New Web Site Sees Light Through the Trees

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Some of the most successful applications of Internet technology continue to be those that harness its ability to link people with common interests, such as Craigslist.org and eBay.com. This is also the idea behind Vermontwoods.com, which brings together Vermont woodworkers, many of whom work in solitude in their own studios, and the consumers interested in handcrafted furniture made from sustainable harvested wood.

Peggy Farabaugh started working on the site last year after Hurricane Katrina hit. Before the disaster, she had been a marketing consultant unrelated to furniture, and all of her contracts were with companies in New Orleans even though she is based in Vernon, VT.

Once the jobs disappeared and she found herself looking for work, Ms. Farabaugh revisited an idea she'd been kicking around for a while. Her husband is a woodworker, and "we have a lot of friends who are woodworkers who make beautiful things but haven't been able to sell a lot of them," either because they lack the time or aren't good self-promoters, she said. A Web site seemed a good way to market their wares, partly because of its low overhead but also because of a Web site's potentially huge geographic reach.

"There's not a big market for the furniture in the Brattleboro (VT) area because the price tends to be high," she said, while a Web site lets the woodworkers reach their small but growing niche on a national level.

Ms. Farabaugh saw an article about a local contest for the best business plan, and the winner would receive a $20,000 grant to start the business. She spent the next few months devising a business plan and was a finalist, but did not win.

"I had this really nice business plan on my hands, and I just decided to implement it anyway on a shoestring," she said.

The result is Vermont Woods Studios, which launched May 15 and showcases the work of 10 woodworkers based in southern Vermont, with the capacity for more. Styles of the furniture on display range from traditional Shaker pieces with clean lines to heavy, carved dark wood items. Every piece of furniture on the site is made from wood that has been sustainably harvested and is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

Prices go up to $10,000. Ready-made items are also available for less than $300. The target audience is consumers interested in the environment with household income exceeding $75,000.

To order a custom-made item, customers fill out a form on the site that asks for information such as what type of furniture they are interested in, the dimensions, type of wood they'd like and any other detail or instruction they wish to provide. Once they e-mail the form, Vermont Woods responds within one business day with an estimate. Once the order is placed, it can take up to 10 weeks for delivery.

The site also contains a photo and biography of each woodworker, some of whom have their own studios while others work out of their basements. Customers can monitor their custom item being made on a landing page created for them by Vermont Woods, where they can view photos.

"When people buy handcrafted items, they want to know a little bit about the story behind the item," Ms. Farabaugh said.

The items cost more than something bought at most retail stories, but it's worth it, she added.

"We want to educate consumers that this piece of heirloom furniture is going to be with your family for many generations while that piece you bought from IKEA is going to be on the curbside in three years," she said.

The marketing strategy is just ramping up. Ms. Farabaugh plans search engine marketing and a catalog that will mail to local boutiques, interior designers and galleries by the end of the summer. Vermont Woods also will attend two upcoming furniture trade shows as part of a Vermont contingency of woodworkers.

"The state has suffered because of cheap imports, and it is trying to build up its woodworking industry," she explained.

Ms. Farabaugh also sees the site as a community center for woodworkers and plans to get them together regularly to collaborate and share their expertise. She'd also like to offer training for woodworkers.

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