The Star Shopper was recently featured on Ozarks at Large! You can listen to the podcast here:
or read the interview below!
Kyle Kellams: “You can say this about the business terrain in Northwest Arkansas: it’s ever-changing. It takes at least two hands to count the long-time restaurants that have closed in the past few weeks. That one-time Kraft building in Bentonville is now changing to a contemporary art museum. And a recent report from the Northwest Arkansas Council indicates firms in the area plan to make about 3,000 more hires in the next few years.
Even the region’s mainstays are having to change with the times. The Star Shopper, a classifieds and more publication based in Fayetteville is still here with us, and it’s now on your laptop and your smartphone. The Star Shopper began more than 40 years ago and the most recent edition still has cars for sale and news about moving sales and auctions. But the new online version is becoming more than just classifieds, with profiles of local residents of note called Howdy Neighbor, excursion ideas labeled Discover Arkansas, and another feature called Studentville that will launch soon and will be aimed toward college and high school students.
But as its changing, the Star Shopper is also reconnecting with its beginnings. For years, people sent in art created by their children, a feature that was dropped when printing costs continued to rise. But now with the seemingly unlimited space of the digital universe, that feature too is coming back.
Last week, Robert Stafford, the Creative Director of the Star Shopper, and Evelyn Rios, the Content Director for the Star Shopper came to the Carver Center for Public Radio to talk about all of these changes.
Robert says the recession of 2008 was hard on the publication like it was on many other print entities. And he then began a plan to move enthusiastically to an online presence. He says one thing stays the same, though. The Star Shopper is a family business”.
Robert Stafford: “Started by my parents, my mom and dad. It started in the back of our house on Loxley Avenue. It was pretty crazy. It was weird having them work at home but never seeing them. Because they were working 10-14 hours a day getting the business started and we weren’t really allowed to be running back there. It was pretty chaotic back there. Lots of Compugraphic machines – pre-computer. These were giant machines with little screens with a line of text going across it. They had a number of employees, customers coming in and out. We were relegated to the rest of the house or outside, left to our own devices”.
Kyle Kellams: “It’s hard to imagine anyone who lives in Northwest Arkansas who doesn’t know the Star Shopper, who hasn’t had an experience with it. When it started in 1973, was it kind of what we know now? Was it kind of this marketplace for services and goods?”
Bob Stafford: “I think so. What my mom said is they were trying to create, and that’s what we’re trying to do now, is someplace for local businesses to connect with local consumers. That was big for us back then – we were one of the first classified papers – one of the first all-advertising and classified papers in the area.
Kyle Kellams: “Evelyn, you’re Content Director. There’s still the traditional content. But there’s more now!”
Bob Stafford: “Last year we did a big survey on our old website, which was just classifieds, to see what people would be interested in seeing beyond that, if anything. The results we got back – people really wanted to know about local events, for example. And they wanted to not necessarily get news from us, because there are plenty of other sources for that and that’s never been our thing, but they were interested in hearing local stories about people in their community.
So we started this new section called Howdy Neighbor, which has been a big success for us, where we go and profile people in Northwest Arkansas and the River Valley, who are doing interesting things. It’s been a great success. We’re doing a lot with social media now. Putting things out on Facebook, on Twitter. We’re promoting them through social media marketing. And we’re reaching a lot of people that we weren’t reaching online before, and it’s been really great.”
Kyle Kellams: “Did it take a leap of faith? Did it take convincing of some people to go in the digital world? To do something else?
Bob Stafford: “It did. And we’re still in that process. I think I had this idea since 2011. We needed to do something. I kinda would sketch it out. And about a year ago, I spent a couple months sitting at home [in San Francisco] and putting together this idea of what this was. I made a couple of really long PowerPoint presentations, and then flew back here and then met with the family who is the board pretty much. My mom is still on there. My brother and sister have been running the company. And I met with them and said, ‘Here’s what I see as a path. And I really think we need to take a look at it.’
