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I did a series of columns for Cascade Yarn's retailer newsletters and thank Cascade for encouraging me to reprint them here. I have included three columns that were not in the original run as bonus columns exclusively for HCK readers. To navigate the columns, please click on the appropriate title below.

These columns are also available for download in Adobe pdf form; simply click here and save the file to your desktop.

March 2007: Good manners are good business.
April 2007: Buying yarns, and selling them, too.
May 2007: Do you need the internet?
June 2007: Beautiful and useful v. neither of the above.
July 2007: Think color:  spring/summer  merchandising, color, and strategies.
August 2007: Local knowledge:  making the most of where you do  business.
September 2007: Beyond socks; new skills for knitting in the round.
***One pattern suits most?  I don’t think so.
***Open knitting, lessons, and help sessions:  pros, cons, and management.
***Managing for a downturn.

***not run

March 2007: Good manners are good business.

Kate, a formidable Pasadena matron, was on her way to a family wedding on Orcas Island, Washington, and persuaded her husband to indulge her in some Seattle yarn shopping.  She chose a well-known, well-thought-of shop.  No one greeted her, or asked if she needed help, so picked up a basket, and assembled what she wanted, about $300 worth. 

Basket in one hand, credit card in the other, she headed for the counter.  No one was there.  Some people who seemed to be staff members were knitting and chatting.  Someone else was shelving yarn.  For fifteen minutes, she seemed to be invisible.  Then she put that basket on the counter, shoved her credit card in her purse, and left.  A few days later, driving south, she spotted a small yarn shop in coastal Oregon, was greeted with enthusiasm and offered some coffee, bought a lot of yarn, and is still shopping with them by phone.

Megan, a college student new to town, had been there about a week when she walked into a handsome, well-known, and very high-end shop.  When she asked a staff member where the Cascade 220 was; the young woman answered in a condescending tone, “We don’t stock a yarn in that price range.  Do you know how to knit?”  Boggled, Megan answered, “Yes, ma’am.  Colorado state 4-H champ, three years running, in high school,” turned on her heel, and walked out.  She’s graduating this year, and has not been back.

I tried a new store in town, beautifully laid out, elegant, but skimpily stocked.  There wasn’t enough of anything there to make the sweater for which I was carrying a pattern.  When I asked if the proprietress--who seemed to think I’d interrupted her day alone in the store--if she took special orders, she said, “No.” Just “No.”   I haven’t been back.

Okay, what’s going on here?  If you’re a hobbyist, maybe the usual.  If you’re in business, however, this just isn’t good.  It is an axiom, in retailing, that a first-time customer who fails to make a purchase on her first visit may never shop with you again.  It is the shop’s job to facilitate her doing that.  Not the most costly stuff.  What she wants and needs.

This is why every customer should be greeted, and asked if she’s been in before or could use some help in finding what she wants.  A pleasant question, such as “What are you thinking of knitting?” or “Do you have the pattern you want, or would you like to see our patterns and books?” can get things rolling.  “Did you make that sweater/hat/scarf/bag? It’s great!” is always a good gambit. 

If the customer wants to browse, offer a basket.  Point out sale items.   Ask her to come get a staff member if she needs help; if it is hard to tell staffers from their customers, staff  should wear name tags.  Staff should be alert who looks ready to be checked out. Remind them, at least weekly, that you’re running a retail enterprise, not a sorority or a knitting circle.

Never hire anyone who does not knit and/or crochet competently.  Not your best friend, not your charming yoga instructor, not your neighbor—not anyone you could never fire.  No one can advise a customer unless she has experience with the craft, can tell her accurately how your yarns work up, can help with a problem, and can tell—more or less at a glance—what is a good pattern, and what is not.  No one lacking some training or an instinct with color can help anyone assemble yarns that will look good together.

Establish and insist on dress and grooming standards for staff.  No excess piercings, no visible tattoos, no scent.  All staffers should wear a knitted or crocheted item of clothing or an accessory—something frequently ignored, but it suggests that you and your staff are competent, confident and enthusiastic, and show off your yarns, patterns, and skills.  No matter how young and hip they may think it is to wear unironed shirts with tails out over their blue jeans, young staff should be told that it is not. 

Every staff member should treat visitors to the shop as she would wish to be treated herself--with hospitality, helpfulness, and care for her needs and desires.  Customers are not people who are interrupting time they’d rather spend doing something else.

If you need more staff hours, you are better off with hiring one good person, giving her a decent number of hours, a workable schedule, and yarns at wholesale, rather than trying to rely on a patchwork of part-timers. 

Your staff works for the shop—for its sales and profitability--not for you as an individual.  They are not personal servants or sycophants; they deserve consideration.  They won’t be happy enough to stick around if all the deliveries come on Friday and you always go away for the weekend, or if they do all the work while you grab all the credit.  Let each develop a specialty in which she can shine—design, display, sample knitting, color, having the patience to teach beginners.   Let customers shine, too, and build customer loyalty, with a bulletin board  of especially well-executed work that they have done.

It  helps to shelve yarns by gauge rather than manufacturer, so that even the least experienced staff member will be able to put incoming yarns where they belong; this, the technique of my favorite-ever yarn shop, enables ready substitution of one yarn for another, and cuts down on the need for special orders.  For major events—the avalanche of fall yarn shipments, a big sale, anything that makes extra and overwhelming demands—make sure that you respond with hearty thank-yous  and a perk or two.

Last, remember that your competition is less the shop across town and the big-box hobby stores on the shopping strips than the savvy internet merchants for yarn, patterns, and supplies, offering frequent discounts, and marketing their own brands.

They never ignore a customer with a credit card, or ask anyone if she knows how to knit.

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April 2007: Buying yarns, and selling them, too.

On a September Friday afternoon, cartons of  yarn were piling up on the loading dock and in the receiving area, far more than would ever fit in the limited area of the store.  The owner of the shop had put out an emergency call to all her part-timers, to help get it all in before nightfall.  Eight people working to pull it in and get it on shelves or storage shelves.  One shelf broke, spilling yarn in all directions, knocking against another that crashed to the floor and dropped its contents, too. 

One shipment, for which the owner had committed to a $5000 minimum, but let the salesperson write the order, was enormous.  There were perhaps three lines in it that were workable, buyable yarns for a knitter; most of the rest were some form of novelty yarn, in every possible texture and variegation, destined to sell at retail prices as high as $92 a hank, in what is not exactly a $92-a-hank neighborhood.

It was a mess.  It was chaos. The owner was leaving for the weekend.  Her staff to struggle with the unmanageable.  She didn’t even order pizza or Chinese takeout for their long evening ahead--just jumped in her car, waved goodbye, and headed out.  Not long afterwards, her most experienced full-timer quit. 

