by Maria Bucci
In 1981, when Kira Stigile was a little girl, she used to climb up on a bucket to watch her mother Larene cut and stretch canvas. Larene’s little business in the family’s garage grew over the years to become Quality Art Supply Inc., a wholesale and retail business based in Garden City, Idaho, just north of Boise.
Today, Kira is the boss. She “officially” joined the business 17 years ago, when she graduated from high school; just a year after the family lost Larene to leukemia. “We went through a difficult time then, but we had to pull ourselves together,” she says. “I had a lot to learn.”
She managed to earn an Associate’s degree in accounting and took some art classes at the local community college, but the most valuable lessons came from her parents and from growing up in the business. Kira recalls the time her mother handed her a stack of software manuals and said, “Figure this out and tell me what I need to buy.”
“My mother and grandmother taught oil-painting classes, but they were frustrated with the quality of the pre-stretched artist canvases that were available at the time,” explains Kira. “My mother made her own, and sold them to her students and to other instructors around Boise.”
By 1985, Quality Art was incorporated and Kira’s mother moved the business into a building owned by her husband Brett. She proved right away that she was a savvy businesswoman. “Her business was so successful that my dad sold his PVC pipe factory and went into business with her,” notes Kira. Together, Brett and Larene fine-tuned and grew Quality Art’s manufacturing capacity, and later started wholesaling product to art stores, instructors, and galleries throughout the West. They focused on quality fine-art supplies.
“The summer months could be very slow,” Kira remembers. “My grandmother was teaching in one of the local schools and she told my mom that most of the purchasing of school supplies was done in the summer.” Seeing an opportunity, the Stigiles built an inventory of art & craft products that would appeal to teachers and produced a catalog. Each spring, Kira’s grandfather and father called on schools and day-care centers across the region to show them that catalog. Quality Art quickly became known as a leading distributor of school art & craft supplies, like construction paper, pompoms, chenille stems, popsicle sticks and scissors.
“That was important to us because it helped fill those gaps in the calendar when business was slower,” says Kira. “It offered a consistent source of revenue and kept us from having to lay off employees.”
Recently, automation has made fulfillment more efficient. Orders are entered into the computer, and then they’re processed, pulled, and scanned as they go into a box or onto a pallet. Packing lists are generated and everything is processed through a streamlined shipping department.
The school business remains important to Quality Art’s bottom line despite cuts to school arts-program budgets and changes in the way schools purchase supplies. The store’s reach has expanded beyond Idaho to school districts around the country, but “percent dollar wise, this portion of the business is not as big as it used to be for us, even though our customer base has grown each year,” reports Kira.
To generate new school business, Quality Art offers workshops for teachers in a school district to show them new products or techniques.
They continue to print a catalog for that market, but Kira relies more and more on the business’s website to showcase products. The site was completely redeveloped last year and as Kira reports, “It’s great. We can add or remove products at any time and update pricing. Each customer can create an account; they can log in at any time to review specials, the status of an order, or to communicate with us.”
Word Travels Fast
Spreading the word was important to Quality Art’s success and in many cases, its customers were the best evangelists. “Artists tend to hop around to different galleries and studios, and they tell people about the products they use and where to get them,” says Kira.
Every Stigile family vacation included a visit to potential customers. “If we drove through a town in a nearby state and spotted an art supply store or an RV park, we’d stop in. My parents would explain who we were and show them what our business had to offer,” remembers Kira.
Their informal networking paid off. Today, Quality Art serves hundreds of customers throughout the country who operate mom-and-pop businesses; mostly galleries and studios that have small retail operations. “Many of them are artists who sell to their students. This is a built-in customer base for us,” she explains.”
“Most distributors will only sell entire packages to retail operators, but we’re unique – if one of our retailers calls to say that a customer wants a special order of one tube of paint, we will ship that one tube of paint. It’s a level of customer service that we remain committed to. Our mission is to support small, local retailers.
The Stigiles also cultivated relationships with art teachers, including Bob Ross instructors. “We still ship a lot of product into RV parks where snowbirds and retirees are learning to paint,” reports Kira. “It’s not uncommon for us to drop-ship a full pallet of canvases, paints, brushes, and other supplies into RV parks in Arizona and Florida, especially in the winter months.”
When Larene got sick, the business was in the middle of a growth spurt. Brett had just built a new 20,000-square-foot building for it, so when Kira’s younger sister Sheena graduated from high school, she also came on board. After many years, she left to start a family and a craft blog called The Keeper of the Cheerios
Brett is semiretired now and lives in Hawaii. He returns to Idaho to help out when he’s needed, and still makes sales calls. “All the customers know my dad and I rely on him a lot.”
Kira also relies on the expertise of a few dedicated employees. “We currently have 11 full-time people on the payroll. I make an effort to hire for the long term. Our manager Kathy Earnhart has worked for us for 15 years and handles everything when I cannot. She is my troubleshooter. Another employee, Yvonne Haroldson, who has been with us for 10 years, processes the majority of customer orders. She is the person most people talk to when they call.”
Some employees have an art background, but many do not. “We make sure they are all familiar with the products we stock, and with the entire operation really, so they can jump in as needed. Everyone wears a lot of hats. Whoever is pulling orders, for instance, can also box them up. When shipments come in, everyone helps to check in the products.”
Today, Quality Art and its product mix are evolving. Although it still has capacity on-site to manufacture art canvases for instance, it does not. “We listen to our customers,” says Kira. “They let us know what the trends are and how we can fill their needs.”
A large portion of sales comes from ready-made frames. “We are probably one of the largest suppliers of ready-made frames in the West,” says Kira. Gallery size and frames for plein air artists are the most popular.
The frame market is not a new one for Quality Art. Kira’s parents used to drive to the factories in Mexico and haul back as much stock as they could fit into their fifth-wheel trailer. “We have been dealing with the same company in Mexico for more than 20 years,” she adds. “They supply most of our standard stock items, but we also get product from China; mostly composite material rather than wood.”
Something For Everyone
Last year, traditional retail sales – brick-and-mortar and online combined – accounted for about 30 percent of Quality Art’s total revenue, and in-store sales continue to grow. Merchandising displays take up more floor space than ever before, and another register was added. “We’ve built a regional reputation among the kinds of customers who buy in bulk, like teachers and daycare providers, but we also have individual rack items for customers who come in off the street,” explains Kira. “Some of our regular customers call us ‘the Costco of art supplies.’”
To help generate sales among local artists, art classes for adults are offered two or three times a week in the building’s small classroom. “Nationally known artists have lead some of our classes, including Bill Blackman [oil painter, “Seascape Art”] and Gary Jenkins [“The Beauty of Oil Painting” television series],” states Kira.
The Stigiles have supported community art projects and festivals for years as participants, sponsors, and donors. Boise has a growing urban art movement as evidenced by the murals in Freak Alley downtown, the largest outdoor gallery in the Northwest; the strong watercolor scene, and a variety of art and culture festivals. Each month the downtown galleries host an evening open house that pulls people in from around the area. “We work with a lot of local artists and try to support their efforts to get people excited about art,” says Kira.
Other avenues of opportunity include a contract with the U.S. Forestry Service to provide pallets of orange tempera paint. (It’s applied to the rotors of helicopters during fire season.) Kira looks for similar open doors all the time. “There is a lot to keep track of and things change constantly, especially with technology and the move to digital retail,” she says. “We are having discussions now about how it fits into our business, and how to stay on top of all the new products, techniques, and services that customers are interested in. It keeps us on our toes.”