the rep business- Mike is not. Stephen Lawrence got bought out, but Packaging Services is still my go-to for shopping bags, boxes, tissue and more.

And then my leap to a brick-and-mortar location. That took the help of a very supportive husband and son (O.K. they wanted the garage and the air hockey table back). But that and the belief that I could make that transition had me looking for space, buying not one but side by side buildings and opening in 2004. It’s hard to believe that it will be 8 years in April.

Lots more names and help have been shared with me over the years. And I suspect more will play a part in this ever growing business.

I will never forget my roots and those that have been a part of this success. Loyalty, trust and faith in my ideas with a healthy dose of reality from my “Brain Trust” and others, keeps me looking forward and building on previous successes and failures.

So here’s to 2012- let it be a break out year for my business and be especially good to family and friends, my customers, Michigan and the whole United States. We deserve it.

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