That $92 a hank novelty stuff, which turned out to be all but unknittable, even discounted to $45,  sat in her most prominent display spot, not moving, for months, before being retired for the season.

This is no way to buy yarn.   The yarn companies are open all year; the UPS runs all year.  Don’t order so much yarn that much of it sits in the receiving area as dead stock.  If you’ve paid for it, it should be on display, working to pay you back so you can meet overhead and make a profit.  Backup stock, yes; dead stock, no.

Yarn may be an impulse purchase for your customers; it should be anything but for you.  As a rule, buy bread and butter basics first, and then fill in with more unusual, more costly yarns.  Be prepared to reorder or special order.

You have many choices, from many companies, that will give your customers the best values, but those basics come first, bearing in mind that your very best customers are those who knit a lot, for their families, friends, themselves, and charities.  You need standard-sized yarns adaptable to many patterns,  in good color ranges, as much as possible of it in quantities adequate to making garments, not just accessories.

This would mean one or two lines of knitting worsteds and, in areas with cold weather, bulkies.  DKs.  Fingering and especially sock yarns, now that socks have really taken off.  Laceweights now that lace is coming up.  Mohair for people who like it, though I’m the only person who buys it at my LYS.  Superwash, especially for those who knit for children and for men, and some high-quality acrylics and blends.   Try some soy, corn, and seaweed, cottons and blends, Tencel, and microfiber yarns for customers and seasons for which wool won’t do.  A few good handpaints, for the many knitters who like them, but not a whole wall of them.  Buy some great tweeds, the most ignored category, but often wonderful to work with.  Attend your nearest wool festival—ours is in Estes Park in June—buy from small producers, and see what the committed buyers who make it to the festivals are buying.

The Craft Yarn Council has research that indicates the only 11% of knitters ever spend more than $10 for the equivalent of a 3 ½ or 4 ounce ball of yarn.  Too many yarn stores are chasing that 11% and ignoring the needs of the 89% who pay attention to their yarn budgets. 

But yes, buy some luxury yarns:  some handpaints, angora and angora blends, cashmere and blends, bison, silks, and some alpacas and alpaca blends, which are often surprisingly good buys.  But don’t place them next to the front door, okay?  They might run away.

How do you deal with sales people?  Well, you don’t let them write the order, unless you want to get stuck with yarns you can’t sell, and a lot of excess novelty stock at a time when novelties are fading fast.  Back away from anyone asking for a huge minimum order.  Ask for a sample ball for any yarn that you need to swatch before you order it.  Solicit customer recommendations; I recommended that my LYS look at Cascade’s angora/wool Cloud 9, which I love.

Keep a sale area.  It’s more effective as a constant draw than a seasonal sale, and plays to the “let’s see what’s on sale?” impulse that strikes many knitters.  When yarn comes in, if there is a color you think your customers won’t buy—a color card being one thing, and a bag of pea-green or orange being another--it goes in the sale area at a discount.  If a yarn isn’t working for you, for whatever reason, it goes in the sale area and is replaced on the shelf with something that has a better chance of working for you. 

When you arrange yarns for display, consider arranging them by gauge.  Yes, of course the initial change from a by-manufacturer plan is difficult to accomplish the first time, but then it’s  easier for even inexperienced staff to shelve new yarns, and much easier for customers to find what they want, in the colors they want, and to substitute one yarn for another rather than place a special order.  Near your shelves, display swatches and finished projects made from the appropriate weights of yarn, and bearing tags that tell browsers what they are made from and what the pattern was from.

Display is not decoration, but a potent sales tool.  A great display piece will generate sales.  Keep things rotating; keep them fresh; keep them lively and appealing; decide on coordinate palettes for each season.  It will look great, and sell patterns and yarns.

And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

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May 2007: Do you need the internet?

It’s  2007.  Yes, you do!

People look at my mop of silver hair and say, “You have a website?”  They mean, “…at your age?”  Age is no barrier, if you can clamber up the learning curve.

 If I didn’t have a website, I wouldn’t have a business.  I sell my patterns, direct to the consumer and a few participating stores, by download; there’s no way I could handle printing, shipping, billing, and collections by myself, and it would consume the time I need to knit prototypes, write patterns, and do what I do best. 

And you’d be amazed how many people decide that they must have a cowboy hat pattern in the middle of a Friday night; I was.  I’m not saying that it wasn’t a  lot of work to get it together, or that it’s not a lot of work to keep up, even with the help of my-daughter-the-computer-whiz.

But you need, at the very least, a web presence.  You don’t have to sell over the web—cash register, merchant account, and all.  You don’t have to do anything fancy, like those flashing animations that can induce seizure in the susceptible.  But let’s have your name, an About Us introduction to your business, a good printable map to your location, a phone number that is always answered during business hours, and a listing of the lines you carry, along with a monthly update letter on what’s new, and a newsletter subscription utility.  List your class schedule, and your planned events.  List the days and hours you’re open, right in front.

Do you think you can’t do it?  Find a competent and not-too-expensive pro, but shop carefully, since this is something in which one doesn’t always get what one is paying for; use a simple program on your own office computer; or find a teenager.  But do it (no dark backgrounds with pale type, and no audio, please).  Leave all the bells and whistles until later, if you want, but don’t ignore the medium.  Learn something about optimizing for the search engines such as Google.  Use photographs and plenty of them; they don’t have to be professional, but they should tell your story and look appealing.   Check frequently to make sure everything on the site is working, loading quickly, and the like.

And use the internet for shopping your competitors, seeing who is discounting the same stock as you have and selling it for well below MSRP.  Check the larger blogs, such as Yarn Harlot, Mason-Dixon, and WendyKnits, to see what they’re doing that might generate sales for you, and the forums, such as TKGA and Knitter’s Review, to see what is coming up as a concern or a trend.  Check out the fresh ideas—okay, some good and some terrible—of the Independent Knitwear Designers listed on http://www.ringsurf.com/netring?ring=KnitDesign;action=list
and on Imprint at http://ringsurf.com/netring?action=info&ring=imprint
Check the fashion pages of newspapers such as The New York Times for fashion and color trends. Google in the names of your favorite designers to see their trunk shows, and top retailers to see what they’re buying and quite possibly selling.  Check vendor sites and Yarndex for new product. 

Don’t swallow the novelty-hunting editorial content of the knitting media about what is up and coming, or the rave reviews of their advertisers’ products—books, yarns, light-up-in-the-dark needles.  Not to be cynical, but these are hardly objective media, and their emphases may not suit your locality or your customers. 

Your younger customers, those who have learned to knit in the last three to five years, are a good part of the future of your business.   They use the internet, a lot, for everything.  They are trendier than your older customers.  They no longer want to make endless scarves in novelty yarns, as some of you have found out by taking hard hits in the pocketbook.  You have to make your store better and more appealing than any web business they can find. 

