Features Industry Profiles

December 27, 2013 •
A Family Affair

Sweet Paper is more than just an artsy La Jolla, Calif., boutique — it’s also the brainchild of sisters Julie O’Brien and Theresa Anderson. Prior to unveiling Sweet Paper, both sisters had similar dreams. Julie, who had a previous stint in corporate event planning, always wanted a stationery store, while Theresa, a former customer relations and operations employee, yearned to debut a colorful candy boutique.

“Our original concept was a stationery store somehow connected to — or combined with — a candy shop. We came up with the name ‘Sweet Paper’ to reflect the candy and paper combination. The candy never really took root, but our paper is ‘pretty sweet,’” O’Brien described.

Sweet Paper’s original 500-square-feet location opened in September 2010. It was situated in a less central location, so in January 2012, the shop was relocated to a new 550-square-foot locale less than a mile away on La Jolla’s Fay Avenue.

“The day we opened the doors our business tripled and has continued to increase,” O’Brien said. “Location is everything.”

Warm and inviting, Sweet Paper is also charming and lively. A simple aesthetic fused with eclectic pieces creates a cozy atmosphere, and a soft color palette comes alive with pops of bright color from the shop’s merchandise. The vibrant patterns that embellish Sweet Paper’s ribbons and wrapping papers also punch up the palette. As a finishing touch, the captivating scent of Linnea’s Lights candles emanates everywhere.

While Sweet Paper certainly lures tourists, the majority of its clientele are locals, primarily women between 20 and 60 who have a disposable income. Design conscious brides are also key, since La Jolla’s long stretches of sandy beaches, topnotch restaurants and a vibrant cultural scene make it a popular, picture-perfect setting for weddings.

Since the new location’s debut, bridal business has steadily increased. As the shop’s reputation grows, O’Brien and Anderson enjoy referrals from other professionals. Beyond that, beaming brides are eager to share their wedding source with friends — and as the lives of former brides evolve, they return to Sweet Paper for chic baby announcements.

What’s for Sale?

The shop offers a collection of stylish greeting cards and boxed sets, as well as thank-you notes, luxurious journals, agendas and notepads. Jewelry, books, candles and pens are also stocked along all the trimmings necessary to present the perfect gift. Wax seals, bold art prints, desk accessories and celebratory items like sparklers and confetti complete the collection.

Stellar design and topnotch quality is always in vogue. Greeting cards range from $5 to $7, while gifts are $15 to $150. Lots of affordable luxuries fall into the $25 to $40 range. Some of the mod jewelry and framed art prints are priced a bit higher. Boxed note sets range from $14 to $60.

Top brands include The Social Type and Sapling Press for greeting cards, Bella Figura for wedding invitations and Linnea’s Lights for candles. Other coveted items include La Jolla Coasters and custom address stamps by Paperwink.

With different preferences, how do the stylish sisters decide which collections to offer? It’s all about balance. While Anderson has a more funky, fun style, O’Brien tends to favor more classic styles.

“Anything that fits in the area where our tastes overlap is a perfect fit,” O’Brien said. “Our different styles keep the shop interesting and helps us appeal to a wider customer base.”

With the new locale, O’Brien and Anderson are enjoying the taste of sweet success. Beyond the Fay Avenue store, another location debuted in October 2013 in San Diego’s downtown area. Part of a collective of six retail boutiques called “VI Star,” this location occupies a cozy 350-square-feet of space.

The vibe is more urban and industrial, with well-curated collections appealing to a more eclectic audience. VI Star currently doesn’t sell custom pieces instead it offers on-the-spot purchases with a bit of edge.

Sisters at Work

The stylish sisters bring a healthy balance of energy, skills and expertise to their venture. They’re opposites in a sense. Anderson is creative and crafty; O’Brien described her sister as “amazing with customers and ridiculously industrious.”

On an eternal mission to satisfy client needs, Anderson once managed to hunt down obscure velvet paper to line envelopes for a bride. She also takes most of Sweet Paper’s blog photos and is renowned as the window display diva. Extremely organized and business savvy, O’Brien has an eye for design and the finer details. Anderson said her sister can spot spacing errors down to 1/16 of an inch.

When it comes to customer service and other amenities, both Anderson and O’Brien are equally eager to make client wishes come true. A customer once requested a replica of Sweet Paper’s eye-catching window display for her home — and the duo made it happen. If necessary, they’ll sew, wrap, stuff, seal, mail, glue and even deliver.

O’Brien once assisted a client in locating a difficult-to-find guest towel. “I knew we didn’t carry it, but after some research I found out it was from Neiman Marcus, so I directed the client there. She told us that we earned her business for life,” O’Brien said.

Of course, personalized attention and topnotch service certainly go a long way in the custom stationery and wedding business. O’Brien and Anderson have developed a proprietary method for working with these clients. The level of attention and consideration they offer makes the client’s experience simply exceptional. Satisfied customers recall detailed discussions that centered on every fine detail. They note their appreciation for the time spent reviewing countless Pantone colors, which resulted in finding that perfect hue, as well as numerous font choices and beyond.

The sisters believe that when running a business, there’s 100 percent and then there’s 110 percent. The duo always strives for the latter. That includes notifying regulars whenever “whale themed” items arrive because they know that the specific customer has a passion for them or delivering invitations to a client’s home if required.

Beyond exemplary service, an impressive retail mix and design expertise, marketing and promotions also go a long way. There’s always reason to celebrate! Every week brings “Champagne Saturdays.” As customers browse, they’re offered a complimentary glass of bubbly. Other promotions include a “free gift with purchase day,” which enables customers to select a complimentary sheet of stationery from the shop’s special “swag box.” It’s pretty easy to understand why Sweet Paper’s clientele keeps returning for more sweetness.

Quick Q&A: Julie O’Brien and Theresa Anderson

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?

O. A classic black monogram on white paper.

A. Envelope liners.

Q. With new stationery designers cropping up daily, how do you recognize the talented entrepreneurs among the hobbyists?

O&A. The talented entrepreneurs always present their brand professionally in a well-developed and cohesive collection. They have a clear brand identity, and their catalog and website are well thought out, easy to navigate and have excellent photos. They already have terms and pricing and present the information clearly.

Q. What are your three top-selling vendors?

O&A. The Social Type, Haute Papier and Sugar Paper.

Q. What have you learned about running a stationery business in the last year that’s surprised you?

O: It still surprises me how many people want products and services for free. On a more positive note, I am consistently surprised at how lovely our industry is. Stationery peeps are amazingly friendly, supportive and helpful.

A: I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the number of teenage girls coming in looking for personal stationery on which they can write thank you notes and general correspondence. It’s nice to know that a generation raised on IM and texting still sees the value in a handwritten note.

Q. If you were a stationery product, what would you be?

O: A monarch, 2-ply, white cotton notecard. I would live in an Arturo envelope.

A: The Linda & Harriett 2013 Quilt Calendar.

Q. What is the best buy under $50?

O: Bobo wrap bracelet, $40.

A: La Jolla Coasters. It’s a set of 100 coasters with four different designs, $32.

Q. What is the best splurge?

O. Dempsey & Carroll’s The Write Away Collection. It’s a leather envelope that encloses five 3-ply hand bordered notecards and five coordinating lined envelopes. $100.

A: Mr. Boddington boxed note set with two-ply notecards and lined envelopes. $40.

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P.O. Box 128
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