Meet Peggy Gomez, owner of Gomez Art Supply in Lincoln, Nebraska.
by Tina Manzer
She has a BFA from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and an MFA from the University of Minnesota – Minneapolis. Before she opened her store in 2003, Peggy spent about 10 years teaching drawing and then printmaking at UNL. “I was there every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and I would hear the students’ disgruntled conversations about the stores where they bought their art supplies,” she explains. “I think they felt not appreciated. Supplies are expensive, so I get it.”
When Peggy was an undergrad, she shopped at mom-and-pop art stores – Lincoln had a few then. She loved their personalized service and product knowledge, and wanted today’s students to enjoy the same experience. “At Gomez Art Supply, we make sure they get the right things on their student supply lists,” Peggy says, “and if we don’t have a kit put together for someone taking a class at the university, we make sure they don’t overbuy.”
Gomez Art Supply occupies two storefronts – about 1,400 square feet – on the ground floor of the Parrish Building downtown. “The basement has retail on one side, back stock on the other and then we have two lofts,” Peggy says. “One of them is my office and the other is a gift shop we call The Glove Box Collective. It’s stuff made by people who work here. We’re all printmakers and we do a lot of printing in-house. We screen our canvas bags, aprons, and the paper bags that hold customer purchases.”
In response to my question, “How’s business?” Peggy told me that her numbers for 2020 were the same as they were in 2019. “I’m happy with that. Normally I’d expect some growth, but given the year we had, I’d call it a success. My holiday season has never been anything to write home about, but in 2020 it was the best I ever had.”
In a recent interview, we talked about her store in the pandemic (she never shut down), how she gets the word out, and doing business in a college town.
How important are your student customers to your success?
They’re so important! The university is only a few blocks away. But last semester was not typical so I was surprised at the way our numbers turned out.
For instance, the university’s beginning painting class might normally have 22 students, but in 2020, that was too many for the size of the classroom. Instead of all of them going to class twice a week like they usually do, the instructor taught one group on Monday and the other on Wednesday. It meant that the students did half the amount of work that they normally would, so they didn’t have to replenish their supplies!
What made business even more difficult was the architectural students – they built no models at all! They were doing everything virtually, which, of course, made sense. Thankfully, we’re three weeks into this new semester and they are building models. I think the art department is still doing half and half with the classes, but we’re very happy to see the architecture students coming in!
Who are your non-student customers?
They’re all kinds of people, and all ages. Some come in with their 10-year-olds looking for activities to do together. Faber-Castell and some other companies make really great kids products that we’ve just recently started to sell. We created a small kids’ section up front by the window. It was a good investment.
Many, mostly women, do dying. It’s a big trend. One customer comes in often to buy soda ash, and Jacquard’s iDye, iDye Poly, and Procion Dyes. She says she buys T-shirts at the thrift store and dyes them. She’s created a whole stockpile. When the weather is nicer, she’ll set up something outside somewhere so that people can go and buy them.
There’s a new customer in the store right now who has been watching Bob Ross and wants to start painting. He called before he came in to inquire whether or not we had the products he needed. He had no idea what to expect. Some people think that because we’re a small local store, our products are more expensive and we don’t have a wide selection. I try to dispel that perception with the ads I run on NPR that say, “Three Floors of Art Supplies!”
Do you think more people are creating?
I think at the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of people came in to find something to do to keep busy. Then our local media stepped up their coverage of local businesses with story after story. I think the huge push across the country to “shop local” helped save us. It brought in new customers.
What other ways do you use to get the word out to customers?
I’ve only recently upgraded to a POS system from an old cash register. Once I did, we were able to get more information so we could reach out to them. We also use Pointy – have you heard of it? It’s an Irish company that was recently purchased by Google. Pointy helps shoppers find the products they need in my store. It’s an interesting company – it connects to my point-of-sale system and automatically adds my in-store inventory to my business profile and to a Pointy Page for my store.
I’m not set up to sell online yet. That, for me, would be a big jump. I’m in a quandary about what to do about e-commerce, but at least when customers search for my store on Google they can see what products I offer.
What changes did you make to accommodate customers during the pandemic?
We spent a lot of time on the phone. When it rang we would all kind of look at each other and think, “Who’s going to take this call?” We were grateful for the business, but it was hard, to be honest, to be someone’s personal shopper. If they knew exactly what they wanted – “I need a Gamblin Professional Burnt Umber in a 37 ml” – it was easy. But if they didn’t know, it took us 20 or 30 minutes on the phone, walking them through the store. We’d take their payment over the phone, too, and get it all ready for them to pick up. They’d pull up in the alley next to us and give us a call. We’d run the order out to them.
Frankly, for the customers who know what they want, it’s easier for them to just order it from Amazon. We understand that, and are so grateful they come to us.
We also did Free Delivery Fridays to destinations in town. That required me to leave here in the early afternoon and return three or four hours later after I made all the deliveries. Driving is not my favorite activity, but it was one more thing that we needed to do.
We started free bicycle delivery within a 5-mile radius of downtown, but then my delivery guy retired.
I’ve been thinking of doing Free Delivery Friday again. It might be easier if I made the delivery area smaller. And I couldn’t do it until spring. The weather in the last few weeks has made it really hard to get around. We had to have a snow day during back-to-school week! That week is always stressful, but predictably so. The snow made it more of a wild card.
Will those services continue post-pandemic?
Some of it will, if that’s what our customers want. We’re more than happy to do whatever they want. But people like to come into an art store. They like to look around, touch the brushes, or pick up a piece of paper. Selling paper over the phone is impossible!
What’s your product mix like?
We sell a lot of paper. It takes up a lot of room in the store. Everyone who works here is a printmaker, so we’re really knowledgeable about paper. We have a lot of support from the university.
We sell a lot of individual brushes. I’m a huge Dee Silver fan, and we carry a lot from Silver Brush. We have other brands, too.
We sell a lot of acrylic – I carry four different brands. After that it’s oil, then gouache, and then watercolor.
We do a great kit business for students. This will be our third year selling Beginning Architecture kits, which are about $400. Blick did the kits for years, even after it closed its Lincoln store in 2008. They would build the kits in their Omaha store, drive them down to the university and sell them in the classroom. If there was a problem, like a student’s T-square was not square, it wasn’t easy for him or her to exchange it for a new one. Someone who really had my back in the architecture department said, “You know, we should be dealing locally for this.” For the university it’s not that big of a deal, but for me it is huge.
Where do you get ideas for new products to bring in?
A lot comes from Instagram, and then just listening to customers. My staff does a good job of telling me what products customers mention.
I go to the SLS conference, but not every year. I’ll do Art Materials World this year – it’s virtual so why not? I don’t typically go to the in-person event because it’s held at a difficult time of year for me. We’re always really busy in March and April because the semester is still going on.
What do you like best about running an art store?
I like how big a part of the community we are. It’s something I wouldn’t have predicted, when I first opened. Two or three years ago, we won a Mayor’s Art Award called Heart of the Art. It recognized the contributions the store makes to the local art community.
And for some reason, I really love to order. When I was a print tech at the university, I ordered all the supplies for the shop and I was like, man – I really enjoy this. I love researching the products.