25 Christmas Lane
The Bronner motto is "Enjoy CHRISTmas, It's His Birthday; Enjoy LIFE, It's His Way."
Bronner Display & Sign Advertising, Inc., operates Bronner's Christmas Wonderland, the largest Christmas-themed store in the world. Open 361 days each year, the Frankenmuth, Michigan, retail outlet offers more than 50,000 different ornaments, trims, lights, and gifts as well as large-scale decorations for use by shopping centers and municipalities. More than 2 million people visit Bronner's each year, and the firm also wholesales to smaller stores and sells its goods through mail-order catalogs and a Web site. The family-owned company is run by the children of founder Wally Bronner, who continues to serve as its chairman.
Bronner's origins date to the 1940s, when teenager Wallace "Wally" Bronner founded a sign-painting business in his parents' basement in Frankenmuth, Michigan. Bronner started working as a clerk at his aunt's grocery store at the age of 12, and then began painting signs at 16. Upon graduation from high school in 1945 he went into business full-time, making signs and creating window displays for commercial accounts in Frankenmuth and nearby towns.
Bronner's first major Christmas-related assignment came in 1951, when several merchants in Clare, Michigan, asked him to produce decorations for lampposts. The work gained him notice, and Bronner and his lone employee soon found themselves busy creating Christmas decorations for other cities, shopping centers, and stores.
In 1952 Bronner rented temporary quarters in Frankenmuth to display his signs and decorations, and the response was so strong that he decided to build a permanent location there. In 1954 his father, a stonemason, built a new showroom on land owned by his mother's family.
The town of Frankenmuth (population 4,000) had been founded in 1845 by Lutheran missionaries from Bavaria, and its older residents still spoke a 19th century version of the German Bayerish dialect. Though known locally for this heritage and the German-style chicken dinners served at its restaurants, most visitors stopped there because it was located on a busy state highway between the larger cities of Flint and Saginaw. When a new interstate superhighway that bypassed Frankenmuth was completed in the late 1950s, several local businessmen put their heads together to find ways to lure customers back to the town. With guidance from Wally Bronner, a Chicago architect, and members of the Zehnder family (who operated one of the most popular restaurants), Frankenmuth began to make itself over as a "quaint" Bavarian-style town.
Meanwhile, Wally Bronner's sign-painting business continued to grow, and he also began to sell Christmas decorations for homes. In 1960 a mail-order catalog and personalized gift items were introduced, and three years later the company's building was expanded.
In 1966 a second location was opened in the former Frankenmuth Bank Building. Dubbed Bronner's Tannenbaum Shop, it featured items for the home like glass ornaments, lights, artificial Christmas trees, garlands, and wreaths. A third location was added in 1971 when the closed Hubinger Grocery store was bought from the family of Bronner's wife Irene and renamed Bronner's Bavarian Corner.
Bronner's Christmas Wonderland Opens in 1977
Business continued to grow each year, and the firm's three stores soon began to require doormen on fall weekends to control crowds. Urged on by his wife, Wally Bronner decided to consolidate operations into a single new building on 45 acres of farmland south of town, and in 1977 Bronner's Christmas Wonderland opened at 25 Christmas Lane. The firm capitalized the first half of the word "Christmas" to emphasize the fact that, despite the many Santa Claus decorations and other non-religious products offered, its devout Lutheran owner recognized the birth of Jesus Christ as the central reason for celebrating the holiday. The company also enclosed a religious tract in each bag and mail order shipment, and Wally Bronner himself served as an elder in his church and frequently spoke to groups around the state about his faith.
As the retail business grew, the company's sign-making unit, which had become known as Bronner Screen Printing, receded into the background. With the development of the membrane switch printing technology in the early 1980s, it became Memtron Technologies, and in 1984 Bronner sold the business to the unit's long-time manager Don Fischer and his wife.
By the mid-1980s Bronner's was offering more than 30,000 decorative trim items and gifts, which ranged in price from less than $1 to $11,000 for a life-size ceramic Hummel figure. With a retail showroom that featured 260 decorated trees and hundreds of animated figures, and with the half-mile long Christmas Lane illuminated with thousands of lights, the company paid $150 for electricity each day. The firm had also introduced an annual dated ornament series and begun personalizing ornaments with a team of artisans by this time. To keep up with escalating demand, in 1991 Bronner's doubled the size of its retail space.
"Silent Night" Chapel Added in 1992
In 1992 Wally Bronner built a full-scale replica of a chapel in Obendorf, Salzburg, Austria, that had been constructed to honor the Christmas song "Silent Night," which was first performed there. Dedicated that November, the distinctive octagonal building housed religious artifacts from Germany as well as plaques with the song's lyrics in dozens of languages. It was illuminated brightly at night and featured audio recordings of "Silent Night" both inside and out.
The more than 2,000 busloads of tourists arriving each year had made Frankenmuth one of the top ten bus tour destinations in the U.S., and the town was also home to two of the ten largest restaurants in the country, both operated by the Zehnder family. Bronner's was selling 580,000 ornaments, 520,000 feet of garland, 75,000 light sets, and 130,000 post cards to nearly 2 million customers annually. Other offerings included collectible figurines, Nativity sets, and Bibles in 30 different languages. Half of the goods were priced at $10 and under, with the typical customer spending between $20 and $40.
With Bronner's business tied to a single holiday, it followed a changing schedule throughout the year. During the first several months buyers traveled the U.S. and Europe looking for new products, and during the spring and summer shipments began arriving as the company built up stock for the busy Christmas shopping season. Sales were slow but steady during late winter and spring and then increased with the start of Michigan's summer tourist season, peaking Thanksgiving weekend (when 50,000 customers filled the store) and in the remaining days before Christmas. No matter what the season patrons could always buy Christmas ornaments, and Bronner's stocked a limited supply of items for other holidays as well.
