A little thankfulness takes Dandelion Patch stationery stores a long way

By Vickie Elmer
Monday, June 28, 2010

Two years ago just as the economy was sinking, Heidi Kallett urged a group of business owners to write 50 thank-you notes over a year, calling it "the Heidi challenge."

She told them: "I'm willing to bet that your business will improve as a result."

Sure enough, she said, sales increased "exponentially more" for three companies whose owners wrote them vs. the companies of those who did not.

These days, the owner of a pair of upscale stationery stores is still espousing the importance of thank-you notes, not just for the sake of old-fashioned good manners, but as a tool to improve relationships with employees and customers. "It's one very easy way to differentiate yourself from your competitors," she said.

Kallet's Dandelion Patch shops have grown faster than the weed they are named for, with sales increasing from $125,000 in 2005 when she bought her first store to around $2.5 million last year. The gains came from a new larger store in Vienna, a second location in Reston, the addition of more gift items aimed at women and a clear focus on well-heeled brides. Yet the thank-you notes really helped when the economy was struggling.

Kallett, who said she has "a passion to make things more personal," wrote more than 100 thank-yous to her vendors, people she met at networking events and especially her best customers. Those customers received handwritten notes that said, "We are so glad to be part of your life. If there's anything we can do, here's my personal e-mail," and that helped build customer loyalty and repeat sales.

Sales this year are up about 25 percent over last, and Kallett is ready to move forward with her business plans, which call for six Dandelion Patch locations around the Beltway. "We'll do that thoughtfully and conservatively," she said. She currently is making plans for her third location while seeking the bank financing and lines of credit needed to expand the business from $2 million in annual revenue to $10 million.

She's been shopping around for a bank and believes she'll land the financing she needs. "I've got a good story to tell -- the banks are listening," she said, though they will require her to personally guarantee the loan.

It helps that her husband, Joel, is an investment banker who assists with huge deals and understands the financial landscape. "He's one of my biggest cheerleaders. He's my 11 o'clock adviser," she said. He's also the one who insisted she develop a business plan before buying the Dandelion Patch, then a small mom-and-pop shop, from its original owner five years ago.

"Those were some of the worst three weeks of our marriage," she said, as it was a time when she was wrestling with many new issues and subjects.

Kallett had spent much of the three years before the purchase as president-elect and president of the Junior League of Northern Virginia, an almost full-time volunteer position. "My husband said: 'You should start thinking about what you'll do after this -- or you'll drive me crazy,' " she recalled.

After she purchased Dandelion Patch, she was convinced everything she sent out would be printed on paper "because that's what we do for a living." In her first year as owner, Kallett spent a lot on postage to mail invitations to all sorts of events -- "all this direct mail" to promote bridal and other events. No customer e-mails, no social media connections for her for at least two years.

Gradually, though, she started collecting customers' e-mail addresses -- which now number 25,000 -- and started an e-letter. Then she added a Web site, then started using Facebook and Twitter because her brides, most ages 25 to 35, use them. Yet when the shop stages wedding teas, author events or parties, she still uses "a lovely printed invitation," she said.

She used the gift lines -- including Vera Bradley purses, Godiva chocolates, and puzzles and playthings -- to expand the business in the last three months of the year. She saw it evolve from bridesmaid gifts and VIP wedding assistance gifts into baby and teacher gifts and more.

The Dandelion Patch now has eight full-time employees and another 17 to 22 part-timers. Business also blooms around the spring and summer weddings, though the stores sell invitations for everything from births to sweet 16 parties and golden anniversary celebrations and, as its motto says, "all of life's milestones."

Her thank-you note business is growing too, and it's leading to more corporate business, she said. Business clients account for about 5 percent of sales, but are the fastest-growing segment. She has perhaps 100 people who stop by regularly to buy corporate thank-you notes.

Kallett sells the fun ones, those that have glitter and high heels and wild colors, but she likes to see the cream and navy blue notes fly from her store, too. Yes, she said, it's all right to put your business card in with the note. Writing thank-you notes is like exercise -- it becomes a habit, she said. Plus, "It changed our attitudes -- we all just became a little happier."

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