Office supplies and Christian products form an enduring ‘business marriage.’
If you want to be convinced that it’s possible not only to survive but to thrive as an independent retailer against the twin challenges of big boxes and online sales, talk to Dale and Marie Underwood. They’ve successfully steered their family-owned office supplies business to its current 50th anniversary year—applying some of what they’ve learned along the way to the Christian side of the business, which they added in 2004.
When they learned that the Christian store in Cornelia, Georgia—started by the pastor who had married them—was due to close, they sensed God telling them to step in and keep it going.
“We just felt the urgency of God directing us that this community needed the resources of a Christian bookstore,” recalls Dale. “We didn’t know the first thing about Christian products,” Marie adds, “other than I shopped there.”
Taking the store on with friends for a time, the Underwoods later became sole owners, running it as a separate operation until 2008. Since then as Holcomb’s Office Supply & Christian Products the combined store has carried everything from desks on one side of the show floor to devotionals on the other in what Dale says is a business marriage.
“It’s like God said in Genesis 2 that the two should be one,” he says. “We felt that it should be operated out of one facility, with one set of books, and that there would be unity in everything that we do—not that it’s always easy.”
As in Christian retail, in the office supplies market the Underwoods have had to overcome the general belief that everything they carry can be found cheaper at the big boxes or online. But similarly the competition “isn’t always lowest on price, though they give a great perception of being so,” says Dale. “Get past the top 100 items and you’ll find most of your independent office supply dealers have better pricing.”
Holcomb’s has won an ear for this message through a commitment to great customer service. That includes checking competitors’ prices to see where Holcomb’s stands in comparison, and sometimes pointing shoppers elsewhere. “I’ve told some customers to go and buy something somewhere else because I know they have a great deal there,” Dale admits. “They appreciate the honesty of that; they’ll be back.”
Bringing the two businesses under one roof presented some challenges, most notably having one set of books but organizing them so that it’s possible to keep a closer eye on the Christian product sales. That’s because the office supplies and Christian product sides of the business work quite differently.
That means keeping a close eye on inventory and turns—management experience Dale brought to Holcomb’s from the general market when he joined the business—which at one stage had four locations—in 1989, after marrying Marie. She had grown up in the store, started by her parents Charles and Jane Holcomb, working there full-time since leaving high school. The Underwoods bought out her parents almost 20 years ago.
Having a good head for business means you can’t always go with your heart when ordering, Dale believes. “Sometimes we have to let the numbers direct us.” As a result, they’re careful about where they order from, recognizing that it might make sense to pay slightly more for fewer SKUs from a distributor than to get the same item cheaper direct from a supplier, but in a quantity that’s slow to move.
Their philosophy is to go wide, not deep, mostly stocking ones or twos, though their book selection has also been slimmed over the years. Bibles are the big Christian product category, accounting for about 30 percent of sales. Every Bible is offered for at least 20 percent off, with free imprinting, while some specials are discounted up to 40 percent.
Cards are the second-strongest Christian products category, while a backing track disc-burning system and P. Graham Dunn personalized laser unit have also proved popular.
‘STAY ON THE PATH’
Combining the two businesses has led to some crossover customers and required some adjustments. There’s a slightly more “businessy” atmosphere than in the Christian store’s former location nearby, with its “old, creaky hardwood floors and a quaint feel,” explains Marie.
Though the Underwoods were known to be people of faith among their office supply customers, bringing the Christian store into their general market business has opened some doors. “When we first combined the two, we knew we were going to get questions,” Marie says, “and it gave us an opportunity to share with people what we were doing.”
Christian music plays in the store, and customers are asked if there’s anything they would like prayer for. The staff keeps a prayer request list they use during their pre-opening devotional time each day. Some office supply customers send in prayer requests to be added to the list.
Indeed, prayer is the fuel that drives the store, dating back to when Dale suffered a massive heart attack in 1995, dying twice. What followed, Marie says, was “a 10-day journey of faith that shaped our marriage, our Christian walk, and our business; everything that we do.” Forged by that experience, their approach is “don’t do anything until the Lord tells you,” Dale says, citing Proverbs 3:5-6. “Stay on the path until God says to do something else.”
The office supplies side has long underwritten the Christian products part of the business, though that did make a profit for the first time last year—mostly due to the Underwoods taking over another Christian store in town that was going out of business and liquidating its stock.
The couple’s commitment to a strong Genesis 2-type marriage extends beyond their two-in-one business. Away from Holcomb’s they’re active in pre-marital counseling for couples, helping “set them up for success,” says Dale. “It’s our passion, and the provision comes from the bookstore and the office supplies.”
He and Marie have advice for couples involved in work and ministry together, as they are. “Lots of prayer, lots of love, lots of grace,” he says.
“Set some really good boundaries,” Marie adds. “We really try to protect our time at home and as a couple. If we have to talk about work when we go home, we’ll set aside 30 minutes, and if we don’t solve it we agree to talk about it the next day.”