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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Leverage the weaknesses of the Big Box Craft Store to grow your business!

Most customers have come to expect a lackluster experience when they visit large corporate owned retail stores. My recent trip to a local JoAnn Fabric Store is typical: I walked into the store, full of hope and expectation, jazzed up on a new project idea. I wanted to try my hand at making silk paper and was looking for the adhesive recommended on the "how to" websites that I had been reading. I went straight to the customer service counter and asked if they carried the product. The young sales clerk looked at me blankly for a moment, said that she had never heard of the item, and moved on to the next customer. I was not ready to give up the quest and politely asked her if there was someone else she could ask. The light bulb appeared to go off in her empty little head and she dutifully picked up the phone and proffered the question. I could hear the voice on the other end say "I have never heard of it" so I whispered to her that it was an adhesive commonly used in paper making in the hopes that the info would spark some product recognition. Nada. The store didn't have the specific craft item that that I needed but it sure was overflowing with lower end basic craft items and imported home goods. C'est la vie!

I still wanted to purchase some magazines, so I ventured over to the display, picked up a handful of craft publications and went to the register. The cashier was nonplussed when I paid with a business check, telling me that she didn't "know what the crap she was supposed to do with a business check." HUH? Aside from the crudeness of the response, this cashier has been working at the store for over a year...certainly long enough for me to recognize that she wasn't a newbie. She made a phone call to determine the procedure, sighing loudly at the inconvenience. Upon hanging up the telephone she shared the following tidbit: "This company has so many damn rules for everything."

Wow. Now THAT was fun......NOT!

This encounter falls within the range of "normal" for big box craft stores---it is certainly typical of my visits. In fact, as I was leaving the store I turned to the woman who was checking out next to me. She had watched the exchange and I asked her if it was apparent that I was "screaming in my head." She laughed in commiseration, noting that she always left Joann's feeling frustrated. I went home and immediately ordered the product on-line. No muss, no fuss and I will have it by week's end.

My foray into JoAnn's demonstrated once again that (1) customer service counts and (2) behemoth corporations have a difficult time marketing to the "experienced" crafter, focusing instead on the most basic of the basics. It is easy to look for another craft provider when the Big Box alternative is so inadequate.

What is the crafty retailer to do?

Leverage the weaknesses of the big box store to turn shoppers into fanatical advocates! The customer service side of the equation is easy to fix and past posts have addressed the issue. The ability to do what is necessary to attract the serious crafter is a bit more elusive for many. Big Box stores come with Big Box Financing and have the deep pockets to facilitate expansive inventory. However, the "expansive inventory" is generally wide but quite shallow, leaving the crafter unable to find specialized product or crafty education. You may lack the big budget, but you can make up for it by being more sensitive to customer needs. Be amenable to special orders for customers where possible. Keep a spiral book by the register that is specifically reserved for "wish list" items. Call the customer when that product has been ordered and when it arrives. Find specialty vendors that carry product not warehoused by the Big Box competitor. The Big Guy will beat you on price and on the volume of product, but it is easy to beat them on specialty items.

Keep on top of craft trends! Large corporations respond very slowly to trends, while small independent stores can nimbly and swiftly react to a fluid marketplace. I recently spoke with Crafty Pod diva and author extraordinaire Diane Gilleland (a copy of her latest e-book is pictured at left). I was participating in my first Podcast and Diane was interested in the state of the brick and mortar craft store. One of the questions that Diane asked was whether the retail craft store has been impacted by the growing internet craft community. There has certainly been an impact, but it has been a boon as well as a bane! While many shopkeepers bemoan the internet because of low priced internet competition, the savvy retailer will use the internet to reach out to prospective customers. Participate in on line forums to enhance visibility, post free patterns to generate interest, utilize all aspects of social media, and keep up with the latest and greatest craft techniques and innovations.

