Dan Shoemaker has a hard time sitting still. But he’s also in an industry where you can’t loiter without literally being left behind. Or perhaps Shoemaker is unconsciously modeling the sort of behavior that drives buyers of his novelty gifts and merchandise—or so he’d like to think.
“With what we sell, you don’t know you need it—like a sleeping mask decorated with stars and the moon,” says the vice president and national sales manager at Kalan LP. “But you come into a store, see it and then need it. We sell to stores where you buy something that you didn’t go in thinking you’d buy.”
Headquartered in two Delaware County warehouses, Kalan is a third-generation enterprise with over 30 years of brand licensing. The business initially focused on funny, edgy gift cards before gradually expanding into the distribution of countless impulse-buy products. Brothers Jeff and Bobby Kalan carried on their father’s legacy, and they’ve since passed on leadership to their sons, cousins Andrew and Scott Kalan. It’s their job to ensure that retailers across the country remain on top of the latest pop-culture fads.
“I wouldn’t say that I inherited [the entrepreneurial spirit] like a gene,” says Andrew. “When I was 10, my dad gave me a box of posters and said, ‘You can sell these at school if you want.’ I said, ‘Oh, I guess I could.’”
Kalan recently purchased a second warehouse in Yeadon to go with its flagship facility in Lansdowne. They’ve also acquired another major player in the industry, What’s the Big Idea?, a large domestic picture-magnet manufacturing company. Kalan is also the exclusive distributor for National Design, which handles stationary products for the souvenir industry. It’s all part of an “ultra-competitive” business, says Shoemaker.
Kalan may be one of those companies whose name you see in the packaging’s small print, but don’t let that fool you. It’s a big fish in a big pond. “For me, it’s about nailing it and doing things right, whether we spot the next trend early or come up with a good product in the right timeframe,” says Andrew, Kalan’s 46-year-old CEO, who lives in Bryn Mawr. “Then, everyone is happy with us, and product is flying off the shelves.”
Though he actually lives in Wynnewood, Shoemaker considers his office a home. There’s a Bat Cave sign above the threshold, and he almost always finds new product samples waiting on his seat. “I’m modeling my life after Tom Hanks in Big,” he says.
Shoemaker married Andrew’s twin sister, Rachael. Initially, he told Andrew he’d last two years working for the family. That was a decade ago. Now it appears the third-year vice president is staying put. Over these last two years, he’s helped the Kalan brothers build the division dedicated to tourist destinations and resorts. “We’ve had to look to the future,” says Andrew. “Twenty years from now—if Amazon has killed off Sears, Kmart and lots of others—you’ll still be visiting Sea World, a zoo or Disney and buying souvenirs. It’s a division of retail that’s not going anywhere in the long-term.”
At one time, Kalan had as few as two or three major clients. Spencer’s once represented nearly 80 percent of its business. Today, clients number in the thousands, from leading retailers to mom-and-pop independents. It’s also worth noting that Kalan first went to China for manufacturing and production in the late 1970s. Others followed. “We didn’t reinvent the wheel, but we’ve redecorated it,” says Shoemaker.
High-volume sales land with specialty retailers like Party City and Five Below, along with drugstore chains, Six Flags and others. What’s hot—and what’s not—always seems to change. A few years ago, narwhals were all the rage because of the movie Elf. A summer ago, it was mermaids and unicorns. There was a time when Kalan couldn’t keep fidget spinners in stock, but they’ve faded. “There’s a whole hodgepodge, and we have to keep our fingers on the pulse of what’s trending,” says Shoemaker.
What amazes Shoemaker the most is what people will buy: “What do you do with a lanyard depicting cats eating pizza in outer space? Or fart humor on air fresheners?”
Items factory-made elsewhere constitute 70 percent of Kalan’s sales; the rest is manufactured in Delco. The two-floor Lansdowne warehouse is full of sample display racks, computers, print and design equipment, a sourcing and creative department, and more. There are 65 full-time employees in Lansdowne—a number that’s augmented seasonally. The new Yeadon warehouse is used for storage and large projects.
Among the keys to Kalan’s success are its low price points, which don’t really lend themselves to e-commerce. Another plus is its large-scale product diversification—and the fact that this isn’t stuff someone would necessarily search out. That’s the nature of impulse merchandise. “If you can get it for $2.99 here, you’re not going to try to find it for $1.99 elsewhere,” Shoemaker says. “It’s already at a buy-now price.”
It’s why Kalan has bolstered its destination sales at zoos, beach shops, resorts and such. “People still want something that says, ‘I went surfing at Myrtle Beach,’” he says. “And the Internet isn’t going to take away the experience of being at Niagara Falls.”