After seeing a show the other night, my wife and I walked down Madison Avenue. This strip of New York City has some of the more rarefied shopping in the world. While the stores were all closed, the windows were lit, and a theory that has been banging around my head for several years passed another test. It has to do with those of you who design, build and sell furniture.
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Lower Madison Avenue is mostly multinational flagship stores. But upper Madison Avenue, where there are more wealthy people living than there are tourists, is loaded with small boutiques with tiny or unique brand names. With the exception of Ralph Lauren on 72nd Street, most of the stores on upper Madison Avenue aren't household names—and wouldn't want to be.
That's because every consumer, in all markets, wants to be treated special and these stores all thrive on selling expensive exclusivity. These stores are small, and if they expanded too much or didn't constantly ensure that their store and merchandise was unique, they would vanish from Madison Avenue. Many do and then new stores take their place.
A furniture maker is in exactly the same situation as these stores. Let's take the example of a bespoke table that you'd make for a client. Let's say it takes you a week to build, and that being a trained craftsman you want $1,000 for your effort, plus materials cost. This of course doesn't take into account marketing costs, the time you spent in outreach, and the time you spent with the client finalizing the design. But let's say $1000 for now anyway.
$1,000 for a dining table isn't a lot for all your effort, and typically dining tables are several thousand and up. But it doesn't matter; the number of people in this country who can spend $1,000 on any bespoke piece of furniture is pretty small. The very cost of bespoke furniture limits your customer base.
The stores on Madison Avenue spend a lot of time and money to make sure that they have unique exclusive merchandise. That there are so many stores on Madison Avenue that are small and not well known, shows how important exclusivity is for selling to people can afford something special.
For the single craftsperson there has always been a compelling story of a personal relationship with a customer, with the very fact of limited production being appealing. There is also the compelling appeal of a customer "discovering" a new maker, like "I found a little shop in Bushwick that's hard to get to and nobody has heard of...." You can deliver the exclusive product that customers want. The trick has been getting the word out to potential customers without the advantages of being located on a ritzy street right down the block from where the ideal customers live.
But with the arrival of the internet, everything has changed. New methods of communication between maker and customer now exist, with increasing numbers of news and promotion opportunities outside the mainstream media, all with a desperate need for new stories. You don't need a fancy store on a fancy block to reach customers (even if that experience is quite enjoyable.) You can reach customers in a whole bunch of ways that the previous generation of designer/builders could not. There are ways to get good work out there; the trick is finding those ways, nurturing customers, and getting paid enough.
This "Tools & Craft" section is provided courtesy of Joel Moskowitz, founder of Tools for Working Wood, the Brooklyn-based catalog retailer of everything from hand tools to Festool; check out their online shop here. Joel also founded Gramercy Tools, the award-winning boutique manufacturer of hand tools made the old-fashioned way: Built to work and built to last.