How This High School Business Attracts International Clients

alma high school deca store in arkansas

Students in the Alma High DECA program manage a store that has international reach and teaches them management and leadership skills they’ll use for a lifetime.

Photography by Erica Swallow

Top Photo: Alma High School’s student-run store, aire-looms, is the central attraction along the school’s promenade, featuring an array of school-themed apparel and spirit items.

arkansas-money-politicsThis post originally appeared on Arkansas Money & Politics, where Erica writes about innovative career and technical education programming around the state.

With the arrival of fall, students enrolled in the KPI Small Business Operations class at Alma High School have been busy marking up designs and ordering plans for new winter merchandise that will stock the shelves at aire-looms, the student-managed school store that is part of the curriculum through the Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA).

Along with learning to mind the store, students must adopt a global outlook in taking care of the needs of their customers.  Due to a quirk of the digital age, aire-looms’ customers, it turns out, come from all over the world.

Alma DECA inventory

Alma DECA students sort merchandise and tidy up the aire-looms store.

In fact, repeat customers come from all over the U.S. and as far away as England and France. Inquiries come in from every corner of the globe.

“We’re the only school in the United States that has an Airedale as its mascot,” explains Katie Fisher, a senior and fifth-year DECA participant. “So if someone types in ‘Airedale clothing’ or ‘Airedale shirt’ in Google, we show up. A lot of people love their Airedales — not just our school, but their dogs. That’s why we get inquiries from Australia and Western Europe, because, at least I hear, people have a lot of Airedales there.”

Keeping up with the demand in a market with international appeal and limited supply keeps the students busy taking orders and thinking of ways to freshen up the store’s ever-expanding range of products.

“We’re working on hoodies and crewnecks, and we just ordered stadium seats for the bleachers at games,” says high school senior Addison Bell. Classmate Ziek Gregory chimes in, “We need to do another throw design with more school spirit on it, rather than just a small ‘Alma’ decal at the bottom.”

alma airedales deca

Alma High School seniors Kaitlyn Jackson and Dean Whitmire count their earnings at the end of the day.

The aire-looms store, based out of Alma High School’s promenade, sells a variety of products, from t-shirts, sweaters and hats to temporary tattoos, mugs and foam spirit fingers.

Students, all of whom are part of the school’s DECA program, manage every aspect of the store. DECA is an international association of marketing, finance, hospitality and management students.

“DECA is a way to prepare for life after high school,” says sophomore Christy Fisher. “It teaches you not only about the marketing world, but also gives you skills to use on any job you may take on after high school. We learn leadership skills, how to be professional, and simple skills like time management. These are skills we’ll use in the real world, not just in classrooms at school.”

Josephine Meinardus, a sophomore in Alma High School teacher Sherry Siler’s marketing class, joined DECA because she wanted to be a lawyer and entrepreneur. The program, though, opened her eyes to new career options, she says, and now she wants to be a fashion merchandiser, partly based on her experience merchandising in the aire-looms store. “It changed my perspective on marketing. I used to think marketing was all about money, but this marketing class opened my eyes to understanding that it’s about communications and leadership.

“I worked during Open House, one of the busiest days, this year, and that’s where you really learn the most,” Fisher says. “You’ve learned what to do, but you have to deal with the customer’s’ problems right in the moment. It’s a lot of real-time decision-making, and you can’t just go ask someone what to do. These are actual customers.”

When a High School Store Goes International

Kaitlyn Jackson, holding up her smartphone,  reads a new customer message from aire-loom’s Facebook Page: “Hi. I live in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I have two amazing Airedale terriers. I love so many of the Airedale shirts you’ve posted, and I want the blanket you posted this week. I don’t know if you still have it, but I saw a ‘Life is better as an Airedale shirt’ in the spring that I would love to have as well. Do you ever take phone or Internet orders and ship your merchandise?”

The answers, of course, are yes, yes, and yes.

Aire-looms maintains an active online presence that draws in customers regardless of where they may live. With frequently updated Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages, the store garners sales online that it hadn’t anticipated when it opened in December 2007.

An e-commerce site is on the wish list, which would make filling online orders much easier than the current system, an informal setup that evolved as awareness of the store spread.

“It’s hard to respond when someone just asks on Facebook if we have Airedale shirts,” says junior Ziek Gregory. “We have tons of Airedales shirts! With a website, they’d be able to see our inventory.”

An ordering system based on requests that come in over social media may not be the most efficient setup, but it’s easy to understand how it evolved the way it did. A high school store in a town of about 5,000 in rural Arkansas that specializes in merchandise branded with the school mascot won’t likely come to mind when thinking retail ideas with the potential for global market appeal.

But, factor in a team mascot that graces perhaps no other school in the nation, and possibly the world, put that out on the world wide web, and it’s easy to see how Alma High School’s student store became the digital destination for Airedale lovers around the world.

For businesses that do have international reach, it’s not a trivial topic. Josh Lane, president of Access Control Devices, Inc. (ACDI), a software company with offices in Benton and Little Rock, says expanding out of the United States was a calculated decision based on market demand. Much like the students who operate aire-looms, it was customer interest that pulled ACDI into the international arena.

ACDI, in business for the past 22 years, has a growing customer base in North America, has expanded its market into Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico, and is making inroads into South America. Much of this expansion has been based on the demand for PaperCut, a popular print management software product that ACDI distributes.

Lane was not surprised to learn that high schoolers are thinking globally, given that they’ve grown up with the world at their fingertips via smartphones. That curiosity should be encouraged, he says. “We need to invest in young, intelligent kids who have big ideas and big dreams,” he says. “I don’t feel like I was well-prepared when I left high school. Where I felt like I was ill-prepared, I’m trying to offset that with my kids to make sure they understand what I do on a daily basis, so they’ll have a lot better understanding of business when they get out of high school.

