It's all about the people

Looking around at the plethora of new knitting shops both online and in real life, it seems pretty clear that in terms of the “old school” brands of yarns — the ones distributed by Diamond, Nova, their counterparts in other countries, all the smaller distributors like Louet, etc. — the market’s saturated. (I had written a lot of trite verbiage proving that there was a knitting boom, but you don’t need to read it, so I cut it.) If you’re going to sell yarn now and distinguish yourself from your competitors, you need a new hook. Artisanal yarns. Organic yarns. Recycled yarns. Private label yarns. Deeply discounted yarns. Yarns with coffee and pastries.

Not only that, but ideally you’d try to find new ways of reaching your target consumers. The trouble is, since the Internet has been so crucial in the proliferation of knitting knowledge and business in the past few years, there’s a risk of tunnel vision: need to advertise? The Internet. Need to sell? The Internet. Need to provide customer support? Need to subtly flog your online business while ostensibly providing free resources to customers? The Internet.

That’s why it’s quite clever that Yarn Affair, a fledgling enterprise in Palo Alto, remembered the grassroots side of knitting and has decided to take the Tupperware (or Royal, Amway, or Avon) approach. The company is recruiting “consultants” to pitch Yarn Affair yarns to friends, acquaintances, and coworkers.

According to the current information on the YA website, the plan is to sell sample kits to consultants (an estimated total of $300 a year, no details at present about shipping), who in turn show the yarns — and present swatching opportunities — at events held in people’s homes, in outside social settings, at work, or in one-on-one interactions. The consultant receives a 20% discount for any yarn purchases for him or herself, and a commission for sales to others; no details about the ordering procedure, but since the consultant doesn’t have to purchase the inventory, it looks like he or she would take orders and forward them to YA for fulfilment (if there is no Canadian-based fulfilment site, there’ll be increased shipping and taxes to pay for Canadians). The potential customers get a chance to swatch yarns for free, and ostensibly receive craft-related mentoring coupled with low-pressure sales techniques.

At the moment, the YA buzz is limited to press releases that say that all will be revealed to potential consultants today. (There’s about six hours of today left on the west coast, and nothing has happened yet.) There’s also an affiliated blog, too, which has all the sincerity of a marketing campaign. (Most knitters who start up a blog simply announce it on a mailing list or a forum, they don’t issue press releases.)

A clever scheme on a couple of levels. The consultant might not pressure potential customers to make purchases, but the customers will do it themselves. Bricks-and-mortar shops may host stitch ‘n bitch nights, where knitters can knit surrounded by yarn for sale — but that yarn shop yarn is always there, you can come back tomorrow to buy it if you want. But a yarn sales rep who brings her samples one night to a knitting get-together? What if she doesn’t come to the next stitch ‘n bitch night? Gotta order now. And even the newest or most introverted member of a stitch ‘n bitch group could shyly say, “You know that Yarn Affair thing? I signed up as one of their consultants, and I got the sample kit…” and would be rewarded with a flurry of requests to bring the samples to the next meeting, please, because who doesn’t want to see new yarns?

Not only that, but those potential customers are already there, waiting, neatly organized into groups. In the Tupperware scenario, there aren’t any regular get-togethers of plastic storage container fanatics who show off their latest acquisitions and admire, um, each other’s lid-removal prowess (please, if there are, do not tell me). The hostess has to gamble that she can find customer-guest-friends who will be interested in gelatine molds, bagel cases, and baby toys. But knitters are organized into virtual and physical groups that meet on a regular basis, they keep in touch on forums and mailing lists, and generally speaking they won’t shut up about their favourite pasttime. It’s easy to find your audience.

