Walk into our warehouse in New Hamburg, Ont., and you’ll notice something you wouldn’t have seen four or five years ago: a few empty shelves.
And that’s a good thing.
For 70 years, Ten Thousand Villages has brought handcrafted items from around the world to the North American marketplace. These past few years have seen not only an uptick in sales, but also a larger impact on makers’ lives. We sat down with Holly deGraaf, Director of Retail Operations & Public Relations and Interim General Manager, to find out more.
Back in 2013, Ten Thousand Villages Canada was facing three years of stagnant growth and was losing money. Has the organization turned itself around?
Holly: That’s right – and we have. We had to make difficult decisions. We ended up with a smaller team at head office and we closed some of our retail locations. But what got us through all of that was remembering who we were doing this for: our artisan partners who rely on orders from us. Their livelihoods depend on this. So we needed to figure it out and put ourselves in a position where sales would grow so we could purchase more.
Since that time, we have seen sales growth year over year that is actually beating industry benchmarks. In our last fiscal year, our artisan purchases were up 12 per cent compared to the previous year. That’s really exciting because it’s what our mission is about. It’s not about what we do in Canada – although that’s how we put ourselves in the position to buy more from our partners – but success for us is about the purchases we are able to make.
Does that focus on artisans – say, on the single mom crafting orange peel ornaments in Colombia or the man supporting his family using his metalworking skills – make the hard decisions easier? Do you have more clarity?
Holly: It can be a double-edged sword. Sometimes what would be a logical decision in a conventional trade world does not work the same way for us. For example, sometimes products made by a group we’ve been working with for a long time will stop selling well. In a conventional trade world, we would just immediately end that. We wouldn’t place any more orders. But in our position we say, ‘OK, we have made a commitment to this group. How do we work with them to make their products successful in the market?’
How do you do that?
It happens in various ways. We put a specific marketing effort behind them, or we’ll do some design work with them. In some cases we even take a smaller margin and price the product a bit lower. It’s all with an eye on what’s going to be best for this artisan group.
That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air.
It’s actually quite complex! Because of the nature of the groups we work with, many of them have limited access to materials. That can be a really interesting challenge. If all they have is tagua and tagua isn’t selling, how do we work with that?
On the other side, how has technology changed how Ten Thousand Villages operates? Has they way you work with artisan partners changed?
Technology has made working with our artisans so much easier. Seventy years ago, Edna Ruth was flying over to these places to be with the people she was buying from. Today, many of our artisan groups are able to create digital catalogues. Many have websites. They’re able to show us images of products, we’re able to shop their catalogues and then order products.
We also primarily communicate through email, which is effective, but sometimes when we’re having a hard time communicating, we arrange a Skype call. That allows us to speak to our artisan partners even when we’re far away. All of that is really beneficial.
What else has helped refresh Ten Thousand Villages so it can build on its recent successes for the future?
We have spent time and energy trying to fully understand who our customers are. Who is that loyal Ten Thousand Villages customer who has been supporting us for years? But just as importantly for us is finding that customer who only needs to find out about Ten Thousand Villages for us to become their new favourite store.
Any next steps?
As we build and grow, there will be some changes – not to our mission and the heart of who we are – but we will continue to refine our message and our products. We want to have an impact on even more artisans in the future.
*Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.