Chinaberry: Reinventing the Wheel
“For me, growth isn’t an objective at all,” Ed Ruethling says; “it’s how growth is effected. I think of us as gardeners assisting a natural process, rather than commercial farmers.”
Although Ruethling says he’d still like the company to grow over time, significant long-term growth could be a challenge. “With some caution,” Swedlund observes, “both businesses can grow. The kids’ [Chinaberry] business is limited by the seasonality [of gift-giving]; the Isabella business is limited by the competitiveness of the categories, gifts, jewelry, books, etc. At Chinaberry’s size, it’s really a question of how well the company merchandises, how well it can attract new buyers and take share-of-wallet from others.”
Another key factor is the company’s — and its employees’ — personal bond with their customers, their own jobs and each other. “Often we know when an item could sell well for us,” Kelly says. “But unless it really enriches our own (children’s) lives, we don’t carry it” in the Chinaberry catalog. In choosing products for Chinaberry, she and three other staffers try them out on their own kids before considering including them in the catalog.
The mood at Chinaberry’s suburban San Diego headquarters is tight-knit, consisting of many long-standing employees with families similar to those that Chinaberry and Isabella serve. “They benefit from being in a mission-driven business,” Swedlund notes, “so they can attract and retain more smart and savvy people than you’d typically find in a business of their size.”
Having always taken an approach of one group of parents to another, Chinaberry developed a close bond with its customers. That spilled over to customers of Isabella when that title was launched in 1995. For some of its products that can be found less expensively elsewhere, customer loyalty has helped at times, though not always.