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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 learn!)

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 fine publisher.

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 dcor, 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 right formula.

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 admission.

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 deceased.

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 Center (FACED).

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 seen.

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 wanted.

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 karenancona@comcast.net.)

xxx

 

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