Really Good Stuff (RGS) in Monroe, Conn., which makes and markets a wide variety of creative educational tools for teachers and school systems via direct-mail catalogs and the Internet, is itself growing more creative in how it goes to market. From a steady stream of new products to ongoing cost-cutting strategies, President and CEO Jim Bennett is leading his company through a fiercely competitive marketplace today, to prepare kids for their own competitive marketplaces of the future.

Before founding the company in 1992 with partner Jon Sonneborn, Bennett ran another direct-mail business marketing videotapes to the education market. At a certain point, however, the pair “saw the writing on the wall, with videotapes declining in popularity.” After     consulting an outside expert in creating “poster-like” products, Really Good Stuff began to take shape.

RGS’s customers are mostly elementary school teachers. “Back in the early ’90s, when we started out,” Bennett recalled, “most of the selling went through the districts; it was a top-down selling experience. But because we were direct-mail catalog people, we went after the classroom teachers.” 

In fact, during the first years of RGS’s existence, fully 80% of sales came from committed teachers who were paying out of their own pockets for supplemental fun and creative teaching tools. Over time, however, that balance has shifted. Said Bennett, “Our name has filtered up from the teachers through to the schools and districts.” And today, sales split about evenly between individual classroom teachers and schools and districts.

Making a difference

RGS is dedicated to, in Bennett’s words, “creating fun and creative products and services for teachers to help them make a difference in children’s lives.” The importance of fun in the equation should not be glossed over. For example, many early elementary teachers will instruct a student to place his finger next to a word he has just written in order to create a space before he starts the next word.  

“We understood this as a methodology,” Bennett recounted, “so we went out and created clothes pins bearing hand-painted figures of an astronaut, and we called that product Spacemen. Now we had teachers saying, ‘Put your Spaceman down on the paper, before you write the second word.’ That’s how we pick up on what the teachers now do and add a little bit of flair and fun to it. We sell tens of thousands of these Spaceman every year to first grade teachers.”

RGS’s best-selling item is something Bennett prefers not to share. “It is a very, very competitive marketplace.” His point of differentiation from those competitors, he said, is his direct-mail catalog activity. “We work very hard and excel in that area. Most of our competitors use catalogs to go directly to teachers, (as well as) wholesale outlets. We push very hard directly to the teacher; we are not going to brick and mortar, and we are not selling wholesale.”

RGS brings about 500 new products to market each year and refines others. One of the more successful has been a line of student journals. “Over the last two or three years, we have produced a 128-page journal for half the price of a 64-page journal,” Bennett said. “We’ve done it through very creative sourcing.” 

The company manufactures roughly half of the products it sells, more than in the past, but Bennett believes there remains “some advantage in buying other people’s products if they are experts.” Case in point: educational consultant and author Debbie Diller of Debbie Diller & Associates, whose widely adopted methods for organizing classrooms have been translated into a variety of products. One allows teachers to create and manipulate a template and design their own classroom layouts. Said Bennett, “It allows teachers to arrange, rearrange, and organize their classrooms to support whatever the concepts are that they are trying to teach.”

All told, RGS’s five catalogs (Primary Grades, Intermediate, Reading, Math & Science, and Organizers) carry between 2,500 and 3,000 SKUs. Roughly half of RGS’s orders come in through its Web site, www.reallygoodstuff.com. Bennett said he expects that figure to eventually rise to 75%, “but it is all driven by our catalog.” The company mails “millions” of them, he added, a process that is growing both more expensive and challenging.

“The cost of mailing catalogs is skyrocketing,” Bennett revealed. “Postage has gone up by 40%, in the last year. Paper has gone up 60%, in the last year. What our government has done to the catalog business has been profound and will have a major impact in the next several years.” 

Bennett and Sonneborn have reacted the way any savvy executives would: they’ve developed ways to “mail smarter.” One is containing the growth of the catalog, necessitating less paper usage. Another is less aggressive prospecting, resulting in fewer total mailings. Finally, they will increasingly leverage the power of the Internet to keep costs in check. That said, the tried-and-true printed catalog isn’t going anywhere. “Even Amazon is now printing catalogs. There is no easy answer.”

Looking ahead

New for this fall’s back-to-school season will be highly utilitarian four-color folders. Typically, said Bennett, retailers like Staples and OfficeMax stock folders in two colors. RGS’s new line of folders “have a lot of art on them,” he noted, “and help teachers and students organize themselves.” 

Along those same lines is another new product this fall, a six-pocket writing folder. “It allows for students to organize their work from concept to first draft to edited version.” This type of folder lets students move easily from one stage of creation to another “through the organization of the folder they handle the flow.”

Also new for the fall is a line of student journals and what Bennett calls “readers theaters,” 16-page books that assist students in reading aloud. “It’s a big thing for students to be able to read out loud for fluency, so we have a line of 36, and we’ll be growing it to 56 next year.”

On the personal side, Bennett admitted to a certain amount of satisfaction at playing a role in helping develop young minds. “I’ve got a daughter who just joined Teach For America (a nonprofit organization with a mission is to build the movement to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting our nation’s most promising future leaders) and is graduating from the University of Michigan. If you have been around young teachers who are just getting started teaching young kids, you know it is so exciting—how excited they are about reaching the children, their students, and getting them to succeed in what they are doing. It’s very satisfying to provide the tools that allow these teachers to do what they love to do, which is to teach these kids.”