A UK craft wholesaler has adapted some well-known stamping and paper craft techniques for use on pottery blanks. It has created endless possibilities for using ceramic blanks in a novel way, without the need for a kiln, and takes stamping to a new dimension.
Read on to find out more about this evolving organisation.
Who founded Country Love Crafts, when, and what prompted them to do so?
Country Love Ceramics was formed in 1991. Its founder, Frank Denton-Powell, needed a new direction following a 38 year career as an Officer and Engineer in the Royal Air Force. Having broadened the range of products, the business was renamed this year to Country Love Crafts.
The business began as a home-based “paint your own pottery” studio in a conservatory located in a rural Oxfordshire village. Having previously seen the popularity of similar studios in America, the founder felt it would be an ideal new business venture.
How has the company evolved during this time?
Initially the business manufactured blank pottery designs from clay and slip (liquid clay poured into moulds). It also encouraged customers to make their own pottery pieces which were then decorated and fired in a kiln. Demand soon escalated and within a few years, ceramic shapes were being imported from Italy.
A number of training courses were then devised - the most popular being “New Business” training (a one-day, low cost, intensive course offering business advice and practical guidance for anyone wanting to start their own home-based or static site studio).
Today the business still sells pottery blanks and still offers training. However, both the founder and small rural location have long gone. The home conservatory has been replaced by 20,000sq ft of warehousing/ office space and container shipments regularly arrive laden with stock from the Far East. In 2007 the business was bought by EM Richford, better known as Personal Impressions.
How has the product offering evolved since this time? Have you expanded your range and added new products? Which products do you sell?
Although ceramic blanks remain the core product range, the stock inventory has expanded over the years to include kilns, kiln accessories, underglazes, glazes, brushes, decorating tools and craft paints.
More recently, Country Love is proud to have secured three exciting new distributorships: DecoArt, Decopatch and Duncan.
DecoArt is already an established brand in the UK. The distributorship offers improved supplies for crafters and includes suitable products for most craft surfaces e.g. paper, wood, ceramics, metal, foam, plaster, canvas, glass, fabric, terracotta and masonry. Discounted retail stands are available for new stockists.
Decopatch is very popular craft in France but a reasonably new addition to the UK market. It is a modern take on the traditional craft of decoupage and creates a strong surface, smooth texture and wonderful paint effect. The printed papers are durable and can be applied to most surfaces. Discounted retail stands are available for new stockists.
Duncan is one of America’s leading manufacturers specialising in fired and non-fired colour, bisque and speciality products. It is an exciting addition for the already established kiln fired range of products currently offered at Country Love.
The product offering will continue to expand as the company evolves to meet industry demands.
How do you think the craft business has changed in general? E.g. Are more of your customers ordering online?
The internet has changed all businesses (not just craft) and in particular, the shopping experience has been transformed. The shopper now uses the internet to research and compare suppliers so business owners need to showcase products and services on a current, user-friendly and high-ranking website. More traditional businesses are less available on the high street and have generally been replaced by national chain stores so the internet is providing an important outlet for specialist products.
A cycle of demand has emerged in that more traditional skills seem to alternate in popularity with modern crafts.
What steps have you taken to compete in the online market place?
Country Love has always embraced online shopping and was the first UK ceramic supplier to have an internet shop. We are in the process of modernising the site, aiming for a “go live” date of early 2011. Our parent company, Personal Impressions, have had incredible success with their online shop so it will be great to see both the reaction to, and impact of the new site.
Currently there appears to be an equal split between orders received through the website, telephone or via e-mail. It is interesting to note that a number of established Country Love customers claim not to have a PC at home, let alone in their business. For that reason, a new catalogue was printed in October this year and has been posted to all active customers.
Roughly how many retail outlets sell your products?
Country Love has over 700 active customers that are high-street, internet or home-based establishments. The company is looking for more outlets to become stockists to further promote the benefits of crafts in the community.
What are you best selling lines and why do you think this is?
Best selling lines can be split into two trade groups – those businesses that own a kiln and those that don’t.
