July 1, 2011 • Sarah Schwartz
It’s not really a surprise to discover that the Stillwater, Minn., paper and gift store Mara-Mi, which engages the shopper with a sea of eye-popping colors and unexpected features like a cozy cafe, actually reflects several stationery businesses that were created by a fusion of entrepreneurs, each with a distinctive vision.
The oldest of the businesses is Mara-Mi, which was founded in 1979 by Marilyn Rothschild and Mimi Fisher. The two launched a collection of social stationery marketed to independent boutiques and specialty chain stores. Mara-Mi’s team realized the company had growth opportunities, so they developed partnerships with licensed artists and saw their market share blossom.
Nineteen years later, entrepreneur Greg Gartner launched Gartner Studios. The stationery, greeting card, office and party company soon found success with several big-name, big-box clients, so he tapped into the boutique market with the acquisition of Mara-Mi in 2006.
Gartner, now CEO of the entire Mara-Mi family of brands, oversees the path of them all. These include the russell+hazel line of stationery and office essentials, originally founded by Chris Plantan. She now serves as Mara-Mi’s creative director and, among other duties, manages the store’s retail experience. She’s no stranger to that domain, since she’s operated a russell+hazel store for several years – in fact, that’s where she and Gartner first got acquainted.
The Art of Shopping
The Mara-Mi shop, its studio and cafe opened in July 2010. Vivid pops of color can be found in ribbons, contemporary cards and colorful gift items artfully scattered throughout the store. The bright airy space features large windows that invite passersby to come inside to peruse and hopefully make a purchase.
After browsing a selection of fine stationery and gifts, paper enthusiasts may head to the cafe space to unwind. There they can indulge in a steaming cup of coffee or some baked goods, including cupcakes that can be customized for special occasions. Plantan and Gartner plan to further enhance the shopping experience through extended hours and a wine offering.
Mara-Mi also includes a studio space for Gartner Studios. There, brides discover a one-stop invitation destination complete with a custom design studio, in-house printing capabilities and DIY options.
Through its product assortment and cafe, it’s quite evident that Mara-Mi truly enjoys enticing its consumers as it speaks to their lifestyles.
Plantan described Mara-Mi as “aspirational” and believes the retail atmosphere makes it easy for consumers to lose themselves in the browsing process. “We create reasons for coming. Our brand is all about celebrations, so it’s easy to differentiate (us) from our competitors.”
Along with party invitations, Mara-Mi offers monogrammed note cards, stationery and gift items like jewelry, boxed notecard sets, journals, sleek tote bags and decorative pillows. Ideal for gifting, most of Mara-Mi’s collection is priced under $20.
The gift category continues to lead the way in terms of brand and dollar volume. Other notable bestsellers include desk top and home office product, which perform well year-round. Russell+hazel’s office products and George Stanley stand out as top performers.
Mara-Mi certainly knows how to artfully host a festive party or assist its clientele in organizing the ideal fete. Its vast selection of partyware encompasses birthday candles and pricier paper partyware. The shop also offers assorted upscale-modern party supplies, like Chef Duff cake decorating tools and fondant.
Mara-Mi typically conducts a thorough analysis of any market to determine what’s missing. Plantan has concluded that the industry has not yet focused on the changing ways consumers are hosting parties. “We’ve taken a fresh design approach and have looked to innovate with new items. Entertaining today is more than just coordinating plates and napkins. Party supplies range from celebrating your youngest child’s birthday to a hosting a sophisticated 50-year anniversary celebration,” explained Plantan.
As for Mara-Mi’s core customer, she is definitely evolving. “While we originally defined her as 30- to 50-year-old woman, we’re now seeing an even younger group pick up the pace. This is due to our brand evolving and the product assortments we maintain.”
In the last 12 years, the parent company Mara-Mi has found itself not once, but twice on Inc. Magazine’s “Top 500 fastest growing private companies in the U.S.” list. The company’s success certainly stems from its dynamic team and their innovative business approaches.
