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CASHING IN ON QUARTERS
BUFFALO COUPLE DEVISED MAP TO HOLD COMMEMORATIVE COINS

A Buffalo couple is proving that people's fascination with those new commemorative quarters can be parlayed into more than just pocket change.

Renee and Kenneth Arno have sold 10,000 copies of an oversized U.S. map that they designed to display all 50 state quarters. Sales of the product -- which retails for $16.95 -- could skyrocket now that it has been picked up by HobbyTown USA, one of the nation's largest hobby store franchises, as well as two major national distributors.

The Arno's first entrepreneurial venture was conceived by accident during a living room chat earlier this year. They had already collected the first four new state quarters issued by the U.S. Mint. The first significant change in U.S. coin design in more than a half-century, the series features a unique design for each state, with new quarters released every 10 weeks for the next nine years.

"We were sitting there, talking about how it would be nice if we could find something to put them in as we collect them, rather than just putting them in one of those coin folders that always ends up getting stuck in a drawer," Renee Arno said.

A few months and $5,000 later, the Arnos produced 500 prototypes of a 16-inch-by-22-inch display that resembles a wall map of the U.S.

Made of heavy-duty pressboard and a leatherette covering, the display also lists each of the 50 states by date of entry into the union.

Before the Arnos proceeded with their concept, they engaged in Internet-based market research. Their homework turned out only one out-of-state entrepreneur who was aggressively marketing a similar product. They were confident that their design and pricing would give them a competitive edge.

"We were our own venture capitalists, so it was a little nerve-wracking when it came time to shell out the money," said the 26-year-old Kenneth Arno. "But we're building a house in Clarence, and we figured if this thing works out, we might end up with some extra money."

Arno is a managing partner of Fargo Electric, a Buffalo company that his grandfather founded 58 years ago and currently employs four workers. While he knows a lot about wholesaling electrical components like motors and transformers, his knowledge of numismatics was limited to collecting Buffalo nickels as a kid.

When the first displays rolled off the presses early this fall (they were produced and packaged by Drescher Paper Box Inc., Rosen Printing Co. and the Cantalician Center, of all Buffalo), Arno said he knew that a generous dose of creative marketing would be required.

The first promotional concept hit him when he was in the dentist's chair. "My dentist has posters on the ceiling. As I was sitting there staring up, I stopped her in the middle of drilling and said "Hey, I've got something for you!' "

Demand for the quarter display was fueled largely by word-of-mouth -- no pun intended. The Arnos spent their weekends making cold-calls to dozens of local hobby stores, including Niagara Hobby & Craft Mart in Cheektowaga. The Union Road store has since become one of the largest local vendors of the quarter display and manager Donald Schrems said the product isn't as popular with hard-core coin collectors as it is with people who are buying them as gifts.

"A lot of middle-aged and elderly people are buying these displays for youngsters, hoping to get them interested in collecting," said Schrems.

The Arnos realized that to capitalize on the product's full marketing potential, it would have to be distributed beyond Western New York. So they decided to mix business with pleasure over the Thanksgiving holiday when they drove to Florida to visit Renee Arno's grandfather. The couple loaded 300 coin displays into their two-door Chevy Cavalier, then made "old-fashioned cold sales calls" to hobby stores.

"It's kind of funny," Kenneth Arno said. "You see our trail if you plot the different stores on a map. By the time we got to Florida, we were out of the boards. I guess we should have bought a bigger car."

The coin display is now in its fifth printing, but the Arnos aren't deceiving themselves. They realize that with every passing month, there will likely be more entrepreneurs who enter the market with new products that cater to the latest trend in coin-collecting.

Schrems of Niagara Hobby said his store already carries about a dozen varieties of displays for the commemorative quarters, including different types of coin books that appeal to the traditional collector.

But Kenneth Arno said the product's strong early reception on a nationwide scale gives the creators reason to be optimistic.

About half of the sales over the last couple months have been made outside the Buffalo area, including Internet orders (www.50statesquarter.com). Locally, the quarter display is available at more than a dozen stores, including Lincoln Coin & Stamp Co. Inc. on West Tupper Street.

The Arnos aren't ruling out future entrepreneurial endeavors: They have established Arno Industries, a partnership that they said might explore other marketing opportunities.

With the exception of the actual production process, the husband-and-wife team performs virtually every task. Arno Industries shares space with Fargo Electric in an aging industrial building on Seneca Street.

"Things get a little hectic sometimes," Kenneth Arno conceded. "I was recently rushing to get a shipment of coin displays over to United Parcel Service. I ended up getting a ticket for speeding. I guess I have to remind myself that people have another eight years to collect these quarters."