| 2014 Q4 | story by EMILY MULLIGAN | photos by STEVEN HERTZOG |
Massachusetts Street shops have been a retail cornerstone of Lawrence for more than 150 years. When the Internet and the idea of e-commerce first came to bear, some feared that could spell the end of mom-and-pop stores and personal service.
To the contrary, two Mass. St. retail outlets, one a long-term presence and the other a relative newcomer, have managed to grow and sustain foot traffic while quietly building a regional and national clientele online: keeping a firm hold on the value of customer service. Both have used new technologies, including social media, in ways that allow their online offerings to complement their brick-and-mortar stores and vice versa.
Here are the stories of Yarn Barn and Fortuity and how the stores and their customers have found each other.
Yarn Barn’s unassuming storefront along Mass St. is merely the tip of the knitting and weaving iceberg when it comes to the expertise and inventory available. A lower level that is the entire footprint of the store, which is not open to the public except one room used as a classroom, houses meticulously ordered stock of knitting yarns, weaving yarns and other materials, like mop cotton.
Owner Jim Bateman says that the store has approximately 7,000 stock-keeping units (SKUs) for its inventory, which includes yarns of every type and so many colors it is mind-boggling. For decades, Yarn Barn has had a large catalog following, which has been maintained alongside online ordering. In early 2015, the store plans to launch a new website that both navigates more easily and offers interactive tools for customers to better envision their potential projects.
“We had a website as good as our competitors, but at this point we’ve been leap-frogged by our competitors. Ours will be the best, we think, and we back it up with good service,” Bateman said.
The web and catalog business account for nearly 50 percent of Yarn Barn’s sales. Bateman says that Yarn Barn ships to at least 45 states each month and average approximately two international packages per week, as well. That makes it all the more important that the website should be able to connect with back-end inventory and allow the 10 or so employees, who fulfill the orders to track sales of particular items.
The current website also does not interface well with social media, which isn’t critical for Facebook and Twitter at Yarn Barn, but it is for the knitting world’s social media platform, Ravelry.
Ravelry boasts more than four million members, allowing knitters to network with “friends” about their knitting projects, posting progress reports and photos, sharing patterns and even troubleshooting. The network generates information to its members, including what particular yarns are being used by most knitters in their projects. Here is where being one of the biggest yarn retailers in the country comes into play on Ravelry for Yarn Barn.
“We see what people are talking about and insert ourselves gently,” Bateman said. Yarn Barn also encourages its customers to mention the store on Ravelry when posting about their projects. And, with that, the instant gratification model of Internet shopping comes full circle – even in an activity as slow and deliberate as knitting.
Shopping for yarn, knitting and weaving hardware is not the only purpose of the Yarn Barn website. It is also where both beginning and experienced crafters sign up for classes in their chosen handicraft.
Bateman says that any place within a four-hour drive of Lawrence is within the recruitment area for Yarn Barn’s classes. This includes western Kansas to St. Louis, Mo. and Omaha, Neb. to northern Oklahoma – all fall within the range. People interested in weaving, in particular, will make the drive for the weekend classes because weaving requires more expensive equipment and expertise than knitting.
“People stay overnight when they come for our classes. We probably book 100 hotel nights per year,” Bateman said.
Class attendees also post and promote the classes on Ravelry, which drives foot traffic for locals and online traffic for those farther away.
Bateman said that the recession did not affect sales a great deal, instead sales remained flat, which was good compared to most retail categories.
“Historically, economic downturns will not drag down a hobby business like this; if anything it will give it a boost. People, when they are stressed financially, want to have a greater sense of community. Part of that process involves hands-on handicraft social activity,” Bateman said.
It just goes to show that even in this digital age, the most old-fashioned of activities work hand-in-hand with the latest technology.
Fortuity, a women’s clothing boutique, opened on Mass. St. in 2011. For its first two years, it relied mostly on window displays and word-of-mouth to attract customers, who are mostly, but not exclusively, in the college-student range.
As its clientele continued to expand, so did the need for a more robust online and social media presence. In October 2013, Fortuity launched its new website and online store, to what has become a rousing success. The store, which also has a location in Manhattan and the Country Club Plaza, put a high priority on building a social media presence.
As with Yarn Barn, Facebook and Twitter are OK for Fortuity. It’s real success on social media has come through utilizing Instagram and Pinterest.
“A lot of people like Instagram because we do whole looks. A lot of time when they’re shopping online, they don’t really have help to coordinate the outfit and accessories like they do in the store, but the Instagram pictures give them that,” said Ellie Ruby, Fortuity Vice President.
If there was any doubt whether college students use social media to help them make purchasing decisions, at least for Fortuity, there no longer is.
“Anything we post on Instagram, give it a couple days, and it will be gone, we’ll be sold out of it. The students know that as soon as they see it, they need to get in and get it,” Ruby said.
Sales, both in the store and online, are important for Fortuity. Social media offers another opportunity that is good for the store: trend-setting, according to Ruby.
“The younger generation really uses social media to see what the trends are. I think they look to stores sometimes as much as they look to celebrities. We’re saying what’s cute or ‘in’ for the season. I think it makes it easy for them too, because if we post it then they know we have it,” she said.
Ruby and Fortuity have had some fun with social media, as well as, encompassing both the brick-and-mortar and online stores. They have staged contests for customers to win “Fortuity dollars,” which is free money in their online shopping cart. Customers an also get free punches on their loyalty punch cards, for re-sharing photos or tagging the store with online photos of themselves wearing Fortuity looks.
Ruby said she continues to hone the website to fit the needs of customers. She has planned further ahead this year for the holidays than she was able to last year, for example. Ruby plans to build in features like “order by” dates for holiday purchases.
Yarn Barn and Fortuity are different retail businesses with different core customers, and yet both operate successful storefronts in two places: Mass St. and online. The stores also do more than just sell things; both make use of unique electronic and social media to connect with and even inspire their customers.