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Your Business Commentary

Mike's often irreverent, thought-provoking analysis of the industry.

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Barbara Becomes An Enthusiast, Finally

A first-hand view of a consumer getting hooked on a category.

by Mike Hartnett (August 1, 2005)

Soon after I came into the industry I realized if it was going to grow, it needed to attract women like my wife, Barbara. She's smart, loves to shop, and has good taste. (Well, maybe not in husbands.) But she thought she wasn't creative in a craft sense, never learned how to knit or crochet, and learned in grade school she "couldn't" draw. She doesn't like to do things unless she believes she can do them well.

So for 25 years I have been dragging her into our industry's stores, and often she's attended trade and shows with me. She would roam the aisles and I would watch to see which categories piqued her interest and which displays caught her eye.

Once a project in an instruction book intrigued her. But her face fell when she looked at the materials list; she didn't know what some of the items were, or where they were, and there wasn't a clerk in sight to help her. She walked out. Lesson: customer service can make all the difference.

Later Barbara became interested in counted cross stitch, so we went to a specialty shop. The clerk (owner?) was engrossed in a conversation with a stitching enthusiast. Barbara waited as the two women tossed around terms like "14-count Aida," "linen thread," and "new DMC colors." She got tired of waiting, had no idea what those things meant, and finally walked out. Lesson: consumers don't like to feel stupid.

Sometimes she would be intrigued by a particular technique, but the projects she saw in store madeups or instruction books didn't appeal to her. Lesson: not everyone wants to make a smiling bunny.

Periodically I would write about Barbara's experiences in hopes that the industry would learn from her experience. Some people listened. I know of at least two retailers who saved those columns, and when they were planning major changes in their stores, they'd take out the columns and ask, "Now, would Barbara like this?"

Unfortunately, she is not interested in scrapbooking. After walking through chain and independent stores and trade shows, Barbara has concluded scrapbooking is time-consuming, complicated, and expensive. We all know it doesn't have to be those things, but that's the image our stores have projected. Lesson: the kind of products, projects, and merchandising displays that appeal to enthusiasts scare away the uncertain novices.

A breakthrough.

Years decades went by and Barbara had hardly spent a dime in our stores. Then one fall she saw a project in a magazine that called for making Christmas ornaments by swirling Delta paint in a clear ornament. She tried it and was successful, so she made ornaments for her staff for Christmas.

That gave her the confidence to make soap and bath salts. Those projects were successful, too, but there's a limit to how many ornaments, soaps, and bath salts a person needs or could give as gifts. And there was no ongoing challenge; Barbara felt she had mastered these crafts and so continuing would just be repetition. Lesson: there has to be success, but also a feeling that there's more to learn or techniques that could be improved.

So the bottom line, after 20-plus years: If the industry had to rely on the Barbara Hartnetts of the world, we'd all be selling shoes.

The key.

Then three things happened earlier this year: 1. Barbara became intrigued enough with jewelry-making, that she took a class at a new bead shop that opened nearby. 2. At CHA board meetings, there's usually a craft class of some sort for spouses. This spring Shirley Ferguson, who operates a Ben Franklin Crafts store in Redmond, WA with her husband Bob and son Neil, taught a jewelry-making class for spouses. 3. She visited a glass shop in a nearby town and saw incredible glass beads for jewelry.

Then the coup de grace: we learned about the Bead&Button show in Milwaukee sponsored by Kalmbach Publishing. It was the same weekend as a family reunion in Milwaukee, so we attended. Us and 16,000 others.

Barbara went, uh, crazy.

Today we have enough beads in the house to last a decade but of course Barbara's an enthusiast now, so they're not enough.

Barbara is now starting two businesses. She is the Executive Director of Friendship House, a United Way social agency that works with the poor in Peoria, IL. Much of the Hispanic population lives near Friendship House and many of the women are in traditional (sexist) marriages where the wife/mother has to stay home. Many doesn't even have a driver's license.

So Barbara is going to set up a jewelrymaking cooperative. She will teach the women to make simple jewelry and sell their creations.

She's also setting up a second business to sell her own creations. She's become a professional craft producer.

Lessons.

It has been fascinating to watch up close the transformation from a hesitant novice to a hard-core enthusiast. Here are a few things I've learned so far:

1. Never under-estimate the power of magazines. One magazine inspired her to make Christmas ornaments years ago, and today Barbara goes over the bead magazines, including the ads, with a fine-tooth comb.

2. When a consumer becomes an enthusiast, she will make time and find the money. The dictum, "Crafts must be quick, easy, and cheap" is not true once she is hooked.

3. The issue of dumping old product at consumers shows: Were some of the beads we saw in Milwaukee "old"? Quite possibly, but they were all new to Barbara.

4. Retailers should love new novices because they buy so many tools, which are often higher-ticket items than the basic consumables such as paper and stickers. (I bet there are hospital operating rooms that have fewer tools than Barbara has.)

5. A futurist once said, "The more high-tech our jobs become, the more high-touch our leisure activities will be." Barbara's job working with the poor in Peoria is not high tech, but she is one brainy woman. Earned a doctorate, taught psychology for 25 years, and uses her brain constantly. I think one reason why jewelry-making appeals to her is working with her hands.

I'll report periodically on Barbara's progress. I'm guessing one of these days she's going to want to make her own beads. I can hear it now, "Honey, I'd like a blast furnace for Christmas."

Note: In the August issue of CNA magazine, Editor Karen Ancona, an old friend of Barbara and me, analyzes Barbara's transition. I saw an advance copy, and it's well worth reading. To read previous Business-Wise columns, click on the titles in the right-hand column. To comment on this or any other industry issue, email CLN at mike@clnonline.com.)

xxx

 

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