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Baskets Weave a Potent Spell

Collectors are mad for maple Longabergers, which a sales associate says are 'like Beanie Babies, only for grown-ups.'

March 14, 2001|MARNELL JAMESON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Basket passion ran high at the party hosted by Mary Bradley, a dues-paying member of the Longaberger Collectors Club. Ten women gathered in Bradley's Aliso Viejo home to hear sales associate Edie Greenia-Brennan--who was wearing wooden basket earrings--discuss the merits of the hand-woven maple baskets. Especially this month's offering.

The Longaberger sales strategy combines the in-home party techniques used by companies such as Tupperware with limited-edition selling tactics.

"It's like Beanie Babies, only for grown-ups," says Yorba Linda sales associate Laura Hayden. Many Longaberger "feature" baskets are introduced and sold in one month. January's basket, for example, was the Inaugural Basket, a red-and-blue weave intermixed with the natural-stained maple.

The baskets have become a very big business, with sales increasing across the country and nearly doubling in California in the past two years. Between 1998 and 2000, the company's national sales increased 43%, and California sales rose 87%, according to company spokeswoman Kathy Webner. Last year, sales reached $1 billion, and the number of sales associates topped 70,000 for the company headquartered in a basket-shaped building in Ohio.

Sold through home parties and mail order, the average basket ensemble runs about $75 plus shipping. Some cost hundreds of dollars. To actually use the baskets, a thought that makes many collectors shudder, requires adding custom-fitted plastic inserts, wood dividers or cotton liners. Once protected, they can hold food, laundry, jewelry, firewood, trash, you name it.

Bradley, a homemaker and mother of two, has been collecting Longabergers since 1991 and has 27 of the baskets. Behind a lighted glass cabinet in her family room are her most treasured ones: five miniatures, roughly 4 to 6 inches tall, each worth between $150 and $200. Some on the collectors' exchange go for as much as $575, she says.

"If you don't buy it that month, you're out of luck," says Bradley.

Well, not exactly. The persistent collector can often find a retired Longaberger basket for sale by the owner on the Internet.

The feature basket in March 1999, for example, was a modest 4-by-6-inch basket with a St. Patrick's Day theme, a shamrock print liner and a shamrock ceramic ornament. The combo sold for $39.

After company owner David Longaberger died on St. Patrick's Day of that year, collectors decided that basket commemorated his death. "Now you'd be doing well to get it on EBay for less than $120," says Hayden, "if you can find it."

In the 1920s, J.W. Longaberger made laundry baskets for factories and market baskets for housewives. In the 1940s, when plastic came on the scene, the demand for baskets dried up, and so did Longaberger's livelihood.

Thirty years later, his son David noticed that baskets were back, but what he was seeing was nothing like the baskets his father made. Dominating the market were lesser-quality imports. In 1973, the younger Longaberger persuaded his father to hire five weavers and start a business in Dresden, Ohio. By 1992, the company had 12,000 sales associates nationwide and sales of $209 million.

Today, David's eldest daughter, Tami Longaberger, 39, runs the business from Newark, Ohio, out of a seven-story home office building that looks exactly like a picnic basket, handles and all.

"There's no doubt our baskets elicit a lot of passion," says company spokeswoman Webner.

A first-year membership in the Longaberger Collectors Club is $75, which includes a basket, magazine and special collectors' information.

Michele Besci, a collector from Yorba Linda, allots $250 for Longaberger purchases in her monthly budget.

The 35-year-old business owner and mother of two has been buying the woven-wood baskets for 12 years for her home, second home in Big Bear and motor home, where small quarters cried out for baskets to make efficient use of space. She has 80 Longabergers, not counting ones she's given away as gifts.

"I can't imagine ever having enough," says Besci.

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