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.