While still in business school Scott Johnson took a job with a seller of office products so he could work in his hometown of Aitkin, Minnesota. That job lasted a couple of years but when the seller filed for bankruptcy, Scott decided to open his own dealership in Aitkin. He called it The Office Shop.
Later that year, Scott’s wife Jodie joined the business and the dealership has been growing successfully ever since in this north central Minnesota community.
In 1995 The Office Shop opened a second location in Brainerd-Baxter about 30 miles away. That location was a former grocery story which enabled faster growth. The store is fitted with warehouse shelving and items are picked to fill commercial orders—80 percent of the business comes from commercial sales.
The Brainerd store also offers space to display office furniture. The only available warehouse space is filled with copy paper—The Office Shop goes through a truckload every month.
The market area takes in a 60-mile radius around both towns. Retail comprises a small part of the business, as many commercial customers will walk in and pick up supplies as needed. Both stores also include business centers where customers can get print jobs completed or use a computer. There is no charge for using the computer but a fee is collected for prints, scans and emails.
The Office Shop pursued its locally owned position in the community long before local ownership was a popular marketing ploy. “We’re local people,” says Jodie. “We grew up here, we live here and we have family here.” She says that she and Scott were brought up with the values and sense of small-town America.
“It’s not always about price,” she says. “It’s about how well I am being served and the relationships that we build. That’s really what has made us successful.” The fact that customers know their delivery drivers and that the store can easily generate returns or solve problems contributes to the strength of the relationships that have been established, she points out.
Community involvement also contributes to the success that The Office Shop enjoys. “Scott and I have always volunteered and given back to the community,” says Jodie. After their son Zachary was diagnosed with leukemia more than 20 years ago, the Zachary Johnson Kids with Cancer Fund was created, which offers grants to area families with a dependent child who has any form of cancer. Empty toner and ink cartridges are collected to raise funds, and over the years more than $90,000 has been donated to assist these families.
Janitorial supplies along with furniture sales make up for declines in office supplies. The dealership is also a Canon copier dealer. With such a diverse product mix, it seems there’s almost always one category that is busy.
Another key contributor to success is membership in the Independent Suppliers Group. “Our cost of goods is closer to the big boxes,” says Scott. “That levels the playing field a lot.”
The Office Shop established a niche for furniture sales and offers different options for customers looking to refurnish. New furniture is always a good choice but for businesses wanting to stretch their budget there’s also a selection of used furniture clients can pick from. For buyers looking for still better pricing, when available, there are scratched and dented items picked up from the wholesaler.
“Competition has changed,” says Scott. Fewer independent dealers are around to compete for sales these days, although independents located in major metro areas have started to go after more sales in north central Minnesota. “We’ve had to step up our game,” says Scott. “Business isn’t getting any easier. We have to work harder and smarter.”
Key management team members: Jodie and Scott Johnson
Products carried: Office Supplies, Furniture, Canon copiers and Service
Year founded: 1983
Annual sales: $4 million
Number of employees: 16 full time; 3 part time
Key business partners: S.P. Richards, Independent Suppliers Group, Canon
% of total sales generated