Insights on business -- and life.
My 20 Years in the Industry, Pt. III
"We are on the edge of
losing touch with our consumers."
by Karen Ancona/CLN (April 2, 2007)
(Note: After more than 20 years, Karen recently stepped
back from her position as Editor of CNA. Karen shares her
thoughts who influenced her, who influences the customers, and where
the industry is going. To read Pts. I and II, click on the titles in
the right-hand column.)
CLN: Who in the industry has influenced you the most?
Karen: This is an unfair question. There are so many, many
people who helped me along the way. Consumers, manufacturers,
retailers, investors, publishers, ad salesmen, designers – oh yes,
those designers. Many of them let me get inside their heads, and I
began to understand our end-user and the reason for our existence.
One designer who stands out is Judy Caulkins who worked for
Robert Wang years ago. She taught me how to extend the selling
season on a holiday product by tweaking the design. She also taught
me that good products filled a hole in the industry. I used that
advice to seek out trends and good products for years.
I'd ask myself or a bunch of customers in a craft store, "If
you could have anything in the world available to you to make your
hobby more fun and rewarding, what would it be?" I got answers
such as "safe, glow-in-the-dark paint" from a teacher or
"a kit to make a classy necklace for under $10."
I actually took those ideas to manufacturers and watched some of
them turn into winners. I still believe that designers are the
backbone of the industry, mainly because they are so much like our
end-customers. They create for the fun of it.
On the business side, I was sleeping with my best teacher. My
husband, Bill, whose career was in the home center industry, had the
answers to most of my business-related questions such as what's the
difference between a distributor and wholesaler? (I had so much to
What was so helpful with Bill by my side is that the home center
industry grew out of the main street hardware store business just as
we grew from small shop to chains. The growing pains were and are
similar, and I could anticipate what was coming next in our arena.
Here's a funny story. One time a salesman from one of our major
paint suppliers made a call on Bill, who at the time was the paint
buyer at a major home center chain. The salesman opened an issue of
CNA in front of Bill and pointed to a quote I had made in my
commentary about the strength of his brand. Small world. Bill told
the guy he was quoting his wife with whom he never disagreed (Ha!),
but he doubted the ability of the company to supply his company's
needs. (Bill eventually initiated a small test on the line and the
supplier could not meet the demands. That was before our major
suppliers knew the song and dance required by chain stores. Growing
up was painful!)
Other people who stand out as educators: Robert Wang, who taught
me a lot. I only understood half of what he taught me because I
never mastered his heavy accent. Imagine if I could have learned it
all! We would laugh every time he talked about the 'crap' industry
(craft industry). I loved the man.
Mike Dupey, founder of Michaels and MJ Designs, taught the world
about craft retail. His right-hand man, Howard Hoffman, gave us such
knowledge as " If a project requires five component parts and
your store carries only four, you will lose the sale." Of
course now the Internet has changed that somewhat.
Dave Gherman, the owner of Hobby Publications where CNA
was born, provided the profile that enabled me to spot smart
business people. Dave was a great teacher, a good competitor, and a
Aleene Jackson taught me how to market. She was ahead of others
in the industry with TV and the Internet. Jack Parker, founder of
A.C. Moore, taught me about chain retail. Jack Bush, former CEO of
Michaels, taught me about CEO's and stockholders.
I learned about independent retail from no less than 25
shopowners whose stores and minds I haunt to this day. I learned
about manufacturing from many companies. Early in my career DMC took
me to see my first overseas manufacture at their headquarters in
Mulhouse, France. I learned a bit about global commerce from Ron
Aptroot, a distributor in The Netherlands. All of these people, and
many more, answered my questions so I could sound intelligent enough
to ask them good questions and write informative articles.
CLN: Who (companies or people) do you think has influenced the
industry the most?
Karen: People: Mike Dupey, Mike Rouleau, Pat Koziol, Chris
Skinner. Companies: Plaid; Dimensions, Hirschberg Schutz, EK
Success, Notions Marketing, Westrim.
CLN. What dangers/pitfalls do you see for the industry?
Karen: We are on the edge of losing touch with our consumers.
At this time, when young teens take pride in making or altering
their own clothes, rooms, and accessories, I see no one except
Duncan Enterprises capitalizing on that lifestyle trend.
We still haven't gotten into the home redecorating business. How
stupid is that? I've been complaining about that for 10 years. All
it would take is a good marketing campaign.
We used to have a great base of teaching retailers. Now those
retailers say it is not profitable to run classes. That's really
shortsighted. They need an education on how to track longterm profit
makers. Might be a great class for CHA.
We are in danger of becoming a mere department in home center
chains, a few shelves in stationery stores and drug stores, and
small departments in the middle of discount stores. (The Wal-Mart
moves are both threatening and present opportunity.) Shopping on the
Internet has taken some of the punch out of our retail, and so has
slower product development, distribution demands and retail
conducted with eyes wide shut.
CLN: If there was one thing you wish was different about the
industry, what would it be?
Karen: I wish we had a franchise of small craft stores with
great classes and great selection. I would give up semi-retirement
to run one.
CLN: Predictions for the industry for the next five years
(product categories, design trends, retail trends)?
Karen: My son just invested in the development of a new
retail concept in California. These stores are devoted to high-end
backyard equipment, design, and furniture. I have suggested to him
that the stores include a service offering decorative painters who
will create "the mural of your choice on fences and walls and
even concrete floors." He likes the idea. There are always
opportunities to distribute through retail related to fashion, home
décor, and education.
Our products and services fit well into other retail venues
because manufacturers have mastered self-serve displays. The
question, I believe, that should haunt us when we think about the
future is: Will we be able to maintain our own retail base? A.C.
