by Christie Chisholm, New Mexico Business Weekly, February 11, 2011
Emily Rembe Benak loves retail. She loves the feel of a well-cared-for store, she loves working with customers to get them exactly what they want and she loves that the nature of her job can change every two minutes.
Most of all, she loves her business, Pennysmiths Paper, which has been in her family since 1979.
Pennysmiths primarily deals in stationery, invitations and other specialty papers. But the store also stocks items that range from the elegant to the delightfully absurd. Kate Spade pencil cases? Check. French bingo sets for children? Check.
The store was founded by Benak’s mother, Penny Rembe, who opened it on their farm, Los Poblanos. Her mother moved the store to a house on Central and 14th Street. In the early 1980s, Rembe relocated the store again, to a shopping center the family owned on North Rio Grande (Flying Star Café has since bought the center).
After living in Boston for more than a decade, where she managed a five-level Crate and Barrel in Harvard Square, Benak returned to Albuquerque in 1992 and took over the store from her mother, who was ready to retire.
When Rembe ran the store, merchandise ranged from copper pots, ceramics and silver items to home gifts. Benak focused the store on stationery. She drew on her Crate and Barrel experience to design sleek, modern displays and train staffers so they’re up to date on the latest trends in the business.
Benak has continued to educate herself. Ten years after finishing her bachelor’s at Mount Holyoke in Boston, she earned an MBA from the University of New Mexico. She’s also attended workshops and seminars, including visiting the University of Cambridge to learn calligraphy.
All that training has paid off. Despite the rise of technology and electronic invitations, revenue has stayed strong for Benak’s primarily paper-themed business, which pulled in $450,000 in 2010.
“People aren’t coming and getting personalized invitations for everything,” Benak says. “So when they do send an invitation, it will be for a special occasion. We try to have really beautiful paper and beautiful printing. We’re not trying to compete with OfficeMax.”
Pennysmiths sends e-mails to customers to let them know what’s new in the store. The staff also calls loyal customers when something comes in that they might like. Other marketing strategies that have worked for the business include tried-and-true print ads and attending bridal fairs. But the single most important trick up Benak’s sleeve is really good customer service.
Employees work one on one with customers to design and select personalized paper products, from business cards to wedding announcements, letterhead or any other kind of stationery. The store has a part-time graphic artist.
Prices for a batch of 200 wedding invitations start at $200 and can go as high as $4,000 for the most high-end papers. While some people visit once for wedding invites, much of Pennysmiths’ business comes from loyal, longtime customers.
A lot of Pennysmiths’ regulars come from the neighborhood, and a number have frequented the store since they were kids. In the shop’s early days, it sold penny candy and stickers.
John Nichols is a longtime customer. He started visiting the shop when he was 15, about 26 years ago. He was a friend of Benak’s brother Matt, and the two often stopped in to look around. These days, Nichols goes to Pennysmiths every couple of months to buy cards or gifts. His favorite part of the store is something customers have to ask to see.
“Emily kept the tradition of fun gag gifts and X-rated birthday cards [when she took the store over],” he says. “They have the cards on the shelves, and then you have to ask to see the ‘good’ cards. They hand you a box ... It’s one of the things that makes them unique.”
It’s hard to imagine a box full of X-rated birthday cards in the back when you walk into the smartly decorated store, but somehow it fits with Benak’s philosophy about her business.
“I don’t want it to be stuffy,” she says. “I want it to be fun, and not so precious. We have a weird mix of things in here.”
That’s helped keep the store going in hard times. A couple of years ago, the city closed Rio Grande for a year to redo the sewer system, and it hurt Pennysmiths’ business. By the time that was over, the country was deep into recession. But Benak sees sales on the rise.
“I sell things that are $2,” she says. “People are still buying little, small things that make them happy and are still celebrating the important things in life, like anniversaries, weddings.”
She says some people are choosing invitations and announcements that are less elaborate.
To make up for the slowdown she faced, Benak increased her advertising and cut costs where she could, evaluating how much she paid for insurance, toner, toilet paper and the rates on her credit card machine. For a year, she tried closing the store on Sundays to save on payroll, but it didn’t make enough of a difference, so the store’s open seven days a week again. But she shortened its daily hours. The store is now open until 6 p.m. instead of 7 p.m., and that’s helped.
Benak is always looking for better ways to do things, and new and interesting items to sell.
“I love the people I work with, I love the customers,” she says. “It’s a happy place.”
Company: Pennysmiths Paper
Owner: Emily Rembe Benak
Address: 4022 Rio Grande NW, Albuquerque 87107
Phone: (505) 345-2353
Revenue: about $450,000 in 2010
1. Know what you’re good at and stick to your core business.
2. Go the extra mile on customer service.
3. Keep an eye out for interesting new items to keep the product mix fresh.