Doug Stice, president and CEO of School Tool Box, once owned a traditional office products store—but it didn’t last for long. “I ended up selling it after just three years,” he says. “I was just not as good at selling office products as other dealers.”
Instead, Doug focused on what he is great at: selling school supply kits. The company is so good at this that it boasts a 93 percent yearly school retention rate. Moreover, after a record year in 2019, the company’s sales dropped by just 10 percent during the pandemic shutdown.
Doug explains how he first got into this niche: “I owned a fundraising company that sold things like candy bars and wrapping paper for schools to raise money. I had heard about a company that sold school supply kits and decided this was something I could do.” So in 2000, he opened School Tool Box.
School Tool Box sells kits in two ways. Ship to Schools allows schools to provide parents with a complete list of supplies for each child’s grade. Parents go online, find their school and child’s grade and, with a click or two, a complete kit of school supplies will be sent to the school in anticipation of the first day of term. Ship to Home allows parents to have supplies sent straight to their homes, which also allows them to customize the kits. “Maybe the parent already has scissors and doesn’t need another pair,” Doug says. “It allows them to order only what they need; and they can add things not on the list.”
In the last five to seven years, Ship to Home has really taken off, accounting for 70 percent of the company’s kits and the minimal sales lost during the pandemic shutdown. Kits are filled with brand-name, quality items and save parents time and money.
Getting it together
“Some parents love shopping for school supplies and see this as a time to make memories,” Doug says. “That’s wonderful. But it can be stressful for a lot of parents and children—and time consuming. Wal-Mart, Target and Staples don’t get each school’s list. The chances of one store having everything the school requires is very slim, so it usually means driving around from store to store.”
Packaging can be another issue when buying school supplies from Amazon or big box stores. “If the supply list calls for two blue highlighters, in many cases, parents have to buy two four-packs to get two blue ones,” explains Doug. “Or if they need a pink eraser, they have to buy a package of three. We supply them with exactly what they need. One pink eraser may cost 25 cents and the three may cost 50 cents; but if they only need one, it still costs them more than they need to spend.”
In addition to making school supply shopping easier, School Tool Box feeds children. “For every kit we sell—whether it’s $10 or $110—we donate a meal for a hungry child through [the Federal Emergency Management Agency],” reports Doug. “We have donated more than 1 million meals so far.” And since most of the company’s business is seasonal and occurs during the summer months, the company recruits high-school and college students during the vacation. “We offer them good pay and full-time hours that aren’t available to them at many other businesses,” he continues.
Key success factor
Doug believes his staff are the primary reason for the company’s success. “They care,” he says simply, giving an example. “A woman called and said she wanted to buy two kits to help a family that were having a hard time. The family’s youngest child had drowned, and she was buying the supplies for the other two children. Our employee sent the kits out for free. She didn’t have to ask. I trust them to do the right thing. They are great people who care.”
Headquarters: DeKalb, Illinois
Management: Doug Stice, president and CEO; Ken Goldberg, COO; Adam Westphal, CIO
Online sales: 90%-95%
First call wholesaler: SP Richards, although the company buys mostly direct
Number of employees: 12 full time; 25 contracted sales reps