Monday, February 25

What a difference a week makes!

Wow, what a difference a week really does make!  Last week I was a tad miffed at the lack of co-operation we were on the receiving end and this week it's like dealing with a different company - in a really good way :)

It would appear that me raising quite valid grumps was listened to, and actions are already becoming quite visible on site.  Hurrah!! So, now we are back to a bouncy happy Hippo which is probably a relief to some.  And then the most awesome people turned up with some new work for the shop so it was a double whammy of a good week.

This is a piece by Andy O'Boyle who creates the most fabulous pieces out of cast bronze, and according to his daughter Daddy is amazing (which he is) and that he uses earwax to create his work.  Not entirely sure that bit is true, but the end results are simply stunning and the tactility is such a lovely thing to have in the shop.  What was lovely about meeting Andy was that his daughter is right, Daddy is amazing, and because he was very much in agreement with us that art should be accessible.  He was uncomfortable with folk not being able to touch his work, after all if you see something of this scale your first reaction is always going to be to touch it so he seemed quite relieved that you cannot find a 'do not touch' sign anywhere in our shop.  Art should be accessible, it's not always something that should be locked away and merely admired by those in white gloves nodding and muttering 'yes I can see what he is trying to express here'.  Andy creates fun in these bronzes, there is a subtle whimsy coming out of the fact that he is extremely good at what he does and therefore is comfortable in his own work.  Next time you visit, come give the ducklings a pat on the head!

And then Katherine arrived!  We've known Katherine for just over a year now, from doing a craft fair many moons ago where I had always admired her skill in both design and the quality of her products.  And we're not the only ones to notice, since we last met she's racked up several major clients so we were extremely touched that she was happy leaving her work with us.  Katherine uses her own designs to create the most gorgeous silk scarves, ties, glasses cases and basically anything else she can think of  - and each with amazing levels of detail and quality of finish.  Again, she was of the opinion that her work needs to be touched and felt so again she was relieved not to see 'do not touch' signs around the shop.  Her attitude is very much one of it's silk, you need to be able to see it and touch it to appreciate it so please don't just fold them up in a cabinet.  And already, in true Hippo style we've put her in touch with people that might like their own designs on some of her work.  Almost forgot, she also runs courses and has offered to run some for us later in the year.  With her skills and attitude I can see folk walking away with some amazing designs they didn't realise they were capable of.

So, a week really does make a big difference to a tired and slightly frazzled brain! We started the week feeling ignored and on the hunt for new sellers and ended the week on an even fuller shop of amazing work and inclusion on site posters.  And the best bit is, it's only February so what else can we achieve in 2013?  Apologies as there are loads more new sellers that I will be showcasing over the coming weeks, so please don't feel left out if I can't get to your favourite for a while! Hippo xx

Monday, February 18

You distract them while I draw a Hippo!

We seem to have reached a plateau, normally when people say this it is seen as a negative in that you are no longer moving forward or learning something.  But in this case I see it as a positive.  We seem to have figured out our client base and are now attracting some amazing new crafters to the shop and to our events and so many are returning customers which is even more proof that what we do, we do well.  The icing on the cake is when our regulars pop in with friends and you hear them say 'this is what I wanted to show you, isn't it gorgeous?'.  Then we really know we're doing something right.

But .... we have learnt that no-one will do the work for you, and to be honest never expected it. We are an independent trader, and as such must stand or fall on our own merits and hard work, but we did expect a little better communication and promotion within the site we're on.  This may seem slightly trite but to give you an example of what we are up against.  We are based at a gorgeous farm shop in the middle of the Shropshire countryside but we are neither employees or outsiders.  We pay rent for the shop and try to support and promote any activities the site are doing as that helps everyone.  The ToyShop is independent too and we always advertise any specials they are organising.  The site is not big enough for one part to go off doing their own thing without damaging another.  So, we foolishly anticipated joint advertising of events.  But no, a simple thing like their blackboard which welcomes you to the site only includes elements that they own.  Might seem sensible, after all why should you advertise something you do not get direct benefit from?  You have your own site to promote, and that should always be your priority - we understand that.  However, we had a customer in on Sunday saying I didn't want veg and thought they only sold food till my friend told me you were here too.  She then went on to say that actually she had bought some food for her tea as it all looked rather lovely.  My point is, had they decided to advertise the whole site rather than just their own elements they would be attracting a wider audience who then impulse buy their gorgeous food and intend to return.  We get a lot of customers saying the same thing, had they realised there was more than just a farm shop they would have been down sooner and now they know where we all are will be back with their friends. 

Two of our crafters that supply the shop and are close enough to walk to us (that's how local we really do work) came through the farm shop asking why she didn't see our name anywhere and how on earth would people realise their work was being sold? We had to explain the scenario discussed above that because we are not strictly part of the site we don't get included. One cup of tea and much huffing later we were already giggling and plotting how to plant Hippos in the celery or other such subversive acts!

