Knitting for a crowd

Samples sell yarn.

This is the first lesson in yarn retail (or any kind of needlework or craft). If you are a shop owner, scheduling your sample knitting for the upcoming season should be a part of your quarterly schedule. In this installment of our Business Sense series, we're going to go in depth on sample knitting, working with designers, choosing the right projects for your customers, and picking the best colors (hint: it's going to be different from your favorite color).

PLAN IN ADVANCE

When you are ordering your inventory in advance of the upcoming season, and you know which yarns you're going to focusing on, choosing which yarn to sample comes easy. As a shop owner, you should know what yarn is going to be your big "push." Is there a new yarn coming out from one of your best selling companies? Can you get sample knitting quantities in advance? If you can answer yes to both of these, you have your first sample scheduled. 

In April, we send our regional sales reps (Pacific Northwest, Northern and Southern California, Minnesota and Chicagoland, Texas, Southeast, Mid-Atlantic, New England) sample skeins, pattern previews, trunk show information, working copy patterns, and yarn availability for the upcoming fall season. For spring/summer yarns, the reps are getting product in November. Shops that see their sales reps get the yarn first, and they tend to also get trunk shows first, as their orders come in and they get put on the schedule early.

Next up is TNNA. When we go to the TNNA show we are showing shop owners, publishers, and designers a preview of our new yarn. You can see everything the sales reps have in person, and talk to us about the products in depth. We bring sample quantities of yarn that can be purchased, so that shops can have samples of the upcoming collections in the shop when the yarn launches months later, and so designers can have things ready to publish at launch time. This means that for the sales reps and June TNNA show, we've already knit our fall designs and have sampling quantities, usually 5-10 kgs (about 50 - 100 100g skeins), of each color. We know what our next fall season will look like nearly a year ahead of time.

So, what does that mean to a shop owner? If you're not seeing your reps and you're not going to TNNA, you are missing a huge opportunity to get a head start on your marketing (and I'm not just saying that because I'm on the TNNA board - I'm saying it because I see it happen every year to really good shops who missed out on an opportunity). If you're finding out about the hot, new thing for fall in mid-September, you may be too late. Your competition down the street may have known about it since April or May, because they see their sales rep. The shop with the slick website in your region may have been planning since the June TNNA show. You may not get the yarn you want when you want it, and you won't have that yarn and sample to display when the product is being shared all over social media. 

So, now that you know all of that, how do you decide where to start?

CHOOSING THE RIGHT YARN AND SAMPLE

Some of this is part mystery, and some part data. Projections are my weak spot. I like knowing, not guessing, and when I learned that a large part of making sales projections was simply gut feeling and conjecture I refused to believe that something that seemed so scientific, so data driven, and so darned important was no more than a feeling you get. I know now that a lot of what gets chalked up to a "guess" isn't really a guess at all. It's based on what you see around you:

What are the trends? What's getting a lot of attention online? What are fashion houses showing in knits? And, don't forget these indicators: How is the economy? How are people doing financially? Is my community doing well, or are a lot of customers saying they're not going on vacation or have put off a home project this year?

Listen to what your customers are saying at knit night, and read between the lines. Now, look at your data. Where are the bulk of your sales? What yarns can you just not keep on the shelf? What sort of patterns are selling best? What are people knitting? What do you want people to make? Do you have a shop full of scarf and shawl knitters that you wish would make a sweater? Are you planning classes and sales to support your goals? Put these two things together in your mind, and make a determination about what you think will inspire people.

IN PRACTICE (based on a true story)
Let's say you look at all your data and you see that you've sold a whole heck lot of The Fibre Co. yarns. (Yay!) You carry Acadia and Road to China Light, because, let's face it, I know as well as you do that these are the two yarns that sell like crazy. You look at your pattern sales, both hard copy and Ravelry In-Store sales. You sold a ton of the Churchmouse Easy Folded Poncho online, and you sold a lot of Kelbourne Woolens' Beech Hill in hard copy form. 

