How the World’s Largest Christmas Store Flourishes Year Round

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With Christmas Day less than two weeks away, we were delighted (and lucky) to be able to get some time with Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland Vice President Maria Sutorik. If you’ve ever been anywhere close to Frankenmuth, MI, you’ve seen the ads, billboards and invitations to visit the World’s Largest Christmas Store. And if you’ve been online, you’ve likely been amazed at the selection of ornaments and decorations. In the first part of our two-part interview, Maria discusses how the company her Dad Wally started in the 1940s has grown into a full-time employer of more than 250.

Part One

Can you give us a quick company history.
My Dad started a sign painting business in the 1940s. He later branched out into creating window displays. In 1951, he met some merchants who were searching for Christmas decorations for their city lampposts. To meet their needs, he designed and produced Christmas panels. Over the next couple of years, he gradually built up a sideline producing and installing decorations and displays for communities, shopping centers and stores. The first retail store opened in 1954. By 1977, retail operations had grown to the point that my Dad purchased 45 acres on the edge of town. Our current store covers an area equal to five and a half football fields.

What is Bronner’s today?
Bronner’s is a multi-channel retailer with wholesale, retail, catalog and web distribution to individual and corporate customers. We have customers around the world. Our Christmas lights sell very well in Europe, while the Japanese market seems to like the retro look of lighted plastic. We create displays for cities, business and malls, as well as work with movie studios that are developing Christmas-themed movies such as The Santa Clause. We give them ideas on set design and dressing. As far as company management, I concentrate on event marketing and online operations while my brother is the president.

Is the international market important?
We’ll take whatever comes our way but we really don’t target international markets. It is a lot of work to sell overseas because international shipping requires a lot of custom quoting.

How many product SKUs do you carry?
We have about 50,000 in our retail store and carry roughly about 10% of that number online. The approximately 800 items in our print catalog are all sold online. We allot much of our online store to unique items, or items that have sold well in our retail store. We also review a mix of sales data and other intelligence (including our Nextopia data and reports) before deciding what to sell online.

Are they all carried in inventory or do you drop ship any items?
We only drop ship two product categories; large commercial items that we sell to malls and high volume custom ornaments.

Where do you source products and new items from?
We attend buying shows domestically, and in Asia and Europe. We also source new products from manufacturers who will make our own designs. In fact, half of the ornaments we sell are our own designs. I even have some of my own designs for sale in the store.

What are some of your favorite items that you sell?
I’ve always loved our personalized items because it is a category my Dad created. He used to letter ornaments for the children of employees who would receive them at the annual party. Their relatives and friends started asking for their own personalized ornaments and that is how our customization department started. The other items I really love are the life-size nativity scenes. My Dad worked hard to design scenes that were both lifelike and could withstand the elements.

What are some of the items that are unique to Bronners?
It would have to be all of our own Christmas ornaments designs. As I said, half of our ornament collection comes from our own design studio.

What are your biggest selling products?
In terms of number of units, it is our ornaments. In terms of size, it would be our giant fiberglass Santa. Available through our commercial website, he stands 17′ tall and costs around $8,000.

How has the Website contributed to the company’s growth in the past decade?
We’ve always had a national reach due to the popularity of Frankenmuth with tourists. Every summer, we welcome tens of thousands of visitors and they help spread the word. The website and our print catalog, of course, continue to expand our market. We mail about 3 million catalogs every Fall, usually starting in October.

Is the Website more for selling products or promoting the retail store?
It does both. The site and catalog both help drive store traffic. Bronners.com is also a way to keep in touch with former Michigan residents who have moved away. We frequently receive comments on catalog orders about how people loved the store and are so happy to be able to shop with us again, even if they’ve moved to Arizona.

There are few things more seasonal than Christmas. Are your sales distributed throughout the year or concentrated in Q4?
We are definitely a Q4 business, although summer tourism provides considerable sales from June to August. We hire a lot of seasonal help in the fourth quarter. Business during December has grown so much, in fact, that we actually schedule our staff Christmas party in January.

How has your customer base been affected by the economic downturn since 2007?
Thankfully, our sales have held their own. Catalog and Internet sales have continued to grow and retail sales have been solid. Expanding our sales efforts outside of Michigan has been very important in cushioning the really difficult situation our home state is experiencing.

Can you describe the typical Bronner’s customer?
The Christmas lover. We don’t necessarily go after the high end Nieman Marcus customer; we go after middle America. People with families, people who really celebrate Christmas.

Is this customer profile the same for all of your sales channels, or have you attracted a different kind of customer online?
It is a little different. Online purchases are driven through search behavior. People might be looking for a specific ornament and find us through a specific keyword.

Who are Bronner’s main competitors?
When people start thinking about Christmas, we compete against anyone, from a local hardware store and specialty online sites, to Wal-Mart and other big box retailers. The main difference is that we do Christmas year round. It is obviously not a seasonal merchandising event for us and we don’t sell through our inventory with half off sales, starting on December 26.

Thanks Maria for your time. Tomorrow, we’ll post the second half in which she discusses what it takes to run Bronners.com.

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