Turning tradition into a fast-growing business

Family trio generates millions of sales with Elf on the Shelf products

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In an era when electronic games, tablets and smartphones may dominate the pile under the Christmas tree, Chanda Bell has found success selling elf dolls, books and old-fashioned holiday tradition.

Her family-operated company's "Elf on the Shelf" products have generated millions of sales, showed up on hot holiday toy lists for several years running and inspired an animated television special that was broadcast on CBS last year and is set to repeat this December. Next month, the elf will make his debut as a balloon character in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

But the elf wasn't an immediate hit in 2005 when Ms. Bell and her mother hatched the idea of writing a book about their own family's elf tradition while they sipped tea one night in her mom's kitchen.

They couldn't even get publishers interested.

Ms. Bell, 38, will address such business challenges Friday when she appears at the annual Think Big Forum at Chatham University's Center for Women's Entrepreneurship. The theme of this year's conference is "Embracing the Competition" and other speakers include Melinda Emerson, an author who blogs about small business, and Michele Fabrizi, chief executive of Station Square advertising agency Marc USA.

Despite a stack of rejection letters and no real business expertise, Ms. Bell pursued the idea of an elf-and-book box set based on her own experiences growing up in a house where her mother dug out an elf from hiding each Christmas season and told the children it would observe their behavior and provide regular updates to Santa.

"We grew up talking to the elf and telling him what we wanted for Christmas. He always came on Thanksgiving Day and there was so much excitement about whether he was going to come while we were eating turkey or before we went to bed," Ms. Bell recalled during a phone interview this week from the suburban Atlanta headquarters of Creatively Classic Activities and Books, the business she co-founded with her mother and twin sister.

She declined to disclose revenues of the privately-held company but said it has sold more than 2.5 million copies of the box set since its first printing.

Ms. Bell, a former teacher who stayed home after she had her own children, paid for the first 5,000 books with her credit cards and $10,000 contributed by her twin, Christa Pitts, a former host on the QVC shopping network.

"She realized the potential before my mom and I did," said Ms. Bell.

The fledgling company held a book signing for friends and family in space donated by a museum in Marietta, Ga., and then peddled the book sets to independent bookstores, Junior League holiday markets and local and regional gift shops, including Hallmark stores.

Partnerships with national chains such as Target, Toys 'R' Us and Barnes & Noble didn't come until years later, said Ms. Bell who oversees creative, design and manufacturing for the company while her twin runs the marketing and distribution operations.

Their mother, Carol Aebersold, handles promotions.

While celebrities, including singer LeAnn Rimes and actor Mark Wahlberg, have acknowledged being fans, some people find the whole concept of an elf giving daily behavior reports to Santa a bit creepy and think the elf might not be a good model for children as it passes judgment on who's naughty and nice.

Of the critics, Ms. Bell said they've probably "never experienced the magic or imagination of children being able to live in this magical space."

Among the business tips she'll pass along to the audience at Chatham is to "grow where you're planted."

"People pitch me ideas all the time ... they envision selling something and being on Oprah. I tell them, 'This is not a plan.' Start with your family and friends and conquer your region, your state and your area before you try to conquer the entire world."

For more information or to register for the forum, go to www.chatham.edu/cwe or call 412-365-1253.

businessnews - holidays

Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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