October 6, 2010 •
A Midwestern stationer goes from dreams to the national spotlight
Some people have hope chests, but Joan Schnee once had a “paper store trunk.” It housed her favorite ephemera: precious, elegant cards, letterpress card sets, French ribbon, vintage buttons, flower petals and Japanese Asanoha lace papers. More importantly, it represented her dream to have her own paper store one day, a day that arrived in August 1997 when Schnee opened On Paper’s doors in Columbus, Ohio.
Years before her store came to life Joan had her retail concept already developed, down to her list of vendors. Her early experiences certainly set the store’s stage. After studying set and costume design at Carnegie-Mellon, Schnee earned her bachelor’s degree at New York University.
Schnee then worked in the display department at Macy’s. “Almost immediately, I caught the retail bug, which launched a 20-plus-year career in visual merchandising and retail marketing.”
Although the concept came relatively easy for Schnee, “Taking the leap – the financial risk – was the real challenge,” she recalled. “I believe so strongly in following dreams, as long as it is a dream with a clear, solid vision. I had a solid concept, but obtaining financing was a classic ‘Catch 22.'”
Schnee was rejected by many banks before finally receiving a loan. “Finally, I found a banker that ‘got’ my concept.”
Artistry in Paper
The 1,500-foot store is housed in Columbus’s “Short North,” a historic shopping and arts area in the Art District. Neighborhood traffic accounts for a significant portion of business, but reputation also plays a pivotal role in attracting and retaining customers. “Integrity is transparent and shows in everything you do,” opined Schnee.
On Paper’s clientele is composed mostly of brides and women aged 24 to 40. Aside from the exposed brick walls, the store is all white – a nod to a blank sheet of paper. However, On Paper is certainly not a minimalist haven. The shop’s mood is well-worn and weathered, the space host to a shabby chic mood.
“Every nook and cranny is filled with another treasure – it’s a bit like being swept away into another world,” explained Schnee. “I try to focus on what we do best, creating a store that is an experience to shop in and is at an artistic level that is a notch above the rest.”
Top brands for wedding invitations include Designers’ Fine Press, Arabella Papers and Checkerboard; for greeting cards, British collections from Notes & Queries; and for letterpress, Night Owl, Mr. Boddington’s Studio, B Designs, and Wiley Valentine. For clever cards, it’s Amy Smyth Made It and O+D. As for bulk paper, top sellers include Envelopments and Green Paper Company, which is a wholesale company Schnee launched. Retail prices range from 40 cents for cardstock to thousands of dollars for invitation ensembles.
Schnee is currently working on further developing her in-house invitation and stationery brand, On Paper Press, which accounts for approximately one-third of the store’s custom business. “The best part is that it sets us apart,” Schnee said. “We can create and offer designs that nobody else has and we can compete with invitation design studios and home businesses. Being a retailer who actually works with our product day in and day out has really been an asset.”
The card category represents a significant percentage of On Paper’s business. “It’s amazing when you think about the price point,” she said. “Even more amazing: Bulk paper with an average price of 40 cents accounts for 15 percent of sales.”
Like many stationery stores, On Paper once focused strictly on paper. But since photo album and journal sales dropped 40 percent over the last few years, Schnee reinvented the product mix. “I introduced more gift items, in particular scarves, fragrances and jewelry,” Schnee revealed.
When considering new collections, she seeks three primary categories: basics, gifts and indulgences, which may include artwork, a hand-beaded headband or a bamboo rug silk-screened with calligraphy. These are unexpected “must-haves” often purchased simply because the customer loves it. When buying, Schnee also thinks in groupings because she wants customers to buy multiple items.
Some strong selling collections include Lollia Wish; Tokyo Milk’s Parfumarie Curiosite (fragrances); Rising Tide (silks and textured scarves); and Silver Seasons (cast bronze collections).
An integral part of On Paper’s growth can be attributed to the in-house printing and professional graphic design services. Custom invitations account for nearly 40 percent of the overall business. A graphic designer creates everything from logos to name tags. The shop also works with several calligraphers that pen everything from invitation envelopes to marriage proposal letters.
“We do well with calligraphy when it’s at the right price,” Schnee said. “Interest in calligraphy has really blossomed the last two years, and I think will continue to do so. People really want a hand-penned feel.”
Schnee also organizes special demonstrations during holiday and wedding seasons. “At one time we had a full-scale workshop program offering paper making, origami and paper crafts. I found that it really is an entirely separate business and we wanted to focus on what we do best. We have (instead) found that (demonstrations) are a great format to show how easy it is to use our products.”
Good press also drives traffic. On Paper had an embosser featured in the premiere issue of Cookie magazine and, as a result, sold more than 75 embossers in less than a month. The question is: How can paper retailers go about generating press? For Schnee, it was a 3-D Lookbook sent to contacts at 20 top magazines.
On Paper was briefly featured on MTV’s “True Life,” when the store designed an invitation for a same-sex wedding in Columbus. National press clips include Town & Country, Modern Bride and Elegant Bride.
That doesn’t mean Schnee overlooks local press. On Paper was recently featured in the business section of The Columbus Dispatch, and the response was tremendous. “Press efforts are very time consuming and you really have to stay on it,” admitted Schnee, adding that marketing plans should include a press outreach. “Aside from sheer flattery, press brings amazing bragging rights. Window displays, in-store display boards, and shelf-talkers – the list goes on.”
Schnee also utilizes social media. “I have a blog that I write several times a week,” said Schnee, who is planning a transition to Facebook for more frequent updates and plans to use the blog for less frequent, more in-depth articles and product features. “I’m always amazed when comments are posted on the blog or on our webstore. It’s incredibly satisfying that our brand can touch people that have never crossed our threshold.”
While the shop runs storewide sales twice per year, other traffic-building approaches include special events like the Short North Wedding Walk, in which On Paper collaborated with other local wedding vendors. “We’ve had two walks so far, and attendance tripled at the second,” noted Schnee.
On Paper also offers a loyalty program for frequent card buyers, the “Don’t Forget to Write Club.” Paper cards are punched for each card purchased so that the ninth is free.
Free is certainly a good incentive especially in a down economy. Schnee says that the economy has dramatically impacted her business. “I have pared back staff and, after seven years, am back in to the shop full time,” she reveals. “I have really scaled back on high end invitation vendors and am only bringing in new lines that are value-based.”
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 monogrammed note card, letterpressed to perfection on a buttery stock. The ideal combination of personal and professional with a dash of artistry.
Q. With new stationery designers cropping up daily, how do you recognize the talented entrepreneurs among the hobbyists?
A. You can literally almost feel the difference. When cruising the show aisles or even websites, suddenly something will jump out at you. Your skin tingles and rather than asking, “What’s your minimum order?” you simply say “I’d like to place an order.”
Q. What are your three top-selling (non-invitation) vendors?
A. This may be the hardest question. Cavallini, Lollia, and Chronicle Books/Gift.
Q. What have you learned about running a stationery business in the last year that’s surprised you?
A. We are the trustees of an endangered species. The future of pen and paper remains to be seen.
Q. If you were a stationery product, what would you be?
A. A Florentine photo album – a bit archaic, hopelessly romantic yet infinitely practical.
Photo by the Columbus Dispatch