Luckily, you have the built-in advantage of being where most of your customers live, where they can browse, touch, feel, and assess your product directly, and you can probably host a free knitting night that welcomes all comers, at all levels of skill, without making anyone feel like a crasher.  You also have the advantage of living where your customers live, knowing your climate and buying for it, and emphasizing patterns that work well where you are.  

Local knowledge is a huge advantage.  Knowing local taste is a big one, too.  In large cities, even neighborhoods differ and require it.  And customer loyalty is priceless.

But first, they have to find you.  And the internet, with its listings of stores and links to store websites, is where newcomers to your area and newer knitters can do just that.

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June 2007: Beautiful and useful v. neither of the above.

There is something very odd about the approach that the knitting media, and many retailers, take to new yarns, new patterns, new anything.  All reviews are positive; all innovations are seen as terrific; all recyclings are “retro” and none are as ugly and inappropriate as we all know they are; new designers are hailed as geniuses by people who wouldn’t wear their designs; new books are “must-haves.” 

This is well past polite, or even charitable;  it’s mindless and indiscriminate, as though taste, critical intelligence, and a sense of the practical had been checked at the door.  You can see it working in any yarn store:  the whole gushy “isn’t that darling!” thing for lame ideas, badly executed.  The sole antidote to all this has been You Knit What and its successor, You Knit What 2, which regularly skewers the bizarre, the useless, and the downright weird, wherever they may come from.

Let’s just deal with the fact that some stuff is good, and some isn’t, and acknowledge the difference.  There is a bell curve for all products.  A few are truly terrible; a few are outstanding; the rest ranges from mediocre to good.  The knitting community isn’t being served by the pretense that it’s otherwise; that indiscriminate view too much rewards the mediocre or just plain bad, and rewards too little what is truly outstanding.

This same bell curve applies to pattern books and magazines. I have bought a book for a single pattern—though, like everyone else, not recently—when there wasn’t another thing in it that I cared to make.  I am now more apt to purchase a book on techniques, either new and well-reviewed, or a classic in reprint.  If I buy a pattern, these days, I tend to buy a leaflet or a download from a designer whose work I find impossible to resist.  I do not use patterns from one well-known company that’s noted for pattern errors, until enough time has passed for the errata sheets to be available. 

If there’s a Next New Thing in patterns, you can be almost certain that the earliest patterns will be the best, and that the later ones will recycle previous ideas endlessly, or be the ones that were culled out of earlier collections.  It happened with felted bags; it happens with everything.  Imitation is usually a pallid take on real innovation.

Similarly, if there’s a Next New Thing in yarns, it will be overdone with clones in every price range, down to the cheesiest hobby-shop level that kills a whole category. 

I’m bored with:

-- variegated yarns and handpaints that look great on the hank but don’t knit up to look anywhere near as good. 

--most novelty yarns; few that will endure through the current nosedive in that category. 

--the space-dyed sock yarns meant to produce a pattern without the trouble of using jacquard techniques, which I enjoy and respect. 

--super-bulkies, beloved of many of the one-ball books, but difficult to work with, and lagging from their original popularity.


--patterns that use combinations of techniques and/or materials that fight with one another:  The sweater featuring both cabling and jacquard; the cabled sweater in a variegated yarn that makes the cabling invisible; the sweater in 13 colors of yarn with both jacquard and intarsia elements; the beautifully worked lace shawl in a variegated yarn that makes the precision of the stitching impossible to see clearly.

--little shrugs.  Yes, I live in Colorado, where they make no sense:  not needed in warm weather, useless in cold weather. 

--huge sleeves, which are turning up all over the place, but put me in mind of angora in the guacamole, and cashmere in the chutney.  They seem insanely impractical.

--the excesses of the felting craze, though I’ve designed a small number of felted projects.

--ponchos and swanchos, which I didn’t like in the 60s and 70s, on the theory that a tent is a tent is a tent.

I’m not tired at all of the long, hooded cardigans—fitted or easy—that are back in style, and work so well, or of any classic sweaters, or of great socks and hats and scarves.  I like unfancy, masculine sweaters for men, and often for women, too, with their cheerful suggestion of having been filched from a man. 

I love patterns and yarns based on historic models from the long and various history of knitting:  Aran sweaters, ganseys, Norwegian ski sweaters, Icelandics, Fair Isle, Turkish socks, lace shawls, argyle sweaters and socks, heavy crew socks, cabled kilt socks for hikers and cross-country skiers, vests, fisherman knits, great ribbed turtlenecks, Faroese shawls.   I like to try new techniques, but I tend to stick with the tried and true for yarns, and with classic shapes.  I try to use a fresh twist—alternative collars instead of a crew collar, a lettuce-leaf finish on a turtleneck, hems other than ribbing, a lining for a winter hat, jacquard—on classic shapes.

Knitting takes too much time and work for something that will look dated in a year or so; the classics are not necessarily boring, and they are forever. 

And, if you’re going through your pattern library:  Put on deep discount all patterns that have line by line instructions but not charts where needed; books with the wrong ratio of I’d-make-that-in-a-heartbeat to I-wouldn’t-consider-it; dated “fashion,”; anything that requires a class to work; or any pattern that you know to have errors.   Reserve your classes for techniques that may be new to some of your knitters, and for which you have a pleasant and competent teacher available.

Incomprehensible is incomprehensible; dated is dated; bad is bad; mistaken is mistaken.  Luckily, great is great, too, and there’s enough of it to go around, if only you can sort out your pattern area and samples to make it easy to find.  You’re paying for the space the mediocrities is taking up.  Make it work for you like any smart retailer: on a dollars-per-square-foot basis.

There, I said it.  It needed saying.

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July 2007: Think color! Spring/summer merchandising, and color.

Tulips

Avoiding the blahs:

One of the things that makes running a yarn store hard is that knitting, for a lot of people, is seasonal. 

When winter gives way to spring and the promise of summer, when outdoor pursuits beckon, when wooly socks give way to flip-flops or garden clogs, when the winter clothes are stored away, more than half of your customers will put their knitting away until late August—the season of back to school and Christmas knitting.

All of a sudden, you have more staff than you need, and your receipts plummet (and here’s hoping that you keep chart your daily, weekly, and seasonal receipts on the computer, so you know what the differences really are, month to month and year to year, for your store).

Now is the time to make the store itself more appealing, inspiring for a new season, and with a list and events list that will bring in customers. 

De-cluttering and freshening up for spring appeal:

Stand back, and take a long, hard look at it. Is it cluttered?  Have the display pieces been up for weeks, even months, and do they seem out of season?  Have they lost their punch?  Probably, so declutter. Take those winter displays down.  You’re aiming at creating new, effective, uncluttered display.

