Diane Thompson, the majority owner of School & Carnival Supplies Inc., had worked for the IRS for many years when she lost her husband, Terry Thompson, in June 2005.
“When my husband died, I had to take over,” Thompson said. “I wasn’t really very involved with the store before. Since my husband’s death, I have had to come in and learn a lot. It has all been an incredible experience. It really helped that we have very, very good staff here. They knew the operations and have handled everything very well. Our general manager, Dionne King, located in the Gulfport store, is also part owner of the store, and she knows the business in and out.”
Terry Thompson started the business in 1983 with a few other investors at 311 Cowan Road in Gulfport. Today, it has grown to 24 employees at three locations — a retail store and warehouse in Gulfport and stores in Moss Point and Hattiesburg.
“The original idea was that teachers needed supplies, and there was no place here to provide those supplies,” Thompson said. “But teachers run out of money after a while, so the business then sold prizes and tickets for the PTAs having fairs and carnivals to make money to subsidize teachers. Hence the name, School & Carnival Supplies. Later on, because of the ‘carnival’ part of the name, people came in asking about Mardi Gras supplies. Now, we carry extensive Mardi Gras supplies, and the Mardi Gras sales season is one of the high points of the year. We carry all kinds of beads and other throws like footballs and stuffed animals, which are good for Carnival, Fourth of July or events like homecoming.”
The store in Gulfport began small at 3,000 square feet. Over the years, other businesses moved out of the building and School & Carnival Supplies incorporated those parts.
“Now, we have about 18,000 square feet in Gulfport including a warehouse,” Thompson said. “In 1987, a second store was opened over in Gautier. It was a victim of Katrina. It was replaced with the 6,000-square-foot Moss Point store at 4930 Arthur St., across from library, that opened March 1, 2006.”
By the carload
Because carloads of people were coming down from Hattiesburg to purchase things at its stores in Gautier and Gulfport, a School & Carnival Supplies was opened in 1995 in Hattiesburg, on the Highway 11 bypass.
“We figured Hattiesburg was a good central location that wasn’t being served with a store like this,” Thompson said.
In addition to the storefronts, the business also does a lot of mail order sales. A catalog comes out every summer that can be ordered through their Web site, www.school-carnival.com, by calling to request a copy or by picking one up at any of the three stores.
The catalog, which is also on the Internet, has gone all over the world with the company taking orders from as far away as Japan and Canada
The catalog focuses on the educational part of the business. Besides public and private schools, there is demand for the educational materials from parents who home school and from vacation Bible schools.
The store also carries extensive party goods, and does imprinting like napkins for weddings.
“We can do it in a very short period of time,” Thompson said. “We noticed a lot of people after Katrina were discombobulated like all of us. They forgot to order napkins until a week before the wedding, but we’re able to turn around orders quickly. We also do a lot of imprinted pencils for teachers. And we do a lot of imprinting for specialty advertising.
“We have an amazing variety, over 100,000 different items in the store. If we don’t have it here, we can probably get it if you know roughly what you want. We have very reasonable prices. We often have the lowest prices there are on items. We carry balloons. We rent helium tanks. We have piñatas for parties.”
Other items carried by the store include furniture and even carpet.
Thompson said the business is helped by there being little competition in the southern part of the state. But another important factor is its major focus on customer service. “It is probably our strongest point,” she said.
It was quite a change going from the IRS to retailing.
“It is certainly a big challenge, but I like doing it all,” Thompson said. “We recently started a computerized inventory system, and launched an interactive web site in the summer of 2006. It still needs some tweaking, but we are working on it. There is a lot we can do to expand.”
Thompson has advice for others considering going into business. Good financial backing is critical because you always need more money than you originally think.
“Get the best help and advice that you can,” Thompson said. “And don’t be afraid to try new things. I’ve been really fortunate we have been able to keep some fabulous employees who really know a lot about various parts of the store and how to keep it going. Keep your employees in the loop and listen to their suggestions. They come up with some awfully good suggestions.”
She also credits the chamber of commerce for important assistance. It belongs to the MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce, which is the outlet for insurance for their employees. It also belongs to the Gulf Coast Chamber and the Jackson County Chamber.
“The chamber helps us connect to other companies and get discounts at various companies,” Thompson said. “They have ribbon cuttings that are free publicity, and things like that. I find the chamber of commerce tremendously helpful.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.