Winning the Card Game: Month 2

PLAINVIEW, N.Y. ( MainStreet) -- Card$mart co-owners Dana Norman and Michele Rothberg didn't know what to expect of Valentine's Day. While they were sure to prepare their store well ahead of time, they noticed that while some people (mainly females) were coming in for holiday cards and gifts, it was slow going. It made the new partners nervous the season would be a bust.

But the owners of the discount greeting card store, in an upscale shopping mall on Long Island, N.Y., found themselves scrambling to fulfill customers' last-minute needs even past closing time Feb. 14.
Dana Norman and Michele Rothberg bought a Long Island, N.Y., Card$mart store in June. Month by month, they're learning how to make a business survive and grow.

February's lessons from the small business is a part of a yearlong series following Card$mart's ups and downs. Norman and Rothberg bought the ailing business in June. This is the first business they have owned together (Norman has a degree in marketing; Rothberg's family owned an independent party goods store in the area.) Based on advice from their accountant, the partners have declined to share revenue and profit numbers for January and February.

"We have the cards up for a month and it feels like they're never going sell," Norman says, recalling the run-up to Valentine's Day.

In the end, "we could have had more cards." Card$mart ended up running out of some Valentine's merchandise in stock, primarily cards tailored to men to give to their wives, sweethearts and daughters, Norman says.

"In certain categories we had nothing left," she says. The staff ended up trying to upsell cards they did have in stock that could make a good alternative, such as blank cards.

"The frustrating part of that is we had cards out for a month," she says. "Depending on when a holiday falls, if it was during the week we could get an overnight shipment. This year, Valentine's Day came right after the weekend, so we really needed to place an order that Thursday before. We got through the weekend, but after the weekend we were almost wiped out -- and then it's the day before the holiday. Ironically, that's when the biggest sales day was. Men were coming in on Valentine's Day. I stayed open late because they were still coming in."

The too-little-merchandise lesson from Valentine's Day will be remembered for holidays to come. "We're anticipating that Mother's Day is going to be the same because it's the husbands' responsibility to get the cards for their children and their wife a card," she adds.

This time Card$mart will be ready.

"We basically move from one holiday to another. We packed up Valentine's and out goes Passover, Easter and St. Patrick's Day. Even though it seems so early, you don't want to have empty racks," Norman says.

Lotto as a profitable business
Before owning Card$mart, Norman and Rothberg had no idea how profitable Lotto would be (in terms of actual dollars as well as in getting customers into the store). But running a Lotto business is a bit more complicated.

Every six weeks, Card$mart gets a certain number of booklets on credit allotted by the New York State Lottery. The store is required to make a payment on those booklets every six weeks, but Norman finds she is selling out her games before the six-week period is up and having to pay the organization early to get more.

She hopes to be able to increase soon what the organization will allow her to sell. Stores make 6% commission on lotto sales, she says. And so while "it's not enough to pay the rent," it is enough to fill the gaps on slow days and make sure the store has regular customers.

Sick leave
While Valentine's sales dominated the month, another issue that popped up was store coverage when Michele became seriously ill with pneumonia.

The partners learned a valuable lesson in having trustworthy employees and family members who were able to fill in.

"We both have daughters who are high school seniors and need to look at colleges. She took off a Tuesday and Wednesday to look at schools," she recalls. " That night I flew out to California to look at colleges. Thursday I find out that she spent the day in the hospital. I am across the country. Thank goodness it was school vacation week. Our kids really rose to the occasion and pitched in."

Other employees also were able to keep things running smoothly until Norman could get back to the East Coast. "The girls that we have working for us are very honest and trustworthy and they know the business and how we like it done," she says.

The experience drove home just how much commitment owning a business takes.

"Usually when you come home from vacation you go to the supermarket, you do your laundry. I came right into the store," she says.

-- Written by Laurie Kulikowski in New York.

To contact Laurie Kulikowski, send an email to: Laurie.Kulikowski@thestreet.com.

To follow Laurie Kulikowski on Twitter, go to: http://twitter.com/#!/LKulikowski

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