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How to Open a School Supply Store

Like swallows returning to Capistrano, you can count on finding office supply and department stores overflowing with school supplies as early as July. These stores stock paper, scissors, notebooks and calculators, but many parents want more than basics. Satisfy their need by opening a school supply store that goes the extra mile, stocking products and offering amenities big box stores lack. If you’re reading this, you probably have great ideas for partnering with area schools and doing some creative merchandising. Sounds like a plan--especially if you make that plan unique to your area. You’ll stand a terrific chance of succeeding if you’re eager to offer students, parents and teachers a shopping experience they won’t find anywhere else.

Get a map of your area and highlight every school in your target area. Locate a point that is central to all of them, and shop for a retail location in that zone. Save time and energy by asking a Realtor to help. He knows neighborhoods that are unfamiliar to you so he can short-circuit your frustration by pointing out retail stores in dangerous neighborhoods, those with onerous zoning restrictions and the real commerce-killer: venues that lack adequate customer parking.

Write business and marketing plans that take into account the 3-month traffic gap you will experience over the summer months. Find ways to drive traffic during summer months. Savvy school suppliers have been known to expand merchandise offerings to include holiday, party, toy and gift lines that coordinate with a year-round inventory of school supplies, so keep that in mind as you plan.

Expect to invest up to $250,000 in your start-up--per National School Supply & Equipment Association (NSSEA) research studies--to accomplish renovations, add or update computer equipment and pay security deposits toward rent and utilities. You’ll need funds for marketing and advertising, but the biggest item on your shopping list will be inventory. Remember that these start-up costs don’t take into account salaries, benefits, insurance, maintenance and other expenses associated with running a retail outlet.

Square away your legal and financial obligations. Apply for sales tax credentials, set up a payroll and withholding tax accounts, and pay fees required to obtain occupancy licenses and other documentation. Find out what it will cost to insure the shop against theft, fire, floods, contents and liability claims; choose the best coverage you can afford.

Attend trade shows well in advance of your store's grand opening to meet vendors and select merchandise. Bring comfortable shoes and a thick notebook. Tour the entire venue at least once before you start ordering to avoid placing a big order with a vendor just inside the front door only to find you could have negotiated a better one at the back of the hall. Use vendor booth positioning to your benefit by starting at the back. Collect catalogs, price lists and promotional materials. Ask about show discounts. Once you settle on companies you’d like to do business with, ask if you can open a line of credit with them. By the way, it’s OK to order merchandise after the show; you needn't feel pressured to order on-site.

Set a grand opening date well in advance of the arrival of merchandise to allow some slack for items arriving after promised dates. Stock shelves, take inventory, dress your window and try out your computer system. Have a security system installed. Once you're up and running, start a purchase order system for future shopping trips. Your continued financial health is all that's required for using purchase orders rather than cash when you shop--and in some cases, you might even be offered delayed billing terms.


Turn to the NSSEA Retail Store Council with questions or concerns about opening or operating your school supply store. This nonprofit serves those who supply our national school system, and it has helped many school supply start-ups learn the ropes.


Based in Chicago, Gail Cohen has been a professional writer for more than 30 years. She has authored and co-authored 14 books and penned hundreds of articles in consumer and trade publications, including the Illinois-based "Daily Herald" newspaper. Her newest book, "The Christmas Quilt," was published in December 2011.