Your customers like easy-to-knit garments that are just a bit more complex than a scarf. They are getting used to following pattern instructions, and want something flattering and easy to wear. Perhaps they are ready to try a first sweater. It's your job to find them easy, flattering sweaters to make in beautiful yarn - because they have basically told you that this is what they want, and the internet knitting community is about to back up your theory. 

Last April, just after we sent our reps out to show Arranmore to shops for the first time, Fringe Association posted Make Your Own Basics: The Pullover. In that post, Karen lists a number of excellent "first sweater" patterns that are flattering on many, many ages, sizes, and shapes.

Top: Echo Lake by Courtney Kelley / middle left: Tide Chart by Amy Miller / middle right: Polwarth by Ysolda Teague / bottom: Classic Hemmed Crewneck by Purl Soho Image courtesy of Fringe Association.

Top: Echo Lake by Courtney Kelley / middle left: Tide Chart by Amy Miller / middle right: Polwarth by Ysolda Teague / bottom: Classic Hemmed Crewneck by Purl Soho
Image courtesy of Fringe Association.

Hmmm... This seems like a promising direction. Is it a coincidence that a number of designers published simple wardrobe basics? Surely not. This is a trend, and your knitters are poised to follow it as long as you give them a little push and a little incentive. Start formulating your plan. Pick a yarn and plan to knit a very basic and beautiful sweater. Be prepared to plan a class and a knit along and do some hand holding for those of your customers who have never made a garment before. This may be the first time some of them have ever thought about making a gauge swatch. There's an evening's event right there!

Take a look at the collection previews that companies are putting out. Maybe you notice that The Fibre Co.'s new yarn, Arranmore, has some very simple sweaters in the collection. As a bonus, the yarn has cashmere and silk, as does another great Fibre Co. yarn you carry - Road to China Light. The yarn has some interesting texture, too, as does Acadia. Your customers have already told you, essentially, that this is a yarn they will understand and has branding and an image that appeals to them. As an added bonus, Arranmore is an aran weight yarn so the sweaters will go quickly! That's encouraging for a first sweater.

Choosing The Right Color

There is nothing that says you have to use the colors in the pattern. In fact, we recommend that you don't! You know what colors sell in your shop, and you know what sort of knitters you have. Do your customers tend to gravitate towards "classics" such as neutrals and navy? Are they more adventurous and tend to buy up purples, oranges, and pinks? Do you have a clientele who look great in and wear brighter colors or do you sell out of the paler colors first? Let your customer base dictate what color you use - NOT THE PATTERN.

We re-knit a second trunk show of the Arranmore Collection and opted to use a different color palette. It's important to show multiple options, because it helps to broaden your customer's imagination and helps them think outside the box. One of our jobs, and yours as a shop owner, is fostering creativity, and this is a great place to start. Choose a color that works for your clientele, and don't fill your shop with green samples because it's your favorite color. It may be your favorite color, but it may turn some people off. Keep a balance, and try to choose colors that are both appealing to a wide range of knitters, and also some that are unexpected - you'll be surprised how quickly your yellow sells out with an excellent sample supporting it!

supporting your samples

Once you've chosen your yarn, your sample, and color you'll want to think about how you'll encourage your knitters to jump on the bandwagon. Plan a launch party for the yarn and showcasing the sample and consider offering a small discount on the yarn and pattern bundle, or with a class sign up. Host a class series, and schedule a series of drop-in sessions. Why not plan a few little prizes for those who finish their sweaters and post them on Instagram? All of these little things make great social media fodder, and encourages customers to buy the project from you - even if they aren't local. You'll have knit the sweater yourself over the summer, so you'll know how long (realistically) it will take to complete. That way you can be planning what to promote next! (Hint: If you've just promoted a sweater, follow up with an accessory and vice versa).

So are you ready to think about spring? We are! Our sales reps will be getting their spring previews next week, so get your needles ready. Share what you're knitting for fall and winter in the comments. We love to know what you're making.