While you are getting samples made, you need to coordinate their colors to be appealing, to avoid the college dorm look of too many samples and too much visual clutter.

Set your staff to making samples of the most attractive spring and summer patterns you can find—cotton tops, vests, gossamer shawls—that will go near the yarns that support them.  Spruce up the section that has yarns for babies and children, with fresh, wonderful, washable ideas for baby and children’s things and beach coverups. 

Schedule a lace class for summer shawls, a mothers-in-waiting class for expectant mothers and grandmothers, a free technique workshop on knitting with other than wool.

Now is also the time to cull your inventory of patterns and books, to clear space for the flood of new ones, and to organize what you’re keeping.  Keep your classics; put newer books that aren’t selling well on sale, and pull a few treasures forward to help them catch on.  One good merchant I know put her excess books and patterns on sale at 25% off and offered a 10% discount on the yarn to complete the buyer’s chosen pattern if purchased with the book or pattern.  She brought in some good traffic, cleared out a lot of dead stock, created useable space, and made some money.

Color:

Apple blossomsCheck your yarn supplies.  The colors of pastel yarns appropriate for children don’t suit adults, who need soft but deeper tones, more complex ones:  not baby blue or powder blue, for instance, but perhaps lilac or periwinkle; not baby-girl pale pink, but a more interesting (and flattering) deeper one; and lots of neutrals in natural tones of linen, cotton, and hemp.

There may be, as some colorists assert, no bad colors, only bad combinations.  Think combinations of colors, as in the porch at left—greens, a bit of yellow and blue for accent, lilacs in a vase, natural rattan.  Looking cool in the hottest weather, these are great go-togethers.

Understand that some spring/summer colors are hard to handle in garments for adult women.  They include the citrus colors:  the yellows, yellow-greens, and oranges.  Accent colors can make these wearable, or they can accent more wearable colors.

Summer porch

The warmer buttery shades of yellow; the bluer greens and the blue-to-purple ranges are better.  So are the cantaloupes/peaches/apricots an improvement on the oranges, and far more flattering. And don’t forget men; the dark blues, greens, reds, and many neutral greys and browns that appeal to them.  Show a good range of colors, and of textures within the color families.  Silk is especially great in summer, with its glow, and with the need for smaller amounts of a costly fiber.  A summer top takes half the yarn of a winter sweater, after all.

For your wool-knitting die-hards!

Now, look at your wools, and think about the kind of small project that isn’t just too much wool and too much weight for summer knitting.  Hats, socks, scarves, and mittens  and wristwarmers can be knit in summer and tucked away for Christmas giving.  Ready some fresh and appealing examples, some of them in luxury yarns, that will be attractive now to many of your customers.  Now is the time to organize yarns and samples, and find the most appealing patterns you can find for these.  A Christmas in July event or sale can be a great deal of fun for everyone.

How well are you using your space?

Now is the time, since you’re less busy, to think about arrangement and fixturing for the store, and general de-cluttering.  Are you using the height of the store as well as just the square footage, or have you jury-rigged displays with stacked crates or old clothes presses that fail to utilize the volume available to you?  New shelving might be in order to increase your visible stock while de-cluttering your store.  You don’t need a cabinet maker to get a custom look; you can assemble appropriate pieces from off-the-shelf components, or find a closet company that can do a great job at a smaller price.

Special events, and internet sprucing up:

This is also a good time of the year to book and promote special classes with out-of-town designers and experts on various techniques; call the publishers of some of your best-sellers, or books that you expect to be best-sellers, and book these guests into a nearby hotel or the best bed and breakfast in town, and be a gracious hostess.   Not all the people you want will be available, but you might be surprised who is. 

Is it time to begin a monthly store newsletter and to accumulate your own promotional data base, something to discuss with your webmaster after you’ve found formats you feel will suit your style, your planned events, and your trade.  Take plenty of photographs of your new yarns and samples; use publicity photos of those who will be your special guests; and make yourself irresistible, even in hot weather.

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August  2007: Local Knowledge; making the most of where you do business.

Like it or not, there is a sort of superimposed culture of knitting.  It comes down from the presumed top, from the yarn manufacturers and distributors, their relationship with the knitting magazine and book publishers, and now with the internet merchants, publishers, and bloggers.

This is a culture that, in trying to generate sales to knitters, puts considerable pressures on the proprietors of stand-alone retail shops all over the country.  Increasingly, it is difficult for shop owners to remember that if their business is largely local, that their knowledge of their local markets and local customer base is key to their success. 

In consequence, proprietors need to strike a reasonable balance—with their stock, with their samples, and with their selection of patterns--between the national culture and their local one, in order to succeed without launching themselves into internet sales, in a highly competitive market that has become increasingly costly to enter.

Increasingly, though, it isn’t happening.  If one shop is stocking hand-paints, everyone is stocking hand-paints.  If one is stocking lots of laceweight, everyone is stocking lots of laceweight.  If one is stocking exotics, at high prices, everyone wants to.  Yarn stores seem more and more the same, wherever you go. 

But the success of a store, as a business, isn’t measured in the prices of yarns on display, or the level of current fashionability of its patterns, but on sales and profits. 

For those, it relies on repeat customers who succeed with their projects.  And they tend to disappear if they can’t find what they want at prices they can afford.

That said, I’m asking each and every one of you to establish part of your identity, as a shop, based on where you are.

After all, very few of the all-year residents of Montana or Wyoming want or need laceweight cashmere shawls worked to gossamer perfection, and so far no all-year residents of Florida have the slightest interest in my Socks 201 pattern for knee-high socks in worsted, suitable for hiking, camping, fishing, spring gardening in the Rockies, or blue-water sailing or walking cross-town through the slushy aftermath of a Manhattan snowstorm.

In thinking about this, you need to think about your customers and prospective customers.   What do they knit?  Who do they knit for?  How are their skills?  Do you have a good teaching group to help them improve? 

What is the average per capita income in your community or neighborhood?  Are you in an area hard hit by changes in the economy?  If so, skip more than a small amount of the more costly yarns.  Or is your an area that is booming?  If so, lay on a stock of hand-paints, exotics, or whatever you think will work, recalling that Fort Collins, Colorado, is not a suburb of New York.

What’s the weather like in winter?  What are the popular local recreations?  If you’re in Phoenix, golf may top the list; if in Austin, dining out and hitting the clubs; if in the Rockies, winter sports and summer hiking and river-running.

Is social life in your town fashionably dressy, or more casual?  Are people there more likely to read Vogue and Town & Country, or Field & Stream and Outdoor Life?

