Sunday, October 23, 2011

Creating a 'line' of yarns

From time to time things change.  Seasons, shoe sizes, availability of my favorite brand of potato chip.  And what is there to do but change myself, roll with the punches, adapt.  There is a life cycle for everything, including business.  We live in a world where options and possibilities offer more change that we can sometimes handle, and in order to keep up and not flounder or let our business become stale, we simply must change when the time comes.

In my business, we have to come up with new lines of yarns to meet the demand of our dyers.  The knitting world has done a quick catch-up in how it reacts to trends in color and style within the clothing industry, and the immediate interaction afforded by the Internet means that the old laws of supply and demand are constantly running at top speed.  The demand is created, in the fiber arts world, by designers who distribute their looks and sell their patterns through Internet outlets.  People buy the 'look' of a pattern or sample and try to duplicate it, so a colorway and/or a fiber blend will become popular almost overnight if the original garment is hot enough.  It used to be that yarn manufacturers controlled the speed with which trends changed.  They brought choices to local yarn shops who picked and chose what they would buy for their shop according to the buying history of their customer base.  The Internet has changed this approach and speed of introduction of new choices.

Producing the yarn and getting it to market is not quite as quickly accomplished as the flash of an image around the world.  We run three months behind, at a minimum, and six months, to state things realistically.  So, we hover at the fringe of top fashion exhibits held in the fashion capitals of Europe to see where designs are headed, and if/where knitting appears on the fashion scene. 

Every year we look to the future and plan out how we will produce and bring to market a new yarn or fiber blend or yarn construction.  Something new to attract and keep the interest level of our handdyers.  And, when a trend hits the knitting world, our dyers want what they want immediately.  We scramble and schedule and figure and meet and calculate and do all sorts of things in the background to get the demand met, to balance our lineup of yarns with current trends, tried and true classics, and fading trends.

Achieving balance means that all things cannot be produced at all times, and that we must recognize the time when the lifespan of a yarn is approaching it's end.  That is when we make the decision to retire a yarn, and it is a decision not lightly taken.  We always know that someone is fully vested in that yarn and that they believe that their market absolutely demands that yarn.  Usually, it is with difficulty that we convince those dyers to introduce something new to their own customer base.  If they've had success with a yarn going out of production, they sometimes panic and try to convince us that they will fail if we retire a yarn they use. 

I firmly believe that all customers at every point along the route will change if change is presented to them -- from our production to the handdyers who turn it into the beautiful finished yarn to the end consumer, the knitter who holds the yarn in their hands and has an idea of how to turn it into a handknit fabric.  My customers mostly sell over the Internet, and many are regular vendors at fiber festivals, and some supply their local yarn shops with their handdyed yarns. They often feel that they have a certain expected 'look' which their customers will seek out and which they are comfortable with providing.  And, sometimes, they do not want to change what they have to offer possibly because they do not trust that they will achieve current level of sales. 

I also firmly believe that the ease of distribution which the Internet offers has made it so easy for anyone to go into business that people jump for the sale without doing their homework.  Marketing.  It's all about marketing, which is very close to Psychology 101.  It is as much about what you have to offer in the moment as it about how you promote your ability to forecast trends, how you keep up with them, how you adapt to change.

About two months ago, in a newsletter to my customers, I announced that we would cease production of five yarns.  Oh, my.  What an outcry and barrage of eMails with the same message:  I cannot change.  My customers demand that I stay the same.  I must give them what I perceive that they want.  So, in an effort to respond to these requests from my own customer base, I decided to produce one more round of most of these yarns, and to bring in one more shipment of each one.   My broker, who is one of the top yarn distributors in Europe, offered to supply the fifth yarn to me on a special shipping arrangement.  If I could put together enough private orders to fill one box from the folks who had been traumatized by the possibility of losing that one yarn, he would ship them to me with my weekly order of his special yarns, the Bluefaced Leicester British wool.  Not once have we been able to fill a box.  I've had to take space from my weekly BFL orders to bring in one kilo here and two kilos there, and even that small amount has dwindled down to nothing. 

I have one more theory about how the Internet has changed my own business plan, and that is that it is hard to gauge a real demand from a perceived demand.  Those customers who say they love that yarn will not be able to find it anywhere else and they may just fall in love with something new that we introduce.  I have a tendency to take these complaints seriously, especially when they reach the point of hundreds of eMails.  Sometimes I get tired and in my answers I speak too honestly, and sometimes people take offence and write back eMails painting a picture of how my honesty in speaking of the market in general has belittled their sense of individuality.  The Internet allows people to say just about anything they want to say to me in an eMail without a single bit of compunction that they may be dramatizing their case.

When I started my business, I wrote a business plan.  Every few years I revise that plan to include new ideas, and also to clarify my approach to the dealing with people over the Internet.  How I present myself, how much of my personality I reveal, how I use humor, etc.  Actually, the use of humor in the written word is a dangerous thing, and something I struggle with.  From time to time, I try to diffuse high emotion in my customer by using humor to bring us back to the situation at hand and putting a new focus on dealing with the problem, and it sometimes works.  When it does not work, I know that I'm in for yet more of an explanation of how my insensitivity has affected their business.  The use of humor is a lesson that is hard to beat out of my personality, because I pretty much see humor in all things.  I remember a wonderful Scottish gentleman I met years ago in Texas where we were both working with a school system to set up a bilingual program.  He was in his 80's and he travelled around the States writing federal grants for school systems looking for funding.  He told story after story of the towns where he had lived for six months here and there, and the bottom line of every single one was this:  don't take yourself so seriously!

That's a good lesson.  In the context of looking at a line of yarns, it translates, in my mind, as another lesson.  Be open to change, look forward and plan, and keep your line fresh.  That's what we are doing.  I know that some people are slightly dismissive that the world of knitting yarn could actually be fresh, as it still has a reputation of being great-granny's pastime and what is cool about great-granny, after all?  I am here to tell you that this is not great-granny's crafty world any longer.  The Internet has made shop keepers in the virtual world of the Internt of hundreds of thousands.  How they choose to stand out from the rest is up to them.  We are the background folk who offer change.  It's there for the taking.