Thirteen years ago, Marc Winkelman had no idea his company would be where it is today—all over the United States, plus Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Or that it would be so much more than its name implied. Or that it would be a huge success in meeting consumers’ “daily” needs on the one hand, and various niche-market needs on the other. And it all started with a clutch of calendars one Christmas season.
“I don’t think we ever imagined that we could have 1,000 locations in the US and another 500 outside the US,” says Winkelman, Calendar Club’s president and CEO. “The scope of it, to be able to do that in a short season, is just something that we couldn’t have imagined.” But with a little luck, some fortuitous networking, and a good deal of smarts, they did it.
Although the business today is fast-paced and intense, there’s a sense of serendipity in how it call came together. For starters, Calendar Club has its roots in sheepskin. Yes, sheepskin. In 1992, Barry Silverman and Eddie Brasch operated Big Horn Sheepskin out of their retail shoe stores in Austin, Texas. The Big Horn concept had done well but was slowing down, so during the holiday season each of them checked out other product lines. When they compared notes, they found that they both had noticed a high level of customer fascination with calendar stores—and enough customer traffic to make it interesting. That’s when they decided to diversify by adding calendars to their product line.
From day one
Brasch, originally from Detroit, remembered hearing about someone operating calendar kiosks when he lived there. That someone was Marc Winkelman. In January of 1993, Brasch called Winkelman to ask if he’d be interested in consulting with the two sheepskin-and-calendar retailers on their new venture. Yes, Winkelman was interested, and things developed quickly from there. He moved to Austin that August and bought in, becoming a partner in time for the upcoming holiday season. They opened 61 locations in the US and one in Canada as the newly named Calendar Club.
Sixty-two seasonal locations for a brand-new company is quite an undertaking, and at that point, the partners figured they could use a point-of-sale consultant. Brasch’s wife happened to mention this to a co-worker whose husband had been working for a prototype-development company that didn’t take off. Calendar Club offered Paul Hoffman a job. “I was hired as a temp,” he says. “They had a cash register system and they needed someone to come in and just run that.” Hoffman figured he’d take the job to carry him over until he found something permanent, but after the stores did so well that first year, management told him he had better stick around. He did: he’s now the company’s COO.
Despite that initial success, Brasch moved on to other interests, and Big Horn Sheepskin was sold. Silverman and Winkelman devoted their energy to Calendar Club and moved it forward. They opened 140 locations in their second season, and twice that number the following year, 1995.
But they began to have trouble getting additional sites. Winkelman notes two reasons for that. “Number one, the landlords had made a decision that the calendar business was tied to the book business, and so our chief competitor was Waldenbooks. Waldenbooks convinced the landlords that they should be the preferred calendar vendor because they had stores year-round in the mall. We found that we were losing lots of real estate as Waldenbooks wanted to expand.”
To enlarge the business and compete with Waldenbooks, they needed an infusion of capital, and something else: It made sense to seek a partner in the book world. And that’s where serendipity touched Calendar Club a second time. Winkelman had operated a bookstore in Detroit, and had also worked briefly for Barnes & Noble. That’s where he had met the Riggio brothers—Len Riggio, B&N’s founder and chairman, and Steve Riggio, B&N’s CEO. The three happened to meet again, and the Riggios asked how Winkelman was doing. “I told them that we were expanding very quickly and we were looking for some capital. Len Riggio said, ‘Well, you know, we would be interested in doing that with you.’ And so we pursued it.”
Thus in the spring of 1996, 50 percent of Calendar Club was sold to Barnes & Noble, giving Calendar Club the necessary capital—and clout—to deal with “the landlords” and with Waldenbooks, and secure additional retail space. (Barnes & Noble bought another 25 percent interest when Silverman retired in 1999.)
Since then, Winkelman and the Calendar Club team have been busy increasing product lines and sales channels. Its retail website, Calendars.com, with the world’s largest calendar inventory, was created and linked to the Calendar Club stores, so that any customer in one of the retail locations can order from the website. One calendar theme—breeds of dogs—did so well that the company created another spin off: DogBreedStore.com, which sells a variety of breed-specific merchandise.
They started Go! The Game Store. And ever vigilant to what sells, they created a spin-off there, as well. “Sometime later, we recognized that the puzzle part of the game business was something that perhaps could work on its own,” says Winkelman. And so the Puzzled? store came into being.
One of the companies they purchased is The San Francisco Music Box, which sells music boxes in numerous styles and a variety of tunes. Again they created a website, SFMusicBox.com, to complement the concept and its locations. Another purchase: The Christmas Corner, which features popular lines of Christmas decorations, from lights to trimmings to collectibles.
