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Mail Order—Mail-order firm makes a business out of backing books

nursery rhymes and fairy tales seems rather tame.

There are kittens with mittens, a pair named Jack and Jill, and Little Bo Peep and her harmless, wandering sheep.

Ann Ruethling had no problem reading those stories to her daughter. It was the others that concerned her.

They included Georgie Porgie, the lad who kissed all the girls and made them cry. Then there was the old woman who lived in the shoe; she had so many children she didn’t know what to do, so she spanked them and sent them to bed.

In Ruethling’s view, these stories were so tasteless there was no way she could read them to her children.

So Ruethling began taking notes on acceptable books for her children and at what age to introduce the books to them. She found enough titles to start her own home-based mail-order business in 1982.


– From Bookshelf To A Powerhouse

It was a modest operation in its first year; the company warehouse consisted of a bookshelf in her daughter’s bedroom and catalogs were mailed to just 71 people.

Since then the business, Chinaberry, Inc. of Spring Valley, has grown into a mail-order powerhouse with 50 regular employees and projected sales of $8 million this year.

Ruethling and her associates mail their catalog, with book reviews and product descriptions, four times a year to more than 3.5 million people.

In addition to books including “Where the Wild Things Are” and “The Velveteen Rabbit,” Chinaberry sells toys and exclusive items such as cookie cutters individually crafted around a drawn outline of a child’s hand.

“If you do a good job putting together a nice selection it helps to attract a sale,” said Gary DeMaine, company president and CFO.

In all, Chinaberry offers 500 to 600 products and competes with Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble Booksellers, he said.


– Employees Take Interest

DeMaine believes his employee’s research of the firm’s products separates the home retail business from the competition.

“We compete only because we sell the same product,” he said. “If you call into the (Chinaberry) call center you’re talking to someone who has read the book.”

In the fourth business quarter of every year competition takes on a whole new meaning at retail firms such as Chinaberry.

In September, the firm mailed out the last of the 2000 catalogs and expects a deluge of orders within the coming months.

Historically, more than 45 percent of annual orders are placed between September and December, DeMaine said.

In anticipation, Chinaberry hired 30 additional employees as it does every year.


– Seasonal Staff To Handle Workload

The seasonal employees were directly inserted into the vital areas of the company such as the call center, product processing and shipping , the same areas that can break a mail-order business during the holidays.

The new employees are sent through a week of training, but “this isn’t a rocket science business,” DeMaine said.

However, the idea of multi-customers receiving incorrect or incomplete orders so close to the holidays is not lost on Chinaberry; there’s only a slight rise in fourth-quarter processing errors compared to the annual average of 1.5 errors per 1,000 orders.

That leaves Ruethling’s original message as the final selling point, DeMaine said.

“If you have a certain set of values, you’re going to go to a company that is compatible with that,” he said.

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