“I came to Montreal for love – what else could get a girl to leave New York?” Sandra answers my opening question as to how she came to here from her native New York. And to second question about the origins of Smart Shopping Montreal… “Because I was a New York girl – I always knew you could get a better price.”

I’m visiting with Sandra Phillips, creator and author of Smart Shopping Montreal, and now also working in partnership with her husband Stan Posner on Drive I-95, a comprehensive exit-by-exit guide to Interstate I-95 from Boston to Miami. Smart Shopping is a long-time best seller, and has helped Sandra become the “Shopping Guru” in Montreal, and also an expert consulted by national media for stories relating to shopping – such as cross-border commerce. I’m about to learn that Sandra is a very astute marketer, and that much of her success is due to her own creative thinking and plain old-fashioned hard work.
Sandra grew up in New York City, in a creative and happy household. “My Dad was in show business. He made sets and props for Broadway production, TV shows and commercials, and movies. When I went to visit Daddy at work – I’d get to meet Mary Martin, Henry Fonda, Alan Alda, Dustin Hoffman, and when I visited the Sesame Street set – I met Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch – the whole gang! I have a photo of Big Bird with one of his feathers attached to the frame.” Show business is not secure and Sandra’s father usually worked two jobs – just in case one folded because of poor ratings or low theatre attendance. “In the early days of TV, my Dad had to figure out how to make things happen for the camera.” Sandra shows me a Cuckoo clock in their dining room; “Dad made this for Sesame Street. The clock had to fly apart in all directions, but it had to be put back together for other scenes. He engineered a complex series of threads and pulleys to make the clock fly apart for the camera. Now they teach the stuff he invented in film and stage production schools.” Sandra inherited her father’s creative ingenuity, and it would benefit her greatly…

Sandra went on to obtain a Master’s degree in Fine Arts education, and became a high school art teacher in New York. Along the way, she met Stan Posner, a Montreal actuary and computer consultant. It was a second marriage for both, and each brought a child with them, and the couple also had another, making it a 3 boy household.

“So now I’m in Montreal, a city I don’t really know, with 2 kids in school and a pre-schooler. I became involved as a volunteer, partly as a way to meet people.”

“I belonged to a charitable organization here in Montreal, and I was in charge of arranging for speakers. I heard about a lady who had written a pamphlet about some place called Chabanel Street, and asked her to speak at one of our meetings.” It would be a fortuitous meeting…

“Nes Welham had produced a pamphlet for the factory stores on Chabanel, and she had taken it as far as she wanted. She was interested in selling the rights, and we felt it was something I could do and still be there for my children when they came home from school”. Sandra made the decision to go ahead and by the right from Nes. “Nes was very helpful and we’re still friends today.”

“Within two weeks of buying the pamphlet, I was asked to go on CJAD with Melanie King. That was in 1986 – And I’ve been a regular for the past 22 years.”

“I had a 2 ½ year-old and a pamphlet – and I knew I wanted to make it bigger. I’m not from here, so I didn’t have any preconceived notions about not going to the East End. I went anywhere and everywhere where I could find a better price for something. My territory went from Beaconsfield to Anjou, and from the 440 in Laval to Taschereau Boulevard on the South Shore.”

Sandra enlisted everyone she met as potential resources. “People love to tell you about their good deals – and where they got them.” Sometimes it involved a bit of creativity; “When I was sitting in a doctor’s office – I’d ask the nurse where she got her uniform.”

“I had been gathering all this information, and now it was getting time to produce the book.” At this time – it was the book, one, once, a single edition. Sandra had no idea or plan to turn Smart Shopping Montreal into the one-woman industry that it would become.

It was time for some financing in order to print the book. “I had learned that the best financial returns came from self-publishing – so that was the route I wanted to take. I met with my bank manager, and she became very excited about the project. It may have been partly because we were both women. She saw the merit in the business, and gave me a line of credit.”

“We printed 5000 copies, and now I have to market myself and the book. I was comfortable doing this – partly because of my background as a New Yorker (we’re not shy!). I went on the radio, a spoke at ladies’ clubs, charitable organizations – anywhere where they needed a speaker. It was hugely popular because everyone likes to shop!”

“The book stores were wonderful to me. Out of ignorance, I’d go to the stores and introduce myself, explaining that I was self-published.” Sandra’s unique approach proved to be the right one. “It was the best thing I could have done. They became my best salespeople, often setting up counter displays close to the cash register, and recommending Smart Shopping Montreal as a gift.”