About four years ago, while brainstorming their next concept, it became apparent that a combination of their existing concepts might work. “We decided that we would do a store that might offer calendars, Christmas or games; or calendars, San Francisco Music Box and Christmas,” says Winkelman. Once they made the decision to meld, they needed to brand it. “We felt it was too complicated to put up our logos for each of the stores [in one place], so we decided to call it The Holiday Store.” And another Calendar Club concept was born.
If it sounds as if Winkelman has a magic touch, well, perhaps he does. But not every concept succeeded. He started a sophisticated bath-and-body line at about the time a number of inline retailers began to carry similar products. “We didn’t offer anything dramatically different, and these other stores had much better selections than we did because we were doing this off common-area carts,” he says. A makeup line also failed. “It was tough for us to find the right kind of operators, and there were issues with the manufacturer. I think they expanded too quickly, and they couldn’t deal with everything.”
But the Calendar Club team learned from those setbacks. “We’re a little more careful before we embrace something new,” says Winkelman.
By 1997, it was clear that they needed a better distribution system, and Hoffman began to address that. “I guess the heyday for development of [distribution] was about 1997 through 1999,” says Hoffman. “It took us about two years to write all that code and, you know, that’s really where the rubber meets the road—the distribution center.” And once again, the company needed outside help. “We realized that we needed a much more sophisticated infrastructure to achieve the production demands. We have to ship all of these calendars and things in a pretty short window.”
But there were problems with the database. As luck would have it yet again, a woman Hoffman was working with asked if she could call her husband in. Enter Abel Mireles, who not only solved the problem—he now runs the company’s Information Systems department.
Calendar Club is a unique mix of concepts, products, and challenges. Solutions often come from suggestions the company solicits from warehouse and office employees, and from operators. “We’ve tried to balance our unique needs with industry standards,” says Hoffman. Industry standards work well; new people can fit right in and can get to work. “Where we’ve made things unique to ourselves has to do with the fact that we have seasonal products. For example, calendars. It doesn’t have life after a year, right? So we developed a system with that expectation in mind.”
Hoffman says the foundation of running the business is their in-house website, built with the intention of supporting everyone involved, from vendors to operators to employees. “Our operators can get a history of shipments that were sent, what their sales have been, what their projected sales are.” Vendors can make delivery appointments, track shipments and perform dozens of other tasks, thereby avoiding chasing people down by phone, or being buried with paperwork. “Without it, we just wouldn’t be here,” says Hoffman. “Some things just get you to the next level, and that’s definitely one of them.”
With its tremendous growth, Calendar Club has had to be creative and pro-active in getting seasonal help. Operators get a percentage of gross sales on proven products, but it can be a challenge to find candidates with an entrepreneurial spirit as well as retail experience.
An added complication: the specific locations that are available each season change, as some leases are lost and others are gained. The upshot is a narrow time frame when people can be signed on. So while recruiting has to start early, it can’t be so early that the interest level has time to diminish.
Approaching the problem is multifaceted, says Jill Bates, VP of human resources, who handles recruitment for the company. First, many of the operators do return year after year, and often provide referrals for new candidates. And the company’s affiliation with Barnes & Noble allows for an exchange of possible candidates: B&N regional managers pass on names of qualified people when there are no openings in any B&N store; and at the end of the season, Calendar Club reciprocates with names of people who worked out well.
In a similar vein, Calendar Club approached Halloween retailers with the idea of sharing, because those operators and their staffers are available by November, when Calendar Club gears up. Another avenue: Wholesale clients who buy San Francisco Music Boxes also receive a proposal to carry Calendar Club’s seasonal items. And of course, the company places ads with the help of a firm that researches publications to run ads in. Calendar Club is also working with AARP to post banner ads on its website; and they place job postings on bulletin boards in malls and colleges.
But one of the most productive methods is the company’s own prospect database, with thousands of names of people who contacted Calendar Club over the years about opportunities. “Each year, we send letters out to every individual in the prospect database, asking them to gauge their level of interest, [in case we] have a location available in their area,” says Bates.
Despite all the last-minute pressures of gearing up for the season, everything comes together in a way that lets Calendar Club continue to grow. “The people are really what do it,” says Hoffman. “That’s what always comes to mind when people ask me about the company. It’s the magic dynamic of this group of personalities that we’ve managed to pull together here,” he says. “It’s really a collective effort.”
The effort may be collective, but Calendar Club’s success comes from a fortunate melding of foresight, calculated risk, creativity and business savvy. And spearheading that effort has been Marc Winkelman—from day one.