Direct Marketing Drives ReaganBridgeen

January 13, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — For several years, the Reagan Marketing + Design team was in a constant “shower state.” Employees and friends were all having children, and the firm celebrated by producing baby books for the expectant mothers.

As the newborn babies were paraded before family and friends, so were the baby books. The gifts were a hit, and the firm was soon making enough hand-sewn books to meet a surprising number of requests.

“We put our heads together and thought that this was what we do for our corporate clients all the time,” said Mary Reagan-Shapton, the firm’s owner. “We thought, ‘Why not put together a business plan, and see if we could do the same thing for ourselves.’”

The ReaganBridgeen keepsake gift line came to market in 2002, as the firm was entering a turbulent two-year period. It was able to sustain itself through the slump, and when West Michigan’s marketing industry began to right itself last year, the company invested heavily in the new venture.

The line of baby and wedding keepsakes was expanded to include the I Can Do It learning system — a set of hanging drawer tags to help children with clothing identity, and three aprons with coordinating notebooks that teach lessons about being a party host, a chef, or a lemonade-stand entrepreneur. A set of holiday greeting cards designed for new parents is also available, along with a new keepsake line for adoptive parents.

“This year we’ve been ramping up,” Reagan-Shapton said. “We’ve been putting a lot more effort and energy into the business. And we’re pitching it smart. We know it’s not going to be a huge business overnight.”

ReaganBridgeen is now available in 21 states. The line has been most successful in San Francisco and Los Angeles, with consistent growth in Chicago and some East Coast markets. It recently added distributors in New Mexico and Arizona.

“We’re working to get it into some larger retailers,” said Marketing Director Sheri Monroe. “Right now, it’s primarily gift and boutique.”

All of the company’s offerings drew exciting responses during nationwide testing. But in those same markets, the retailer response was lukewarm.

“At the time that we launched three years ago, a lot of the rep groups were finding that retailers were already overstocked with their existing product,” she said. “They weren’t seeing a huge turn on their inventory, so it was hard to pitch a new line. We really had to start challenging ourselves with, ‘How do we make an impact in a saturated market?”

ReaganBridgeen refined its message to highlight uniqueness and quality. It began marketing directly to retailers, and eventually, reps began to seek out the line.

As the industry evolves, however, the traditional distribution channels are becoming obsolete.

“We went to a lot of trade shows, and we started seeing a change in the market,” Reagan-Shapton said. “For this industry, people are usually placing orders at these shows, which is different from the trade shows our clients do where you just go to raise awareness.”

Since roughly 2001, that has not been the case. Attendance at even the largest trade shows was, in Monroe’s opinion, “awful.”

“It’s really fascinating,” she said. “You have to get to these buyers by many different avenues. Now, they are finding us.”

Today, retailers are more likely to find product on an Internet search engine than a trade show. They are as likely to purchase from a Web site as from a sales rep. This has benefited ReaganBridgeen, which was initially ignored by distributors. Its Web sales have increased consistently, including a 1,000-percent spike over the last six months.

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