- The Washington Times - Monday, August 20, 2001

For Tim Holt, back-to-school time is most definitely "the most wonderful time of the year," as one television commercial suggests. But in his case, excitement stems not from getting the kids out of the house, but a fruitful time for the industry he represents.
Mr. Holt is the chief executive officer of the National School Supply and Equipment Association, a trade association made up of 1,400 companies involved in manufacturing, distributing and selling supplies to teachers and schools.
"Our members are really making their year right now," Mr. Holt says in an interview with The Washington Times in his Silver Spring office. "The summer, pretty much up to back-to-school time is the busiest time of year for them."
The 47-year-old father of two has headed up the NSSEA since 1986, and has been employed there since 1980. By now he is completely familiar with the desire of industry members from large school supply distributors to small parent/ teacher shops to cash in as the youth of America flock back to the classroom.
There is plenty of money to be made, with each child often asked to spend upwards of $100 for school supplies, and schools often shelling out more than $1,000 for each teacher. But Mr. Holt insists that NSSEA members aren't pulling in big profits.
"This is not a very profitable industry," Mr. Holt says. "The margins are very tight. Some of the market research we've done shows that our members are actually losing money."
Mr. Holt says the majority of NSSEA members are smaller stores marketed toward teachers and parents. These "mom and pop" stores, as he calls them, are often run by people with a background in education who are concerned more with products than profits.
"A lot of them come up through education," Mr. Holt says. "They love it, and it's their livelihood, and they're willing to ignore profits to put out quality educational products."
But while members of the school supply industry don't pull in huge profits, it is a stable industry that remains strong even in the face of economic slumps, Mr. Holt says. Children and schools aren't going to go away, he points out, which means businesses can stay afloat during hard times. And, with over $9 billion spent on new schools in each of the past two years, there is some room for growth.
"While our market doesn't benefit from the real booms, it doesn't really get hurt much from a recession," he says.
Mr. Holt says he is pleased so far with President Bush's stances on education his budget calls for a 6 percent increase in the Department of Education's budget. And Mr. Holt sees a general desire for congressional cooperation on educational issues that is positive for the industry.
"Education appears to be a bipartisan issue right now, and on everybody's radar screen, so that bodes well for our members," he says.
The NSSEA is not a partisan organization and does virtually no lobbying, largely because the majority of money to schools stems from local and state governments.
One big challenge NSSEA members do face, Mr. Holt says, comes from large office supply stores.
"They're certainly being pressured by the large retailers," he says.
But office supply stores still lag way behind NSSEA members in providing instructional materials, which Mr. Holt calls the "bread and butter" of the industry. It is in the area of these instructional materials that NSSEA members have had to keep a dynamic mind-set.
"The kids are the Nintendo generation and in order to keep that attention and deliver the learning, our members have had to use traditional types of products and segue into the electronic products," Mr. Holt says.
While keeping abreast of changes within the industry, the NSSEA also tracks purchasing behaviors of teachers.
A recent market awareness study indicates that teachers are just as likely to be doing some last-minute back-to-school shopping of their own, as school budgets often fail to fully provide teachers with the supplies they require.
The NSSEA found that 75 percent of teachers use their own personal money for consumable classroom supplies like pens and paper, and that average teacher spent $283 of their own money on supplies last school year. In the Washington region, the average teacher spent $440. Teachers spent even more of their own money on instructional materials like workbooks and science kits, the study found. The average teacher spent over $300 on instructional materials last year.
So while teachers and students rush to become equipped for the educational process, Mr. Holt will be paying attention to his members to make sure they continue to do what they do best. And this year, he likes what he sees.
"The products continue to be more creative, particularly in the instructional materials area," Mr. Holt says. "Quality continues to improve and that's a function of competition and people's love for a product."


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