Though the focus was on its retail store, the firm also distributed 1 million printed catalogs, wholesaled merchandise to more than 1,000 retailers worldwide, and operated a commercial division that sold displays to cities and shopping malls. Bronner's employed a year-round staff of 250 that was supplemented in the fall and winter with seasonal workers to top 400. Sales for 1995 were estimated at more than $20 million.
The company's success was due in no small part to Wally Bronner's marketing skills and canny use of advertising. In addition to relying on direct mail, the firm also rented more than 70 highway billboards in Michigan and other states to promote "The World's Largest Christmas Store," with the furthest-distant one located near Orlando, Florida, on I-75, the interstate freeway which passes close to Frankenmuth more than 1100 miles northward.
Web Site Debuts in 1997
To capitalize on its existing mail-order operation, in 1997 Bronner's added a Web site designed by its in-house graphics department. It was strictly informational at first, but the following year a limited number of items were offered for sale. Creation of the site had been spearheaded by the Bronners' eldest son Wayne, and in early 1998 the 45-year-old was named president and CEO of the company, with Wally continuing as board chairman. His wife Irene was also on the board, with two of their three other children serving as vice presidents and their spouses and children involved as well. Though he had relinquished a day-to-day management role, founder Wally Bronner continued to be the firm's public face, clad in his trademark outfit that included a red blazer, colorful suspenders and tie, and a button that simply read, "Originator."
The firm's growing reputation brought it business from around the world and from a few high-profile customers. In 1976 movie legend John Wayne called to order a Santa Claus suit for a television appearance, and in the early 1990s the company began boosting efforts to market goods to filmmakers, with the producers of holiday-themed movies like Jingle All The Way and The Grinch using Bronner's to supply set decorations. Other clients ranged from NBC's "Saturday Night Live" to makers of television commercials. In 1999 Laura Bush, wife of then-presidential candidate George Bush, also visited Bronner's and left with ornaments engraved with family members' names.
In 2000 the firm began construction of a new $3 million, 37,000-square-foot addition to its shipping department, which was already so large that employees used bicycles to navigate it. The expansion included two 1,900-square-foot bins for storing foam "peanuts," which were used to pack some 4,000 orders per day by a staff of 60 in peak season. The company also had 17 employees who added personalization to ornaments, a shop where fiberglass outdoor decorations were custom-painted and refurbished, and a telephone call center with a staff of more than 15 operators on two shifts to take calls during the business hours of all U.S. time zones. Orders from the 1.75 million catalogs mailed out and the firm's expanded Web site had grown by 50 percent the year before to make up 8 percent of total sales.
While combined mail-order and retail sales accounted for 85 percent of revenues, the firm also continued to wholesale products to smaller shops; supply decorations to commercial accounts like cities, shopping centers, and churches; and produce custom-decorated ornaments for use in fundraisers. By this time the third most popular tourist destination in Michigan, Bronner's sales were estimated at between $27 and $30 million per year.
The exuberant Wally Bronner enjoyed his success, and had long sought ways to share his good fortune with others. In 1965 he and his wife founded the Walter and Irene Bronner Foundation, which annually made some 400 grants to organizations like the United Way, the Salvation Army, and the Saginaw Community Foundation. In 2000 the Bronners also donated $1 million to build a 500-seat auditorium at Frankenmuth High School.
Retail Space Expanded in 2002
In 2001 the firm began a $7 million addition that would increase its total building size to 320,000 square feet. Completed in May of 2002, the work boosted the retail salesroom to 92,000 square feet. The store had 33 checkout lanes and a parking lot that could hold 1,250 cars and 50 tour buses. Despite the U.S. economic downturn after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Bronner's sales were continuing to increase as Americans returned to traditional themes of family and patriotism. For its part, the company added new items like a patriotic-themed tree ornament and Santa Claus suit.
Bronner's extensive outdoor displays were sometimes a tempting target for vandals, typically local high school or college students, and in July of 2002 $10,000 worth of damage was caused to fiberglass statues near the store. It was one of the worst in a long string of such incidents, most of them minor.
In 2003 small additions were made to the store's south entrance and checkout area which enabled Bronner's shoppers to use shopping carts for the first time. Two years later the firm supplied ornaments for the debut episode of ABC reality television program "Extreme Makeover: Wedding Edition," and on Christmas Day of 2005 ABC-TV's "Good Morning America" aired a segment taped at Bronner's.
The firm's 2.1-acre retail store boasted 350 decorated trees, 500 nativity scenes, 700 animated figures, and nearly 100,000 individual lights, resulting in an electric bill that averaged $900 per day. The company was sending out more than 3 million catalogs and shipping 100,000 packages each year, and its retail offerings included a huge selection of decorative figures, lights and trims; dozens of Santa Claus suits; 150 different nutcrackers; extensive collections of Hummel and Precious Moments figurines; and 6,000 styles of ornaments, half of which were designed in-house. Founder Wally Bronner continued to greet visitors at the store, where a two-minute shower of soap-flake "snow" fell at the main entrance every half hour.
More than 60 years after the company's founding, the Bronner's Christmas Wonderland store of Bronner Display and Sign Advertising, Inc., had become the leading retail outlet of its type in the world. Tied to a holiday that was celebrated by Christians, some members of other faiths, and even the non-religious, the firm continued to expand its eye-popping showroom and grounds, extensive inventory, and service offerings each year, with no end in sight.
Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.; Meijer, Inc.; Target Corp.; The Christmas Dove; ChristmasDepot.com, Inc.; The Christmas Place; Rogers' Christmas House.
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