Moore still looks like a craft store, but I see more and more home
dec and apparel there. Michaels looks like it's competing with Pier
1. (Why, when Pier 1 is in trouble?) Hobby Lobby is its own factory
store. All sewing chains are struggling. Niche stores are not
growing profits but are treading water.
We can rejoice that bead stores and some small yarn stores are
healthy. Many full-line craft stores of size are considering
selling. A glimpse at the future dictates that we must reinvent our
own presentation to the public before we can get positive about
future growth. And we can do that! We are still an industry of
entrepreneurs at the retail level. Someone will come up with the
That said, our greatest challenge may be competition from the
Internet. I have no solutions, and I don't think I'm alone in that
I'd like to see craft parties in homes – sort of back to the
basics of each one teach one. It'll take an entrepreneur.
We still don't embrace professional crafters, though some very
powerful people affiliated with this industry were (maybe still are)
looking at that. It's a boom waiting to happen.
Among us are experts in many crafts who will personalize a home
or wardrobe for a fee. Their work always inspire those who see their
projects to try to do-it-themselves. It's how we built and rebuilt
our customer base for the past 20 years. We need the teachers, the
teaching space, and the investors.
As far as trends go: Watch soft crafts. Everything is happening
on fabric. You know we always should look for the canvas
(receptacle/surface) for our art first, and right now people are in
love with fabric.
Do this exercise: go to a department store and watch people shop
the clothing area. Everyone is touching fabrics, looking for softer,
stretchier, textured fabric. Watch them touch the beaded accents on
shirts. See them fondle the beads on pillows. Watch them finger
embroidery. You'll see women draping themselves with big scarves
just for fun. Right now we love very fine cottons and silk. Soft and
feminine is in now. Even men's clothing is softer.
It's not all about clothing, though. I see huge yardages draped
as awnings over decks and patios. I first saw this in Europe ten
years ago. Enormous flags of fabric express color and movement and
no other message in parks. Fabric is important.
Personalizing is still popular. There are more people than ever
hiring artists to create personalized wedding invitations and
scrapbooks. Even funeral homes offer the services of professional
scrapbookers to put together the ultimate photo tribute of the
Personalizing extends to clothing but especially there the
application must be fun.
I like outdoor paint right now. Maybe that's because I just moved
to Florida this year. During the past six months I have convinced
six friends to paint murals in their lanai. I actually did one
myself. That's a boast! It's quite good.
Never fear. A new trend will come along and reawaken the
industry. We'll see a bunch of niche indies come into being, a new
department arise in the chains, new web sites devoted to the craft,
new products, new manufacturers, a new section at CHA shows and
maybe even a new niche trade show. Definitely there will be new
consumer magazines, lots of new books and maybe a new trade
magazine. We'll see our business owners smiling in March and
November again. Keep the faith.
CLN: Any final thoughts?
Karen: I can't close this epistle without giving tribute to
some pretty special women in this industry. For those of you who
don't know, we have a miracle worker among us. Priscilla Hauser
teaches the blind to paint! She also paints for kings.
We can also boast a pioneer that is the envy of other industries:
Aleene Jackson had a vision 50 years ago and went on the road with
it – the Craft Caravan in the 50s. She was a feature story
in Life magazine back then. Forty years later she pioneered
crafts on TV because she figured it was the modern way to get the
most for her marketing dollar. Many thought she was nuts.
I must pay tribute to Karey Bresenhan who took on The Smithsonian
Institute and China and won a battle that prevented cheap imports
from imitating and devaluing American-designed quilts. You see
ladies and gentlemen, that can be done!
How about Bonnie Greene who intuitively thought that
needleworkers were also philanthropists and would be willing to knit
and crochet items to give to underprivileged kids? Hence, she was
the founder of Caps for Kids which is now a worldwide
provider of warmth and love to children and meaning and worth to
those who knit and crochet.
How about your wife, Mike, who is now involved in the manufacture
of jewelry as an income source for women in need? I believe she,
too, will go worldwide with this outreach program. You need to write
about her in your newsletter – I need to write about her in CNA!
Going before her and as an inspiration is Cari Clement who, in
the wake of genocide in Rwanda, helps women rebuild their lives with
her knitting machines. The women are trained on the machines through
Clement's nonprofit Fiber and Craft Entrepreneurial Development
Women like Evie Rosen, who founded Warm Up America!, are
an inspiration to us all. Tera Leigh started the program Memory
Boxes for parents grieving the loss of an newborn.
Then there are the women CEO's before their time, before anyone
realized there was a glass ceiling: Paulette Jarvey with Hot Off the
Press, Suzanne McNeil with Design Originals, and Laura ( Lester)
with Tulip paint. In the 60s Ginny Thompson brought cross stitch to
America and started one of the longest trends this industry had ever
Oh, I'm sure I missed some ladies and I hope they forgive me. I
love them all and learned about courage and determination from their
efforts. I talked about them to my daughters as they grew up and
those stories reassured them that they could to anything they
Now you've run me out or words. It's been a great ride for twenty
years and I know this industry will still manage to wow me and
inspire people to turn off the TV and make something wonderful.
I recently purchased a little plaque for my oldest grandson that
reads: "If you could be successful at anything you wanted,
without any possibility for failure, what would you choose to
do?" I thought it was appropriate food for thought for a
15-year-old. It also sums up the way I feel about the entrepreneurs
I've met along my journey in crafts. They dreamed and acted on those
dreams in spite of challenges.
The really fun thing about that plaque is that it was created by
a professional crafter. The words are created with funky beaded
letters and include some sequins and buttons and sparkles. It's
obviously self-framed. Crafting will always inspire someone to make
something special, won't it? That's our luck as both business people
and appreciators of their talents.
(Note: To contact Karen, call 941-639-0961 or email email@example.com.)