Do you have lots of younger customers—college and grad students, young professionals, young mothers?  Or older ones who knit for themselves, children, and grandchildren? 

Do you have a community in which there are identifiable ethnic groups with knitting traditions common to their home countries or countries of descent?  If you’re in Boston, do you have great Aran yarns and patterns for knitters of Irish descent?  If in Pittsburgh, yarns and patterns for wonderful Estonian and Latvian sweaters and mittens?  If in Brooklyn or Los Angeles, some yarns and patterns for the Russian community, including specialty yarns for Orenbureg shawls?  If in Toronto, gansey books and yarns, laceweight for Scottish wedding shawls?  If in the Rockies, Northern New England, or the Cascades, a great selection of winter sports sweaters and accessories?  In Minnesota, Norwegian patterns?

Now, do your selection of patterns, samples on display, and yarns reflect your local weather, your local economy, who your customers are, what they do, who they knit for, and what specialties you have that are otherwise difficult to find?  If not, it’s time for a change—for sorting patterns, considering yarns some yarns you should stock (and some you can pass on), and getting samples up with their patterns, near the appropriate yarns.

If you have some local designers, stock their patterns, and ask them to give an occasional special class.  What prestige they have will rub off, and many of your customers will enjoy meeting them.  If you have local spinners and dyers, feature their unique merchandise.  They will reciprocate with recommendations.

You want your store, whether you’re the only one in town, or have competition, to be a preferred destination for the best knitters in town.  You want word of mouth—the cheapest form of advertising, and the only one that is priceless—from those knitters, who are often surprisingly influential.  You aren’t forming a sorority; you’re forming a customer base that will keep your store flourishing as a destination, despite the many ups and downs of the business, season to season and year to year.

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September 2007: Beyond socks; now that your customers have mastered knitting in the round on socks, move them to the next step.

I’m glad that socks are back.

I was sorry when Richard Rutt, the pioneer historian of knitting, wrote in his fascinating A History of Hand Knitting, in 1987, that socks had disappeared from the knitter’s repertoire and declared the making of hand-knitted stockings at an end. 

Bishop Rutt was right at the time.  Few patterns were available.  Few yarns were made in the weights needed, and even the needles fine enough to make stockings were in short supply.  Indeed, not that long afterwards, Interweave set the Knits staff to trying to knit socks, and embarrassingly few succeeded—something you can’t imagine happening now!.  The flood of cheap imported machine-made stockings had killed the market, in the years of the great slump in knitting.

And then, two or three years ago, socks and stockings came roaring back, as new knitters and some experienced ones got bored with a excess of scarves in what I think of as “camouflage yarns,” stretched their skills, and mastered this old-but-new-again form.  They tried space-died yarns; they tried variegated yarns; they tried historic sock patterns from the late 19th and early 20th centuries; they did them toe up, cuff down, on double-points, on two circulars, every possible way, including a few we could have skipped.

The revival has been positive, and a great deal of fun.  And it has led to a rediscovery of socks, perfectly fitted and perfectly comfortable.  It generated a corresponding boom in sock yarns.  And because many yarn-store owners were a little slow to pick up on sock knitting, a substantial proportion of the sock-yarn business has gone to specialty shops and internet retailers, and left lots of local yarn shops bringing up the rear.

Right now, socks are about where scarves were several years ago:  the thing of the moment.   The supply of yarns, books, needles, and the rest seems endless.  This has been positive, in most ways, especially because so many more people have tried and succeeded at the most basic garment in the repertoire, and nearly the only one that is invariably knit in the round—a method that went out of style in Victorian times, and has only lately wobbled to its stocking-clad feet.

But, since it’s been going strong for a couple of years, the problem with continuing to knit socks is…too many socks and not enough people to wear more, unless your customers are knitting for Dulaan or Afghans for Afghans, have very large families, or know a lot of people with more than two feet.

And sock knitting has escalated into another exercise in you-are-what-you-buy, with costly yarns, costlier “sock clubs” that are a great merchandising opportunity but hardly make one a member of an exclusive club, and even costlier “sock camps.”  Not to mention a plethora of sock books where one will keep you busy for months, Summer of Socks, some silliness about knitting up stashes (in which new sock yarns don’t qualify as purchases!), and much follow-the-leader behavior.  And endless blogging about…socks.

How many socks can you make in a Summer of Socks? 

Does anyone care?  As long as you have enough, but not too many, for you and your chosen family, friends, and charities.

I make socks for myself and for friends, to suit the cold, snowy winters where I live.  I consider them, as knitters have for generations, as utility garments, so I make a few replacements every year.  My favorite is a cuff-down fitted knee sock with a Dutch slip-stitch heel and a round toe, and an elegant cable up the back as a false seam, but I also like jacquard socks that aren’t horizontally striped, and have a vertical or diagonal two color pattern.

I’m not picky about yarn, and usually use a wool DK or worsted.  I make them to a formula based on calf and ankle measurement, and length of foot.  My preference for cuff-down is a practical one; I’d rather unravel and replace from the toe, if repairs are needed.   It pleases me that my own socks have passed the test of comfort and durability on hikes in the Rockies,  and customer’s socks have done the same in many places.

But I don’t understand making socks after socks, at upwards of $22 a hank for yarn enough to make a shortish pair.  I don’t understand sock clubs or camps.  I like to make other things:  hats, mittens, gloves, and sweaters, all of which can also be made in the round.  Yes, socks are great commuter knitting, but so is any small object that is readily portable:  hats, baby sweaters, mittens, and anything done in squares.

So if your customers are running out of sock candidates, it may be time for you to persuade your sock knitters to try more of the repertoire of knitting in the round.   Scheduling classes and filling out your pattern s to have appealing small projects such mittens or gloves, hats and caps, if the appeal is portable knitting.  But it’s sweaters in the round that are the real classics.

After all, once your customers have mastered knitting anything in the round—and, in previous generations, socks were where one started knitting--they are halfway to beginning with jacquard, which is easy in the round and much harder worked back and forth.  Jacquard, as a term, takes in Norwegian and Icelandic work, Bohus (now available as kits), Latvian and Estonian mittens, a good deal of Andean work, and true Scottish Fair Isle garments in fine wools with glorious color schemes.  The color-change work doesn’t have to cover the whole garment; it can be hem and sleeve bands, or sleeve and yoke bands.

The best volumes I know on the knitting-in-the-round techniques are Patricia Gibson-Roberts’s and Deborah Ransom’s Knitting in the Old Way, which, paired with Mary Beth Brown-Reinsel’s Knitting Ganseys, gives you a complete picture and comprehensible directions—not to mention an excess of inspiration—for working fine sweaters, and/or other patterned work.  And there are a heartening number of new works on ethnic patterns from all cultures.

