Store fills niche for area's Boy Scouts
WILLMAR -- Official Boy Scout shirts hang in a crisp row of khaki along the back wall at General Mailing.
A collection of pocket knives, some of them emblazoned with the Eagle Scout emblem, reposes in a glass display case.
Looking for a Scout manual or a wilderness survival guide? You'll find it among the selection of books for sale. Sleeping bags, hiking socks or lightweight camping gear? Owner Jeff Warszynski has those too.
Over the past four years, what started out as a small retail corner has expanded into one of the region's better-equipped stores for official Boy Scout merchandise.
Warszynski, who's both an Eagle Scout and a local troop leader, sees it as a service to the community.
"We have great support from the local people," he said. "They will almost always come here first before going online or going to the Cities."
For many years, Habicht's Department Store and then Holm Brothers were the official centers in Willmar for buying Boy Scout uniforms and other Scouting regalia. But one after another, both stores closed, leaving a gap for local Scouts.
Enter Warszynski, who owns General Mailing on Litchfield Avenue Southwest and also has retail experience gained from working for Wal-Mart. He and his wife, Mary, are the parents of an Eagle Scout as well. At the urging of one of the Scouting district executives, he decided to apply to the Scouting organization for approval to launch a small retail area at his mailing and packaging business.
It opened in September 2006 with $5,000 worth of inventory, mostly the Scouting staples of uniforms, neckerchiefs and Scout manuals.
That first year, sales outperformed projections and have been growing annually ever since, Warszynski said.
Within the Trailblazer District, one of two dozen districts in the Northern Star Council covering Minnesota's midsection, there are approximately 800 to 900 boys involved in Scouting, Warszynski said.
"They'll recruit 300 to 400 Cub Scouts out here this fall. Boy Scouts might be another 100," he said.
The biggest demand "by far" is for uniforms and the official Scout manual, Warszynski said. But over the years he has continued to expand his inventory, which now occupies more than twice the original space.
"The customers will tell you what you need," Warszynski said.
Pinewood Derby cars and decals, for instance. "We get people bringing their cars in here all the time," he said. "I loan out my scales so they can weigh their cars."
He stocks patrol flags, T-shirts, Eagle Scout memorabilia, scrapbooks and even tablecloths for Scout award banquets. In honor of the 100th anniversary this year of Boy Scouting in America, commemorative books and gift items have been added to the shelves.
It's not just Boy Scouts, their parents or troop leaders who shop here. "We've had non-Scouters come in and buy books," Warszynski said. "We've had people come in and buy survival and First Aid books. We've got people starting to ask about tents."
He also often serves as a local resource for what's new in Scouting merchandise. When he attends the district's monthly round-table meetings for Scout leaders, for instance, he'll bring along a catalog and take special orders.
"I'll bring new items in that they might not be aware of," he said. "It's kind of a perk for them that also breeds a lot of loyalty."
For consumer input, he often asks his own Scout troop. "The boys will tell me, 'Maybe you should order those,'" he said.
The employees at General Mailing have pitched in, helping with sales and learning about Scout merchandising.
One of the things Warszynski enjoys most about the retail side of Scouting is the chance to connect with other people involved in the Boy Scouts organization.
"People come in and reminisce about their Scouting memories, about the camping and the outdoors," he said. "It's a great tradition with great values. It's things you might not get at home or at school or at church. It's something that parents are able to do with their boys... It's an important program."