The Paint Store in Van Buren, Arkansas
Earlier this month, Jerry, myself and our band’s singer Ellen were fortunate enough to play at the Old Timer’s Day Steampunk Festival in Van Buren, AR. For those of you who don’t know, Steampunk is late 1800s to early 1900s Sci-Fi where people dress up in their Victorian best, but with all sorts of fictional technology to go with it (think gears and steam power!). Since that’s the exact era of music our band plays, we were a great fit. We were pretty exhausted after playing in the hot sun of the mid-south for three hours so we headed back to the hotel after the festival closed for a quick nap.
Then, right down the road from where we were staying we noticed something…it was a paint store, no…it was THE Paint Store! Before we left we knew we had to go in for a visit, so that’s exactly what we did. After spending some time with owner Sue Moore, we quickly realized that this shop is definitely not like many others. It’s truly more of a hub for contractors and DIYers alike where they can get some great products, learn about paint, or just chew the fat—sometimes actually chew the fat, but more on that later.
Sue Moore opened The Paint Store in 1988 in downtown Van Buren (near Fort Smith) to take advantage of a business opportunity. “A local lumber yard that sold paint chose to close,” Moore said. “I started out with no experience in paint, but my family were all artists, so I had a flair for color matching and decorating.” They started small with only a few products, but over time and a move uptown, they’ve now got an amazing variety product for sale in their small shop. “We were in the same building for 25 years and moved to this location five years ago,” said Sue. “We used to have a ‘wall of fame’ at that location that friends and contractors would sign, but we couldn’t move the blocks.” Enter a use for the old menu board outside their new location! They took a picture and put it on the board for everyone to see and remember; a way to meld old with new. Some of the signatories have since passed on, said Moore, and their families often drive by to see their autograph.
Now, About Those Shelves…
Now, how do you stock when you’re the only independent in the area? It’s not something you learn overnight. Moore mentioned that they started out with Jones•Blair back in the day, and she was very sad to see them bought out. But even with limited space in a small store, every flick of the eye lands upon a different brand or product. How’d she get so much? “It started out as a necessity as we tried to diversify and get as many customers as we could,” she said.
For example, she started carrying waterproofing coatings which then expanded into other industrial coatings as well as a good selection of specialty items such as traffic paints and pool paints. If you think she’s just shooting in the dark with how she stocks, however, you’d be wrong. “Even though you see different brands, they have a specific use that they’re chosen for,” she says. “Because we’re independent, we can pretty much buy anything we want, but we have some product we often go back to. We have ZAR (from UGL), which makes really good high quality sealers and toner products for outside. Richard’s supplied us with the traditional oil base semi transparent stain that we’ve had for decades,” Moore continues, “The Wolman brand has the solid color. They’re owned by Zinsser, who has a good reputation, and we’ve had their product for 25 of our 30 years. We also have Modern Masters metallics; a lot of people like their faux.”
Sure it’s a lot, but her stocking philosophy is actually quite simple. “I’ll sell it as long as I can get my hands on it and it performs,” she tells us. “When we opened the store I felt I needed to have hands on experience with products so I could get the same thing time and time again and know it will hold up down the line and be consistent.”
This brings us to an interesting part of their business, their private labeled product. They started this project about two or three years ago and, Moore reports, it’s really taken off. “We teamed up with Richard’s Paint to private label for us. The Jones•Blair product we carried had such good coverage, and their chemical makeup was what we need here in this part of Arkansas—for instance mildew resistance, and flexibility with the wood as it expands and contracts with different temperature changes.” The house brand from Richard’s has these qualites as well.
But don’t think that Sue just slapped The Paint Store’s name on anything; she did her due diligence. “I paint it at my house so I can say to the customer that this is what I use. I can tell them from experience how it washes or fades.”
She had some deep reasons for partnering with Richard’s, and along with the private label she carries a lot of Richard’s own brand as well. “We like Richard’s product. We were looking for a small company because they tend to take care of their customers better. You can call and speak to the person you want to talk to; even a member of the Richard family. Their sales rep comes by whenever he’s through town—not just once a quarter. He lives in Jane MO, a little bitty town just north of the border.”