You can Google in “Norwegian, Latvian, Estonian mittens” and come up with a wealth of motifs.  You can work from the patterns of established authors and yarn companies, or liberate your customers by showing them how to sit down with a pad of graph paper and a pencil, and work out their own, with quiet thanks to Elizabeth Zimmermann.

A good dictionary of motifs helps enormously.  But you may want to start your customers, with jacquard, on at least one more pair of socks.  Nearly all motifs in ethic styles bean with working them out on socks.  Socks were and are reasonably quick to make; they gave one a good idea of the potential of a pattern or series of motifs; and they’re still a great sample to work from.

And, unlike our foremothers, you and your students have a wonderful selection of needles to work with—fine wooden double-points, wonderfully flexible circulars.  So much easier than 5 to 8 skinny steel knitting pins, and a sheath or belt!

And knitting is moving back from word-by-word, stitch-by-stitch instructions to the ease of charts, a workshop on which would appeal to many knitters.  I love charts, which were part and parcel of knitting in the old way before it became a gentrified pastime for literate women of the middle and upper classes, instead of a way to keep fishermen and farmers warm at their work, children protected from the weather, and a few shillings or kroner coming in to buy what was necessary to keep a family going.  I like fashion knitting, but I love the classics, which, with a new twist, always keep their style, and never look dated. 

Here are three easy jacquard patterns, in two colors, suitable for socks or other garments, and not difficult, although the plaid benefits from finer yarn than the checks.  The red outlines mark one full repeat on each.    From top to bottom, they are:  a Highland Plaid, Houndstooth Check, and Shepherd’s Check.

Highland Plaid

Highland plaid

Houndstooth Check

Houndstooth check

Shepherd's check

Shepherd's check/Rob Roy

 

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Bonus Column: One pattern fits  all?  I don’t think so!

As North Americans gain weight—and many of us do, in higher percentages than in past decades—the knitting magazines have, one by one, taken up the cause of being “inclusive” of heavier people, less by publishing patterns that are designed specifically to become the larger woman, than by making patterns designed for slighter figures available in wider size ranges, often from XS (30-32 inch bust) to roughly 2X (roughly a 50-52 inch bust).

The stated intent may be inclusiveness, sometimes stridently advocated, but who are we kidding? 

And the patronizing air around some of the terminology is disturbing.  Calling larger women “big girls” is only one of the locutions I find simultaneously offensive and defensive; there’s something about it that seems to infantilize, and thus to desexualize, larger women.  Small or large, we aren’t “girls.”    And we are all “real women” whether we are a 32 or a 52; to suggest otherwise is insulting.  We’re all women here, in different shapes and sizes, and we all want to look our best.   No surprise there.  Why pretend otherwise?

Attack of the killer sweaterHard fact:  Very few patterns will suit or become everyone from an extra small size to a 2X.  If we were really ready to accept larger women, there would be a lot more patterns designed specifically to become them.  But only a trickle of such patterns have been published.

The patterns being made available over an excessive size range indicate an absence of design sense, very little common sense, no sense of proportion, and perhaps editorial desperation or the indulgence of a somewhat cynical marketing ploy.  

Larger women will find many of these styles unbecoming, especially the fitted ones and the ones in thick yarns.  I’m not sure I’d like the sweater shown at left—it’s from my favorite of the knitting magazines, Interweave Knits--in these colors, for anyone, but to cram a larger model into this bad fit?  The magazine says the sweater has a 30 inch circumference bust circumference, much too small for this model.  Even if it fit her, it’s heavy with details of silhouette, color, fit, and emphasis that just don’t suit her.  No straight-sided sweater, which this is, should be tight in bust, waist, and hips.  How did that happen?  And what are those pink  shell things that seem to be clawing at her backside?  Awful, and on a pretty woman, too!

Here, from the same issue, on the same model, are the front view of this sweater, and a front view of a far more flattering one in a 40 inch size.  The vertical cabling, the slightly fitted waist (one could omit this for an apple-shaped wearer), and the attractive V-neck and collar all put the emphasis where they belong, and are far more flattering.

Front view Cabled.

A larger woman needs a pattern that doesn’t magnify every possible pound, and that puts emphasis where it belongs:  on a longish and minimally shaped vertical silhouette, minimal fitting in the body, and unfussy but emphatic detail at the shoulders and neckline to emphasize  a pretty face and neck, shapely shoulders, a vaa-vaa-voom décolletage, and a really great haircut that shows off all those things.    A well-fitting sweater never looks tight anywhere.

For the larger woman, a suitable pattern banishes horizontal emphasis.  It doesn’t have stripes or the Fair Isle equivalent.  Its hem does not end at the widest part of the hips, but falls below it.  It won’t be  a shapeless, T-shaped tent, with the top of the sleeve midway between elbow and shoulder, and immensely wide sleeves.  It can be, and often is, an A-line sweater with a focal neckline treatment; an A-line is perfect if your hips are (as they are for most of us) larger than your bust.  And that hem will not be ribbed, but a simple or split hem, with nothing to bind or ride up.

The standard T-shaped sweater will often fit neither the bust nor the hip measurement on anyone; it’s fundamentally a box, the  straight sides of which will make it too roomy on top, very large at the waist, and too tight around the hips.  The average difference between hip measurement and bust measurement, according the Craft Yarn Council, is 2 inches or more in the sizes from XS to XL, and greater than that in women’s sizes 1X and up.  That difference can be crucial to fit.  You may need to cast on more stitches than called for at the bottom, and decrease slightly as you work toward the bust, then short-row to suit your cup size.  A smaller armhole and a narrowed sleeve may give you an elongated, more slender line.

To publish unsuitable patterns as though they would work for everyone seems to me to be  irresponsible, not to mention mean-spirited , especially if they are published, as is usual, without instructions for short-row shaping of the bust, lengthening a too-short hemline or altering one that will bind, adjusting sleeve lengths and widths,  and giving alternates for necklines and collars and for sleeve lengths.  A V-shaped neckline, a tuxedo or shawl collar, a well proportioned placket closing with or without a face-framing collar, a wide and perhaps a low square or scooped neckline all become the larger woman.  Contrast trim can be exceedingly attractive, and can break up the volume of a large one-color sweater.  Pockets, instead of being square, can slant.

Pale colors magnify, and darker ones diminish, but “dark” need not be dull, or lacking in richness of texture and color.

Especially unsuitable are patterns that try to delude the reader to into believing that  larger women look better in larger yarns, heavy cable work, or self-striping yarns that emphasize width, not length.

Measure carefully, alter a pattern that is going to be basically flattering, understand how to deal with your own proportions, take plenty of notes on the face of your pattern, and swatch.  You may be very pleased with what you can work out for yourself from one of the software programs such as Sweater Wizard, which can be adjusted to suit your own measurements.  For such patterns, find a good selection of unfussy stitch patterns with vertical lines from any good stitch dictionary.

