University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives

Rural Cooperatives, March/April 1998, pp. 22-24
Published by the Rural Business and Cooperative Development Service 

Savvy Salesmanship

Innovative marketing helps craft coop increase sales

Editor's note: This article updates one that first appeared in the July 1993 issue of Farmer Cooperatives.

Even after two decades of operation, the Watermark Association of Artisans craft cooperative is still striving to develop new marketing and training programs that will provide more income for its members, most of whom are rural women working in their homes around the small community of Camden, N.C. The coop's leaders believe the best way to strengthen the bonds between the cooperative and its members and to continue the recent growth in sales is to ensure that members understand and support the coop and its programs.

    Camden, a city of 6,000, is about an hour from Norfolk, Va., and sits along U.S. 158, a well-traveled road leading to the beaches of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The cooperative was formed 20 years ago by 35 rural women who pooled their efforts to sell handmade crafts. Membership has since grown to 800, although only about 100 are active. Ninety-eight percent of the members are women. The cooperative operates with a staff of 10, most of them women.
Watermark draws its members from a 15county coastal plains area which is known for its agriculture and the Outer Banks attractions. This economic base offers few income-generating alternatives for many women in the area.

    Kimberly Sawyer has been Watermark's executive director for the past two years and before that was its marketing director for seven years. "My years with the cooperative have given me a chance to become acquainted with every facet of its operation from shipping and bookkeeping to sales and marketing," she said.

    Watermark members make 500 products-from decorative wooden products, rocking horses and rag dolls to teddy bears, wreaths and baskets. Many are featured in a colorful catalog that's used as a promotional piece. Its combined retail, wholesale and telemarketing sales for 1997 reached $400,000.

    "Individual earnings of members ranged from $40,000 to a few hundred dollars. We anticipate our sales for fiscal 1998 will reach $600,000," Sawyer said. " Some of that increased business will stem from Christmas season orders derived from our trips to major trade shows in July and August. We continually provide our members feedback from these shows and craft industry magazines."

    Payments on Watermark's 10,000square foot headquarters, built in 1990 at Camden, proved to be a financial drain on the cooperative in the early 1990s. But a pair of zero interest loans-one from USDA's Rural Utilities Service through Albermarle Rural Electric Membership Cooperative, the other from the Campaign for Human Development-helped put Watermark back on its financial feet.

    "Without help like that, plus other grants and donations, we could not exist," said Sawyer. "We worked twice as hard, diversified our sales, and added training to increase our revenue. And we earned more by reaching out to the community of Camden. We've had to counter the attitude of people who don't see crafts as an industry," she said.

Sales from Telemarketing

    Phyllis George, a television personality and ex-wife of Kentucky's former governor, has been a big booster for the cooperative, hosting a two-hour arts and crafts show on cable television's Quality Value Channel's (QVC) home shopping network. "They order from us at the New York Gift Show, one of a series of wholesale shows Watermark's sales staff attends across the country," says Sayer. "Watermark sends samples, and out of them QVC selects one or two to feature. QVC places an order for an amount they believe they can sell. Products are then shipped to QVC's warehouse Watermark members produce more than at Suffolk, Va.

    "To show you the power of television, the show sold 600 of our handpainted apple stools in a threeminute period one evening. It's like a catalog or department store and you can see how the product is sold," Sawyer said.

    "We are also telemarketing four styles of Indian blankets for the American Indian College Fund. Orders come in on an 800 number at Watermark's building. We provide customer service and ship the blankets for them. Pendleton makes the blanket, but the designs come from the Indian tribes," she explained.

Warehouse Addition

    A major improvement in Watermark's operation in recent years was the addition of a 4,100-square-foot warehouse and loading dock at the Camden headquarters.

    "Previously we unloaded supplies by hand. And when it came to shipping out an order, we'd make an announcement over our public address system for all the employees to help load the truck, including shrinkwrapping the paletted boxes. Sometimes we even had to 'bribe' the truck driver with a soft drink so he'd wait a little longer." The warehouse, financed by an empowerment grant from the state, makes the coop's shipping operation more efficient, enabling it to go after larger orders.

    About 1015 percent of the members earn a living from craft production, but they're often well-versed in making a wide variety of items, willing to learn new skills, and can be very flexible in what and when they can make particular craft items, Sawyer explained. "For others who supplement their income from crafts, it's a pastime that makes life interesting.

