05 Apr Supporting Your Local Yarn Store
What does your ideal town look like? Is it a maze of divided roadways along which asphalt parking lots serve as approaches to big-box retailers? Or is it a main-street kind of town with storefronts lining sidewalks for window-shopping? There are plenty of places that offer some combination of these two option — often, big retail plazas line the approach from the downtown to the nearest interstate highway.
Whatever that town in your head looks like, if you’re reading this post, at least one of the stores in your ideal town is a locally-owned yarn store (LYS). The LYS is the backbone of the yarn industry and keeping them economically viable benefits everyone, from consumer to manufacturer. Let’s look at the challenges local yarn stores are facing and the reasons why it’s in the best interests of other players in the industry to support and grow local yarn stores.
Challenges Facing Local Yarn Stores
- Online vs. bricks-and-mortar. We all know that the overhead associated with maintaining a physical storefront makes it harder for the LYS to compete with online retailers whose real estate responsibility may be at most, a warehouse. But do crafters buy yarn on price alone? The popularity of indie dyers whose online shop updates sell out in minutes or subscription clubs shows there are factors beyond cost that drive the purchase of yarn–factors like exclusivity, scarcity and uniqueness. The LYS may be losing sales of widely-distributed, comfortably familiar workhorse yarns to price-shoppers, but stocking a few lines of limited distribution can offset that hit. When you keep in mind that ours is a leisure industry fueled by discretionary spending, rather than a necessity, the LYS can compete on the basis of unique offerings.
- Big-box retailers. For many yarn crafters, high-end yarn is not even a thought. They’re shopping at budget retailers and stocking up on no-dyelot synthetics or kitchen cotton at bargain prices for their machine washable and dryable afghans and dishcloths. These crafters may be intimidated by the LYS and find its offerings too expensive or impractical for their yarn needs. The LYS owner can dismiss them as a market she’s not willing to serve, or rethink her yarn lines in terms of their desires. For someone who is used to crafting with store-brand acrylic, the LYS’ lowest-price acrylic/wool blend may be investment yarn for an heirloom baby project. Welcoming that customer as well as the one who wants hand-dyed cashmere for her fingerless mitts will add stability to the customer base.
- Saturation. Saturation takes on many forms in the yarn market. It is possible to have too many LYSes within a certain geographical limit, especially if they are all carrying similar inventory. Diversification amongst stores can be helpful to all, and cooperating on a regional project like a shop hop can help bring about the relationships that will strengthen each individual store. Saturation can also be a problem among customers. Believe it or not, (and sometimes it’s hard to believe when you observe customers’ buying habits) it is actually possible to have too much yarn. If your customer base is aging, and they’ve been knitting or crocheting for most of their lives, they can reach a point where buying more yarn seems frivolous at best. Keeping them interested involves whetting their appetites with new patterns and techniques that allows them to re-envision their stash and supplement it judiciously with the latest things. Finally, saturation can also mean market saturation. A particular LYS may already be drawing all the yarn crafters within its catchment district. You need more knitters and crocheters if you’re going to sell more yarn.
Why does keeping LYSes healthy matter to the larger yarn industry? There are the obvious answers: yarn is a highly subjective purchase and most customers want to see the colors and touch the fibers before they spend their money–at least the first time. LYSes are the showrooms of the industry, the gateway through which new customers are reached. Without them, there’s no practical way to introduce your products to your intended market. It holds true for the tool manufacturers as well as the yarn manufacturers. Knitters want to take the needles for a test drive or try the ballwinder before they commit their resources sight unseen.
Locally-Owned Businesses as Economic Engines
But there are deeper, less direct reasons for supporting local yarn stores. As small businesses, they play an important role in economic resilience. There are multiple ways in which locally-owned businesses benefit the communities that surround them and local yarn stores have their own place in that web of benefits. Studies have shown that locally-owned businesses create communities where people want to live, stabilizing housing prices. Because they are generally smaller, locally-owned businesses are more resilient during economic downturns. A small business might cut worker hours or freeze wages, but they are less likely to pull out of a market completely. Areas with a higher percentage of locally-owned businesses experience higher income growth and employment growth at the same time as their poverty rates decrease. In fact, locally-owned businesses help counteract the trend toward increasing income inequality. Corporate consolidation makes higher-skilled employees grow richer while keeping medium and low-skilled worker wages stagnant; small and medium-sized businesses have a much smaller wage gap between the lowest and highest rungs on their corporate ladders.
While most local yarn stores may not be the biggest job creators, some of them, especially the ones with robust online sales, do create jobs beyond the entry-level retail clerk position that first comes to mind. Whether it’s in-house or contracted, there are people working in IT, marketing, inventory management and shipping as well as sales for these stores, positions that require specialized skills and therefore pay more. In addition, many of the stores we think of as the big online presences not only got their start as local yarn stores, but they continue to be the local yarn stores in their geographic areas as well as destinations for the serious fiber fanatics.
Local yarn stores lie at the economic intersection of locally-owned businesses and arts/culture. From infographics available on the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) website, you can see that in survey on how Americans participate in the arts, 13% of those who reported they make or share art specifically cited fiber arts. Scroll down further to the infographic on the Economic Value of the Arts, and arts/culture retail is one of the top arts and culture industries. Local yarn stores are one of the most accessible ways Americans contribute to the arts and culture economy, which makes up 4% of the US GDP, a larger share than both construction and transportation/warehousing. So between the positive economic impact of locally-owned businesses and the positive impact of arts and culture retail, local yarn stores are an important economic force in our communities.
