Marketing Magic

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It’s an unlikely success story – almost like a fairy tale. If you pitched it as a movie plot the producers would tell you it’s not realistic. It goes something like this: You start making handcrafted paper products in your basement and they’re a huge hit at the art fairs and the next thing you know you need a larger working space for your wholesale operation, so you rent a building in a sleepy little town. Next, you pop a little retail space and counter in the front of the building, just to make a little extra cash to pay the building rent. Add more cute stuff to round out the mix and create a “whimsical gift gallery”. Now you’re retail success story, so you open a second store. Both stores and the wholesale business survive the recession, so the next logical step is to open another business – on the same block as your first store – before the economy fully recovers. Darned if that isn’t a success too.

I recently had the pleasure of talking with April McCrumb who, along with her husband Steve, runs three successful businesses: Catching Fireflies, The Yellow Door Art Market and a.i. paper design. April is not only the driving creative force behind these ventures, but she has a natural flair for marketing. She’s the reason this fairy tale success story exists – and she’s the first to admit it was a magical combination of creativity, luck, skill and hard work that made it all happen.

You’ve kept two retail stores  plus your wholesale business going, and opened Yellow Door Art Market, during the recession. How did you keep your businesses alive?

“You “right-size” things; we focused on our best-selling items, we cut some hours back. Our wholesale business was most affected by it. You re-evaluate. There’s always a conversation. We downsized our wholesale location; the wholesale biz is half the size it used to be. We were making smart business decisions. You have to hope for a turnaround, but we were prepared to make hard decisions, if necessary. In the end it made us a more fit business. That was a big factor in being able to open Yellow Door.

Opening Yellow Door Art Market was a huge boost for business, but there was pressure. Seventy people were depending on us. I had a background in art fairs, so I knew a number of artists & understood they were looking for ways to grow their business but I still secretly thought “I hope this works” – and it did! We gained a lot of customers. Since many of our artists are currently doing art fairs around the city, they pass out Yellow Door postcards which drive business back to the store. It’s a win-win. With the two stores, it’s a destination. The little lunch café near us has even noticed that they are benefiting.”

Speaking of the little lunch café, why did you choose Berkley? When you started Catching Fireflies, Berkley wasn’t exactly a hot spot.

“Berkley was just affordable and available. I didn’t know that Berkley would grow the way it has. I can’t say we thought through and strategized. We needed space to create our wholesale line of goods. I really didn’t believe in the power of retail at first. The only goal for the retail outlet was to pay the rent for the design studio in the back of the shop. Retail wasn’t my goal; it was a side dish that turned into a main course.”

I’ve been a loyal customer for years and I am consistently impressed with how you seem to always hit the mark with your online marketing. Your interaction with the consumer is creative and fun, while still laying the groundwork for the next sale…and the next. You use in-store promotions very effectively too. You haven’t dropped those in favor of online marketing?

“Yes, we still do in-store paper coupons. Customers are in the store already, so why not give them a reason to come back. The older clientele might not be as web savvy, so this helps us reach more people. We try to use all platforms. There’s construction in Rochester now, so we’re doing more incentives at that location. Even web sales get an automatic coupon for next purchase.”

One thing your stores do exceptionally well is cater to the “I need a really cool gift, right this minute” market. I know I can walk into Catching Fireflies or Yellow Door and find something unique and fun, at any price point, get it wrapped for free in one of your cute bags, and be out the door with a smile on my face.

“Some people love to shop for gifts, but for some it’s a struggle so we give them ideas to guide them along. We offer suggestions with e-news and Facebook, and when they get into the store our team takes care of them from there. We do free gift wrap. There’s free parking; you can just pop in. People are busy, so we remove roadblocks and give them what they need.”

So what’s next? Any expansion plans?

“There’s stuff in the works, but nothing planned yet. We always make business decisions based on putting money back into the business. We have excess funds that grow over time and we are committed to staying in this area and investing in the business. We don’t take loans; we use the excess funds to grow.”

Having gone from art fairs to wholesale to retail, do you mentor other artists to help them understand what’s involved?

“It’s much harder now to do what I did 10 years ago. I’m happy to give advice but it’s tougher out there now. As a gift buyer, I see the trends changing over the years. Many of the large gift companies are licensing artists to design product that is made in China & then it’s offered at a reasonable price. This makes it harder for smaller artists to compete on price since all their goods are made in the USA. I have thought about consulting artists; however it’s hard for many of them to find the time because most of them are one-man-shows. It’s hard to fit marketing into their business day when they’re also responsible for making the product, doing weekend art shows, balancing the books and more.

I do offer marketing tips for store owners on the a.i. paper web site, and I’m actually speaking at a new place in Ann Arbor which is a maker place. They’re doing a “Crafty University” course in July which is all about educating and telling people how to craft a small business.” 

Despite your success, is there anything you would have done differently?

“I’m pretty happy. When we out grew our original catching fireflies location, I probably wouldn’t have moved into the 6,000 square foot building for a.i. paper. . Now we’re in a building half the size and it’s a much better fit. We also had a Grand Rapids store for a few years. Both Steve and I are from Grand Rapids, and we opened that store on a whim. We learned a lot from that. Berkley was easy. Grand Rapids is a more conservative crowd and we thought we could crack that nut. It just wasn’t pulling in the numbers to support itself. If I would have moved to Rochester earlier, that would have been better. We ended up taking the Grand Rapids store and moved it into Rochester. From an advertising and word of mouth standpoint it makes more sense to expand in metro Detroit. I knew there was a desire for our product in Rochester from my experience at Art and Apples Art Fair, plus a lot of people from the Berkley/Royal Oak area have transitioned up there as their families grew too, so it was a natural progression.

I always like the whole “baby step” thing. For me it got started with the products that were selling themselves. People wanted cool handmade frames. People were buying them left and right, and if a lot of people liked them in Metro Detroit, then I could sell them in other places. a.i. paper fueled Catching Fireflies. Catching Fireflies fueled Yellow Door…

I didn’t strategically plan to be so diverse but I’m thankful I am. I still see room for improvement. You can’t be content. You always have to be searching for the next thing.”


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