Steak & Eggs
In addition to its brand of paint, The Paint Store also has its own brand of Certified Grassfed Beef! Sue and her husband Tom have the first farm in Arkansas that has been certified as Animal Welfare Approved by A Greener World. When asked about this curious combination of paint and beef, Sue noted that raising grass fed cattle was actually easier than more conventional methods. “We felt like we wanted a farm but we didn’t want a lot of hands on, so we focus on animal welfare. You don’t run your cows though the chutes all the time, poke them with needles, and feed them grain all the time, they only forage. They eat grass, hay, and alfalfa kind of like cows used to do centuries ago before the feedlot system.
“The calves are born and we raise them until they are ready for processing,” she continued. “We take them to an Animal Welfare approved processor, B&R processing in Winslow, AR. We have a freezer and fridge [at the store] and we sell free range chicken eggs, hamburger meat, and steaks.”
When the obvious question of how that works in a paint store comes up, she noted that just like many customers like healthier paint, they like their food the same way. “The trend is to eat healthier and know more about what you’re consuming, and we have quite a following. Some days we may sell more meat than paint!” Jerry and I had to take her word for it, because no matter how delicious it would have been then, no meat would taste good after sitting in a car for six hours on our drive back to St. Louis!
Lost in Space
Every store has its problems with tackling space limitations. At The Paint Store, Sue and assistant Vicki Hargrove come up with commonsense yet creative ways to maximize what they can fit in their space. You’re not going to see a lot of sad, empty shelves, here! “It’s no real secret,” Sue says, “I’m not going to waste an extra inch of space between shelves and it’s the same way in our outdoor storage areas—shelves. We don’t waste
Using some of the building’s former life to her advantage, Sue tells us, “We try to keep volatile products outside. This was a restaurant before we moved here and one of those outbuildings was a freezer. It’s still insulated, so it makes for excellent storage as it keeps things cool in the summer and in the winter keeps them from freezing.” She looked at a few square feet with nothing in it. “Looks like we need a shelf here, too,” she mused.
Still, sometimes you simply run out of space, regardless of how efficient you are, but Moore has it all under control. “We also have a just in time warehousing facility and we occasionally use them to warehouse volume product if we have big projects going up. It adds a bit to our expense, but I can order 5,000 gallons and have it shipped over there. Having that space available helps to stretch if we need it.” When you have mastery of organizing your space, you can worry about selling more paint and not where to put it!
Miles of Files in the Aisles
Now we get to the juicy stuff, and I’m not talking about steak! I’m talking about tricks and tips they’ve learned over the years to make the shop run as smooth as can be. Here’s a few of their trade secrets. “The way we keep up with customers colors is unique for these days,” Sue says, “I make up a little recipe card with the formulas, file it under contractor’s name, and after contractor is done with the job we file it under the homeowners name so we can pull it back out when we need to.”
Sue brings it home: “I put a sample of each color on the back so I can maintain that consistency. I had to buy some big file cabinets because I don’t throw anything away for at least 10 years, and even 15 on some projects, because you don’t need to paint for a while,” she adds. “People can come back and get the same thing and we have records. Some people say we should keep it on the computer, and I said I can’t keep a sample of your paint in the computer screen, I could write it down and keep a formula in there but you can’t always be sure. It may be the old fashioned way but I think it’s the right way.”
Another trick that should be a no-brainer for local business: get involved! “By doing the right thing and being responsible and respectful of other people we have gained a good reputation,” Sue says. “We support local people here: 4H, baseball and football teams, frisbee golf; they want their $40 ads and we try to support our customers and their kids in those sports. The Sherwin-Williams and Lowe’s in the world don’t really touch the community on a one on one basis.”
Now comes the obvious and over-asked question of anyone in a gender-dominated field. Does she have problems being a female dealer? The answer is a resounding not anymore! “It was a problem back in 1988,” she explains. “In the beginning I was learning a lot since I didn’t know anything about paint. I would ask contractors about paint products and how they covered and want them to tell me how my products worked. Now I’m a go-to person for paint knowledge.” She tells us one story: “I had issues with some sales reps from some bigger corporate companies and one in particular…so I don’t carry their paint.” It wasn’t because the paint was bad, she said frankly, but due to the lack of respect. Being an independent dealer, she could throw the rep—and his paint—out the door.
She finishes this off with one last thing, “Most of my customers come to us because their parents and grandparents got paint from us. I have kids—where I remember when they were born—that are now my customers. Alot of it is word of mouth: ‘you need to talk to Sue and Vicki at The Paint Store because they know.’” After spending this morning with them, it was pretty obvious they DO know, and as the only independent dealer in the Arkansas River Valley, they are primed for success well into the future!