We are excited to introduce our new blog post series, Retailer Spotlight. Over the last few years we have had the pleasure of meeting so many amazing people and would love for you to get to know them too. Starting off our series is Mary Jo Lett Guinn, owner of Parent Teacher Tools & Toys in O'Fallon, Illinois.
Mary Jo, mom Mary Ann, and sister Jo Ann
How long has Parent Teacher Tools & Toys been open? How did you choose the location?
I purchased Parent Teacher Tools & Toys in November 2017 and we opened in May 2018. The store had been in the community, under various owners, for almost three decades. I was very familiar with it, since I had shopped there for my own children.
THE BACK STORY: In 2017, I read a newspaper article about the store and how it was going out of business. In fact, there were only a few weeks left before they closed the doors forever. I was struck by how sad it would be for such a local treasure to be lost forever. Without thinking twice, I sent the article to my husband and said, "we should buy this store and move it to downtown O'Fallon." I didn't get a response right away. Later that day, I asked him if he had received the text and proceeded to tell him about this store, since he was not from the area.
Admittedly, I had no experience owning a brick-and-mortar store. I had never been a teacher, and was raising four kids, the youngest of whom was in kindergarten. I just couldn't get it off my heart and out of my mind, so, with my husband's blessing, I decided to start down the path. I promised myself that if anything blocked the path that would cause me to feel like I was forcing it to happen, I would stop immediately. I spoke to my husband Chris (a lawyer), sister Jo Ann (an accountant), and brother Dan (a corporate attorney) at length. I asked my sister to take the journey with me and take over all the financials of the store on an ongoing basis, should we buy it. I knew that I couldn't do it without her. Thankfully, she said yes or we wouldn't be here today! So, we kept going down the path, and here we are! It has truly been a blessing involving our entire family in this process. My mom, Mary Ann, has been a huge help in the store! We love all being there together!
As far as the building, I wanted to move the store from its current location in a strip mall and wanted it to be closer to the school my three younger children attended. We looked at a few buildings. I noticed a store in downtown O'Fallon was for sale but saw a sign that said that the current tenant would remain after the building was sold. One day, I drove by and that sign had been taken down, but it was still for sale. I inquired, and that is where we are now located! Our store is literally two blocks from where my kiddos go to school, and in a wonderful, growing downtown area! We truly have such a great group of unique, supportive stores that work together to grow the area!
You have two amazing degrees in other areas. What led you to the path of owning this particular business?
I have always been an entrepreneur at heart. When I was little, I would sell greeting cards door to door to earn prizes and I would have Penny Carnivals in our driveway. That spirit has always existed within me, but I don't think I had the tools, early on, to take on a large entrepreneurial project. I had also always felt comfortable in hospitals and enjoyed caring for others. It was a logical path for me to go into nursing. I received a 2-year RN degree and started working as a nurse on a cardiology floor. During that time, I started a Bachelor of Nursing completion program and transferred to a Level I trauma hospital to work in the operating room. As I neared graduation with my BSN, I knew I wanted to continue with school, but wanted to try something else. During this time, I had also worked as a legal secretary, and saw how beneficial it would be to have a nursing degree as an attorney. So, I took the LSAT and applied to one law school--St. Louis University School of Law--because they had an evening program AND had the number one Health Care Law program in the country. So, during the day, I worked in the operating room at St. Louis University Hospital, and after work, I would go to law school. During my last year of law school, my eldest daughter was born.
After graduating from law school, I practiced medical malpractice and toxic tort defense and enjoyed it very much! Life changed a little and I ended up as a single mother at this time. Down the road, I married my opponent in the toxic tort world, and went on to have three more babies! When I stopped practicing law to raise our children, I started making hair bows for my girls. It wasn't long before I started selling them and creating other crafts such as wine cork earrings and ribbon wreaths to sell, as well. As the kids began to get older, I started thinking about what I would eventually want to do in the working world. I considered opening a wine store or something similar in town, but then we found out our youngest son had autism. Life changed a bit at that time, and our world became all about making sure he had all the resources we could provide. It was when he was about six that I heard about Parent Teacher Tools going out of business, and having had years of helping him and finding resources, I guess that played into why this store wouldn't leave my heart. I had hoped that, in addition to carrying the items the community had grown to know, I had hoped to add a special needs section to the store. We have done that and continue to add to that section of the store!