Mara-Mi recently started going through an “un-branding” process with a goal to return to the core of the brand. “Opening the store opened our eyes,” Plantan said. “We realized that our customers love the brand and we need to make sure that it shines in everything we do. It’s a healthy process and it takes time.”
As such, Plantan personally works not only product design, but how product translates into the retail environment. “You need to do this in order to construct a 3-D build-out. It’s a challenge taking a brand and building it into a 3-D representation.”
Since planning or attending parties and other types of festive affairs is always on the minds of Mara-Mi’s clientele, the team does its best to keep the party spirit alive. The store features a landing with a large meeting table, the ideal place for hosting an event or meeting. The space is available to customers at no cost. “We can even use the space to partner with non-profits, art groups and more,” Plantan explained.
Mara-Mi offers a host of amenities for its party-oriented clientele. “One of our favorite things is matching custom cupcakes to our invitations. It’s so much fun to have the theme or design flowing through every detail,” Plantan said.
Mara-Mi offers promotions, when appropriate, especially around the holidays. Here, special events are usually accompanied by champagne or another appealing hook. When Olympic figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi held a book signing at the store, Mara-Mi donated a percentage of the profits back to her children’s charity.
A small riverfront community, Stillwater relies heavily on tourist traffic. Mara-Mi pitches in to market around the seasons, and is happily involved in numerous events and festivities, like its annual summer celebration, Lumberjack Days. Mara-Mi also allows community meetings to be held in the store and supports its community through various initiatives.
In addition to offering a generous return policy, Mara-Mi’s staff aims to further accommodate its clientele by keeping customer favorites in stock and offering gratis gift wrapping. A festive collection of colored tapes, bright tissue papers and bakers twine always unite to wrap and embellish the perfect present.
“We make it simple for customers to walk in, find a special gift and walk out more than prepared to give (that gift),” Plantan said.
In an economic climate that has many companies struggling to meet the bottom line, Mara-Mi’s team happily reports that this is a time of celebration and success. As for upcoming store openings, the Mara-Mi team is eyeing locations in Los Angeles, New York and London. “We are incredibly excited about the opportunities ahead,” Plantan said. “I guess this will give Mara-Mi another opportunity to do what it does best – celebrate life’s milestones and accomplishments with style and grace.”
Quick Q&A: Chris Plantan
Q. There are some things that are timeless – a little black dress or the perfect martini come to mind. What epitomizes “timeless” for you when it comes to stationery?
A: A monogram on a notecard – a simple, flat paneled thank you card with a lined envelope. Those details reveal that you thought about your choice, but you didn’t overdo it.
Q. With new stationery designers cropping up daily, how do you recognize the talented entrepreneurs among the hobbyists?
A. When you have been in the business as long as we have (approaching 30 years), you can spot the trends – those that you should stand up and take notice of and those that you can dismiss. Although art styles come and go, brands cannot follow trends to the end. They need to interpret and update.
Q. What are your three top-selling vendors?
A: Mara-Mi, russell+hazel and Gartner Greetings
Q. What have you learned about running a stationery business in the last year that’s surprised you?
A. How people still love the personalization part of the process – the attention to detail. I love it when we have men come in and request stationery. It lifts my heart.
Q. If you were a stationery product, what would you be?
A. A simple note card – one that has a ‘Mary Poppins-esque’ attitude and can be used for any occasion.
Q. What is the best buy under $50?
A. The Writing Note Set by Mara Mi ($25) comes in a gorgeous storing box and includes two magnificent patterns and corresponding envelopes (30 count total). Throw in a crisp white Lamy pen and you’ve got a tremendous buy for $50.
Q. What is the best splurge item?
A. A Thomas Paul Chestnut Linen pillow ($110) goes fabulous in any home.
Photo: The Mara-Mi store brings the versatile brand into a completely new format. Photo courtesy of Johnna Holmgren Photography