by Tina Manzer
“There is a store in Noe Valley in San Francisco that has, by far, the best merchandising of any store I’ve ever seen,” began an email I received from Lynn Sauter, a sales rep with SLS Arts. “It’s a small store in footprint but a very large store in surface coverage. Every inch offers products; all perfectly presented. The owners, David Eiland and his business partner Robert Ramsey, create ‘rooms’ within the space to sell the most diverse mix of products. They range from art supplies to watches and pens, and from kitchen accessories to games and eye ware. The common thread? Everything has great design.”
We couldn’t wait to find out more. Here’s the story.
Art Materials Retailer: Is Art Sake/Just for Fun/Scribbledoodles three stores in one?
David Eiland: Actually, it has four main components: general gifts, stationery, fine art supply and toys. My business partner, Robert, opened it in 1987 as a gift-and-toy store called Just for Fun.
We expanded first into personalized stationery. Greeting cards and stationery used to be overwhelmingly good, but now our custom stationery business is negligible – people simply don’t do parties they way they used to.
We didn’t start the art supply business until 2004 when we opened a freestanding storefront across the street. In 2007 or ’08 we moved it into the Just for Fun space. We take up three storefronts here totaling 4,800 square feet.
The two biggest departments driving our business are toys and art supplies. Sometimes toys are number one, sometimes art supplies are number one. I believe that by the end of this year, toys will be tops because of Christmas. Our fourth quarter is really good – about one-fifth our overall business.
How many SKUs do you carry?
I just looked it up: 85,679. That could be off by a couple of thousand up or down because greeting card companies, for instance, SKU by price point not design. There may be 100 titles of greeting cards under one SKU. By the same token, there may be whole categories that for some reason have not been purged from the computer.
A good portion of merchandise – Christmas ornaments, for example – sits in our warehouse until the fourth quarter.
In terms of art supplies, what sells best in Noe Valley?
Our art business is quite diverse and quite good. It’s probably the most consistent department we have and the easiest to buy for.
We got a boost when Flax closed in San Francisco a few months ago, but we’ve always done pretty well.
Sketchbooks and sketchpads sell best overall, but our number-one medium – and I’m sure this is true for everybody – is acrylic. I would say our number two is watercolors.
We do a really well with watercolor pencils of all kinds, from Cretacolor to Caran d’Ache. People like the idea of being able to sketch anywhere they want in color – not just in black. Then later, they sit down with a water brush and maybe a glass of wine or a cocktail and color it out. We put together our own kits. It’s become a really big category.
What toys sell best?
What art techniques are your customers into right now?
My art supply business is pretty basic. It’s funny, because we’ve been talking up pouring; talking up alcohol inks and other things that are trending in the industry right now, but our customers are just not interested. Yes, we sell pouring medium and supplies, and they sell okay, but it’s not a huge craze.
Our artist customers know exactly what they want. They work in a certain medium and always use the same specific products. Other people come in to be inspired. They want to see something different, and if they’re interested in finding out how a product works, I’ll clear a table and demo it right in the store, no problem. That’s how watercolor pencils became so popular around here.
Are your customers hobbyists, professionals, students or all three?
They are people who paint and/or craft and draw. Some people sell their work and others do it pretty much for themselves. Here’s a yardstick: when we had classes, every “beginner” class was full, every intermediate class was about three-quarters full, and advanced classes drew two or three people.
There is a group of friends who have been our customers now for 31 years. Art was something they had never done until we started selling supplies. Then it became convenient for them to come here and learn to draw. Now they’re retired and come into the store every day to buy something new to try.
Our children’s art department is right next to the LEGOs in the toy department. A lot of new craft kit companies have been doing well here for a couple of years. One is Kid Made Modern – we just got a new shipment from them yesterday.
The neighborhood is full of families with both parents working in the tech industry. The shuttle buses stop in front of my store every day to take them to Silicon Valley. If it weren’t for the nannies, we wouldn’t have to open during the week until the afternoon. They keep us busy between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. and late in the afternoon. That’s also when we see the “ladies who lunch” crowd.
Ask any parent – the hardest person to buy for is someone between the ages of 12 and 16. But if a kid loves to draw at all, he will love a manga kit. We put some together that have everything he needs.
Students who come in specifically for art supplies will wander around and buy other stuff, like the funky, irreverent socks by Blue Q, bags and backpacks, and novelty items from NPW from England.
Funky/cool stuff is just one part of our mix. I have a whole kitchen/housewares department that is very basic. I do not buy guitar-shaped spatulas, but I do have funny T-towels, along with traditional flour sack and terrycloth. We carry Kilner canning supplies from England. They do really great jars and bottles for storage.
How’s retail, in general, where you are?
There are vacant storefronts on our street now, but it was worse a few months ago. Most of them have been leased and are waiting for city approval – a slow process in San Francisco – and four buildings are under earthquake retrofit.
So foot traffic is down overall, but our per-sale is up. Our store is good, we’re happy, but we’re not growing at the rate that we used to. I will never have another 1999 and 2000. The store will never make that much money again, but it was a boom time that ended in a bust. I would rather have slow and steady.
Here’s what I say to the naysayers in our merchants’ association: when your business is down, you are always ready to blame the Amazons, the tech world, and many other factors. If you’re going to play the blame game, you probably should close your store. I cannot abide the retailers who complain that there’s no foot traffic. Make the most of the foot traffic you do have!
You can make it work. Become creative and make changes. Make your store visually exciting, a tactile experience. Make people want to touch it, pick it up, and find out more about it. If you have a fun, exciting, vibrant store, people are going to want to shop in it.
Do you have specific merchandising tips you can share?
Sure, but remember: I’m not a boutique retailer. I’m a push-and-shove merchandiser. I use every square inch of ceiling, wall and floor for product. I can’t afford to put just nine things on a table just because it’s pretty. Not at city rents. So here is my advice.
• Make your displays make sense. For instance, people should be able to consider their choices of canvas, sketchpads and pencils all in one place. That way, you won’t be running people back and forth comparing items. If they ask you a question, you can stand right there and explain why you like this one versus that one, and so on.
• Be extensive in all the categories you carry. When I spot something that will work. I won’t buy just one. I’ll look for every product in that category and create a big department.
• Use every square inch of space. Don’t let shoppers look at a blank wall or a half-empty shelf. I don’t want to have two clocks on a 4-foot shelf, I want 20 clocks and they should all be different!
• Same with readymade frames. Our frame wall features 60 or so different styles. Each of them has a number on the back. Customers bring the frame to the register, tell me how many they want, and I retrieve them from the back room. That way we have space to show them our total selection. The broader the better.