When it comes to trim and embellishments, avoid both the tiny/fussy/cute ones, and the overlarge and overblown, such as the currently fashionable multiple flowers surrounding an entire neckline.  You’ll tire of them early in the sweater’s life.  Buttons are different; for one thing they’re easy to change.  For another, high-quality bold buttons are a good focal point and proportion beautifully on a larger frame.

The point of knitting is to get what you want and need, and what will work for you, after all. That means custom fit, and something as close as possible to custom design for your figure.  The object is not to look like someone else, but to make something become to you.

Current books:  Wherever you make your book purchases, it is worthwhile to check the consumer reviews on Amazon.com before you buy.

Big Girl Knits : 25 Big, Bold Projects Shaped for Real Women with Real Curves (Hardcover)
by Jillian Moreno and Amy R Singer
You may or may not care for the patterns, but the instructions for helping you to alter a pattern to your size are peerless, as is the guidance on flattering your figure type—hourglass, apple, or pear.  Currently the leading book in this segment of the market. 
$30

Classic Knits for Real Women: Versatile Knitwear Designs For Plus Sizes (Paperback)
by Martin Storey and Sharon Brant, Peter Williams (Photographer)
$30

Family Circle Easy Plus-Size Knits: 50 Knit and Crochet Styles (Family Circle) (Paperback)
by Trisha Malcolm (Editor)
$17.95

Style at Large: Knitting Designs for Real Women (Paperback)
by Carol R. Noble

Note: http://www.knitty.com , edited by Amy Singer, is sometimes less than selective when it runs extensive size ranges, but features excellent articles and instructions applicable to alterations for larger sizes, and at least a handful of purposefully designed patterns for larger women.

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Bonus Column: Open knitting, lessons, and help sessions; the pros, the cons, and management.

So many yarn shops are now offering both lessons and open knitting that the problems inherent in staff training and stock maintenance are multiplied beyond what they once were.  And there are few things that present more pitfalls in something that can be so effective in building customer loyalty, but just as effective in driving people off.

About lessons:  At the most basic level, what you need for good lessons is an interested group of at least three, and a skilled teacher whom you know well, and who doesn’t feel it’s beneath her to teach good basics  as well as advanced techniques.  But more and more shops--perhaps lacking the skills for technique courses--have resorted to teaching courses on specific patterns. 

I think this is a bad idea.  If a pattern is not written clearly enough for a reasonably skilled  knitter to follow, it warrants discard from inventory, not a course in how to figure it out.  If a given pattern represents only the taste of the owner or a member of the staff, and suddenly everyone is working the same accessory, it defeats the purpose of  knitting, which  should be highly diverse and notably individual.

Such courses also deprive your customers of the pleasures of cameraderie--learning from one another, which is more than possible when you give a technique course, in which students are allowed to choose their own reasonably sized projects within a given category, such as lace, socks, jacquard, or sweaters (that fit), and is led by a skilled teacher, and not of those my-way-or-the-highway knitting policewomen.

Scheduling classes is difficult, but resist the temptation to list many classes on a throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks theory, keeping a few and cancelling the rest, to the disappointment of those who’ve signed up.   And when a given teacher has had her classes cancelled repeatedly for lack of interest--which  often results from lack of appropriate promotion--she isn't going to be eager to go through the same experience again.  Schedule classes that you know there's interest enough to fill, or that customers have asked for, and hold the interest of your student customers and the enthusiasm of your teachers.  Post sign-ups on the wall, not behind the counter.

Open knitting assistance schedules can be a good idea, if you have someone bookable or on staff who is qualified to answer most questions and demonstrate the wide range of techniques that may come up.  Institute them only for customers who have purchased their materials from you.  That way you can make these sessions free with purchase.

Do not, however, conflate assistance time with open knitting sessions.  I recall one shop owner who did.  She’d pull out a chair for a new knitter next to someone with strong skills, introduce them, saying cheerily that the skilled knitter was would help the novice. A few of us, hoping to enjoy an evening out of the house, with an undemanding project, and  a like-minded group, got to feeling like the unpaid help, our own knitting set aside, struggling to be helpful, but having our evening out spoiled.

No matter what you do, restrict open knitting sessions to specific times.  Here’s where open knitting gets trappy, for you, your store, and your staff.  If you have all-day, every-day open knitting--and some shops do this, either  by design or simply because once it's started spontaneously, it's hard to stop—it will occupy your space and time, distract your staff (of course they'd rather knit with the regulars than shelve yarn or wait on customers) and earn you the unhappy reputation of a clubby, cliquish store that shuns newcomers.  I think providing a half dozen comfy easy chairs is going too far;  fairly compact chairs around a table are much better.

Of course, a customer should feel able to sit down with her new yarn and begin swatching.  But I have seen knitters, singly and in groups--perhaps lonely, perhaps unhappy--spend three or four days a week, for several hours, dominating the table where classes were scheduled, chatting with staff, disrupting an environment in which work needed doing, and sometimes making other knitters deeply uncomfortable.

Opening knitting times need to be under your control.  Set the parameters, which is much easier to do them from the beginning, rather than to trying later to correct something that has gone wrong.  Specify times, and say, if regretfully, that these will be the only open knitting times.  Make rules about food; a table crowded with knitters and yarn, and used for dining, can be disastrous.  Specify adults only if you wish. 

If you want one of your more skilled knitters to help a less skilled one, ask for her help; don't impose.  If you want to specify one group, or one session a month for all groups, for charity knitting, you can surely do that.  Don’t dictate the project in more than general terms:  hats for the local homeless shelter, Afghans for Afghans, Red Scarf project, whatever.  This is a creative craft, and dictating details make it a chore, not a pleasure.  A yarn shop owner who believes she has a calling to impose her own personality, taste, and as one put it to me, “vision,” is halfway to alienating a lot of prospective customers.

Try to be at the table for at least half the session.   Get to know some of your best customers, but also ask a couple of the regulars to help guide the conversation away from the topics that have driven people away:  the medical/marital/personal complaints that have led to calling these "stitch and bitch" groups, and topics of dispute:  politics, religion, and race.  Keep the lighthearted; pleasant; and appealing to all comers.

Do you have a problem customer?  Take her aside quietly and, if she is spending too much time at the store, tell her she’s welcome to shop, attend open knitting or knitting assistance, but not to make it her home away from home. Diplomacy is called for. But it is your store, your staff, your space, your reputation, and your income.

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Bonus Column: Managing for a downturn: Strategies for surviving and thriving.

