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Local business Make-A-Fort thinks inside the box

It’s not often that an international company can trace its roots back to a 3-year-old kid.

Yet that’s the backstory for Make-A-Fort, an e-commerce retailer based in Augusta that does business in the United States, Canada and Europe.

It started because Kent and Shannon Johnson were trying to find a way to entertain their 3-year-old grandson in creative play that didn't involve a television or computer screen.

Shannon Johnson said they recalled making indoor forts when they were kids and when their three sons were younger.

"You remember getting out the pillows and the blankets and the chairs and the tables and using whatever you could to weigh down stuff?" Johnson said.

"And we just thought, 'Isn't there a simpler way to do that?' "

They enlisted the help of friends Troy and Kimberly Lindemann, and soon they were designing and making prototypes. Some of the early prototypes were created at the GoCreate maker space at Wichita State University.

A Make-A-Fort kit contains sturdy cardboard panels and foam connectors so kids can make castles, mazes, tunnels or whatever else they can imagine. It elevates the empty-cardboard-box-as-fun concept to another level.

"My husband said, 'I remember when I got Christmas presents. I'd like to play with the boxes and do things with the boxes, whether it was playing inside of them or just using them to create something almost more than what the toy … was inside the box."

Kent Johnson and Troy Lindemann both have engineering backgrounds. And Kent Johnson has started and owned multiple software companies over the past 20 years.

After a year of tinkering and getting feedback from friends and family, the Johnsons and Lindemanns launched Make-A-Fort in August 2020 – in the middle of the pandemic.

It was a brilliant move.

"A lot of people were confined to homes with the shutdown, lockdowns; kids were not in school anymore," Shannon Johnson said. "Parents were just trying to find creative ways to spend time with their kids…

"You know, when you're all together, let's find some things to do … so we're not bored and screens don't become the predominant way to go or a place to stop."

After a strong holiday season last year, the company expanded to Canada and then to Europe. It's added three employees and plans to hire more help for the upcoming holiday rush.

Make-A-Fort struggled to keep up with demand last Christmas, and Johnson said she's concerned about widespread supply chain issues this year. She said the fourth-quarter accounts for about 75 percent of their business.

"Last year, we had a very hard time keeping up with the demand," she said. "And so we would go on backorder for a couple of weeks, and then we get caught up. And then we go back on backorder again.

"So we're trying to alleviate that this year because we know…the demand is going to be a lot higher than the supply that there is in the United States with the supply chain issues."

Jonathan Gold is vice president of supply chain and customs policy for the National Retail Federation. He said the problems Make-A-Fort could face are common this holiday season.

"I think retailers, regardless of size or channel that they're selling in, whether they're brick and mortar or online, everybody's facing the same challenges," Gold said. "Just the fact that the supply chain is stressed from end to end."

Another potential problem is the labor shortage, which is affecting all industries across the country. Johnson said Make-A-Fort is working to find people to assemble kits before shipping.

Gold said part of the supply chain issues are related to finding workers for jobs at distribution centers and in transportation.

"There are hundreds of thousands of jobs that need to be filled and just trying to find the workers to fill those positions has been a significant challenge," he said.

Despite that, the National Retail Federation expects the average person to spend $648 on gifts, the same as a year ago and down slightly from 2019.

It projects holiday sales during November and December will grow 8.5% and 10.5% percent over 2020 to between $843.4 billion and $859 billion.

Online sales are forecast to increase 11% and 15% to between $218.3 billion and $226.2 billion.

Gold said his advice to consumers is don't wait too long to start shopping.

"I think that's part of the advice that many retailers are probably providing to their customers is to start looking early for those holiday gifts that they want to make sure that they can find," he said.

Johnson said she's not sure what's next for Make-A-Fort. The company has gotten inquiries from other countries about expansion, but right now the owners are just concentrating on getting through the holidays.

"It's hard to fathom where we were in August of 2020 and where we are now," she said. "I would've never guessed."

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.