Yarn Retailer Stitches Together a Catalog

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After 22 years of cutting and mailing yarn samples to mail-order customers, Webs produced its first bimonthly yarn catalog in June. By November, the retailer was ready to add more pages and products.


Webs, Northampton, MA, was founded in 1974 by Barbara Elkins. Her son, Steven, and his wife, Kathleen, came aboard two years ago. The operation consists of a 5,000-square-foot store, an 11,000-square-foot discount warehouse, a 20,000-square-foot warehouse and a Web site, yarn.com, dedicated to yarn and all the materials involved with knitting, spinning and weaving.


It wasn't easy convincing Barbara Elkins and her husband, Arthur, who also works in the business, that a catalog was the way to go, Steven Elkins said. But cramming envelopes with cut yarn samples was getting unwieldy as the company's mailing list grew from 3,000 names to 12,000 over the years. Also, the cost of postage was prohibitive, he said.


The first catalog was 16 pages. Prices range from $4 for some yarn all the way to $16,000 for a loom. The company also produces a larger catalog every two years, featuring an exhaustive selection of knitting, weaving and spinning equipment. It is considering whether to produce another one of these books.


The bimonthly book aims to introduce new products; direct customers to the Web site, which has a more comprehensive selection of 4,000 to 5,000 SKUs; and entice local customers into the store.


"Yarns come and go so quickly," Kathleen Elkins said. "With the catalog, we can react quickly to new patterns, stay fresh and current and have it running side by side with the Web site."


The change was expected to upset some loyal mail-order customers, but that didn't happen.


"Some of the feedback was positive with customers saying, 'Thank you for not sending samples. I always felt guilty about throwing them away,' " she said.


Webs puts effort into color correcting when producing the catalog and ensures the yarn's texture is apparent.


Producing the catalog costs about as much as cutting and mailing samples, but the catalog lets Webs display more products, Steven Elkins said. As a result, "the mailings have been much more successful since we went to the catalog." Sales have risen 20 percent to 25 percent.


The catalog also can depict completed projects such as a sweater. This "makes the customer invested from the get-go," Kathleen Elkins said. "They now say, 'I want to do that poncho, that sweater.' "


Before having a catalog, Webs talked about projects in its mailings, but "the visual is so much more powerful," she said.


Webs has learned several things about producing a catalog. Yarns of multiple colors need to appear in larger photos than single-hued yarns. Also, the catalog originally had only one page for books, but this category performed so well that Webs added another page starting with the holiday issue, which mailed Nov. 1.


One mistake the company made with the first issue was on the cover. It showed a collage of yarn, only half of which was available inside. The company got numerous phone calls from customers looking for those yarns.


The holiday issue is 20 pages. Appearing for the first time is an additional project, more yarn and more editorial. The January issue, which drops Jan. 20, will feature a line of linen for weavers and a full page of spinning fiber and equipment.


Of the 12,000 names on the mailing list, nearly 25 percent live within an hour's drive of the store, Steven Elkins said. The rest come from all 50 states and 25 countries. California is Webs' second-largest source of customers.


The catalog built its list mainly by word of mouth until two years ago when it started advertising more aggressively. Webs has never bought a mailing list.


"That strategy may change at some point, but right now we're comfortable where we are at," Kathleen Elkins said. "I'm not convinced the return on investment would be there."


About two years ago, Steven and Kathleen Elkins switched the advertising strategy from small space ads to larger quarter-page, half-page, full-page and back-cover ads in magazines targeting the knitting and weaving communities. The ads drive people to the Web site or the store, where their mailing information is collected, letting Webs build its list.


Chantal Todé covers catalog news for DM News.com. To keep up with the latest catalog news subscribe to our free e-mail newsletter DM News Daily by visiting http://www.dmnews.com/cgi-bin/newslettersub.cgi


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