A view of the industry through the
eyes of a chain buyer.
Spark Craft Studios: The Interview
This unique store offers food for
thought for every retailer, large or small.
by Mike Hartnett (September 19, 2005)
Below is an interview with CEO Jan Stephenson who, with COO Amy
Appleyard, are the founders and owners of Spark Craft Studios, a
unique retail store in Sommerville, MA near Boston. The store, the
owners, and their approach to retailing are far different than the
traditional craft store.
Among the differences: the store is in an urban re-habbed area
rather than a suburban strip center or a small town ... The business
emphasizes and capitalizes on the consumer's need for community ...
the layout is far different than a traditional store ... Jan and Amy
met while MBA students in Boston ... the list goes on.
But before you read the article, look at the store: www.sparkcrafts.com.
Read about Jan and Amy: www.sparkcrafts.com/about/founders.shtml.
Read their story: www.sparkcrafts.com/about/ourstory.shtml.
Finally, read about their unique "Studio" concept: www.sparkcrafts.com/studio.
And don't miss the Friday "Wine & Craft" nights, and
even date nights.
Finish your surfing? Ok, NOW read the interview:
CLN: Who is your customer (age, income, etc.)?
STEPHENSON: Our goal is to appeal to cosmopolitan,
professional women in their 20's and 30's who have disposable income
for leisure-time activities, an interest in social interaction, and
an eye for fashion and style. Approximately 85% of our customers
meet these criteria, but our concept is also attracting older women
and teens who associate with our emerging brand image ("cool
CLN: Why did you two, when in school, pick crafts? Had either
of you done many crafts before starting the business? Do you have a
STEPHENSON: Amy and I are not avid hobbyists who decided to
start a crafts business, but we enjoy the creative process. I like
to scrapbook and do paper crafts – I love photography and was
making collage albums before the scrapbooking industry exploded. Amy
enjoys beaded jewelry making and her mother taught her to sew when
she was a teenager. She's now using those skills again to make
dresses for her three-year-old daughter. We are both exploring
We launched Spark Craft Studios to make creativity accessible and
attractive to women who are busy professionals and who might not
consider themselves "crafty" or "creative." Our
aim is three-fold: 1) to make crafting convenient by
providing tools, supplies, and instruction under one roof; 2) to
keep a focus on style, understanding that our customers want to make
items that are relevant and beautiful; and 3) to be social --
women want new and interesting ways to connect with each other on
their night out that doesn’t solely involve eating and drinking.
Since Amy and I aren't seasoned crafters or designers, we rely on
our team of six Creativity Consultants (our retail/studio staff),
instructors (we have about 30), and customers to help us identify
trends in the consumer marketplace that can be translated into
hands-on projects. We try to act quickly to bring our customers the
best products and classes that reflect current fashion – for
example, we knew that bangle bracelets would be hot for fall, so we
put on a successful "Wine & Craft" event that entailed
25 women tasting wine and chatting while gluing & hand sewing
ribbon, velvet, and other materials to plastic bangles. Everyone
As to mentors – we are in the throes of assembling an "A
Team" of crafts and retail industry professionals. Amy and I
have a strong vision for Spark Craft Studios which is innovative and
exciting. We have good business and marketing sense and the
credential of two MBA's. But we know the importance of a
well-rounded Board of Directors with industry experience, expertise,
and contacts who can help a small company grow into a large one.
CLN: Is it working? Are your investors happy? Are you two
supporting yourselves (including health insurance)?
STEPHENSON: Spark Craft Studios is a growth-oriented company.
Our pilot studio is teaching us what works in our business model,
what needs changing, and what we need to do to scale/replicate our
model effectively. We are reinvesting all cash back into building
the brand (marketing), enhancing product selection (inventory), and
research and development (class curriculum and kits). Spark pays us
a modest stipend and gives us basic health insurance. We expect to
pay ourselves a decent salary within a year. Our investors expect to
see a healthy return on their investment within five years, after we
have launched additional studios.
We are all encouraged by the results we’ve seen so far. Some of
our metrics include: ongoing media attention which positions Spark
as cool and different and drives paying customers to our doors; a
growing mailing list of customers (3,000 to date, with a dozen new
additions daily); an average ticket that is highly competitive with
industry standards; decent sales revenues in proportion to the money
invested thus far; a growing foundation of repeat customers; a
growing number of new customers; strong word-of-mouth advertising;
and, of course, getting closer to break even and profitability.
CLN: What has surprised you since you opened?
