A trade magazine for the mindful retailer
 

Handmade Shopping

T

he handmade business is growing at an exponential rate. According to a January 2020 report in Business Wire, based on a study by Research and Markets, the handcraft market in North America will exceed $400 billion by 2024.

Though the pandemic hurt many brick-and-mortar retailers, it actually helped many handmade companies grow their business, particularly through online channels. And the fact that the purchasing demographic of handmade goods has shifted to younger people is a good indicator of continued growth in this arena

“To me, support for sustainable goods is not a fad, it’s a way of life. When you make a big difference in the world, you can be more mindful of purchases, you can’t unlearn that. So, the growth for handmade products will continue to grow,” said Manish Gupta, owner and founder of Matr Boomie, a company based in Austin, Texas that oversees and trains 1,000 artisans in India, representing about 40 artisan communities primarily comprised of women in rural areas.

The Appeal of Handmade Goods

Consumers are drawn toward handmade products for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the desire to obtain something unique that did not come off an assembly line.

Making human connections is one major reason why handmade goods have an allure for many buyers.

Virginia-based Tasha McKelvey creates small-scale handmade ceramics, specifically, decorative and functional keepsakes inspired by the natural world. “My clay work is intended to be useful. This is art that is meant to be touched. In the past, everything we used in the home was made by hand. Today, our homes are filled with stuff stamped out by machines. When we seek out handmade art and goods, we make our surroundings a little more human,” said McKelvey.

Alicia Wallace, chief operating officer of All Across Africa, a handmade company with the mission of creating jobs and alleviating poverty, agrees. “We are craving human connection, now more than ever. Many of us want to be traveling and connecting with people, but this handcrafting can fill some of that void,” she said. Wallace added that her company provides videos of where the items are made.

My clay work is intended to be useful. This is art that is meant to be touched. In the past, everything we used in the home was made by hand.

Shopping handmade is also a feel-good experience. A new generation of consumers are discovering that their purchases can not only bring joy to themselves and their intended gift recipients but are directly beneficial to the artisans as well.

“My goal was to bring beautiful handmade products and use that as a tool to support marginalized communities in India,” said Gupta. “I saw it as a good business opportunity for myself, but also as a social enterprise to support artisans in need and to keep art alive. I also wanted to bring to consumers here beautiful products that brings joy to them, it seemed like a win-win for everyone.” His company also supports community projects, such as running literacy programs for women artists and eye check-up camps where free glasses are distributed.

Matr Boomie’s 20+ product categories include jewelry, textiles, hand-carved wood accessories, frames, and bells.

“I always say that our products have a soul. When you see something that is made by hand, it has an amazing uniqueness to it. The feel of that product is very different compared to something that is made by machine. Also, I think because it’s all an art, it is an inherent beauty to the product. Not only touch and feel, but it reminds people of a distant place and time,” added Gupta.

All Across Africa has similar values. The company works with over 3,600 female artisans in Rwanda, Uganda and Ghana to create over 800 SKUs each season under its brand, KAZI. The artisans handcraft such home décor items as coasters, vases, planters, wall baskets and much more, using organic dyes and all-natural fibers.

I always say that our products have a soul. When you see something that is made by hand, it has an amazing uniqueness to it.

The company provides training and sets up cooperatives for groups of 30 to 200 artisans. “They really run a full business, that is what has been able to create a scalable model for this. This is all done throughout rural Africa in women’s homes and community centers. This is an important piece of this business – that women can stay home with their kids and not have to come to a factory setting,” said Wallace. She said that consumers are also drawn to handmade goods because of the quality achieved through handcrafting. “Things that are handwoven just speak to a much higher quality than what can be found elsewhere.”

Where to Buy

Even before the pandemic, online shopping sites like Etsy have experienced dramatic growth in popularity. Buying online directly from makers has also surged in recent years. And many retailers around the country have realized that to stay competitive and meet the needs of shoppers, stocking a selection of handmade items makes good business sense.

McKelvey sells many of her products through her Etsy shop as well as wholesale to shops and galleries. And in a pre-Covid world, she attended regional craft shows. The pandemic reshaped her work, leading her to craft smaller, easier-to-ship pottery. This led to her current signature line of small-scale bird pottery as well as Tiny House Sculptures.

“The ‘shop local’ movement has also raised awareness of the positive effects of spending money closer to home at small businesses rather than at big box stores or from faceless internet retail giants,”  McKelvey said.

