JennyGems – a success story

Hardworking couple takes gamble, grows business during COVID-19 lockdown

July 2, 2020

It started with a mermaid, a dream and giant leap of faith.

But after four years, Jennifer and David McMillan have carved out JennyGems, a thriving small business with 16 employees producing wooden signs.

While many businesses are struggling to recover from the COVID-19 state of emergency, JennyGems is growing, with sales expected to possibly triple this year.

Their retail store, filled with a lot more than signs, is located along Route 9 between Lewes and Harbeson. The vast majority of their business today is fulfilling thousands of orders each week through and They have to ship out each Walmart order, but Amazon preorders large numbers of signs and ships them from its distribution centers.

Where the magic happens

Jennifer says going through a door in the retail shop is where the magic begins. In various rooms filled with equipment, employees are busy printing, building, painting, sanding, cutting and packing wooden signs. They are now up to more than 270 different designs, and new ones seem to develop every day.

Some of their ideas come from customers, but most come from a dedicated group of employees who spend their days around large tables finishing signs and packing them for delivery.

“We have a very creative team that is always spouting out new ideas,” Jennifer said. “We can't keep up with all the designs.”

Jennifer said their business took a giant leap when they started making their own signs and stopped importing signs from China. “People are looking for products made in the USA,” she said. “Sales are up 57 percent over last year.”

Their giant leap of faith was the purchase of expensive, state-of-the-art manufacturing and wood shop equipment to produce their own signs, but timing was not on their side. “It arrived a week before the lockdown and then our sales went overnight to nothing,” Jennifer said.

She was forced to lay off workers. Then the couple came back fighting on social media, highlighting the made-in-the-USA theme. “Almost instantly, our orders were blown up,” she said.

Using internet sales through Amazon and Walmart, they were able to bring their workers back and even hire more. She said they still need more workers, including a graphic artist, and wood shop and inventory workers. Before they starting making their own signs, they employed five people.

“It's been a lot of trial and error. It's a story of two people working very hard backed by a great team,” Jennifer said. “This is all new to us and we really haven't caught up from when the pandemic started.”

Jennifer estimates they will sell about 300,000 signs via the internet this year.

Because they do so many sales on the internet, they constantly monitor other companies’ offerings to check for copyright infringements and pirated signs. Upstart Chinese companies are among the worst offenders, she said.

Jennifer said wedding, family and pets signs are the most popular, and they are developing a new line of Delaware and beach signs.

They try to react quickly to get signs on the market reflecting social trends and timely news happenings. Their toilet paper signs are currently among their best sellers.

Need for more space

After getting laid off from MBNA in Newark after 16 years, Jennifer stepped up her business of selling used books and postcards online through Ebay and Amazon. Little did she realize that the hands-on training would help her in ways she couldn't imagine. She and her husband expanded to selling imported signs.

Looking for more space, the couple moved from Newark to Millsboro in 2016 and opened JennyGems on Route 9. They are leasing the former Donut Connection building and have also opened their first retail shop.

They knew to succeed, they needed to develop their own brand. David said buying the signs overseas was expensive and cumbersome. He said it might take as long as three months to get a sign from idea to finished product.

Today, they can do that process in a day, and can make hundreds of signs at a time or make one-of-a-kind specialty signs.

The couple is already anticipating the Christmas rush when they know their orders will skyrocket. David said they are ramping up to have signs ready by the end of summer for the holiday shopping season.

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