How Do We Keep Local Yarn Stores Strong?
As we noted above while discussing the challenges facing LYSes, saturation is a big one. In areas with little population growth, the LYS owner cannot count on an inbound migration of knitters to grow her customer base. We know anecdotally that the first thing a knitter does when moving to a new location or being posted somewhere for a short-term job assignment is call the LYS or visit its website to find out when the Open Knit Night is – it’s the quickest way to find potential friends anywhere you go. So, if you don’t have knitters moving to the area, how else can you increase your customer base?
- Outreach. One of the surest ways to increase yarn sales is to make more knitters. The would-be knitters who are motivated enough to seek out your store for instruction often become your best customers as their skills and taste develops. Besides offering your own in-store Learn to Knit classes, consider reaching out to your local Community Education organizations and teaching a class for them. Or staff a booth at a community event like a harvest festival, historical days or local-product celebration and teach people the basics of knitting with donated materials. If you get them interested, your shop is where they will come to learn more and before you know it, you’ve made more knitters.
- Cooperative Promotion. There is strength in numbers. Again, this is an outreach idea. Regional events like Shop Hops are a great way to reach potential new customers. For an upfront fee to belong to the Shop Hop, the cost of putting together a prize basket and some investment in developing a free pattern and attending to the clerical details of the event, you are guaranteed hundreds of at least minimum amount purchases over a set time period and the real benefit of exposing all the Hoppers to the beauty and extent of your inventory. Once they’ve seen and touched it, they will be back, and they usually don’t wait until next year’s Hop. Another way to join forces is for instructional events. If it’s too much to afford on your own, team with another area LYS or your local guild to bring in a big-name teacher for a weekend event. With more than one organization promoting it, you will reach your enrollment targets, so the risk of not covering your costs is diminished. If it’s a two-day workshop, your shop can host Saturday and your partnering shop on Sunday. Or let the guild stage the workshop in a neutral location and work with you to have class supplies available both in your shop beforehand and onsite during the workshop. Students will find their way to your store during their breaks and they will come back.
- Education. A compelling list of classes with your own instructors is another way to confront the saturation problem. Lifelong knitters and crocheters like to think they have seen and done it all, but teaching innovative technique or current project classes that extend their skills makes them buy more yarn. Don’t neglect the basics of technology for yarn crafters, either. There are plenty of mature knitters who have only the barest understanding of what they can do with Ravelry and what Ravelry can do for them. Teaching them about Ravelry is going to help you sell more yarn down the road.
- Online Sales. You can reach a larger customer base by offering your inventory online as well as in store. You can offer everything you have in the store online as well, as long as you make sure your inventory numbers are updated often, if not fully-integrated with your POS system. Or you can venture into online sales with little upfront investment by signing up for KiboCommerce (a successor company to Shopatron) to fulfill consumer orders funneled to you by the manufacturers whose products you stock; or integrate Shopify into your social media presence to capture orders from customers who come to you via Pinterest, Instagram and the like.
- Yarn-centered social events. Capitalize on the biggest advantage a LYS has: its physical presence as a gathering place. Yarn crafters like to be around their peers with whom they have a shared interest, and they also like to learn from one another. Don’t limit your offerings to social sit ‘n’ knits or classes, either – be creative and turn marketing into fun for your customers. Here are a few more ideas:
- Manufacturers’ Trunk Shows: A show of the garments that can be made with the products from one of the lines you carry is a great way to sell more yarn. Make it after work and serve refreshments; it will turn into an impromptu fashion show that will sell yarn and patterns through enthusiasm and encouragement.
- Finish-a-Thon: Have some fun one weekend evening and stay open really late. Have your teachers on hand and invite customers to bring a UFO (unfinished object) that they want to get off the needles. Whether they’re stumped on an instruction or afraid of finishing techniques, the goal of the evening is to get over the hump that keeps them from enjoying their finished projects. Add pizza and maybe goofy prizes and you’ve got a party! And if they finish, they’ll need a new project. Be ready with some great suggestions!
- Line Launch/Yarn Sampling: If you’re bringing in a new line of yarns, or the new fall colorways of a popular line, turn it into an event. Let your customers see, touch and swatch the new products and provide plenty of stock and pattern support to get them in the mood to buy.
- New Craft Night. Invite your customers to expand their crafting repertoire by having an evening class to teach something new such as needle felting, locker hooking, or Tunisian crochet. Try to make it a project that they can make and take over the course of the evening. Again, refreshments make it a party instead of a class, but having supplies on hand also makes it a sales opportunity.
- Choose a Charity: Pick a yarn-based cause and have your store be the place where crafters meet once a month to work on the projects. Whether it’s Hats 4 the Homeless, Knitted Knockers or the Red Scarf Project, they are many opportunities for your customers to gather around yarn and do some good.
Local yarn stores are the foundation of the entire yarn industry. They are the places where beginners turn into confident crafters and customers turn into friends. They are still the best channel for reaching the audience we want for our products. Share these ideas with your stockists and let them know they have your support. If you’d like more ideas on how you can support LYSOs, contact Leanne: firstname.lastname@example.org.