It’s no secret that the custom invitation business has drastically changed over the past several years — and those that don’t adapt, don’t survive. The changed stationery climate led The Occasions Group, parent company of Carlson Craft, to unveil TOG.ink earlier this year. While Carlson Craft continues to print stationery designs through albums, just as it’s done since 1948, using both has become a powerful business tool for many a brick-and-mortar stationer.

Just ask Evelyn Miller, store manager and buyer, and Shannon Chrissey, lead designer, of Epitome Papers in Excelsior, Minnesota. As the desires of their clientele have changed from by-the-book to completely personalized creations, TOG.ink has enabled Epitome Papers to not just fulfill their needs, but dazzle them with the stationery of their dreams.
In its 40+ years of existence, Epitome Papers has morphed from a clothing store opened and operated by four women to a shop solely carrying personalized stationery and gifts. Known for its high-quality printing and exceptional customer service, it is one of many distinctive retail destinations housed in a charming lakeside town, known for its premier shopping statewide.

Epitome Papers has been placing orders with Carlson Craft since 1979 — yes, 40 years! For much of that time, they conducted their custom stationery business not unlike most others stores, selling invitations as well as holiday and stationery orders from albums. While they still offer their clientele selections from several albums, including the Carlson Craft wedding, B’Nai Mitvah and stationery albums, an important shift in their business model has occurred over the last several years.

Now Epitome Papers sees more and more customers coming in armed with specific design ideas, often culled from Pinterest or Etsy, that aren’t necessarily found in any of their albums. Thanks to TOG.ink, they can easily print a custom piece that Shannon designs with the client. “Our customers tend to be more traditional, favoring a thicker or softer paper or an understated embossed border,” she described. “The watercolor greenery trend has also been holding strong!”I caught up with Shannon, left, and Evelyn to learn more about how their changing needs are met through the combination of TOG.ink and Carlson Craft.

Photograph courtesy of Decora Topp Photography

Their custom business evolved organically, recalled Shannon. “Brides largely come in with Pinterest boards at the ready, or they have samples of friends’ or families’ invites that they like aspects of. Although most of our work is in weddings, the majority of the mitzvah invitations we work on are custom — the kids and parents tend to have a strong idea of what they like and what they don’t like, so we combine different ideas to make something new that fits their budget. ”

As an added bonus, now Shannon can advertise her calligraphy and art services in store now for those that are seeking an additional layer of customization. Incorporating TOG.ink orders has caused a dramatic shift within their overall business with The Occasion Group, Shannon continued, with 50 percent of their business arising from Carlson Craft albums, and the other half from TOG.ink. The latter figure may well rise.  “As TOG introduces more products, we are sending more work that way, especially after we see the quality and turnaround time exceeding that of other vendors.”The ease of TOG.ink’s online portal has greatly simplified the ordering process “by leaps and bounds,” Shannon underlined. “There is no custom quoting or questioning what can and can’t be done. Such a time saver to know I can quickly and accurately check pricing.”

As a result, Epitome Papers has been able to streamline the design process with their clients, Shannon described. “We try to start with an appointment, especially for weddings or mitzvahs. Some of our longer standing customers whose design sense I am already familiar with can start with a phone call or email. After the initial meeting, if there is artwork involved, I will first send a few different options, maybe paired with names in a few different fonts. That way we are working in smaller steps with less work overall. Once all the details are decided including art, fonts and papers, I start a proof. It can take 3-10 days depending on the complexity and if there is any custom art like watercolors or calligraphy.”

While the ease in quoting, quick turnaround times, multiple printing options and quality craftsmanship are hallmarks of TOG.ink, being a great value helps too, Shannon explained. “I always price check the lowest price for the best quality for our custom customers, and often timing is also an important factor. With how close Carlson Craft is, I know I can get quality work in the shortest amount of time. Especially for letterpress or foil stamped orders, they are the first place I check. The introduction of digital euro liners is a game changer — no more DIY!”By partnering with TOG.ink, now Epitome Papers can offer something to every customer who walks in the door. That is a huge advantage for any brick and mortar in today’s retail climate. “(Clients) don’t have to sacrifice what they want to fit in their budget, which can turn customers away to look elsewhere! It is not often a question of if we can create something — but timing and price play a huge role in the client’s impression of whether they go forward with a project or not.”

Amongst orders that pair printing processes, digital printing combined with foil is most popular, Shannon noted. “It’s such a great price point for foil, and you can use any number of colors with the digital layer. We also see a lot of full digital print for photo cards and thermography for stationery. I think what is more unique with TOG.ink’s printing is the ease of combining print methods.”

When it comes to favorites, Shannon cites a Halloween wedding invitation featuring digital art with an art deco border, with fonts presented in gold foil. “It was such a unique design that was perfectly personalized to the couple, the venue, and the time of year — and the guests loved receiving it!”Evelyn cites her favorite as a wedding invitation Epitome Papers created for a photo shoot this past summer. “It was jungle themed since the location was at the Como Zoo in Saint Paul. The custom design and gold foiling played so well with the architecture of the building, everyone loved it!”

Photograph courtesy of Empiria Studios

Looking ahead, TOG.ink will continue to be a crucial partner for Epitome Papers, Shannon emphasized. “We strive to strengthen our relationship with all our vendors, and we have been narrowing down our list to those we trust for quality customer service and products — as we strive to offer (just that to) our customers. Carlson Craft has always taken our feedback and done a great job with delivering exactly what we want, and they have only gotten better over the years. As TOG.ink expands its offerings, it will be an invaluable source for us as they can deliver what few others can.”

As to what advice she would give other brick and mortars wanting to expand their custom printed offerings, Evelyn emphasizes the importance of forging trusted business connections. “You always want to know your local event planners, fellow business owners, and other vendors in your field. Referrals from your fellow vendors are so important to expanding your business! Also, make sure it is clear in your store that there is a custom option for some items. (Try) special handouts you give your customers, special signage, or displaying custom and non-custom items together to show the difference.”

Evelyn sees TOG.ink as integral to Epitome’s future plans. “(As we) move into a bright new chapter in 2019, TOG.ink will be a vital part of that. As we expand our custom options with exclusive imprintables, designs, gifts and more, TOG.ink will be so helpful in streamlining our custom process.”

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