STEPHENSON: Private parties took off really fast (bridal
showers, bachelorette parties, baby showers, etc.). Scrapbooking,
which was the hottest growth category when we launched, has been our
slowest area to ramp up. We expected a slower summer, but June and
August were our best months so far. The retail component of what we
do is bigger than we initially thought – people love to shop!
CLN: What constitutes a good day? In other words, when you
get home and say do yourself, "Boy, this was a great day!"
what kinds of things happened that made you feel that way?
STEPHENSON: Meeting or exceeding daily sales goals; a steady
stream of customers (repeat and new) throughout the day; full or
near-full classes (five or more students); a busy studio with
members working on projects; good press; connections we see being
made between members-customers (for example, one of our instructors
recently got an appointment with a leading pediatric dermatologist
for her allergic-prone child due to meeting that pediatrician here
at one of our events); watching people light up during a class or
when they’ve discovered us for the first time.
CLN: Why did you pick memory/paper, beads, and yarn? Why
those, why not more or other categories?
We did tons of market research for our business plan. Yarn,
memory/paper, and beads were considered "hot" in terms of
growth and were appealing to a new generation of crafter. The
products themselves can be beautiful and stylish – fine yarns,
unique and colorful beads, and fun papers and embellishments.
We also made a strategic decision to choose crafts that were
community-oriented – with knitting, crocheting, scrapbooking, and
jewelry making, you can sit around a table and chat with others
while you work. We’re moving into new areas as we see trends
emerge; for example, we weren’t doing sewing originally.
CLN: You mention you'd like to eventually open more stores.
Is that still down the road a ways? Are you thinking of franchising?
STEPHENSON: Our original business plan projects us opening
another store within three years using cash from operations (and/or
additional investor funds). We have had inquiries about franchising
and we’re considering that possibility as well. We are very
interested in meeting individuals who are intrigued by our concept
and want to help it grow – both with capital investments in the
company and expertise/connections to the industry.
CLN: Whom do you consider your major competitor?
STEPHENSON: We compete with the usual suspects – online
craft retailers, independents, discount chains, informal networks
for crafting. We also compete with other leisure time activities
(bars, restaurants, the movies) and material possessions (clothing,
make-up) for our target market’s discretionary funds.
CLN: I'm guessing here that your prices are not particularly
competitive with Michaels or Wal-Mart. Is that a problem?
STEPHENSON: We have an upscale boutique feel which our
customers enjoy, but we try to keep our price points reasonable. We
find that customers who are new to crafts find the convenience of
buying from us when they’re here for a class or party outweighs
our slightly premium pricing. Once someone is a dedicated crafter,
however, we expect they will also shop web sites and retailers
offering more selection and better prices. Our competitive advantage
then resides in developing innovative classes/events to get them
here; offering superior customer service; enhancing the benefit of
studio membership; sourcing distinctive products hard to find
elsewhere; and rolling out unique products bearing the Spark Craft
Studios brand name and image.
CLN: Does the bulk of your income come from the club concept,
or the product sales? How important is the "community"
STEPHENSON: About 50% of our revenues come from retail sales
and the other half from fees associated with classes, special
events, private parties, and membership. Retail sales are largely
event-driven, although we see a fair amount of purely retail
business as well. Our membership benefits include use of workspace
and tools, discounts, and networking opportunities. We find the
community aspect is more important to some people than others. In
addition, the private parties offer an opportunity to socialize with
friends which is another type of community.
CLN: I read the Business Week piece on your site, so
I'm curious, do you get to have a life outside Spark Crafts?
STEPHENSON: We're very busy right now! Since we're still so
new, Amy and I wear tons of hats, both on the micro and macro
levels. We have six part-time staff (retail/studio helpers) and 30+
instructors who teach classes. We haven’t yet hired and trained
regular staff to handle day-to-day operations of the store/studio.
Now that we have many of our processes, policies, and procedures
figured out, it’s easier to pass that knowledge along. The pilot
has to work before it can be replicated, so we’re aiming for
perfection on the small stage first.
CLN: The younger generation of crafters seems more interested
in making a one-of-a-kind item than copying a model. Is this a
valid, if broad, generalization?
STEPHENSON: Yes, I would say our customers are very
interested in individuality and putting their own creative touches
on the items they make. At our classes and private parties, nobody
ever makes exactly the same thing. But clients like to have a
structure, examples of what they could create, and to learn skills
that will help them innovate. We often rip an item from the pages of
a fashion magazine and then challenge our customers to make not
exactly the same thing, but something in keeping with that design
but that is also reflective of their personal sense of style.
(Note: To read previous "Benny" articles, click
on the titles in the right-hand column. Do you know about other
unique stores? Tell CLN about them. Email your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.)