In an evolving world, where the line between the home and office is becoming increasingly blurred, the Office Shop is banking on old-fashioned customer service to set itself apart.
That model has worked well for them over 38 years, said Jodie Johnson, who alongside her husband Scott, founded the Office Shop. The supply store, which has locations in Brainerd and Aitkin, has been a presence in the lakes area since it was founded by the Johnsons in 1983. Back then, everyday staples of the business world, like the internet or personal computers, were mostly the stuff of science fiction, Johnson said, and this rapid evolution only looks to continue with social shifts occurring during COVID-19.
“Since day one, our whole philosophy and business has been that we sell everything for your office. Whether it’s a major corporation or it’s in your home office, everything you see, we can provide you,” Johnson said during a phone interview Wednesday, March 17. “That comes with 38 years of excellent customer service. We're proud of that. We’re proud of our employees over the years and how they live that model. That’s why I believe our business has grown.”
It is through this strategy that the Johnsons have been able to expand from their original Aitkin location to the Brainerd outlet in 1995. Johnson said the Office Shop is dependent on the ability of its 20 employees to address the needs of customers in an accommodating, professional, and personable manner.
The Johnsons were young, high-school sweethearts around the age of 20, when Scott decided to launch the Office Shop in the early ‘80s. At the time, Scott had been working for an office supply company after studying in St. Cloud and his coverage area he served at the time closely aligns with the customer base of the Office Shop today, in places like Brainerd, Baxter, McGregor, Little Falls and much of central Minnesota.
“He was working his tail off as a 20-year-old. One day, he was just driving and he's like, ‘I should just do this for myself. I'm working my butt off for someone else. I should open my own store and be able to service the people in the Brainerd lakes area,” Johnson said. “That was his first initial thought. He took out a napkin and wrote a business plan on that napkin and 38 years later here we are.”
Scott Johnson was 21 years old when he opened the Office Shop in Aitkin.
There has been their fair share of challenges since then, Johnson noted. Back when they started, typewriters were a universal piece of equipment in any office space, now personal computers and the internet have not only changed what products the Office Shop sells, but also how it interacts with customers. In this era, the local family-owned business has also had to weather competition from digital giants and big box stores.
“Amazon is a huge competitor, along with the big corporate entities, and I'm proud to say we're competitive with them,” Johnson said. “Our customers see that we are competitive with them. We can't always be the cheapest, but we're always going to have the best customer service.”
“You're always going to talk to a person if you have an issue,” she added. “You don't get an email or have to call a number that’ll transfer you 50 times before you actually get to a person. We’re from here. We live here. We work here. That makes a difference.”
Then 2020 happened. Like many in the lakes area, the Johnsons had difficult decisions to make and had to learn how to squeeze livelihoods out of inhospitable business conditions like water from a stone. The pandemic, however, also revealed other social phenomena.
Where business now had to be conducted through a mask, Johnson said, there were also changes in the makeup of their customer base. The Office Shop has always had an eclectic selection and robust customer base for home office spaces, but now home offices are starting to take up a larger and larger chunk of the company’s revenue sources.
Cooped up in cabins and resorts, white-collar workers and out-of-towers would stay for longer periods of time, she noted, and, in doing so, often needed office supplies to work remotely as they stayed in the lakes area to wait out COVID-19.
“The first couple months, just like everybody else, we were just trying to figure out how to make it work. It was a matter of how to be connected with our customers. Everybody was in the same boat,” said Johnson, who noted both locations feature a business center where out-of-towners often stop by to use the internet, print materials, or shop for odds and ends. “The bigger corporations are those that have the opportunities to work from home. If you're working from home, you still need your ink, you still need your paper, you still need your pencils and pens, or your folders or labels or all those things that you needed when you were working in the office. We’ve changed our strategy on how we get those things to our customers. We’ve adapted.”