The other message coming back loud and clear was that folk like the craft markets we put on.  While handing out leaflets to customers the reactions were pretty much all along the lines of 'oh I'm so glad you're doing those again, we love bringing our friends up here then' one lady was really impressed that we normally have a live acoustic set going as her children were fascinated by live musicians.  Generally everyone was saying what a lovely atmosphere it created and trying to work out when their friends and family were visiting and could they all pop up for lunch. 

Because this is the rub, by getting people onto site they go for lunch they use the playbarn and generally potter around the whole site.  They may have come for a craft fair but are delighted to find so many other elements to the site so is it really that dangerous to be including us on their advertising?  We love being where we are, the scope to work with so many amazing artists is incredible and as a landlord (apart from the communication) we couldn't ask for better but the frustrated Hippo is growing daily which is a shame as it can so easily be rectified just by using a piece of chalk and adding us to a blackboard.  We shall keep plugging away, keep working with awesome crafters and listening to very contented customers and meanwhile always keep a piece of chalk in my pocket in case the chance arises to add a Hippo or two to the blackboards! 

Monday, February 11

The Crafters' Dilemma

We have reached a bit of a mid point dilemma with the Hippos and it's all to do with buyer's perceptions, crafter's capacity and pricing structures.  We set out with the noble intentions of only stocking hand crafted items from local makers and in the beginning it was great.  People were keen to get involved, stock was arriving constantly and folk were eager to see what new things we had in stock.

But then capacity problems hit us.  Hand crafters by their very nature take time to make, and many of them have to have jobs to support their lives.  All quite understandable, after all the gas board don't care how beautiful your work is they just want their payment.  And then we hit another aspect.  As we came to learn about our customer base it became clearer what would and would not sell.  This is no reflection on the care and skill of our makers, just the harsh reality of some things sell in some places and not others.

So, we took the decision to buy in some things such as books, magazines, and other items that have been bought in that our makers cannot make such as jossticks and soapstone carvings from around the world.  We are heading towards a 3 way split between those crafters that are professional and can work to lead times, hand crafters who are essentially hobbyists and a third from items bought in.  The bought in items allow us to have constant stock so the shop doesn't look empty and takes the pressure off us chasing already frazzled hand crafters.  We took the decision to not buy in items that someone makes, so for instance we would never re-sell bags as we have several textiles crafters that supply us.  However, we potentially hit the dilemma of if customers want the bags (for example) but our crafters cannot supply them due to personal capacity issues what do we do?  Do we stick rigidly to our ideals but not pay our rent or do we buy in to cover the shortage till our makers bring new stock.  And then, what if customers prefer the bought in items?  And worse still, if we start hard chasing crafters we remove the fun and very essence of why they started in the first place. Eek is the word rattling round my head most days.

And then we turn to our customers.  This was a startling discover on Sunday. A very pleasant lady and her daughter came into the shop, we had a lovely chat about how the majority of the work is handmade locally and she was impressed with that.  She then went on to say that it's a shame that the High Street is full of items brought in from China and how lovely to see different things sourced locally.  But here's the rub, what she actually bought were items that I had bought in from China - didn't have the heart to remind her that these pieces were not made locally but it got me wondering.  Are customers so used to what a craft shop should look like that they are unable to distinguish between the items and worse are we wasting our time by having this ethos?

There are 3 key issues facing the Hippos and sadly they all settle ultimately with the sordid topic of coin or money. 
1.  Hand crafters take time to produce, they cannot mass market otherwise they would be a factory and not handmade but that may leave us with an empty shop if we stick rigidly to our ethos.
2.  Customers whether we like it or not do seem taken in by items brought in from abroad, as shown by my Sunday customer and there is a sense of safety in having seen something before - new scares some people.
3.  If we bypass the hobbyist crafter just to stay in business they may never get the chance to be seen and that would be disastrous for all the up and coming crafters we come across and completely defeat what we wanted to achieve.

Time is an issue too, what was supposed to be a shared venture is actually me running round like a headless chicken trying to stay afloat.  We would love to become a social enterprise but so far the social seems to be missing somewhat, and the longer it continues the more likely it is that the Hippos become a business like any other because we will have invested so much time and money that why on earth would we hand it over?  It's like if you own a house and someone lives there rent free while you're doing it up, and once all the hard work is done they say oh great I live here so that means I can have half doesn't it?  Err no, we didn't see you with the paintbrush at 3am or not eating one night because the cupboards were empty and no money to buy food.  The flip side is no-one forced us to do this, but it is a little sad when the inital promises of support and shared ideals haven't materialised, but again real life takes over and don't think any of us envisaged just how hard a slog it is to get momentum for a new start up. 

We're doing quite well for a start up business in a recession and all things considered we should be around for quite some time to come.  Hard lessons are being learnt and they are not necessarily the ones I expected.  However, the dreamer and idealist in me will just keep popping up ideas so that somehow we will achieve the crafting village that was first envisaged but it may be a new project and the shop remain as our business separate to it.  The momentum is definitely building, more and more are getting really interested in what we're up to but the hand crafters' dilemma will still remain and it's up to us to balance it so that they get a chance, we stay in business and the customer's enjoy shopping with us.