    "We're very conscious of foreign competition, of course, and counter it by producing quality crafts," Sawyer says. "Quilts are an example of the global market. We started out making them. But when cheaper versions began to roll into our markets from overseas, we relegated the sale of them to our Camden store. It supports keeping some crafts alive, even though they are no longer produced in large quantities.

    "We still have clients who are interested in American-made crafts and will pay a little extra to get them. These handmade quality pieces are often passed on down to the younger generation in the family," Sawyer says.

Member Relations Challenge

    But Sawyer finds member relations in her cooperative a real challenge. "Some members find the cooperative difficult to understand," she said. "So we are developing a new one-day orientation program that would involve the whole staff in acquainting new members with our operation and personnel. We may even bring in an outside speaker at times."

    Communications are essential to link management and the members in the cooperative. "If a printed flyer about the cooperative isn't being read by the members, we have to find other ways of reaching them," says Sawyer.

    "Sometimes we may get a more honest response when members can express their opinions anonymously in a questionnaire. So we try to focus on problems in advance. Often the best way to get people's reaction is to ask them impromptu questions over the phone."

    One of the new wrinkles is to develop craft guilds within the cooperative for people working on the same craft item. "They will discuss particular techniques in making the individual craft, purchase supplies together, and even go to marketing shows. With more interaction, we hope to spark their interest in the cooperative."

    Last year, the coop started holding discussion roundtables at which individuals would discuss their particular craft, tools used and techniques. This helped members gain new skills, regardless of whether they were painting stools, making cloth dolls or involved in some aspect of woodworking.

    "We have a coordinator for our craft training program and use the classes to stimulate interest in the cooperative. It's exciting and develops community spirit for the cooperative," Sawyer said. "We teach classes in everything from basket weaving to sewing. They serve as a way for members to gain more income and help Watermark connect with its small home community of Camden.

    Members are paid to teach the craft classes. Part of the class fee goes to the instructor, some of it for supplies and the balance to the cooperative.

    "We've trained between 200 and 300 members and community people in recent years. Some of those who weren't members join the cooperative while others become our gift shop customers. It takes a couple classes to become comfortable in making crafts.

    "One member brings in another. Soon, it becomes a social event for a church or office group. For us, it's a way to keep the membership involved. We're a working cooperative and our members' time may be limited, so we find ways to adjust to that.

    "We have an interesting blend of members reflecting both age and experience with crafts," Sawyer said. "Even our 12 member board reflects it, the chairman being one of the founding members of 20 years ago and another director having only two years with the cooperative. All are craft people with different levels of education and skills. It helps the more recent members learn from the older ones about craft making techniques, the cooperative's operation, and its need for quality products.

    "A number of our members are military wives looking for a job they can conduct in the home to bring in some extra income and still take care of the children. We're still in a very rural area," she commented.

    "Many of our pioneers like to maintain membership in the cooperative because it gives them a sense of community or home. Some stop at our retail store and others just want to say 'hi.' Others stayed in contact when we had a newsletter or took one of the craft training courses we offered," Sawyer said.

    "And after 20 years, we're just excited to be operating. We want to create jobs through the sale of handicraft items. We have a lot of respect for our members. They compete with national companies that manufacture their products in factories. We make handcrafted items in our homes and work twice as hard for our sales."

Teaming with the Smithsonian

    The cooperative is always interested in displaying its products where more people can become acquainted with them. "Two years ago, Watermark was asked by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. to make 'Sarah' cloth dolls. The Smithsonian's product development and licensing department works with specific customers to make licensed products. The 18inch doll was inspired by one in the Smithsonian collection. The doll features a special hang tag that combines Watermark's name and Smithsonian's logo. Watermark was chosen because of its quality work and commitment to the American craftperson.

    "At our New York Gift Show booth last fall, we met a group looking for items for the new museum in the Roanoke Island Festival Park at Manteo, N.C., about an hour east of Camden. It focuses on the history of Northeast North Carolina. They later visited our headquarters at Camden. Their gift shop promotes North Carolina artisans. The meetings generated a $4,000 order that included our handpainted stools and native American dolls. We hope they become longstanding customers," Sawyer said.

    If the Watermark Association of Artisans has achieved some measure of success, Sawyer said, "it's due to the variety of products made in members' homes and their flexibility in making many different crafts in a short time period. We couldn't exist without that flexibility. These women are the real stars of Watermark."

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