Chinaberry: Reinventing the Wheel
“This was hard to do, because our identity was traditionally as a bookseller,” says Assistant Merchandising Director Janet Kelly.
In fact, as Ruethling points out, the company’s catalogs always have been known as the places to turn for advice on book purchases. “We’ve always been known as a resource,” she says. “So we’ve tried to find ways to make money while still being a resource.”
Greater emphasis on Isabella: Chinaberry shifted marketing resources from its flagship book Chinaberry to Isabella. “We moved more mailings to Isabella, because response to Isabella was greater, and it’s a more profitable business,” says Director of E-commerce Stephen Fuller-Rowell.
As a result, over the past three years, the portion of sales has flip-flopped from 60/40 Chinaberry to 60/40 Isabella. This year, Chinaberry’s circulation was at 1.5 million, compared to Isabella’s 1.8 million.
That’s not to say the company threw in the towel on Chinaberry. “It’s still profitable,” Fuller-Rowell says. “We balanced the merchandise mix by doing detailed square-inch analysis, and cleaned up its pricing by offering fewer high-priced items. And as a result, our average order size is growing.”
In fact, Ed Ruethling, the company’s president and co-founder, says that closing down Chinaberry to focus exclusively on Isabella isn’t being considered. “As long as it contributes to our profit, I don’t see any change in that area,” he notes. “I had cut back on Chinaberry’s mailing to allow it to contribute more profit (not sales), which was used to grow Isabella and keep us debt-free in the process.”
Management shift: Perhaps the most notable change of all took place three years ago. Pressured by its bank to make executive changes in 2003, the company laid off President Gary DeMaine, who earlier that year had laid off Director of Marketing Mel Concors. At that time, Ed Ruethling, who had served as vice president of marketing during DeMaine’s and Concors’ reigns at the company, assumed the presidency, operating out of his home office in New Harmony, Utah. He had relinquished the presidency to DeMaine in the late 1990s.