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Building your Stationery Business: Where to Sell, What to Sell and How to Grow – feat. Erin Sarpa of Stationery HQ

November 17, 2020

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Marketing tactics for a retail shop location
What I wish I knew about wholesale (Before I started wholesale)
Taking an intentional break from social media

Today, we’re bringing Erin Sarpa on the show to share her wisdom on growing and scaling a stationery business. And you definitely don’t want to miss this episode because friends, Erin is the REAL deal. Around 15 years ago Erin and her business partner launched a licensed art division, becoming top sellers on and beating out Martha Stewart’s line on KodakGallery. The brand eventually graced fabric collections, dinnerware, school supplies and personal stationery at major national big box stores. Listen in to hear the big takeaways for growing your business and industry trend predictions straight from a fellow seasoned stationer who knows the industry like the back of her hand. 

Let’s be friends! Find us on Instagram @bizbirthdaybash.

Tell us about Stationery HQ’s main offerings and what you provide most often for your clients.

Custom Stationery at Wholesale Prices for Creatives

Erin (5:13)

We do custom stationery and gifts in small quantities at wholesale prices for creative professionals. So there are people who order retail from our site. But the vast majority of our customers are designers, I get the wholesale pricing. And our top selling products are pretty much cards and a seven and a two cards are the daily thing that’s ordered more than anything else. 

Hopes to see wedding suites make a comeback

And under normal circumstances, we do a ton of wedding suites, we’re really good at using the fine papers and putting a set together. That looks beautiful in the end, which doesn’t sound like much if you’re doing one set at a time. But when you’re printing thousands and thousands of cards at a time to batch up, all those pieces in a suite that go together actually takes a lot of processes and good technology. So we’re really good at it. And products seem to sell in cycles. Like funny custom mugs are trending big time. And we’re seeing a ton of those coming through our shop for whatever reason. And right now we have a weird number of binders being ordered. And I’m guessing it’s because so many people are working from home and kids are going to school at home. And so it’s an organizational tool. And so it’s a nice gift. But it’s practical, too. So we’re doing a lot of binders right now. So the products trend, I think depending on what’s going on in the world. Hopefully, there will be tons of weddings coming back soon. And I think we’ll see probably a big increase in wedding suites again.

What type of stationery do you think is the best for businesses to start off sellings? Wedding invitations, products, greeting cards, etc? Is there a “preferred” place to start?

Erin (7:10)

Ask Yourself: “What do I like to design most?”

 I think the answer comes from who you are and what you like to design more than anything else. And I think they’re questions to ask yourself, if you’re launching your business do you want to spend time with people and create an original for every client. So weddings are great, because the average order value is high. But you’re limited to the time that you have available to spend with them. And finding another bride for your next project might be harder than if you wanted to sell a greeting card that anyone could purchase? 

Ask yourself: “Do I have passion for a certain topic or feel?”

Another question would be Do you have a passion for a certain topic or sentiment, like if you love humor, and you want to do funny cards that you know, touch on real things. If you love that, it’ll sell better for you. I think I think when you’re really into what you’re doing, but your audience feels it, and you’ll do better with it. 

Ask yourself: “Do I want to focus on scalability?”

And the other question would be are you looking for a scalable product line that’s easy to grow? So if you are then maybe custom one off items aren’t the answer. Because each one you know you need to fill in the information or set up your website to fill in the information and print them one at a time or 10 cards at a time where if you were just printing, I don’t know wall calendars that were not custom. You could do those by the thousands at a time. And it would take you the same amount of time to print one as it takes to print 500. So I think those are the questions to ask yourself, are you how do you want to spend your time? How much money are you trying to make? But an easy answer like an easy way into selling stationery would be to start with flat card sets because they’re really inexpensive to produce, I think on our site with the wholesale discount. I think it’s maybe $4 for a set of 10 cards, don’t quote me because I’m not looking at our pricing right now. But it’s right in that zone. It’s really inexpensive, so easy. No big barriers to entry. It’s easy to set up files for a flat card. And you have a big potential audience because you’re selling it at a pretty low price point which is easy for a buyer to purchase. It’s not a hard decision when it’s an under $10 item typically.

Elisabeth (9:21)

Right so when you are saying flat cards is that kind of like personalized not even personalized just like social stationery, social stationery, okay? 

Erin (9:30)

Yep. thank you cards. Yeah and they could be custom or not custom. 

Where should you think about selling your stationery? 

Erin (17:00)

So how I got started selling stationery was back when tiny prints was launching, they were looking for designers. And because I had been married to a printer I had been doing my own Christmas cards for years and years before you could order them through a website. But so I started with them and had a huge collection on their site. And then that led to collections on other sites, which was great. 