While you’re a yarn-shop owner, and unlikely to be a trained economist, the signs of a more-than-seasonal dip should clarify themselves if you keep up with the news, including stock market and economic news.  What applies to the larger economy applies, as well, to the yarn and knitting business. 

  1. If sales for the large retail companies are down, and their stock prices are have followed, it is likely that downturn in retail sales will affect you, too.  This year, April sales dropped off, affected by a combination of unseasonable weather in many places; a record level of consumer debt; and tightening of the mortgage markets, as subprime mortgages and record foreclosures pressured the housing market.
  1. If the price of fuel rises, individuals and families will have less disposable income to spend at other retail; a rising price for fuel also raises prices for food and for any product that is shipped.  This phenomenon showed the national figures for May.
  1. If employers in your area have laid off personnel or closed facilities because of declining revenues or profits, there will be less income, and less disposable income, generated locally.   If your area has been hard hit by foreclosures, these negatives will trickle down, cutting into funds available for optional items, such as yarn purchases.  Knitters will continue to knit, but they will purchase lower-priced yarns rather than they might have a year or two ago, and they may make more basic garments and fewer luxury ones, and fewer accessories, though possibly more gift items.

Accordingly, you may need to adjust your yarn purchases, emphasizing basic yarns of good quality, seeking the best value regardless of brand, and cutting back on your stock of high-end yarns and reducing your purchases of the most expensive accessories.  Avoid excessively high minimum purchase requirements, or negotiate them.

You also need to provide good reasons to buy from you for both existing and prospective customers: an unusual and very strong series of classes and events; a sale to move out items that are not selling for you; or a discount deal for good customers, such as keeping a record of purchases that will give them a discount of 15% on a purchase for every $200 in previous purchases.   You simply need to be a savvier seller.
Don’t put all your yarns on sale at once.  Try to hold your price point on bread-and-butter  basic yarns.  My LYS is currently selling all yarns at 30% off, not just slower sellers or more costly yarns.  I happen to think this is a mistake, but I took advantage of it.

Could your staff use a brush-up on the basics of customer service? 

Can you have an outdoor event featuring spring/summer yarns and garments; a contest; a charity appeal such as Afghans for Afghans or Dulaan or hats for the homeless? 

Can you arrange a trunk show from one of your major suppliers? 

Can you have a visiting author or two come to your store, and give a talk or a workshop? 

Can you mount a show of customer work?

If there’s a nearby yarn festival, can you organize bus transportation to it, and charge only enough to cover the costs?  There’s nothing like a gang of knitters to form new friendships, cement old loyalties,  have some fun—and thank you for it.

Take a look at your website.  Could it be a more effective sales tool?  Does it have a tell-a-friend button, to make it easier to let customers tell their friends about your shop?  Are you assembling a customer e-mail data base for a monthly e-newsletter, so you can avoid costly printing and mailing charges?  Does your newsletter contain information and instructions, and a free pattern each month, and not just sales pitches?  For the free pattern, can you offer a selection of appropriate yarns in stock?

Do you have the technical capacity to sell at least some of your specialties—items that are not commonly stocked in many local shops--on the internet?  Do you stock terrific buttons, or a good selection of beads for knitting, or yarns from local farms?  Do you make or stock really good kits—not just patterns with yarn to complete that a customer can buy from other sources, but items unique to your shop? Do you offer gift items  for knitters in several price ranges?  How about a truly good learn-to-knit kit, packaged in a knitting bag with your logo?  Do you have finished samples that you can sell on your website, or on E-Bay or Etsy?

Can you reach out to local groups that aren’t yet doing business with your shop? Church groups, senior centers, a wives’ club on a nearby military base, students at a local college or school, local artists who might wish to try the fabric arts, a defined ethnic group that would come in if you’d stock specialties from their homeland? 

Many people buy yarns from Big Box stores or hobby shops because they don’t realize that moderate priced yarns are not as expensive as they may think.  Others buy in these stores because the local yarn shops are high-end, don’t stock a good range of mid-price yarns, and because the big stores are stocking better quality yarns than they did a couple of years ago:  Paton’s Merino at about $6 a ball (down to $4 on sale) is a good yarn and an indubitable good buy.

Others have turned to E-Bay shops or Etsy, and to the internet yarn merchants.  But you offer the chance to see, touch, and assess your yarns, as the internet merchants do not.  Don’t forget your advantages in catering to the local market, in pattern selection, in appropriate yarns, and in customer service.

If things are tight, see where you can cut back.  Don’t curtail maintenance; keep the shop neat, clean, and orderly.  If you have a garden, keep it mowed and blooming.  If you have a shady outdoor spot, schedule open knitting there in good weather, set up lawn chairs, and enjoy the weather.

But if you’ve always had fresh flowers delivered by a florist twice a week for the counter near the register or the front hall, you can skip that.  If you’ve always furnished all refreshments for open knitting, furnish coffee, tea, iced tea, or lemonade, but ask participants to sign up for a rotation to bring refreshments, especially their own specialties.  Once a month isn’t an imposition, and there’s no rule that knitters can’t be great cooks, or wouldn’t enjoy showing their skills to a vibrant community.

Odd point:  If your personal passion is weaving, and you have many square feet devoted to looms, warping boards, and yarns for weaving that are not selling well for you, put these things in storage or on sale, and use the space for something that will give you a stronger return.  Same thing if your personal passion is spinning, and you’ve devoted a great deal of space of wheels, carders, roving, and the like. 

When every square foot of sales space counts, go with what sells for you, and to the customers you’ve got.  It’s wonderful to share an enthusiasm and a skill, but if they aren’t as popular with your trade as you’d like them to be, they are taking space that might be made more productive for you.  The same can be true of spinning, needlepoint, cross stitch, and embroidery, which do well for some shops but not for others.  Racks of painted canvases can consume a great deal of space and capital. The principle is that if something isn’t working for you, reduce the space devoted to it, or retire it entirely.

Right now, yarn companies are reporting a larger number of yarn shop closings than they’ve seen in some time, mostly of  stores in business for fewer than five years—stores that opened as a boom in knitting was at its peak.  Where I live, the newest one of our three has recently closed, and the hobby shop chains are stocking yarns that provide stronger competition for the two remaining shops. And competition from online merchants is taking a larger share of knitters’ dollars.  Do everything you can to stay competitive, and to become the place in town for yarns.

If you need help in managing for changing times, consider seeking the skilled, knowledgeable, and objective management advice of the  Service Corps of Retired Executives.  Their volunteers include professionals with expertise in retail, supply chain management, display, branding, advertising and marketing, information technology applications, public relations, personnel and training, and much else.The people I know who’ve worked with them have found them to be incredibly helpful.  Spend some time on their website, to see the wealth of resources they offer:  http://www.score.org/

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