Meeting District Needs

School Supply Company Still Chalking Up Success

By Mark Walsh — May 17, 2000 4 min read

John L. Hammett, a Rhode Island schoolteacher-turned-textbook-salesman, was looking for a way to clean his chalkboard in the early 1860s when he hit upon an idea that would help launch a thriving school supply enterprise.

J.L. Hammett Co.

Headquarters: Braintree, Mass

1999 Revenues: $165 million

Ownership: Privately held

Principal Businesses: School supplies and equipment, sold via catalog, the World Wide Web (www.hammett.com), and 62 Hammett’s Learning World retail stores

Unable to find a cloth during an office demonstration, Mr. Hammett picked up some carpet remnants off the floor and found that they did a much better job of cleaning the slate surface. He soon nailed several small carpet pieces to a board and began marketing the first chalk eraser. The J.L. Hammett Co. was on its way to becoming a major regional school supplier.

Today, teachers and anyone else needing an eraser can turn to Page 37 of J.L. Hammett’s 900-plus page main catalog and find several models, such as the 99-cent Infinity Noiseless Eraser or the $2.79 jumbo felt model. Or they can log on to Hammett’s electronic-commerce site on the World Wide Web. Or they can stop in at one of the 62 Hammett’s Learning World retail stores nationwide, mostly in shopping malls.

And the offerings aren’t limited to erasers—customers can also find chalkboards, student desks, or any of thousands of other supplies.

“Our business is continuously focused on the pre-K-12 marketplace,” said Richmond Y. Holden Jr., the president and chief executive officer of the company, based here. “We’re having a good time at it.”

Hammett isn’t the largest catalog school supplier. Its main competitor, School Specialty Inc. of Appleton, Wis., has a slightly larger catalog and greater annual revenues. Nor is it the only e-commerce outlet for school equipment and supplies. On the Web, it competes with School Specialty’s Junebox.com and general office suppliers such as Office Depot and Staples, which do a sizable business in school sales. And in the retail world, Hammett’s stores go up against a host of mom-and-pop operations.

But Hammett is the only school supplier aggressively pursuing sales in all three marketplaces.

Embracing E-Commerce

After 137 years in business, Hammett is accustomed to changing with the times. Today, that means adapting to an economy increasingly dominated by electronic transactions.

“We’re convinced this is the way of the future,” said David E. Merigold, the company’s marketing director.

Change comes slowly to school purchasing, though, and most of Hammett’s orders still come through the mail. But phone, fax, and online ordering are growing fast. Already, Web-based orders have grabbed 10 percent of the company’s sales.

“Our goal is to get to 40 percent of our business coming from online,” said Mr. Holden, whose great-grandfather, Harry H. Young, was among a group of investors that bought Hammett in 1895.

The company has embraced e-commerce down to its 90-person national sales force, whose members still get commissions if schools in their territories order through Hammett’s E-zone Web site.

Mr. Merigold said the online system has allowed Hammett to get orders onto a delivery truck on the same day they’re received, instead of the three weeks it traditionally takes through the catalog.

Hammett is also building partnerships with Web-content sites such as Skoodles, and the Discovery Channel, where it serves as the school supply store.

Another potential for alliances is with the growing number of Web sites that promise to help schools save money on purchasing. Hammett is the lead school supply partner of Epylon.com and is evaluating possible relationships with competitors such as Simplexis.com and eschoolmall.com.

“These days, partnering with your competition is almost a necessity,” Mr. Merigold said.

Tim Holt, the president and CEO of the National School Supply and Equipment Association, a trade group in Silver Spring, Md., said the move to electronic purchasing by schools is still in the early stages.

With so many players, “it will be interesting to see how it all shakes out,” he said. “Hammett has seen a lot of landscape challenges over the years. They’re moving in the right direction.”

The overall market for nontextbook school supplies in the United States is about $6 billion annually, according to the trade group. Hammett had revenues of $165 million in 1999, and expects to top $190 million this year, Mr. Merigold said.

Paint on Sale

A growing portion of Hammett’s sales comes from the Learning World stores, the first of which opened in 1974.

At the outlet in Braintree’s South Shore Plaza Mall, preschool director Peggy Sewcyk was carting off $155 worth of glue, construction paper, and huge jugs of art paint one day last month.

“The sales are great,” she said. “That’s when I stock up on these big, big items.”

Vincent F. Botti, who head’s Hammett’s retail-store division, is a born salesman who enthusiastically greeted customers as he visited the store. He pointed to items that aren’t easy to find at other retail stores, such as classroom-seating charts for teachers and supplementary learning materials that parents might want for their children.

“A teacher really spends a considerable amount out of her own pocket,” Mr. Botti said, on such items as bulletin board decorations and wall posters.

Mr. Holden said that Hammett plans a very moderate growth rate for its stores and has eschewed the concept of franchising. And unlike the scores of education businesses that are rushing to go public in the stock market, Hammett plans to stay family-owned.

“There’s a mentality here about family ownership and full participation in the business,” Mr. Holden said.

That’s a motto the company doesn’t plan to erase from its chalkboards any time soon.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2000 edition of Education Week as School Supply Company Still Chalking Up Success

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