How do you decide which products or product lines to carry?
We were extremely lucky in the beginning to have several members of the staff, Donna, Abigail and Lori, stay on with us to help develop the store. I definitely couldn't have done it without them. They were extremely knowledgeable about the products and what items were good sellers. I had no idea how to even get started in November 2017, so I started looking at old catalogs and sending emails to the addresses on the back of the catalogs. That is how I started entering into wholesale agreements. I basically sat in my home office 8 hours a day for months, trading emails and sending documents to get accounts started with vendors. We literally started from scratch and had zero idea what we were doing!
What category/categories do you like buying the most, for example, plush, baby, games, educational, crafts?
I am not sure I have a favorite category, but we always feel like it is Christmas when the boxes arrive! We can't wait to open them and see what is inside! I know that 2020 was so difficult for everyone, and we were no exception, but I told my sister that the ONE new item I wanted to bring in the store for 2021 was ChattySnaps. I fell in love with being able to offer a new way to show positivity, show off interests and hobbies, and have all those fun snaps to read! I felt very strongly that with all the negativity in the world, we all needed ChattySnaps, no matter what the age!
Do you gift wrap? If so, how do you choose the paper with so many wonderful options?
We do have complimentary gift wrapping! I love making fancy bows for the gifts too! We have our signature green with white polka dot paper, a birthday paper with different colored ribbons on it, a Christmas paper and white paper. We choose all of the wrapping paper at the very beginning but can add different colored bows to change it up if the customer wants us to do so! There are SO many cute wrapping papers, but we wanted to make sure we covered all the bases! We also sell birthday cards for kids!
During 2020 businesses had to pivot just to stay alive. What did you do to keep your customers engaged when indoor activities weren't allowed?
During 2020, things got really interesting! I had four kids home from school, my husband starting (and still is) working from home, and our store was closed. I knew that parents were going to be struggling to help their kids with their skills. I went to the store and took pictures of all of our workbooks and made Facebook albums. Parents could look through the albums and send me a list of what they wanted. I brought a register home and called people to ring them out over the phone. We would then have a designated day that people could do curbside pickup. We also did large puzzle orders. People had to spend so much time at home and they started to really enjoy puzzles. Unfortunately, there was really no "back to school" and that was hard on our business. We just really tried to get people what they wanted and needed, however we could. We kept a positive outlook and were so lucky that our community continued to support us!
Do you advertise in addition to social media? If so, what has worked for you?
I post a lot on Facebook and Instagram. We have done a few small ads in local papers, but I feel like we reach more people on social media. It also allows us to post more information, pictures and answer questions. I am also a member of many local groups and try to discuss our business as often as we are allowed. I also have a lot of friends who tag the store when they see a question about something that our store offers. Finally, I also think it is important to change up the content of the page. I don't like making it all about our products. I like to post funny teacher and parent memes, and information that I think might be interesting to our followers.
Do you have any advice for someone just starting out?
You can do it! There are always amazing resources and people to help you. Don't overthink it! Had I spent too much time focusing on what could go wrong, I wouldn't have done it. My sister and I knew absolutely nothing when we started, but we followed our hearts and our passion. We love people and we love making them happy. Customer service is so important for any business, but it really feels natural for us. We truly enjoy helping people find what they need and maybe a few things they didn't know they needed!
And now a few just for fun
What are your favorite binge foods?
I love charcuterie with different cheeses, meats and fruits for snacking!
Do you have a favorite movie or TV series?
My husband and I really enjoyed Ozark. I am also a huge fan of Dateline!
What is an activity your family enjoys doing together?
We love being outside! We enjoy swimming and fishing. We also love traveling and playing games.