Stay Profitable by Improving Your Product

Stay Profitable by Improving Your Product
by Patrice Lewis
Courtesy of The Crafts Report

 

Let's say you've been blessed with a successful craft business. Through your hard work, business smarts, cooperative customers, and a superior product, you've "arrived." Congratulations!

For the fortunate folks in that position, it doesn't mean you get to rest on your laurels, however. You still have improvements to make. And for the vast majority of people still building their business, the same thing applies: you need to continually improve your product in order to stay competitive in a competitive field.

It's clear that those who are just getting started always have room for improvement, but even established craft businesses can do better. So what are some general methods for improving your product?

The Customer is Always Right

Numero uno is to listen to your customers. They're the ones buying your product, after all, as well as using it. If they're telling you the product is too flimsy, too heavy, too delicate, too clumsy, too expensive, or (unlikely) too cheap, they'll be the first to tell you.

It could be you could change the shape, the pattern, the fabric, the color, or the construction to make your craft more saleable. All these things are likely to be the result of feedback from your buyers.

My husband and I have a friend with a cottage industry making--of all things--reusable feminine hygiene products (www.naturallycozy.com). She has enjoyed resounding success, but she's always looking for ways to improve. Recently, some customers mentioned how the colored thread on some products eventually faded, and it was hard to tell one female family member's items apart from another's. She hit upon the idea of using colored snaps, which solved the issue in one easy step at no extra cost (since she has to buy snaps anyway). Now, each family member gets her own color. The result has been much greater customer satisfaction--and increased sales.

This type of simple product adjustment makes both craftsperson and customer happy. It's no skin off the teeth of the craftsperson during the manufacturing process, and it results in exponentially higher customer satisfaction--a win-win situation.

The Customer isn't Always Right

But, of course, you must balance customer suggestions against practicality. Having been on the receiving end of 18 years of customer feedback, I can assure you they don't always know what they're talking about.

The biggest categories of bad customer suggestions are those ideas that will add time or cost to the manufacturing process, but for which the customer doesn't want to pay any more for the improvements. "Can't you use a finer-grit sandpaper and three coats of varnish on these?" is one suggestion we've heard a number of times, but when we explain that the extra work and materials would mean tacking another $5 or $6 onto the price tag, they quickly decide the old method is just fine, thanks.

Keep in mind, the customer doesn't know your bottom line. He has no idea how long it takes to make your product, or how difficult it may be to change the manufacturing process. He has no idea of the cost of materials, or the difficulty in assembling, or the new tools or equipment necessary to conform to his spiffy ideas of product improvement. Above all, he has no idea of the risks involved in making changes with no guarantee of financial return at the end.

You're the one who knows the bottom line, not the customer. It's a balancing act, and not every customer suggestion for improvement must, or should, be taken as gospel.

If Your Idea is So Great ...

The dumbest customer "improvement" suggestion we ever got was from a fellow who marched into our booth at a craft fair, took a look around at our shelves of wooden tankards, and made the extraordinary mental conclusion that we needed to abandon our current product line altogether and start making wooden trivets "just like grandma had." He was so positive we would become wealthy from his idea that he brought his grandma's wooden trivet the next day to show us (which was helpful, because, up to that point, we had no clue what a trivet was).

When we suggested that perhaps he should be the one going into business making trivets in order to make his fortune, he insisted we should do it. (Haven't we all had customers like this at one time or another?)

Except in extreme circumstances (as in, your product isn't selling at all!), abandoning a perfectly fine product to take a chance on an untested item is risky at best and stupid at worst. After all, what does the customer care if his idea fails? They're not the one taking the risks.

While adding new products should be a part of every craftsperson's business plans, improving existing products is usually a more cost-effective--if less fun--technique.

Go Wholesale, Young Man

It never fails to astound me when craftspeople go to retail stores to purchase the supplies and components necessary to make their products. Skip the middleman! Go to the source!

I knew a craftsperson making cloth dolls who faithfully went to the nearest fabric store every week to purchase yards and yards of the fabrics she needed. It had quite literally never occurred to her that she could find her fabrics cheaper. But, a short amount of internet research revealed wholesale sources where she could buy cotton for half the cost (and with a greater selection) than what she was buying in the stores. All she had to do was provide credit references and a resale number, and she was able to set herself up as a wholesale customer.

Once you establish your credentials, your purchasing power becomes much stronger when you skip the middleman and go to the source. With lower costs for your raw materials, you can increase your profit margin and/or pass the savings onto customers.

Streamlining

Many craftspeople think in terms of saving themselves dollars and cents for supplies. However, not as many craftspeople think about the money they save by streamlining their production process.

Time, as any businessman can tell you, is money. If your product takes a week to make, you have to sell it at a certain price in order to pay yourself for the effort of making it. But what if you were able to shave minutes, hours, or even days from the production cycle with no change in quality? Could you lower your prices and/or produce more products as a result?

Streamlining isn't just about the bottom dollar; it's about mental fatigue, as well. There is a particular step in the production process of our wooden tankards (gluing certain components together) that used to take a long time, at least six minutes each. While that doesn't seem like much, we usually had a stack of 100 pieces in every production run. Multiply those six minutes by 100, and suddenly you're talking 10 hours of gluing just to complete the one step. We dreaded glue-up days.

It wasn't the glue that was the problem; it was the holding the pieces together until the glue dried. We spent literally years trying to figure out a better way to complete this one step, but every solution failed. We simply couldn't figure out a better way than the clumsy, laborious technique we used. So, one day, weary beyond words, we brought in a temporary worker and cannily gave him the dreaded task of gluing up.

Two hours into the process, he asked, "Why don't you use surgical hosing to hold these together while the glue dries?"

My husband and I stared at each other, astounded. In two hours, this man had found the solution that had eluded us for two years. By using his suggestion, we were able to cut our glue time from six minutes each down to one minute, an astonishing savings in time.

This streamlining not only improved our production time, it also produced a dramatic reduction in our mental fatigue. We're still using this same technique 18 years later.

Look outside the box for methods to increase production efficiency. In this case, bringing in an outsider with a different perspective is what it took to improve our manufacturing process.

When to Fish or Cut Bait

Sometimes, it makes sense to improve your overall product line by removing items. This can be tough. It can be like cutting ties with an old friend whom you love dearly. But, if no one is buying that particular product--or it's too costly to make and you can't sell it for what it's worth--then your business will improve by abandoning it.

In our case, our primary products are wooden tankards. But, over the years, we've branched into various other items, including a line of dome-lidded wooden trunks that we loved making. Customers raved over them, but they hesitated over the price, a price necessitated by the cost of time and materials.

As our business matured, and we transitioned almost exclusively into wholesale rather than retail sales, we found we couldn't sell the trunks at all. The added cost of shipping the heavy pieces meant wholesale sales were impossible. Essentially, we were wasting time and money by making trunks, when we could have been concentrating on making more of what did sell. With reluctance, we abandoned that product as a viable part of our business and now make them only as wedding gifts for friends.

In this case, improving our business meant dropping a product altogether.

In the End ...

And that's what improving your business is all about: figuring out what works and what doesn't. Any time you can sell your product at a lower cost while maintaining or even increasing your profit margin, you've improved your product (and your business). Or, if you can increase the speed of your production by making a slight alteration, you've improved your product. Or, if you can substitute a less-costly component because you started paying wholesale instead of retail prices for it, you've improved your product.

In today's harsh economy, it's important to stay competitive. The constant tweaking and fiddling and adjusting of all parts of your business will help you keep your head above the water and your books in the black.


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