For months Michael Davis prepared for the opening of his franchise with the world’s reportedly largest retailer of printer cartridge refills.
He found the perfect spot in the upscale Camp Creek Marketplace center on Camp Creek Parkway. He researched the market, finding out which cartridges were the top sellers.
His inventory stacked; his employees in place, Davis opened Cartridge World, at 3645 Marketplace Blvd., in November 2010, hoping to capture a customer base that was ready for cheaper cartridges that provided the same top quality.
“Everyone is a potential customer,” Davis, 45, said. “If you are on the planet you probably have a printer, a postage machine and you’re probably going to run out of ink.”
As the employees rang up the prices, mouths dropped, eyes widened. Customers were looking at savings of up to $10 or more on cartridges.
Many had never heard of Cartridge World and now they knew they would never forget it.
“We can get anything you want in a day or two,” Davis said. “We have more on the shelf than most stores do and unlike other stores we will find it for you.”
But something went wrong.
And Davis soon realized he had made one of the biggest mistakes in his new career.
He had misread his market.
The youngest son of a retired elementary school teacher and a former CDC executive, Davis was a technology man.
For 21 years, Davis remained loyal to the same computer company, which changed names and owners three times before laying off Davis’ division. The drop came almost a week after Davis graduated with an MBA degree from Emory University.
It was time to move on to a new career, and one day Davis stumbled into one.
Looking for cartridges for his Laser printer, Davis chose a Cartridge World in Decatur. He saved $19.66 by buying refills.
“I used a couple of them and realized there were no differences in them.”
Excited, Davis saw a business opportunity. Anyone who owned a printer, a fax, a postage machine or copier needed ink cartridges.
That amounted to millions of customers including college students, business owners and teachers.
And with the economy in the tank, Davis knew many would be looking for good deals.
A week later, he received another boost.
It was at a networking meeting.
Among a sea of suits, the man was easily the most calm and relaxed one in the room. Davis had to meet him. The man, it turned out, knew a lot about the cartridge refill business. He was the owner of the Cartridge World in Decatur, the same store where Davis bought his refills.
Armed with more Information, Davis began his research. He approached the company about opening a franchise. They wanted one in Henry County. But Davis balked at the idea. He had no desire to stray so far from his Sandtown home, his church and his community.
With more than 650 stores in North America, 1,700 stores worldwide and 59 locations in Georgia and Tennessee, there were still many areas that were under-served. And despite the market for one, Davis realized that Cartridge Worlds weren’t traditionally placed in urban areas.
His store would be the only one in South Fulton.
Davis attempted to get a loan, but a year ago many banks weren’t funding startups and they weren’t lending to small businesses. He dipped into his retirement funds.
With its cream-colored walls, carpeted interior and comfortable black chairs, Davis had turned the store into a clean, warm and inviting setting: a place where relationships can foster.
Shortly after opening, about 15 people who had already bought cartridges at the neighboring Staples saw the sale sign and stopped in.
“They wanted to do a price check,” Davis said. “As we rang up the prices, their mouths dropped.”
Davis smiled. They returned the cartridges to Staples and became Cartridge World customers.
The store was off to a good start, but soon Davis began to realize his customers were primarily retailers who used inkjet printers. He had stacked his shelves with toners for laser printers based on the supplier’s data on the top selling cartridges.
“That was the biggest mistake. What one store sells is completely different from another store,” Davis said. He was seated behind a glass desk with the word “Love” written in several languages. “What one put on sale in one store is completely different from what they put on sale across town.”
More than eight months later, Davis still had not sold the laser toners for brands such as HP, Dell, Brothers and Lexmark. He was losing money.
The store’s customers were 70 percent retailers and 30 percent business owners.
In order to prosper, Davis was acutely aware that he needed more business customers, which will mean a more consistent clientele, larger orders and a steady stream of revenue.
He needed more customers like Jason Wright with LensCrafters. The manager had stopped buying his cartridges at Staples once he found out Cartridge World had a better deal.
“It’s a lot cheaper,” Wright said. “I saved $10 for each cartridge.”
Davis, who was a member of various networking and business organizations, decided on a gimmick: lollipops. His three employees quickly showed their distaste for the idea. But Davis believes in giving the customers what they like.
And they liked the lollipops.
Each shipment contained lollipops. There was a lollipop for each box. Still, some customers wanted extra.
A month ago, when a lady dropped in upset, Davis offered her a lollipop. He watched her unwrapped the cherry bubble on a stick and 30 seconds later it was like magic. The woman smiled.
“It takes people back to a time when it was simpler, easier and more fun,” Davis said.
“It’s about the customer,” Davis said. “Cartridge world is a people business more than a technology business.”
And he believes every customer should be treated like a grandmother, with reverence and respect.
Manager Anika Glenn, a former flight attendant, likes retail.
She smiled one Thursday when a woman and her son came in searching for ink for the woman’s computer. The two was just passing by when they saw the sale sign posted on the store’s glass front.
“Will it mess up my printer?” the woman wanted to know.
It was the most popular concern among their customers.
“It may not work, but it can’t mess up your printer,” Glenn told the woman. About 5 percent of customers using recycled cartridge returned them because they won’t work in their printers, Glenn said.
Some recycle cartridges won’t work in some brands of Lexmark and Canon.
Glenn said she does about five refills a day, spending 15 minutes to refill, test, reseal and re-package each cartridge.
“It’s the ultimate in green, we are reusing cartridges,” Davis said. “We are diverting them from going to landfills.”
Of the 205.5 million computer products disposed of in the U.S. in 2007, 157.3 million were trashed while the remaining 48.2 million were recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“We are teaching people about green and sustainability,” Davis said. “You can reuse an ink cartridge up to five or more times.”
Green solutions will be tremendously more important five years from now, Davis said.
But Davis didn’t want to just stop with selling recycling ink cartridges. He opened up a recycling program, allowing residents to drop off computer equipments and other electronics at the store.
“There is not a permanent place to drop things off in south Fulton,” Davis said.
Still, driven by the customers’ needs, Davis also started a computer repair program. He sells computers and papers along with regular ink cartridges; and soon customers will also be able to do some light copying.
“I want to be able to do full service here. That’s when it becomes a full-solution store.”
Davis spend hours attending mixers, breakfast and brunches. He understands the need for networking. He helps with fundraisers and community cleanup programs. He understands the importance of being involved in the community.
Still, the small white desk and little matching chair in the corner of the store’s break room showed Davis understand something else as well.
That area was reserved for his 3-year-old daughter, Blake. She had the place set up with her toys and books for when her father brings her to the store on weekends. It was her office in the store she proudly called, “Our store.”
Davis takes her to daycare in the mornings and was home almost every evening to give her a bath. Sitting on a chair with her legs propped over his shoulder, he would read her stories. Then it was time for bed, at least for Blake. For Davis, it was back to work.
“The retail business is a hard business and you have to work all the time,” Davis said. “People who know me are used to getting emails from me from 10 at night to 2 or 3 in the mornings.”
The husband and father, who loves to travel and dabbles in photography, looks forward to a time when sales are profitable and consistent, when things can run smoothly in his absence and when he can spend his time as he wants.
But that will have to wait. He has a business to grow, and a stock of laser toners to sell.