Where lefties are always right

Lefty's San Francisco profits by selling to an overlooked market niche.

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By Coeli Carr, CNNMoney.com contributing writer

Lefty's owner Margaret Majua with two of her store's top-selling items, a left-handed notebook and a Yoropen.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- President Obama and his fellow southpaws have cause for celebration this week: Thursday marks the 18th annual International Left-Handers Day. But for entrepreneur Margaret Majua, founder of Lefty's San Francisco, every day is an occasion to give thanks for lefties.

Majua spotted an ad two years ago for a strange-looking writing instrument called the Yoropen. Shaped like a grasshopper, the pen was touted as a writing boon for left-handed people because its design allowed lefties to see what they'd just written without smearing it.

"At first I thought it was pretty creepy-looking," she says. "Then I thought it might just be weird enough to sell."

Her instinct paid off. The Yoropen is now one of the bestselling items at Lefty's San Francisco: The Left Hand Store, which Majua opened in March 2008 on San Francisco's iconic Pier 39, adjacent to Fisherman's Wharf.

Lefty's is one of the world's only brick-and-mortar stores catering to the left-handed. It continues a San Francisco tradition: Thirty-one years ago, Left Hand World pioneered the market, opening on Pier 39 in a tiny 350-square-foot space. The store closed a decade later, but it spawned a solid fan base. The landlord searched for a tenant to continue the store's theme in the original location, but found no takers -- including Majura, a serial retailer who opened her first Pier 39 enterprise, a refrigerator-magnet store, in 1986. Since then, she's created more than 20 themed specialty stores in tourist destinations such as Las Vegas, Hawaii and Disney World.

Armed with that experience, Majua decided it was time to take the left-handed leap. Fueling her commitment was the discovery that the very few retailers selling left-handed products stocked only items that were already commercially available.

"No one had developed a product line," she says, adding that she wasn't impressed with what was already on the market. "I knew I had to fill the store, but I also wanted the stuff to look good together. I'm fascinated by merchandising."

As part of her reinvention plan, Majua -- who is right-handed -- invested about $100,000 to develop a Lefty's product line of 20 stationery items, such as spiral notebooks, sketchbooks and memo pads, all with the spirals on the right side. She is also developing a dozen kitchen tools, including vegetable peelers, pancake turners, and measuring cups, which are scheduled to be available as gift sets at the end of the year.

"Smaller companies don't have the financial resources to develop products for left-handers, and larger companies don't see this as a big enough market," Majua says. "I saw it as niche I could fill."

Left-handed icons

It's a niche with a star-studded history. Only an estimated 10% to 15% of the population is left-handed, but the roster includes such luminaries as Leonardo da Vinci, Bill Gates, and five of the last seven U.S. presidents. Lining Lefty's walls are framed pictures of left-handed celebrities such as Beethoven, Mozart, Judy Garland and Alexander the Great.

Even pop culture is represented. Sandwiched between Queen Victoria and Mark Twain is Ned Flanders, the left-handed character on The Simpsons who runs his own retail store, The Leftorium. In Lefty's, Flanders has his own 14-inch plush doll, as well as a $5 refrigerator magnet -- and he's been outselling President Obama, who's represented on a t-shirt with the tag line "Obama is a leftie."

"Customers who don't know President Obama is left-handed ask us if the tag line refers to his politics," says Kelly Kempczenski, Lefty's manager. Like Obama, the store's sales staff are all left-handed, and love demonstrating Lefty's products for the curious or the desperate.

"Many left-handers have already adapted to regular products, but half of the people who try one of our left-handed products buy it," says Kempczenski, recalling how her elementary school teacher tried to make her use her right hand. "I use left-handed pens and scissors myself, and they're really useful."

They also sell well. Pens and pencils for lefties account for 25% of Lefty's sales, with that strange-looking Yoropen -- available in four styles in the $6 to $60 price range -- responsible for half of Lefty's pen sales. Notebooks are also popular, especially during back-to-school season. About 20% of Lefty's revenues come from online purchases, where the average order totals $60.

Majua projects that Lefty's 2009 revenues will reach the high six-figures. Early next year, she's planning to move the store to a new location 100 feet away with nearly triple the space. She'll need it to stock an expanded range of left-handed kids' products, including guitars, baseball mitts and golf clubs.

She's also considering selling her custom products to other left-handed retailers. "My ego doesn't want to, but business reality will probably dictate I will," she says.

There's another motivation at work as well, she concedes: "My staff has made me really aware of how customers really appreciate the products, which has inspired me to design and stock more of them." To top of page

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