Craft businesses that own a kiln. Tableware like mugs, plates and bowls are sold in their tens of thousands each month. These pieces are always in demand because they are functional items and make beautiful, sentimental keepsakes – many businesses reproduce a baby’s or child’s footprint or handprint on a piece of pottery for a unique and precious gift.
Craft businesses without a kiln. The demand for cupcakes has remained high and is one of company’s best-selling lines. In addition, butterflies, dinosaurs, trinket boxes and money boxes all sell well. These are all easy to paint items that are loved by all age groups. More recently, flat objects have been selling well as they are perfect for stamping with inks and papercraft products. It is exciting to see the demand for these products increase so rapidly.
Have you embraced social media (if not, have you any plans to - if you have, what are you doing)?
Country Love has embraced social media and are present on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. A Country Love blog was created a few months back and there are plans to include more regular updates. Andy Skinner, a freelance tutor for Country Love, has a regularly updated blog at www.andyskinner.org.
What special initiatives have you undertaken in the run up to Christmas?
A series of new Christmas shapes were designed in March and these items were launched at “Sale and Unveil” days held in September and October. Typically, there are three launch events each year to help customers prepare for seasonal events and school holiday workshops (these events are usually held in advance of seasonal and summer events). It is lovely as there is always an air of excitement around a new product launch. So far, every “Sale and Unveil” open day has been full.
What do you think is the next big thing in crafting? What do you think leads these trends, and how do you keep a breast of them?
Stamping and papercrafts seems to be the most popular crafts in the UK – they are certainly well represented in the national press and at craft events or exhibitions. As far as trends are concerned, it appears that the UK takes its lead from the US and random UK advertising campaigns - for example, there have been numerous requests for ceramic meerkats in the last 12 months, and a national radio company recently reported that meerkats were selling better than garden gnomes!
It is hard to predict the “next big thing” as there is such a diverse range of crafts available in the UK. However, DecoArt’s product range is definitely generating an air of excitement.
Country Love tries to remain exciting, innovative and ahead of the game by watching, listening and learning.
How do you support your retailers?
Country Love offers a great deal of support. A good proportion of incoming calls and e-mails are for advice or support. Regular newsletters are sent out with inspiring ideas, images of finished samples, recommended website links and special offers.
Andy Skinner, freelance tutor/ artist (and ex-crafts high street business owner) is on hand to provide training or business consultancy and the training programme offers regular craft and business workshops for business owners, not forgetting the popular Open Days. In addition, The Guild of Ceramics Studios was launched in 2003 with the aim to provide a UK-wide supportive network for ceramic studios, party planners and ceramic decorators.
How do you make sure you are competitively priced?
The business aims to be honestly priced from the onset. The majority of our ceramic blanks are exclusive to Country Love. However, if there are similar products on the market the costs are researched and, if appropriate, a price match will be offered.
What is your take on the current state of the market?
Having spoken to a number of businesses (both inside and outside the crafts industry) it seems that the middle market maybe suffering. There is demand for value priced goods and this is represented by the expansion on the high street of “99p stores” or “Poundland” shops and the growth of make and take craft projects within the arts and crafts industry. On the other hand, the shopper is still willing to spend money on luxury items or high quality goods. This is supported by the continued popularity of more expensive brands including designer labels like Versace and heritage brands like Burberry. A recent news report has highlighted increased sales for both organisations.
What steps are you taking to weather the storm?
Country Love believe that the winning formula is to be innovative, supportive, adaptive and different. The company will continue to offer high quality goods, honest advice and represent excellent value for money.
How do you plan to grow your existing retailer base?
New products bring new custom and hopefully new stockists. Having secured some great new distributorships, Country Love would like to concentrate on increasing brand awareness and highlighting synergies. The plan is to use the internet and national media as a vehicle to help sow the seeds of growth.
How would you like the company to develop over the next few years?
As the core product range is ceramics, it would be great to dispel the belief that ceramics can only be decorated by a potter, ceramicist or someone with a kiln.
Pottery blanks offer a versatile surface, often cheaper and smoother than wood and more functional than paper. Crafters be aware …you heard it first here!