According to Mo Frechette, they miss seeing customers out there in warehouse land. Toni Morell says they’re bored during off season. There’s also some inventory they’d like to move at discounted prices, Frechette says, so “why not do it as a hush-hush locals-only thing?”
The Chronicle suspects that Zingerman’s fans won’t really care why the managing partners of Zingerman’s Mail Order decided to open a super low-key discount retail store – they’ll just care about the when, where and what.
So here’s the deal: Every Friday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., starting last Friday and running for 21 weeks, the warehouse at 610 Phoenix Drive will be selling 21 types of items at deep discounts – including some things priced at $21 – to anyone who happens to stop by. The stock will be different each week, though there’ll likely be some overlap, too – you can sign up to get weekly emails alerting you to what’s on offer.
When we stopped by on March 13, the venture’s kickoff day, we watched a steady stream of people drop in – mostly from the surrounding industrial park, which includes the Borders Group headquarters and the Ann Arbor Learning Community, a charter school. Frechette said they’d told some of the surrounding businesses about it – plus there’s a sign at the entrance to their driveway – but otherwise, only some “leakage” about the store on Facebook and the blogosphere. Yet word is getting out.
The “store” is really just a fairly small entryway that otherwise contains, well, nothing. They’ve put in a desk for someone to act as cashier, a few shelves, and a curtain made from burlap coffee bags stitched together to cover the entry into the cavernous warehouse – the bags carried beans imported by Zingerman’s Coffee Co., which does its roasting in a portion of the warehouse. And it smells just that good.
While we were there, Brad Hedeman kindly took the time to give us a tour of the operation, aside from the store. He handles marketing and purchasing for the mail order business, and explained why they were looking for something more to do this time of year.
The business is intensely seasonal. Of their $8 million in annual sales, half of that comes during the six weeks around the holidays. And half of that $4 million comes during the week before Christmas.
Employment reflects that seasonal arc as well. Though the mail order business employs about 50 people now, including part-timers, during the holiday crush that number shoots up to between 350 to 400 people.
But on Friday, the warehouse was quiet. The long yellow conveyor belt used during peak times was silent, and the phones weren’t ringing during the short time we chatted with the staff there waiting to take orders – though about 60% of orders now come in via their website.
We met Luna, a friendly pup camped out in the office area, and walked by the Booty Bin – shelves stocked with products that are steeply discounted for employees.
In a way, the temporary retail store is like a Booty Bin for the public: You don’t know exactly what might show up there, but chances are you’ll find something you like and can afford, or at least covet.
Last Friday, the store’s offerings included Mattei Biscotti, Olive Oil Torta, Ravida Sicilian Sea Salt, La Cassetta Vinegar, 1-year Grafton cheese, pickled raisins, Apple Mostarda, Taza Chocolate and 13 other items, many priced at more than half off their original cost. They’d also put together a box – one of everything – for $210, keeping with the 21 theme. And there were samples out of several products.
Toni Morell said she’s looking forward to warmer weather, when they can spill outside and add things like a lemonade stand. Plus, it’ll be warm – the warehouse is chilly, and the knit hats worn by Frechette and Hedeman, though undoubtedly stylish, were functional as well.
We never truly got a definitive answer to “why 21?” The timing means the store will stay open on Fridays through July, with August being a heavy vacation time before ramping up for the start of the seasonal push in September.
Or, as Mo Frechette said, it’s like blackjack, “where everyone wins” – and we’ll just leave it at that.