Keeping up with home-schoolers

Nov 01, 1999 10:30 PM  By

This fall an estimated 1.5 million children are being schooled at home, up 328% from 350,000 in 1990, according to the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI). And while a few larger catalogers, such as privately held Alpha Omega Publications, serve the majority of the $750 million market, many suppliers are entrepreneurs who founded their businesses out of a need to find suitable books to school their own children and are now scrambling to keep up with demand.

For instance, Russell Berg, co-owner of Cape Cod, MA-based cataloger Beautiful Feet Books, in 1994 reported annual sales of $136,000; this year he expects company sales to reach $1.3 million. He launched Beautiful Feet Books in 1984 as a part-time business with his wife, Rea, who home-schools their four children. “We’d like to control the business, rather than have it control us,” Berg says. “Often we feel like we’re the flea on the dog.”

To gain control, Berg hired a full-time fulfillment manager, computerized his inventory and order-entry systems, and rented much-needed warehouse space. In addition to mailing 30,000 catalogs to the house file, Berg also mails 15,000 copies of the annual catalog each year to requesters.

Hard-to-find names

Despite the size and growth of the market, home-schoolers are tough to find, since many catalogers that target them do not rent or exchange files. Glenda Embree, owner of Seward, NE-based catalog King’s Harvest, says the home-school community values its privacy. “There has not always been a positive attitude toward home-schooling, and having that information available in mass sometimes makes people uncomfortable,” Embree says. She acquired most of her 2,200 customers by word of mouth, conventions, and online message boards.

Keeping customers can also be a challenge, especially now that some larger book marketers, such as Amazon.com, are hoping “to cash in on the market,” says Chris Davis, owner of home-schooling products catalog Elijah Co. in Crossville, TN. But Davis, who recently built a 2,500-sq.-ft. facility on his property to move his operations out of his neighbor’s garage, says he isn’t worried about the increased competition. For while the larger competitors can afford to offer discounts, “because they don’t know anything about homeschooling, they can’t really offer the kind of service that we can, being home-schoolers ourselves,” he says.