Offer classes that teach skills that complement and build upon your existing product base. Many Big Box stores have discontinued educational programs, providing a great opportunity for the independent craft retailer. However, I often hear craft store proprietors complain that no one signs up for classes, leaving them frustrated and reluctant to put together new educational opportunities. Other shopkeepers report that classes generally have a waiting list. Why the difference? Content, advertising, and timing.

: The empty classes are often boring and uninspiring. A bead shop that offers the same stale basic stringing class every Saturday morning is not going to generate excitement. A bead shop that offers a class on covering a journal with silk paper and bead embellishment is a different story! Many owners are reluctant to step outside of their comfort level....once a bead store, always a bead store, and nothing more than a bead store. This is only a problem for those who want to stay in business. Advertising: Customers will only sign up for classes that they know about. Promote them in your newsletters, through bag stuffers, and via phone call reminders. Timing: It is September 29 and several of my customers are still working on the October class calendar. These are the same folks who are disappointed when the class does not fill up. People are busy. Life is hectic. My October schedule is already jam packed and I would find it impractical to fit in a last minute class. Do everything you can to make it EASY for your classes to fill up: great content that is adequately publicized in a timely manner! Feeling uninspired? Etsy, 1000 Markets, and Art Fire offer up a visual smorgasbord of amazing crafty goodness to get your creative juices flowing.

Craft stores used to be the hub of the craft community. Many stores have unknowingly abdicated that role to the internet craft community, where crafters "hang out" and exchange project ideas, run contests, craft challenges, and the like. Bring 'em back! Make sure that you have a comfortable place for people to gather, fight against the homogenization of the craft world by offering innovative and exciting product and educational opportunities, and consider sponsoring craft challenges and contests. The craft retailer who masters these skills will have me turn off my computer and happily drive past the nearest Michael's, Hobby Lobby, and Joanne's to pull into her store parking lot!

Other news:

I am a bit of a blog junkie as I constantly peruse the internet for items of interest. A few weeks ago I happened upon the blog of Arlene Watson, an accomplished felt artist with a strong Etsy presence. Arlene does a great job of marketing herself through her blog and her work is sublime. She recently did a post on some felted soap she had made for an upcoming show. Felted soap is fairly commonplace, but Arlene's use of packaging made the ordinary EXTRAORDINARY. It serves as a wonderful reminder that a tiny bit of extra effort can make a world of difference.

After all, although any felted soap is lovely...there is a big difference between this......

and this..................

Take the extra step, reach a little higher, try a little will be the one to reap the rewards!

A big thank you! This has been a very difficult week for me as we buried a furry family member. I have been humbled and gratified by the outpouring of love I have received from my internet buddies. You cannot know how helpful and comforting you have been.

"Alaska" 1996 - 2009

My good pal has left us and I am hiding at home licking my wounds. I found Alaska hiding in a ditch in the middle of a raging downpour in January 1997. She was wearing an old collar and a tag that only had some of the identification numbers visible. I managed to track down the owner and called him with the expectation of a joyful reunion but was horrified to learn that the owner not only did not want her back, he had deliberately "dumped" her because she was getting "too big." The gentle giant was not even a year old and had traveled many miles as she steadfastly tried to find her way home. She was frightened and confused when I found her. We opened our hearts and our home to this amazing animal, who became a mother to the rest of my brood...both the two legged and four legged variety. Alaska was a loyal and devoted friend and I will miss her



  1. My mother and I refer to JoAnn Fabrics as "Dunderhead High" (as in high school) because seemingly check-out clerks know nothing about any of their products or promotions.

  2. It really seems to be an epidemic! For more nightmarish craft store experiences, check out

  3. Sorry to hear about Alaska. I feel that way about all of mine and this is a hard time of year for livestock producers. I have to decide who to keep and choose. Wish I could hide myself!

  4. Thanks, Kathy...I know that you go through your own share of losses throughout the year...births, deaths, auctions, etc. but the joy always seem to outweigh the sadness, thank goodness!