An unusual package

Tedd Wein mentions, with some pride, that a national company has contacted him to do business with his Mailboxes Etc. store.

The company, a Texas concern that handles reverse logistics for large mail order retailers, is interested in using Wein’s Ross Township store as a drop-off point for customers who want to return merchandise to large catalog merchants. Wein says the company identified his store location as having sufficient customer traffic and visibility to serve as a receiving point.

Mailboxes Etc. offers a variety of services required for mailing and shipping, as well as related products and services.

Wein says his store is enjoying strong growth — 2001 sales were up 7 percent over the previous year, and last year’s December sales bested the December 2000 sales mark by 17 percent.

There’s little wonder, then, that Wein is motivated and encouraged by the business and social trends that are making his industry successful and bode well for his prospects for growth.

But those weren’t the incentives that drove Wein when he entered the business in 1987.

“I was motivated by fear,” says Wein. “I just felt that I couldn’t afford to fail.”

Private businesses that offer the services that Mailboxes Etc. offers are no novelty today, but in 1987, Wein was entering a business that was in its early stages. His was just one of three in the Pittsburgh market at the time.

Mailboxes Etc. today has more than 4,500 locations, including 20 in Pittsburgh, and was ranked No. 2 on Entrepreneur magazine’s Franchise 500 list in 2001. But when Wein launched his store, the company was No. 434 systemwide.

Perhaps most important to Wein, his father had provided personal guarantees for the loan taken to start the business.

Mailboxes Etc. was anything but a household name in 1987. Wein says customers often stopped in because they thought the store sold mailboxes. The company ultimately added a line of mailboxes to its inventory, but it was clear early on that the store’s concept had yet to gain widespread recognition.

After several years of sluggish sales, even his wife doubted his prospects for making the business successful.

“My wife said to me, ‘When are you going to stop playing store and get a real job?'” Wein says.

Still, he has managed to stay in business while others, including other Mailboxes Etc. and independent and franchise operators have closed their doors.

The invisible store

Wein started off in a less than desirable location and struggled for four years until he could negotiate with his landlord for a better spot in the center. He negotiated his first lease for a storeroom in the McKnight Siebert Shopping Center but soon found the location was anything but prime.

The view of the store was obscured by a service station sign, and it was difficult to see from the road. It was too small, and at the end of the strip, rather than at its busier entrance. He tried for six months to negotiate for a better spot in the same center, but the space he wanted went to another tenant.

But when a better space came available in the center four years after he opened his doors, Wein this time was able to move to the larger, more visible spot, closer to the heaviest foot and motor traffic.

Guerrilla marketing

Wein built awareness of his business every way he could think of. He walked up and down McKnight Road, talking with business owners and dropping off his business card and promotional flyers.

“I beat the streets a lot,” Wein says.

He went to networking and local chamber of commerce events, and handed out coupons for the nearby McDonald’s, while the fast food restaurant passed out Mailboxes Etc. coupons to its customers. He made certain that clerks at the U.S. Postal Service office on the next corner knew Mailboxes Etc. offered passport photos.

And while the West Penn AAA office across McKnight Road offered notary services for automobile-related work, it didn’t provide them for other purposes. Wein asked the office to refer such work to him, while he referred his customers to the auto club office for notary services he couldn’t provide.

But the grassroots marketing activity that might best demonstrate Wein’s enthusiasm and commitment was the “Zippy” mailbox costume he donned on heavy traffic days to catch the attention of motorists as they drove past the McKnight Seibert Shopping Center.

To gain name recognition for Mailboxes Etc., Wein and several other owners formed an advertising cooperative to take advantage of a 50 percent match the franchiser offered for local advertising efforts.

Cash woes

Cash flow problems plagued Wein early on, as sales were weak but bills continued to roll in. He initially negotiated an arrangement with his lender that required interest-only payments on his loan.

When he found that cash was tight at the end of the year, he approached his banker to extend the interest-only payment for an additional year. At the end of the second year, with cash still scarce, Wein asked the banker once more to waive the principal for another year. The bank agreed.

Wein says consumers are getting used to alternatives to the traditional methods of sending packages and mail. Home-based businesses need specialized shipping services, and recent changes in air travel have prompted some travelers to consider other ways to ship goods.

“I’ve realized that people are shipping things that they can’t travel with anymore,” says Wein.

Recent drop-offs at his store include $35,000 worth of jewelry headed to a trade show and a cache of silver bullion. Online auction sites like eBay are also bringing traffic to his store, says Wein.

He’s shipped fishing rods, antique dolls and even a hard top for a Mazda Miata.

Wein says luck has played a role in his success, too. The growth of home-based business, e-commerce and his decision to locate in the McKnight Road business corridor, he says, have all contributed to his success.

While his fear of failure motivated him to make his business successful, his lack of fear — or his choice to ignore it in some instances — may have been the difference between succeeding and failing. One of the most important lessons Wein says he’s learned in business is to not be afraid to ask for something.

“When the worst that someone can say is, ‘No,’ you might as well ask the question.” How to reach: Mailboxes Etc.,