Chinaberry: Reinventing the Wheel
The past decade hasn’t been good to small booksellers — catalog or retail. Soundly beaten in price, selection and convenience by volume-driven big box retailers like Barnes & Noble and Borders, as well as online retailers such as Amazon.com, many of today’s smaller booksellers are barely hanging on.
But at least one small cataloger has found a way to reinvent itself and thrive. Chinaberry, a two-title cataloger of children’s books, educational toys, and spiritual and inspirational gifts, has found its own path to modest growth over the past couple of years. The company mails a namesake catalog that offers children’s books and toys, and the Isabella catalog, which offers inspirational gifts, books and music.
“This is a classic case of a small, entrepreneurial business that has stayed true to its niche while continuing to invest in the new things needed to succeed — but at a rate that allowed it to weather a couple of rough seasons,” observes Mark Swedlund, senior vice president of Haggin Marketing, a Mill Valley, Calif.-based catalog marketing firm. Swedlund once worked for Chinaberry catalog rival HearthSong and has followed Chinaberry closely ever since.
In 2001, the company realized it could no longer sell its products the same way it had been selling them before, says Ann Ruethling, Chinaberry’s co-founder/co-owner and vice president of creative and merchandising. Consumers were using the Chinaberry catalog mainly as a resource, then buying the same items in large retail stores or on Amazon.com at lower prices. Some stores even were posting signs saying, “We carry books from the Chinaberry catalog.”
With sales sputtering and the future clouded by the onslaught of off-price competitors, the Spring Valley, Calif.-based Chinaberry, the corporate entity that operates both catalogs, made some changes to improve sales and profitability. Among them:
Reduced book offerings: In 2002 and 2003, the company reduced Chinaberry’s once dominant book offerings from 66 percent to 50 percent. Isabella’s book offerings, which weren’t as prevalent as Chinaberry’s, were nevertheless scaled back from 23 percent to 10 percent.