Sandra sold all 5000 copies of in 3 months, an incredible feat in a country where a national best-seller is the same number – and Sandra did it in Montreal. “The books were all sold, but there was no money. The stores pay in 120 days, but we needed to print more to satisfy demand and maintain the momentum.” Sandra negotiated with her printer and the bank; and another print run was ordered. The fact that Smart Shopping Montreal was a runaway success and the author was rapidly becoming a media personality helped the process.

Sandra was basking in the glow of her success when Mr. Benjamin of Benjamin News, her book distributor asked about ‘next year’s edition’. He knew a good thing, and he wanted to be able to go into the market with an updated version the following year. “It had never occurred to me – I had been so focused on producing the first one and then promoting it. That’s how I began producing it every other year, one year in English and the next in French.”

Smart Shopping Montreal is a Best Seller every year, whether in French or English. For one extended period, the book was on the Best Seller list for 69 consecutive weeks. Ever confident, Sandra appears regularly on French TV and Radio with her New York accented French. “There are 200,000 new books published every year in North America, and most end up in remainder bins or being recycled. So I’m especially proud of Smart Shopping Montreal.”

Shopping is a major part of North American life – and it makes sense that a shopping expert will gain certain notoriety. Even more so when she is articulate, tele-genic and self-assured. “Neil McKentie had a morning TV show on CFCF. I went on and it went very well, so well that I was asked to appear on other daytime magazine shows. CTV News hired me to do a segment on shopping every two weeks, and that went on for 5 years. I became the ‘go-to’ person for national television items about shopping.”

Newsprint would also play a role in promoting Sandra and her fledgling publishing company. “I wrote a shopping column for The Montreal Daily News in 1988 and ’89. After that paper closed, I moved to The Gazette where I published a weekly column for 15 years. The newspaper put me on everyone’s breakfast table.”

All the media exposure made Sandra a popular speaker for groups, clubs, libraries, and associations. At her public appearances people would come forth with their own “special place” and Sandra would go off and investigate.

“Even while all this was going on – I ran my business from 8:30 am until 2:30 in the afternoon. I was home for my kids after school, and then I’d do paper work after they went to bed.”

The Internet has enabled Sandra to expand her business. “I have a Shlog – a shopping blog – where I can tell people about hot sales, and new finds.

In the mid 90’s Sandra began a second career in travel writing. “Stan came to travel conferences with me as a spouse, and we met Dave Hunter who was producing a driving guide called Driver I-75, for people driving from Toronto to Tampa. 50% of the work to produce the guide is creating and managing a computer data base – which is Stan’s expertise. Stan and Dave got along very well, and we decided to make an arrangement with Dave to use his model for a Drive I-95, which is the Interstate that goes from Boston to Miami – and is the one that most Montrealers use.”

“One of the biggest requirements – perhaps the biggest – is that we can stand each other in the car for 10 to 12 hours a day. Stan takes care of entering all the information, and it’s got to be right. Fortunately his ‘math brain’ and computer business make him perfectly suited for his part in preparing the book.” Sandra, with her sense of what people will find interesting – looks after the writing.

“We go on the road for 2 – 5 weeks; in the car by 9 am until 7 pm. We usually have dinner with someone from the local Chamber of Commerce until 9pm, and then we move all the cameras and computers into the motel around 9:30.” With a sigh, “We then start writing up everything from that day around 10pm – and we literally collapse around midnight. And start all over the next day.”

Now that they have books available, the fact-finding trips also double as sales events. “We sell I-95 anywhere – we’ve found that book stores aren’t necessarily the best places. We sell in road side restaurants, knife stores, children’s museums, gas stations, all kinds of places where people stop while they’re on the road.”

Sandra and Stan do local television and radio appearances while they are on the road, working n the next issue of Drive I-95. On a recent trip they were asked by NBC’s Today Show to do a 3 minute segment. The usual 20 minute pre-taping interview went on much longer than normal, and Sandra asked why. The couple were happily surprised when the NBC representatives told them that they were being considered for a season reality TV show, with a camera crew following Sandra and Stan as they made their way down I-95, interviewing their subjects and compiling the next edition. In the final analysis, the show was not produced – yet…

“We were delighted that our work would receive that much attention from a national broadcaster to be considered for a show. We’re confident that we’ll be on the air eventually with Drive I-95, either with NBC or another network.”
Sandra Phillips and husband Stan Posner have a bright future with Drive I-95, and they are looking forward to expanding the business. What started out as a “…move for love…” continues to be an enduring love story for a couple that manages to balance work and marriage in one all-encompassing package. Happy trails!

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