Because of the company’s broad product line, Gupta said that Matr Boomie works with a number of different market channels, including independent gift shops, natural food stores, museums and conscious living retailers.

All Across Africa’s products are primarily sold at independent retailers, from “…high end boutiques to surf shops,” said Wallace, though she also sells at international trade shows.

Purchase Behavior Influences

McKelvey said that because many customers are minimizing the number of things that they own, they want their purchases to be special. “Purchasing handmade work often offers the added bonus of having it customized to one’s own taste and color schemes. Almost all of the ceramic work I offer in my retail shop is made-to-order, with buyers choosing their own glaze colors. While this means they have to wait a few weeks to receive their pottery, the end product is much more unique and special,” she said.

Matr Boomie’s primary demographic is affluent, educated women in the 30 to 55 age range, particularly those who are health and environmentally conscious. “Our customer is someone who doesn’t have to compromise on the style, who wants to be trendy, who does not want to compromise on the design, but is able to shop consciously,” said Gupta.

Both KAZI and Matr Boomie makes the back stories of the artists available to purchasers, allowing consumers to connect to the artisans on a more personal level. “We help the retailers show and share the stories from pictures and quotes,” said Wallace.

Matr Boomie incorporates eco-conscious principles in their design, a company value that is also key to many consumers. “Environmental stewardship is very important to us,” said Gupta. As consumers gain more awareness about environmental and social justice issues affecting the globe, this social consciousness often affects purchasing decisions.

Our customer is someone who doesn’t have to compromise on the style, who wants to be trendy, who does not want to compromise on the design, but is able to shop consciously

Emotional Design

Emotional design is the concept of creating goods based on its evocative properties — how the object makes the consumer feel. Arguably, it is easier to incorporate emotional design into handmade goods than factory-produced goods, particularly if there is an interesting backstory to the product.

McKelvey believes that when one feels a connection to the objects surrounding them, it makes them happier.

“Choosing an aesthetically pleasing version of an everyday object can make the process of using the object more fulfilling and enjoyable. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard from someone that their coffee just tastes better when they drink it from their favorite handmade pottery mug,” she said.

Gupta said that the design process at Matr Boomie is very mindful, with elements of beauty, tradition, culture and richness in the materials incorporated into each item, along with the social and environmental justice pieces. “All of this together makes an experience. All of these factors together evoke a lot of emotions in the consumers,” he said.

Choosing an aesthetically pleasing version of an everyday object can make the process of using the object more fulfilling and enjoyable.

People want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They feel a strong sense of purpose even if they don’t realize it. Employees choosing to work in a spiritual environment feel part of the mission, a sense of ownership and alignment with this purpose. They see job choices as an expansion of themselves, wanting to add value and contribute in meaningful ways rather than just bring home a paycheck.

When your shop is purpose-driven and meaning-based, customers want to do their best to help it succeed and be a part of its growth. Needless to say, this attitude is opposite from the culture of most traditional businesses. Business models are usually hierarchical, controlling, and determined primarily by financial considerations. Since spiritual people have a more humanistic approach, they sometimes forget that it’s impossible to run an organization without at least some structure and financial control. Conversely, conventional business sometimes forgets that it’s impossible to run a business without spirit. As the poet Kahlil Gibran reminds in The Prophet, “work is love made visible.”

Trends for 2021

 “Everyone is spending more time than ever at home lately, so anything that helps create inviting, cozy interiors or lush, green, outdoor spaces are very popular right now. Handmade mugs, vintage-inspired cookware, soft floral textiles, mushroom-themed decor and anything for the garden are all in high demand,” said McKelvey. She added that 2021 will see more garden and forest-inspired décor and wearables.

Wallace believes that neutral colors will be trending this year. But one thing that will never go out of style is the storytelling aspect. Customers will continue to want a personal connection to artisans and receive assurances that their purchases will indeed make a difference.

In line with current trends, Matr Boomie will offer constellation, astrology, and lunar-themed products this year. Due to Covid, the shift has been from accessories to items for the home. “More and more people are cooking at home, so they are willing to invest in the kitchen and setting up a beautiful table. We’re already conscious about our well-being, so things that make us feel good and be healthy will continue to trend,” said Gupta.

 

 

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Hilary Daninhirsch is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. She has written features and business profiles for dozens of trade and lifestyle publications.