Capitalizing on real personal relationships to sell your goods is, of course, what people used to do before the Internet. And these days, it almost seems like a novelty. If you’re a consumer who’s not interested in buying, it’s easy to ignore web pages or targeted advertisements in a blog sidebar; it’s harder to dodge people. So, if you’re a member of a stitch ‘n bitch group, is it ethical to take advantage of your relationship with the other members to make money? If the person sitting next to you at your knitting meetup overheard that you were planning to sell your house, and offered to act as your listing agent, you’d be taken aback, right? Is it different if the product she’s offering is yarn?

My prediction, for what it’s worth, is that Yarn Affair’s revenue will come mainly from the “consultants” themselves with the 20% discount. If a potential customer really liked the yarn after seeing the yarn samples, that person would probably sign up as a consultant him or herself, assuming the cost of the sample kits was offset by the discount. Or more likely, a single consultant would wind up being a front for a group of stitch ‘n bitches or friends who all chip in for the kit fees and benefit from the discount.

But maybe that’s the plan, because if it isn’t set up in an orderly manner in the way a franchisor divides up territories among franchisees (would a consultant be allowed to sell over the Internet?), we might see knitting turf wars. You know, knitters with sharpened dpns with their wrists lashed together with yarn. Har.

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7 Responses to It's all about the people

  1. marcia says:

    Yikes. Sounds like the ol’ Amway gigs. Many a friendship were burned over those special dinner invites. Eventually revealed to be a sales pitch.

  2. Nancy says:

    Legally (under US law, which is the limit of my knowledge) these aren’t pyramid schemes, since actual goods are being sold.

    It can be a pretty effective way to market to women. I’ve been invited to “parties” for cosmetics (Mary Kay), cooking gear (Pampered Chef), and candles (Party Lite) in the past year or two. the combination of using social networks with peer pressure seems to work pretty well. I don’t like getting the invites because I don’t want to feel obligated to buy the stuff.

    I’m curious about whether or not YA “consultants” will be encouraged to recruit other consultants in return for a percentage of “their” recruits’ sales. The multi-level marketing outfits (think Amway) do this.

  3. Lola says:

    Interesting idea. But I’d like to know more about what yarn brands are they going to be selling. Will they be selling “basic” yarn? I prefer basic yarns that are wool and will stand the test of time. There’s too many novelty yarns being sold these days.

  4. JoVE says:

    The official name for this kind of sales is Network Marketing and it thrives. As far as I can tell, they are all pyramid schemes so the only way you can make a decent living is to recruit lots of other sales folks. The things you describe are pretty well known aspects of the method, I think — guilt is probably talked about as some benefit of personal networks.

    I’ve been to a couple for other products because my friend was organizing. There are always ‘incentives’ for the host which are linked to sales at that party. And some people do become reps mainly for the discount on products they would use themselves anyway.

    In many ways, I’m not surprised someone has decided to try this for yarn.

  5. j. says:

    I can’t take the credit for knowing about this — I have a source (out yourself if you want!) who is far more diligent about keeping up with knit-related developments.

    Now, about the hostess/friend: that’s just it, exactly. You feel a little guilty because your friend goes to the trouble of hosting the party. But who put you in the position to feel obligated to buy something in the first place? (Well, shared responsibility in this case; the agent could have kept her mouth shut, but then I assume the agent wasn’t your friend.)

  6. Kristi says:

    Several years ago I went to one of those candle parties swearing I wouldn’t buy anything but I put in an order for two glass votive holders. The line that pushed me over? The candle agent explained the hostess, my friend, wouldn’t get her freebies if there weren’t enough sales. Sheesh, I can be such a sucker.

    Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see if this yarn business is a success. There’s a rubberstamp/scrapbook direct-sales company that has been in business since 1988 so craft based direct-sales can work, probably for the reasons you stated. (I just checked the Stampin’ Up! website out of curiosity, I’m surprised it’s been that long.) I’d probably order enough yarn for a pair of socks to support a friend but the quality and price would influence my decision to make repeat orders. Of course.

  7. Lori says:

    That’s an interesting idea. I don’t think I would have heard about it if it weren’t for you!