The ASD Insider interviewed retail pioneer Bruce Leahy of Quips ‘N’ Quotes on how to succeed in retail — and why jewelry and Star Wars-themed merchandise should be on your radar this season.
|Store: Quips ‘N’ Quotes
Location: 5011 N 10th St, McAllen, TX 78504
Hours: Monday thru Satruday, 9am-8pm, Sunday, 12pm-6pm
Quips ‘N’ Quotes is a greeting card institution and purveyor of American-themed merchandise on the Texas-Mexico border since 1972. As a seasoned entrepreneur and 30-year buying veteran of ASD, founder Bruce Leahy has battled shifting currencies and language barriers to create a family-owned chain that has expanded from sales of “Get Well” cards to hot cups of coffee inside a trendy in-store cafe. Here, Bruce shares the story of Quips ‘N’ Quotes, the company that took him from being a lone entrepreneur in pioneer territory to the leader of a chain of destination storefronts that sell everything from gifts, to accessories, to Post Office boxes. If you want to know how to succeed in retail, Bruce has the insight you need.
AI: Describe Quips ‘N’ Quotes’ business model
Bruce: We sell a little bit of everything. Our largest store in McAllen, TX is 16,000 square feet. We started out in 1972 as a Hallmark store. We still sell Hallmark, but it’s only about five percent of our current business. At present, we sell a lot of gifts and a lot of fashion, with fashion having the largest growth in the last 10 years. We’ve gone from about 10 percent of what would have been termed ‘fashion,’ to almost 50 percent today.
AI: What led you to found Quips ‘N’ Quotes?
Bruce: I’m from Kansas City, MO. When I got out of the Army in 1971 at the age of 25, I was interviewing to be an accountant at a CPA firm even though I had always wanted to own my own business. Luckily, I had a family friend who said he that would give me the finances to start my own venture. We came to McAllen because, in 1972, this was frontier land. There were no McDonald’s, Burger Kings, Pizza Huts, or English-speaking movie theaters. They were desperate for Hallmark stores.
AI: If the residents didn’t have other types of amenities, why would a Hallmark store have been a such a big draw?
Bruce: It wasn’t, but there was a void in the market on the border of Mexico that we were able to fill. That created an opportunity for us.
AI: Were you running the business by yourself in the beginning?
Bruce: Pretty much. For the first couple of years, my wife had a different job. We went on to launch four stores in four years, the second in ’73, the third in ’74, and the fourth in ’75. She ended up being the main buyer while I ran all of the other operations.
AI: How did you learn how to run your businesses without having a background as an entrepreneur?
Bruce: I did not have a retail background, but I had a good accounting background, so I knew enough about business. I thought so, anyway! In retrospect, if I went into business today with the knowledge I had then, I don’t think I would have made it.
AI: How is operating a business in a border town a challenge?
Bruce: It’s a different customer base. McAllen is 80-90 percent Hispanic. When I moved down there from Kansas City, I became a minority overnight. McAllen is a great community and Texas is a great state to be in business.
AI: Is it challenging to run a business in a border town when you don’t speak the local Spanish language?
Bruce: A lot of people speak English, and they also speak a half-English, half-Spanish hybrid called Tex-Mex. I’ve always had to hire employees who speak Spanish.
AI: Are there any memorable milestones that Quips ‘N’ Quotes has met over the years?
Bruce: Our store in McAllen won the award for Best Designed Store by Gift & Dec magazine in 1996. We did a lot of wild things to try to make it a point of destination as opposed to most gift stores. We have a sky-painted ceiling and palm trees inside of the store. We also have a Post Office in the back of the store that has a thousand postal boxes, so we get additional traffic from the hundreds of customers every day who come in to check their boxes. We also have a coffee bar inside of the store called the Holy Cow Coffee Bar that seats 36 people. I was trying to mimic Starbucks when I created it.
AI: What’s been one of the hardest challenges for Quips ‘N’ Quotes over the years?
Bruce: We previously had stores in both Laredo and Brownsville, which are also considered border towns. During the first 20 years, we were heavily dependent on Mexico for commerce. Every few years, Mexico had a peso devaluation, and business would drop anywhere from 50 to 90 percent as a result. That was pretty extreme and caused a lot of stress. It’s very difficult to plan for those types of circumstances. At first, we wouldn’t know when it was going to happen, but then it started happening every six years when they would change presidents. About 20 years ago, they started letting their currency float. The extreme devaluations subsided after that, but in those first 20 years, we almost went out of business several times. A 50 percent cut in business is simply not something you can survive easily.
AI: Aside from trade shows, do you have any other methods in which you buy and curate merchandise for Quips ‘N’ Quotes?
Bruce: The Internet. I’m a part of a buying group called Southwest Buying Group, which has about 400 stores as members. We email each other everyday. Some members will come up with a great line of merchandise and, through our network, many of us end up purchasing their stuff.
AI: Do you still operate four Quips ‘N’ Quotes stores?
Bruce: No, I just have two stores now. One is in McAllen and the other is in Harlington, which is about 30 miles east of McAllen. We have about 50 employees.
AI: Do you have advice for entrepreneurs who are looking to go into business in the retail sector?
Bruce: Do it if you love it. My son and his wife are in the business now, and if I wanted to, I could retire. I still enjoy it, though. I’ve always enjoyed being an entrepreneur, even when times were tough. Entrepreneurship takes a certain personality, I think. You’ve got to be able to stand on your own two feet and make decisions on your own. It’s not for the faint of heart.
AI: What products set YOU apart; what is typically the best selling? What do your customers love the most?
Bruce: We have a huge selection of jewelry. We sold over $100,000 last year in scarves and ponchos. We bought over 1,000 ponchos at ASD this year. Our whole idea is to hit a category that is good and be the best in our market area. For instance, Dillard’s and Macy’s will have ponchos, but Quips ‘N’ Quotes will have a better selection than everybody else.
Our biggest department is jewelry, so we always have a large selection on hand. We just put in a large order from one of our vendors for close-out jewelry. We’ll price our one-day close-out jewelry sale items at 50-70% percent off. One piece purchased will net the buyer 50% off, five pieces, 60% off, and 10 pieces, 70% off. I’ve often seen ladies shop together in order to make a single purchase that nets the full 70% discount. We often have closeout sales because vendors that are overstocked contact us first in order to move their merchandise. We’ve gotten a reputation for being aggressive buyers and for being able to influence other shops to buy from overstocked sellers within our buying network.
We will be carrying a lot of promotional products to coincide with the release of Star Wars: Episode VII. We’re currently promoting the Sphero BB-8, an R2-D2 handheld device that not many stores in our area are carrying. We’ll have events at the store to coincide with the release of the film as well. We sold about $50,000 in Frozen merchandise last year, and we expect to do at least double that with the Star Wars merchandise.
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