Franchisee Success Stories March/April 2022

The First Year: Making a Mark

Hallmark franchisee Shawn Stack dives into his unique first year, using creativity and innovation to keep serving his community

By Stefanie Ucci

Shawn Stack says he first discovered the Hallmark franchise opportunity while browsing the July/August 2019 issue of Franchise Canada magazine. That’s one for the books!

It was one of this magazine’s regular features profiling an iconic brand in Canada that put Hallmark in the spotlight. As Canadians’ go-to store for memorable keepsakes and uplifting greeting cards, Hallmark has 104 independently owned stores across the country, including 36 Gold Crown Store-Within-A-Store locations, where the brand’s iconic offerings are highlighted in another retail setting.

This unique concept is in good company with Stack’s location—he owns a Hallmark in Timmins, Ontario, right next door to a novelty gift shop he also owns, called Wicked Stuff. Stack operated his first small business in a local mall for a while before customers started requesting that he add a Hallmark store so they could get their hands on some keepsake products for year-round occasions. Now the two brands have a yin and yang style operation.

A Hallmark moment

Stack opened his Hallmark franchise in November 2019, bringing nearly a decade of experience as manager of a Tim Hortons restaurant on top of owning a gift store. “[Wicked Stuff is] independent, so we don’t have a franchise backing us, but we do very well with it,” says Stack. “We did have a Hallmark in Timmins for quite a few years, and it closed about two years prior to opening up mine. So, it was really lacking in the community, and we just wanted to bring it back.”

He explains that his first few months were smooth sailing through the Christmas season (while also noting that it’s Christmas year-round at Hallmark!) and the business was off to a great start until the pandemic hit about halfway through his first year.

“We went into lockdown, and with that, we had to lay off all our staff,” says Stack. “I was working 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week. It was a scary time. I was doing curbside pickup in store until 5 p.m. and then I would go with my wife to deliver a mug here and there. It was just to keep the connections with the customers, so they didn’t forget about us when we did reopen. And because of that, we made it.”

At the time, Stack didn’t have a website to direct his customers to order online and pick up in store. So, with quick thinking and creativity, he turned to social media to keep serving his community. Using his small Facebook page as a temporary online store, he would take pictures of products and displays in his location and post them online for customers to browse. Then they’d send him a private message with a list of items they were interested in purchasing.

“We had no social media presence. I even had to learn how to e-Transfer so customers could pay for the products,” Stack says with a laugh. “We’re lucky we’re in a mall with a back entrance, so they could come to the back, and I would bring it out to them, and it worked.” With the multiple lockdowns in Ontario, Hallmark—best known for its wide product selection for holidays and milestones—was closed for in-store shopping throughout major holidays including Valentine’s Day, Easter, and Mother’s Day.

Picking up the pieces

“When we did eventually re-open, I taught myself about websites and we built one on Shopify,” explains Stack. “Then from there, we started growing since people are used to ordering online.” With flat rate shipping available across Canada, Stack can reach a wider audience than just his small community in northern Ontario.

But it’s not just keepsakes and greeting cards that customers are most interested in. “Our top sellers are actually puzzles! There was a niche [during the lockdowns] as everybody was looking for a puzzle when they were stuck at home. I’ve never been afraid to stockpile products, so we never run out of anything. We changed all three backrooms into puzzle storage, with wall-to-wall puzzles and that’s all we’ve been selling. Puzzles saved us.”

With a whopping 23 pages of puzzles on his website (www.gifting-online.ca), there are designs for customers of all ages, and Stack notes that his online presence has also allowed him to reach a younger and more diverse crowd, including new moms and collectors.

He adds that he also likes to keep it personal when people order from his website. Just like many small business owners do with their online orders, Stack says his team handwrites personal thank you cards for every single order—which has amounted to more than 2,000, at the time of writing.

Not a cookie cutter franchise

When speaking of the benefits of franchising with Hallmark, Stack explains that the brand isn’t a traditional franchise model, nor does it discourage owners from straying outside the lines. Of course, there are agreements in place, but franchisees can also bring in their own products that compliment core Hallmark products.

“It’s not cookie cutter. You can expand on Hallmark’s great product lines and displays with your own creativity. It really feels like your own store,” notes Stack. “Every city and customer are different, so what sells here might not sell down south. We know our market and can bring in our own products.”

He adds that he was very drawn in by the fact that Hallmark has no royalty fee in place. Instead, there’s a nominal Hallmark Gold Crown fee of $210 a month, and that’s all franchisees are expected to pay. There’s also an online ordering website for products called Hallmark Marketplace, and franchisees are sent major samples for the season four times a year. For example, in January the brand is already sampling Christmas products for the next holiday season. “If you love Christmas all year round, then this franchise is for you!”

Plus, Stack explains that “Hallmark pays for all the freight, which is huge [because otherwise we’d] spend a lot of money to bring products up north. There are also a lot of Hallmark rebates throughout the year, which is fantastic.”

As for training, Hallmark provides “The Experience” program that’s focused on four core units: orientation, customer service, product knowledge, and operational excellence. Franchisees receive a physical box that has different tabs inside to sort through and learn from.

When it comes to ongoing support, each franchisee is assigned a business development specialist that works in the field to provide samples, support, and anything that comes up during the franchisee’s career. They can also turn to the customer support department for all issues and questions related to shipments.

Under regular circumstances, Hallmark organizes an annual in-person conference in January for franchisees across the country to meet with senior leaders, view product programs, explore new products, and talk to the product development team. It’s also the perfect place to meet other franchisees and discuss the ins and outs of their small businesses.

Stack’s advice for others considering franchising is simple: “Do your homework. It doesn’t matter what franchise you’re looking into, call other franchisees up and ask them questions—everybody’s there to help. Look up reviews and know what you’re getting into.”

At a time when many are craving connection and joy, Hallmark’s brand vision is right on cue: as “the company that creates a more emotionally connected world by making a genuine difference in every life, every day.”

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