Consider Hiring an Agent 

And then I wanted to expand into other products. And so we got an agent who represented us. And that’s how we got dinnerware and fabric and bedding and all that stuff. She had the contacts, and she represented us. And I would recommend that if you want to like really blow out your sales, if you want to go huge. Get an agent. That’s the answer to that if you’re not looking at that kind of scale. So starting your own site is obviously really doable. And now there’s so many great programs, so many platforms. So even if you’re not a developer, it’s really easy to build a site in Wix or in Shopify, and they have all the tools for you. etsy is a great place to start a store, they already have millions of customers, I will say it’s pretty saturated. And it’s hard to get to the top at Etsy to the top of the page when people are searching for something. So you have to do you have to still do some of your own marketing, even if you’re an Etsy seller, if you want to actually make money at it, but it’s a great place to start for sure. You could also if you wanted to look at brick and mortar shops, 

Do stationery businesses need social media? How should they best market themselves? 

Social Media is a Primary Branding and Sales Tool for Stationers

Erin (25:00)

So I think you have to do it. I think there’s no escaping it anymore. The ways that people go looking for the things that they buy, are always going to include feeds either Pinterest or Instagram are, that’s how people shop now. So social media is a great way to find the people who might love your vibe. And it’s a primary brand building tool, really, for a lot of successful stationery designers that I know. 

When it comes to scaling/growing a stationery business, what are some key things people should keep in mind?

Outsourcing is key 

Erin (32:42)

So what I learned is that having great resources is everything. So if you have people and providers that you trust to take care of your manufacturing or shipping your marketing, I don’t mean necessarily hiring people, I mean, contractors that will work for you, the more you can hand off the stuff that doesn’t require you the stuff that someone else could do for you. The more you hand off, the more free you are to focus on your business and your design collections, which is what you should be spending most of your time on. So I wouldn’t hire a bunch of people necessary. But I would make sure that I had really good relationships with lots of different types of contract. Even if social media is something that you don’t know how to do. You know, you need to do it. There’s lots of people out there that can do it for you. So find those people and create relationships with them. So I think outsourcing is what you need to do to grow.

Is it possible for a stationery business to always stay a “one woman” (or man) show or do you think it’s inevitable that you have to bring people on your team?

Ask Yourself: “What are my financial/work-time goals?” 

Erin (44:27)

Yeah, so I think it’s definitely possible to stay a one woman show if that’s what you want your business to be. It’s really just a question of the importance of work life balance and income. So how much money do you want to make and how much time do you want to spend doing what you’re doing? So for me, I hired people because I wanted to make a lot of money. But I also wanted to be able to drive on my kids field trips and only go into the office three days a week because the other two days were for them. So I definitely think it’s possible. It’s just a question of You’re probably not going to get wildly wealthy if you never grow beyond yourself because you can only be as big as your capacity, which isn’t to say, I mean, there’s probably designers on minted that are, you know, one person studio that just they put out a ton of designs. And if they hit it right, and they become a favorite, they can make a lot of money through card royalties, but that’s a whole different model, right? That’s passive income. So you don’t have to spend so many hours in the day. But yeah, so I think it’s possible. I think you just have to know what are you? What are you looking for? What are your goals?

From your viewpoint, is the stationery industry under “threat” from the world moving in a more digital direction? How can we continue to make paper products extra special and desirable?

Stationery Isn’t Going Anywhere

Erin (46:25)

So I have been here because I’m married to a printer. I’ve been hearing for almost 30 years, that print is dying, and it’s going away. And what are we going to do when print goes away? And clearly it has not happened we’ve made a really good life for ourselves based on printed materials. And I think stationery is bigger than ever, because retailers like Target told their shoppers that they could expect high end design at affordable prices. So every person now is looking for cute cards and cute stationery instead of you know, there was a time that you had to go to your local station or and it would cost you lots of money and you sat and had a consultation. And that was for people only with a certain income were now anyone can buy a really well designed piece and anyone can order a custom card that they can afford now. 

So and and sites like minted and tiny prints have brought stationery into the digital revolution. So yes, everything digital is happening. But it’s also how people shop. But it doesn’t mean they only shop for things they can’t touch and feel Amazon’s not going out of business because they have stuff people want. So no, I think and I think in this current time to when we’re really reflecting on our humaneness and our connections to other people. I think we’re the pendulum is gonna swing back toward reaching out more and celebrating more and hopefully sending cards more. So no, I think there’s going to be a revival honestly. 

Standing out in the Saturated Stationery Market 

And I will say that it is hard to compete right now in stationery, because the market is pretty saturated. A lot of people have figured out how to do this business. And there’s a lot of really talented designers out there. So I think the bigger issue not isn’t that that nobody wants to buy stationery, the bigger issue is how do you stand apart from other brands that are also selling stationery?

So I think in in terms of your question about, you know, how do we make products extra special and desirable. Definitely customization, or personalization, you can call it either one that’s really attractive, and they can’t just go to their local store and buy the custom gift or stationery set. And online shoppers really like it. That’s that’s trending big custom monogrammed items. So that’s a good trend. And I would say keep in mind that that sending a card and or buying a gift for someone is really personal and thoughtful act. And designer needs to ask herself How does the thing that I make help a customer feel really good about giving it to someone they care about? So at the end of the day, it’s about sentiment and feelings. And so if you’re really thinking about that, then I think you can do great in this industry.

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