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About 15 years ago I walked into Coach to buy a wallet. It was expensive, $70.00, but it was well made, and, an important selling point, it was made in New York. When the wallet finally wore out this year, I went back to Coach and a salesman showed me a $149.00 wallet that I didn't buy. It wasn't that I think I don't deserve a $149.00 wallet, it's just that it was made in China and nothing special. The reason for the change is that Coach, along with hundreds of other boutique manufacturers, was bought by investors who put a Coach store in as many higher end malls as they could find. Nothing wrong with that except in the process Coach went from being a boutique, high end manufacturer, with a exclusive brand, to an essentially mass market distributor that is only differentiated by the label. Their wallets might be much more expensive than a low end brandless wallet but they aren't substantially different. In the US over the past 20 years many exclusive brands names are no longer exclusive and are just trading on their old reputation.
What does this have to do with woodworking?
In the old days (25 years ago) if you wanted boutique, expensive, high end merchandise you had to go to a big city like New York or London, or Paris. Then exclusive brands became available everywhere, and they were no longer so exclusive. Now thanks to the Internet if you want something exclusive you can buy it direct from the maker, who can live anywhere. This is the premise of websites such as etsy.com. Lots of other small makers sell direct from their own personal websites. The mass marketing of formally exclusive brands has created a vacuum for new exclusive brands.
On the furniture side of things where thirty years ago there was a thriving industry of US made furniture that was sold as a once-in-a-lifetime purchase today mass market furniture is marketed by IKEA and it's competitors to be disposable.
The issue in fine furniture making on the professional level has never been about making the furniture. It's been about finding customers. There is opportunity here. I'm just not sure what it is. I do know that in my industry - woodworking tools, there are dozens of new, small hand tool companies earning a living and making a profit because the Internet is making it possible for the toolmaker to sell worldwide. For the high end seller marketing via Google adwords is usually a waste but with the Internet relentless self-promotion has never been easier. For the first time the thousands of rich people who CAN afford bespoke furniture can find you on the web, if not directly then through their decorators who are always looking for the NBT (Next Big Thing). All of these people are looking for interesting, well made furniture, that has a compelling story of craft behind it, and isn't something you can buy at the nearby luxury mall.
The trick is figuring out how to reach these potential customers them and that takes some imaginative thinking. Any thoughts?
P.S. My wife bought me a perfectly good wallet on sale for about 20 bucks. Case closed!
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.