small makers

Thomas Callahan of Horse Cycles works on a custom bike from his Brooklyn workshop. (Image by Matt Kashtan)

Can small-batch producers stay small? As local, handmade and artisanal products experience a rapid growth in popularity, this question comes up often. At what point does an artisanal producer shift into being a small business, then mid-sized, then large? Growth in sales means people enjoy the product, which is a good thing. Small producers can make a living, jobs stay local and increased revenue goes back into further building the company and supporting the community as a whole. At a certain point, however, there is a fork in the road. No longer able to produce an increasingly popular product alone, the maker needs to choose: Stay small, or grow?

This can be an emotional decision. If the maker chooses to stay small, there is a limit to the revenue they can bring in, which may or may not be sustainable in the long run. If they choose to outsource components of the business, how do they maintain the same standards, ethics and production quality they once had complete control over? (For example, one of our knifemakers, Gene Wiseman, does everything from start to finish rather than outsourcing labor as demand increases, so that he has control over the entire process – which is the reason for the six-week lead time for his knives.) If the maker decides to grow, there is also the question of how to deal with the public perception. The customers who chose the maker on account of their commitment to supporting local and handmade goods may not find larger scale production appealing. We sometimes have a double standard when it comes to product manufacturing: everyone wants to support local small-scale suppliers, but what happens when the maker becomes successful to the point of no longer being small? Where is the tipping point when they become, arguably, ‘too big’?

For retailers that carry these small brands, supply issues inevitably crop up. Having a successful product fly out the door is great – but what happens if 100 orders come in and the product takes six weeks to make 30 pieces? (Case in point: our Japanese Hand-Forged Garden Clippers have a production capacity of roughly 50 per year since each is handmade by a father-son team.) There is a sound argument for being too popular; it creates a scarcity value for the customer. This long-standing method of increasing sales has been manipulated on a retail level for years. But if that is not the intention, how is the balance between supply and demand resolved?

There are a couple options. Taking a realistic production time into account when setting a delivery date is a good start. (You can track every order through our customer accounts.) There is, of course, a risk of the customer ordering a similar product from a larger company with an immediately available inventory. If the product is one-of-a-kind or extremely unique, this isn’t an issue. But if you had to wait for a locally made, artisanal version of a mass produced product that can be delivered right away, which would you choose? How many customers can a store retain under that stipulation? The retailer could also solve the problem by switching suppliers to a larger producer who can fulfill orders quickly, thus leaving behind the small-scale company they started out with…

As consumers, how much convenience and immediate gratification are we wiling to give up in order to support our local producers when necessary? As retailers, how do we deal with providing our customers with what they want in a timely fashion while still supporting small business?

Let us know what you think in the comments.

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4 Comments

  1. Doug Lucas
    Posted September 1, 2014 at 6:41 PM | Permalink

    hand made quality beats mass produced garbage at ever level. Think about it this way, the easier and faster it is to get a product the quicker it will have to be replaced. Waiting just a bit to receive a true artists hand made product is part of the gratification in supporting our craftsmen and women. You know that by purchasing their product you are supporting not only hard work but true individualism. Buy local, but handmade buy for life, quality over quantity…

  2. alexredgrave
    Posted September 3, 2014 at 8:33 AM | Permalink

    Agreed on all points Doug. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Posted September 14, 2014 at 12:55 AM | Permalink

    As a small artisan producer I agree on all the points made by Doug…..however at the same time I think that the onus is on us to increase efficiencies into our production that does not compromise quality and/or product integrity. This can be a real challenge at times.

  4. PAUL
    Posted January 27, 2015 at 8:43 PM | Permalink

    FIRST OF ALL – LIFE IS A CONTINUOUS PATH OF MAKING CHOICES. WHEN YOU MAKE THE CHOICE TO BE A CRAFTSMAN YOU HAVE TO STICK WITH IT AND DO NOT AFRAID OF REFUSING ORDERS BUT ALSO ASKING THE BEST PRICE FOR YOUR PRODUCT BECAUSE THERE ARE ALWAYS PEOPLE WILLING TO PAY FOR IT. SECONDLY BE AWARE OF THE CRAFTSMEN WHO SUDDENLY FOUND NEW WAYS TO SUDDENLY DO THE SAME HANDWORK WITH LARGE PRODUCTIONS. BECAUSE IT IS SIMPLY NOT THE SAME – NEVER. THESE ARE THE WEAK CRAFTSMEN STILL GOING FOR THE BIG BUCK. WE HAVE LET GO OF FEW OFFERS FROM LARGER COMPANIES TO BUY US AND THEN…? WHAT IS NEXT? THAT COMPANY'S INTENTION IS TO GROW AND ALL THE PROMISES AND PRODUCTS ARE NOT THE SAME ANYMORE. MY ANSWER HERE IS: STICK TO YOUR PRINCIPLES AND THERE ARE ALWAYS SOME WAYS TO INCREASE PRODUCTION JUST BY EFFICIENCY BUT AS SOON AS YOU MAKE TOO MANY SHORTCUTS YOU DECEIVE YOUR LOYAL CUSTOMERS AND MORE …. YOURSELF.

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