Marketing business in the bag

A wall in the office of Total Label & Graphics shows a sampling of some of the labels Lash has produced for businesses across the state and elsewhere for the past 25 years.

The bags that shoppers carry out of many of Charleston’s best-known local retailers have Barry Lash’s name all over them.

You won’t see it, but Lash, owner of Total Label & Graphics of Mount Pleasant, plays a part in the shopping bags, labels and tags for such longtime stores as Berlins, M. Dumas & Sons and GDC, just to name a few around the Holy City.

For 25 years, the affable Lash has traveled the state, building a client base, showing samples and leaving his calling cards at mostly small mechants who want to distinguish themselves in the crowded retail market.

Lash keeps shopkeepers stocked with plenty of shopping bags. For instance, the Charleston Tea Plantation buys 50,000 a year from Lash’s company. And the tag hanging on an item in some stores around town came through Lash’s company.

While Lash, 63, started the company a quarter-century ago, he’s been around the retail trade his entire adult life and even before.

He worked in the men’s clothing business from high school through college. He then moved around the eastern half of the country opening stores for Richman Brothers, a national men’s clothing chain that went out of business in 1992 after it was sold to F.W. Woolworth Co. in 1969.

Lash, a native Charlestonian, left the company in the mid-1980s after growing weary of relocating. In 1986, he started working as the local representative for a now-defunct Michigan-based label manufacturing company after seeing an ad for a job in the newspaper.

The company’s regional manager asked him during the interview, “What do you expect out of this company?” Lash responded, “Your job.”

Lash landed a new career and began serving clients with packaging, labels and tags, a precursor to his current line of work.

Three years into the job, Lash found himself exploring other options when the company fell victim to an aggressive takeover. He considered starting his own company.

He remembers his dad saying, “You might not make the most money in the world, but you won’t have to answer to anybody.”

Lash decided to run with it. Today, his company handles more than 250 accounts across the state, nation and Canada and grosses more than $500,000 a year. He manages 60 accounts alone in the Georgetown, Murrells Inlet and Pawleys Island markets, places he travels regularly to meet clients face to face.

“I’m a dying breed,” Lash said. “But I believe in customer service, meeting people one-on-one, a handshake and looking clients in the eyes. You don’t find many reps on the road anymore.”

Among his oldest clients are Copper Penny, Southern Belles children’s boutique and Market Street Munchies. Among his biggest nonretail clients for promotional products is CresCom Bank. Hyman’s seafood restaurant is a major client as well.

“Whenever I need anything, all I have to do is give him a call and he will come over to the store, show me samples and help me out,” Copper Penny co-owner Penny Vaigneur said. “I’ve worked with him for probably 20 years and he always takes real good care of us. I can always find what I’m looking for and he’s just a great guy to work with.”

And Lash doesn’t just offer bags, tags and labels. The pro- motional product market entails thousands of items. Bumper stickers for the Coastal Carolina Fair and images marketing the annual Greek Festival in Charleston all come through Lash.

Many of his clients come from word of mouth as longtime customers tell other merchants about Lash’s offerings and services.

“It doesn’t matter how much business they do with me, every order is a sense of urgency,” he said. “It takes as much time to write an order for a thousand labels as it does 100,000.”

He also said promotional product manufacturers prefer to go through a middle man than work directly with shopkeepers because they can get thousands of different orders from one source.

And while Lash uses his network of vendors to produce bags, tags and labels in whatever size order a client needs, his sister-in-law, Teri Lash, provides graphic designs and branding images for promotional products in her West Ashley operation of Bernstein Lash Marketing. Her sister, Sandy DeAntonio, handles outside sales for mostly Charleston area clients and those that the owner doesn’t visit.

He said a client provides the conceptual design of its logo and selects colors, material and shape.

“We will then turn it into everything from the bags and labels to the tags and the business cards,” Lash said.

One ever-more popular way businesses market themselves is by placing their store or company name on the expandable narrow ends, or gussets, of shopping bags in addition to placing their logos on the sides.

It costs a little more, but Lash exclaimed, “It’s like a walking billboard.”

And it’s not just bags and tags that help market a store.

Lash and his sister-in-law’s businesses offer lanyards, koozies, mugs, logos for apparel and numerous other items clients use to get their brands in front of customers.

“We offer 300,000 products from 17,000 vendors,” Teri Lash said.

DeAntonio added, “There is no business that exists that doesn’t need, want or use something that we offer.”

Lash attributes his success not only to his service but also to his business acumen.

“I’m very demanding, and I’m very detailed,” Lash added.

For instance, if a line is the least bit off on a graphic, he can spot it instantly and won’t accept it. “I want it done right,” he said.

Lash said the business is growing, but he doesn’t want to get so big that he loses the service the firm offers.

He realizes he has competition, too.

“We just stay focused and do what we know how to do best, which is service, expertise and competitive pricing,” Lash said.

His biggest disappointment in the industry came when the economy collapsed in 2008. Before the crash, Lash provided vinyl decals for cars for 50 to 75 auto auction accounts across the country. Those clients now number four or five.

When the economy was racing, he did quite well, but he also saw the signs of bad fortune on the way.

He remembers one auto auction firm ordering 10,000 decals and another department in the same company would order another 10,000 the next day, even after he told them he had just received the other order.

“I saw all the abuse and throw-away money,” he said. “When the crash came in ’08, I could just about see the handwriting on the wall a year earlier. It really took a chunk out of my business, and at the same time retail was getting clobbered. What some auto auctions ordered in a month, I couldn’t get from my biggest retail clients in a year. I didn’t know how good I had it.”

But Lash bounced back, keeping visits to his clients and establishing new accounts in the ensuing years.

“I get close to my customers,” he said. “It’s like a marriage. It takes a lot of passion and energy.”

Asked when he intends to slow down, Lash said, “Probably when I’m dead. I love doing what I do.”

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.