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Yarn shops trying to knit a sales comeback

Average sales at independent yarn shops nationwide rose 11% last year, a trade group says. Competition has fallen for stores that survived the recession.

March 13, 2011|By Cyndia Zwahlen
  • Julie Edwards opened the Little Knittery in Atwater Village in 2007. Affordable rent helped her shop survive the recession. It has been a boon to me that a lot of stores around here closed, she said.
Julie Edwards opened the Little Knittery in Atwater Village in 2007. Affordable… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Yarn shops that survived the recession, and the unraveling of the knitting boom before that, are casting about for ways to boost sales.

They're meeting with some success. Average sales at independent shops nationwide rose 11% last year, according to the National NeedleArts Assn. But they had dropped 25% over the six years that ended in 2009.

The boom years for knitting, in the early 2000s, were fueled in part by celebrities who had taken up the hobby and talked about it in interviews. But the surge in interest in knitting quickly turned around.

"There were a lot of people who learned the basics, maybe knitted a scarf, and then lost interest," said David Orozco, who closed his That Yarn Store in Eagle Rock in early 2009 over lack of sales.

In some cases, shops failed because the owners lacked business experience or skills.

That didn't matter much during the boom years, when "we couldn't get stuff in fast enough," said Joel Woodcock, president of Lantern Moon, a small wholesaler of handmade knitting accessories in Portland, Ore.

"So often what happens is some people get into these businesses because they love the craft itself and then forget about all the things that you need to know to run a business," said Mary Colucci, executive director of the Craft Yarn Council in Gastonia, N.C.

Jennifer Wenger-Tourchen, who owns the shop Jennifer Knits in Los Angeles, was hit during the downturn by the loss of numerous wealthy customers, including some who worked in the entertainment industry.

She went looking for mail-order clients in other cities, running advertisements in regional publications in Dallas and Chicago.

"What I lost in, say, the top 10% of my clients, I gained in mail order," Wenger-Tourchen said. Her next target is Jackson Hole, Wyo.

With expensive accessories not moving like they did during the glory years, some knitting shops have been stocking lower-priced items.

"We have gotten some smaller, lower-price-point things," said Woodcock, whose business was known for relatively high-priced, handmade items.

He was also hopeful about the future, having seen an uptick in sales this year compared with a year earlier.

The retail stores that did survive the recession have fewer competitors. During the boom, there were about 60 shops from the San Fernando Valley to the South Bay, Wenger-Tourchen said. Now there are about 20.

Julie Edwards opened the Little Knittery in Atwater Village in 2007, just as the knitting fad was unwinding. Affordable rent helped her weather the recession.

"It has been a boon to me that a lot of stores around here closed," she said.

Building strong personal relationships with knitters, through customer service, is paramount to keeping a business healthy, said Wegner-Tourchen, who will be teaching a class on sales and profit at a trade show this summer in Ohio.

Shop owners need to work at cultivating customers who want to be able to touch the cashmere, silk or baby alpaca yarns and rely on the free help store owners can provide.

Otherwise, clients will be tempted to buy online, where they can sometimes get yarns, books and needles cheaper. Some store owners say customers come in once to check out a yarn, then buy it via the Internet.

But devotees of knitting have to recognize that if they buy only online, shops will continue to close.

"If people want to continue to have little businesses where they can walk in and get help and get personal attention, they must, must support these businesses," Edwards said. "A knitting shop is like a very old fashioned idea, it's a real community and it's a real, real person kind of a thing.

"I think it's kind of special."

smallbiz@latimes.com

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