by Cindy Atoji Keene
Being quick to capitalize on trends such as Beanie Boos, Rainbow Looms and Minecraft – and being smart about marketing and product supply – are a fine balancing act that Meg Anderson Lavoie has perfected at The Paper Store. As a buyer at the family-owned and operated specialty gift stores, Lavoie plans and selects merchandise that she hopes will offer a one-stop shopping excursion, including collectibles and fashion accessories, stationary and books, gourmet foods and home decor, and toys and games. “It’s all about timing – getting the right product at the right time before the fad goes in the other direction,” said Lavoie, who grew up watching her father, Bob Anderson, grow the business from a stationary store to a chain of over 42 stores in New England.
Q: How do you manage such a diverse retail collection of products?
A: Our stores average 8,500 square feet in size and we carry familiar brands like Vera Bradley and Hallmark but we layer these with third-party unbranded products as well as proprietary products that we’ve developed over time. I like to say that we have 12 independent businesses or stores within the store, and we can contract or expand our lines like an accordion. We set up our shops so we can execute this in a very nimble way.
Q: Who’s your target customer?
A: The typical shopper is a 35-65 year old woman, probably a busy mom or working professional who wants to get some errands done and would rather not get stuck in a mall. Our stores do best when they’re located near a grocery store – it’s a convenience issue. They’re coming to us to buy gifts and cards but we also have added other things like fashion, as it’s one of the fastest growing categories and also a self-purchase for shoppers – something they buy for themselves.
Q. What drew you to the buying department in this family business? A: My sister and I are both buyers. There are five of in the business, with my brothers handling development, IT, e-commerce, and other aspects. I like to joke that my dad somehow got us all involved by asking us to help out for ‘just a couple of weeks.’ I started in the books department and then began traveling to gift shows with my mom, who was also helping to manage the business. Now my sister and I both oversee buying along with our staff, which includes a jewelry, fashion, gift, and book buyer.
Q: What’s an example of how trends can come and go? A: There was a time when Webkinz – those toy stuffed animals with a playable online counterpart – were huge. But we had Webkinz too early and got out of them completely. Then sources started telling us to get back into it, so we did, and this time, sales were awesome. They were a huge percentage of sales for a while and we put the profits back into the business to open more stores and change up our fixtures.
Q: Everyone guesses wrong – what did you think would be hot and busted?
A: Remember the rubber band craze last year, silly bandz? They were the fastest overnight hit, and we had florescent ones, animals, alphabet shapes. and more. The Red Sox ones were doing awesome. Then all of a sudden schools started banning them, then summer came, and the fad just hit the brakes. I’ve never seen anything die so fast. We got left holding some inventory for that one.
Q: People who love shopping would say that you have a dream job. Do you agree?
A: A lot of people think being a buyer is all about just picking out the products, but it’s a lot of numbers and analysis. They’re shocked at the level of work we need to do. I like to say that retail chooses you; you don’t choose retail.