Friday, August 20, 2010

The exact point at which her specialty retail dream came true is a little sketchy, with all the exciting opportunities it has afforded her since April 1997. But Marci remembers that first early-morning trip to her new "headquarters on wheels." The cart in which she invested everything sat bare in the White Marsh Mall in Abingdon, MD. She remembers the fresh smell of polished oak, the echo from the desolate hallways, and the butterflies that fluttered in her stomach just before the doors of the mall were to open.

"I was so nervous the first day that I was reluctant to leave the cart at all," Marci recalls. "I remember asking a person to watch my purse every time I had to leave." But the purse held little that day: she had invested all she had—$2,000—into the business.

"That was not a lot of money, and some people would say they couldn't get started with that. But you can if you're willing to work, reinvest your income, and realize the great opportunity carts provide in getting your work out there."

Inspired with a zeal to succeed that had her working 80 hours a week, Marci continuously looked for ways to improve the marketability of her product, from folding T-shirts in a way that highlighted the imprinted designs, to capitalizing on her color scheme. "Black-and-white makes a big statement when you're in a colorful mall, and it allows me to merchandise differently for every holiday... If I wanted to use red packaging and red tissue, it coordinated well... If I wanted to use green, that worked as well."

Now she uses some high-tech strategies to market the cart, such as her website. "I don't sell through the site. It's set up to be informative and provide the consumer with more information on where to buy my products." For 12 years before 1997, Marci Struzinski (she no longer uses her surname) earned a modest income hand-painting floral designs on women's apparel. But the self-taught artist says she received some divine guidance encouraging her to do more with her talent—designing simple figures in black ink on white backgrounds, with brief messages of acceptance and inspiration about "basic family values and beliefs that many people are looking for," she explains.

Selling from a cart gives her daily contact with her market, allowing her to capture the thoughts and feelings she shares with them. "From the perspective of an artist and a designer, to be able to bring my work right out to the public and get first-hand reaction is priceless," she says. "I get as much inspiration from customers as I give to them, because they constantly reinforce what I'm doing and thank me for what I create. And when you're working hard, you need that."

Specialty retailing has also given her mobility. In 1998, she moved to the Harford Mall, which offered more space and opportunity. "I made the move, first, to be closer to home, and second, to get the sales figures that would be paid attention to," she explains. "There are consumers with more money to spend at the mall I chose to move to."

The move translated into a $100,000 annual income. "I'm still not in a killer mall. I'm sure there are probably 100 other malls in the country where I could do twice that amount with my cart."

Within two years of opening her cart, Marci signed with a licensing agent (Art Impressions of Canoga Park, CA), who introduced her to several manufacturers. Papel Giftware (Cranbury, NJ) produces a line of key chains, mugs and ceramic picture frames with Children of the Inner Light design. And Stephen Lawrence, also in New Jersey, is interested in licensing gift bags and wrapping paper. Marci says licensing will help continue her dream of developing a more diverse line of merchandise, such as dolls, gold and silver jewelry, and the licensed apparel concept that already generates significant sales. "I'm selling a $47 hand-painted Children of the Inner Light denim shirt that I can't keep in stock."

Her cart program also catapulted her T-shirt line into the national spotlight. "I've recently partnered with Coed Sportswear, Inc. (Newfields, NH) to distribute my T-shirts nationally. We'll be making our debut at the Atlanta Gift Show in January." And as if all of this weren't keeping her busy enough, she's also working toward publishing a book of daily inspirational thoughts.

As in any business, Marci has had some surprises during her entrepreneurial career, starting with her first drawing of a newborn. She targeted the drawing to children because she thought adults would not identify with the concept. Much to her surprise, adults began requesting her designs for products geared toward the mature market.

What started as 26 greeting cards has grown to include a portfolio of T-shirts, matted frames and wall hangings depicting licensed Children of the Inner Light designs. She is also recognized as a point of contact for other would-be specialty retailers. "So many people come through the mall, see my set-up and say 'Can you tell me how to do it?' In fact, I think my cart program has tremendous potential for being a nationwide entity with franchise potential."

She says her next step in specialty retail is to move from a cart to a kiosk. "I have so many products now, that I'm looking to develop a great holiday and Christmas program." As for the time commitment, she says, "You really only need to work eight weeks a year to make tons of money. It's common for carts to do $60,000 to $80,000 in eight weeks. So I can continue my cart program in addition to having my products in gift stores all over the country throughout the year."

According to Scott MacHardy, owner and licensing director of Coed Sportswear, Marci's cart program is what catalyzed the company's interest. "On a tip from a good source, I happened to be in her area, and her entire cart really helped me understand what she was trying to accomplish. That's how I got excited about doing the apparel end of it." MacHardy attests that he's "a big fan of carts and kiosks anyway, and I liked the way she was using a lot of wicker fixtures, tables... It really worked for me. Everything really hung together nicely."

Born of her experience and success, Marci has advice for rookie specialty merchants:

  • Be there. Be willing to work a lot of hours yourself—especially if you're testing a new product—because what you learn first-hand from customers is invaluable.
  • Put together a cohesive collection of product, and show it in a neat, attractive way, so customers have variety.
  • Let the mall help you with merchandising and promotional tips.
  • Have literature available to give to customers. "It's an extra expense, but putting together a fold-over brochure explaining my history and my concept is the best investment I've made." Many times people will stop and look but won't buy, so give them something to remember you with.
  • Make the customer happy, no matter what.

Marci takes customer happiness seriously. She even altered her identity, just to make things easier for them. "I found that my last name—Struzinski—was so difficult for people to write on the check, that I opened my business account under the name 'Marci,'" she says. "Being an artist, I just sign everything with my first name." She even set up her telephone account that way. The phone company representative said, "What? Like Cher?" And with that same independence, talent and moxie, she said, "Yeah! Marci."

Tom R. Arterburn is Executive Director of The Resume Institute.

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