I did enough studying where I saw that other companies had done this and been successful. So I brought along a lot of examples to show that not only can we do this, but you can believe in it and we CAN be successful at it, we can make this transition [to digital]. Everything always takes longer than you expect. We had hoped to have Studentville going by now.”
Kyle Kellams: “Studentville! Tell me about Studentville.”
Bob Stafford: “Studentville is going to be geared around not only the University [of Arkansas], but the other colleges and community colleges in the area and probably dipping into the high school stuff. It’s going to be information geared around students, geared around school, hopefully some sports stuff.”
Evelyn Rios: “Events, coupons, deals for students who are always strapped for cash. So it will tie into what we’ve been doing before with classifieds and coupons and things like that.”
Kyle Kellams: “Yeah, this is still that original mission.”
Bob Stafford: “The original mission: Connecting Our Community. I felt that was what my parents were always trying to do, and that’s our motto now.
Kyle Kellams: “You have to know there are many people who pick up Star Shopper who have no intention of buying or selling anything during that time period or that current issue. They just… we pick it up just to see what’s out there!”
Bob Stafford: “We were Craigslist before Craigslist. And I think we truly are a community platform. We’re really pushing hard to do that. We’re offering free online classifieds now, with pictures and everything. And you can also put your ad in print. We’re kind of going back to our roots, but going digital too.”
Kyle Kellams: “And then there’s Blue Star?”
Bob Stafford: “Blue Star!”
Evelyn Rios: “Blue Star!”
Kyle Kellams: “Tell me about Blue Star.”
Evelyn Rios: “Totally new.”
Kyle Kellams: “Totally new.”
Evelyn Rios: “It grew out of this whole idea. Once we decided we were going to revamp the website, start focusing on social media, and really focus on going digital, what we realized is we could take some of these same things that we learned doing for ourselves, and do them for other customers.
We’re doing website for small businesses and other customers, we’re doing search engine optimization (SEO), we’re doing social media marketing, we’re doing creative services, printing flyers, menus and different things like that. And direct mail, which is very targeted direct mail. We’ve got some sophisticated software to really use data to get things to people who are actually interested in it.”
Bob Stafford: “This kind of grew out of, when we got here and we realized… we had to do some things structurally in the company too. And I started to look at everything and I realized that we already offer some of these services to our customers. We already offer creative services, typography, menus and business cards and that kind of stuff. And during the recession, my brother had the wise sense to start doing auto dealer services. We offer some special services to area auto dealers, and we offer database type services and such. And we do distribution for a number of local publications using our distribution network. So we were already doing all those things. And we had a person on the staff who had a ton of direct mail expertise.
So I said, why don’t we take advantage of that and start offering that to our customers. And this is very targeted type of direct mail, not just what you would consider random junk mail. And then with Evelyn and I, with our digital expertise. We were doing all these services but we weren’t really marketing it, so I thought why don’t we put all this together under Blue Star Business Services. [The name was inspired by] the star from the Star Shopper.
Kyle Kellams: “The blue star has kind of been the logo or the emblem [of the Star Shopper].
Bob Stafford: “Exactly, so we kind of started with that and created a little bit of a new logo but kept that branding.”
Kyle Kellams: “Why in 1973 did they decide Star Shopper? Why was that the title? Do you know?”
Bob Stafford: “According to my mom, I believe she just took… the Arkansas flag has the blue stars in it. And she just though, we’ll be the Star Shopper. ONE of those stars has to stand for Northwest Arkansas, right?”
Kyle Kellams [laughing] “Right!”
Bob Stafford: “So I guess that’s the star that she picked and that’s how the Star Shopper name came about.”
Kyle Kellams: “Have either of you ever bought or sold anything through the Star Shopper? I have.”
Bob Stafford: “I have. It’s been a long time, but I have.”
Kyle Kellams: “Robert Stafford is the Creative Director at the Star Shopper and Evelyn Rios is the Content Director for the Star Shopper. They talked to us last week inside the Anthony and Susan Hoy News Studio. You can see the online edition publication at StarShopper.com.”