“I can’t recall having any business courses in high school. You have math, science, English, literature. But, students rarely have an opportunity to apply the math to business, or chemistry to business. So, kids are studying these topics without clarity on how they’re going to use them down the road, outside of the classroom. It’d be nice to have students focused on applications of their knowledge.”

In other words: Hands-on learning.

Seizing the Opportunity for Career Education

“We have a five-year program of study in marketing at Alma,” explains Sherry Siler, marketing educator and DECA advisor. “We were the first five-year marketing program of study in Arkansas, and one of the first, if not the first, in the United States. Our program starts in eighth grade. At games or in the store, you can see eighth graders working alongside juniors and seniors.”

More experienced students train classmates who are new to the collaborative retail venture.

Students manage their own schedules, agreeing upon shifts throughout the school day and at sporting events, where aire-looms has designated sales kiosks. Classmates alternate management duties and are responsible for operating the register and acting as a resource for other students on duty.

Alma DECA marketing students

Alma marketing educator and DECA advisor Sherry Siler compares two social media posts and challenges students on how they might improve their current social marketing campaigns.

DECA is a co-curricular program, meaning students learn in both a classroom setting and real-world situations. In the classroom, they learn common business frameworks and models, ranging in topics from financial analysis and market planning to pricing and promotion. They put their lessons into action with semester projects, their school-based enterprise, and regional, state, national, and even international competitions.

The Small Business Operations class is also in the process of recertifying the aire-looms store through the national DECA organization.

“We split the recertification process up into sections, and my group is working on financial analysis,” says Dean Whitmire, a senior dressed in his school football jersey for the game later that evening. “Within our group, my role is to prepare the cash-flow statement. I’m not going to lie; yesterday, I did not know what a cash flow statement was. But by next Monday, I’ll actually make a cash flow statement for the first time, and it’s for our aire-looms store for the month of September.”

His teammate Emily Linthacum, a senior, is creating a template for a balance sheet with the Microsoft Office software program, Excel.

“Once we get the numbers in on Monday, I’ll just key those in,” she says. Meanwhile, teammate Kyle McKeown, also a senior, is writing up the crew’s process for opening and closing the register, which will include examples of the store’s daily sales sheet, which students use to analyze sales patterns, and make merchandising and discounting decisions.

There are four certified school-based enterprises in Arkansas, says Sarah Williams, DECA’s assistant director of the high school division. Based out of DECA headquarters in Virginia, Williams manages the School-based Enterprise (SBE) Program, which this year received 319 submissions for certification nationally. SBEs fall within Bronze, Silver, and Gold certifications, Williams says, and Alma’s DECA has been certified Gold, the highest level, since 2009, the longest of the four Arkansas-based SBEs.

“What stands out to me about Alma’s SBE is the reflection they’re able to do to adapt to change, growth, and challenges,” says Ms. Williams. “They’re able to look back at what they’ve done and evaluate how best to move forward, which as a life skill, is very valuable. It’s a mindset that’s pervasive throughout the aire-looms store, from market planning to sales and product, which is rather unique.”

Sherry Siler Alma DECA

Students in Siler’s Marketing class work on group-based semester projects focused around topics such as hospitality, sports management, and entrepreneurship.

While DECA is focused on student growth, one of the most impactful components of the program is its inclusion of community. Last year, Alma DECA raised more than $11,000 to grant a wish for a child named Boston to go to the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas through a partnership with the Make-a-Wish Foundation. It also taught third graders about fire safety through its annual Fire Safety Day programming, among other activities. In the coming month, students will launch multiple awareness campaigns on a local and national level for career and technical education, so that more students can have the educational opportunities that Alma DECA students have.

Sophomore Cade Green and freshman Michelle Wells, for example, are chairing the DECA Month committee focused on raising awareness within the school for marketing education.

“We want to educate classmates who may not know about DECA, in case they’d like to join,” says Green. “We’re doing intercom announcements, posting on our social media sites, and hosting games at lunch. On the intercom, for example, we’re doing a ‘Guess That Entrepreneur’ game, where we give hints about an entrepreneur’s work and students come to our DECA classroom to submit their guesses to win prizes. It’s all about awareness.”

In another example, Josephine Meinardus is part of a team advocacy project .

Alma DECA computer research

Sophomores Josephine Meinardus and Braylyne White, both third-year DECA members, collaborate on an Entrepreneurship Promotion Plan.

“We’re going on DECA’s Power Trip in Washington D.C.,” she explains, pointing to DECA’s national series of student conferences. “While there, we’re going to talk to all of the legislators for Arkansas to discuss career and technical education [CTE] to understand how they feel about it. That’s part of our state advocacy campaign, which we’ll compete on at our state conference. We want to advocate for CTE education on a state, community, and school level. I’m hoping that more people will learn about and want to get involved in CTE.”

Junior and senior DECA members can take part in the “Work-based Learning” program, which places students in internship positions during school hours to further the knowledge they’ve gained in the classroom.

“At aire-looms, I learned how to work with customers and operate the cash register, and now I’m a cashier at Meaders Lumber, our local hardware store,” says senior Jonathan Counts. What he’s learning in the classroom isn’t just useful for the future, he says, it’s useful now.

“School-based enterprises are valuable for giving our students a hands-on learning lab,”says DECA’s Ms. Williams. “That prepares them to make decisions better, helps them develop 21st century skills, and is supported by classroom instruction. The experience is beyond ‘real-world;’ it’s real. They’re making real sales. They’re really looking at hard numbers that represent actual dollars within these enterprises. They have to face the challenges and celebrate the successes that come from the decisions they make.”

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