WEBS Weaves Retail Magic With Yarn Harlot Event

Ordinary citizens of Northampton, MA, may not have known who the Yarn Harlot is, but the more than 600 knitting enthusiasts who converged on the town of 29,000 people on May 30 sure did. Also known as author and knitting guru Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, the Yarn Harlot made a stop in Northampton as part of a national book tour for her newest title, Cast Off.

The event, hosted by yarn, knitting, and weaving supplies cataloger/retailer WEBS, included a presentation and question-and-answer session by Pearl-McPhee at The Calvin, a downtown Northampton theater. A book signing at the WEBS store followed, with about two-thirds of the event participants attending, says Kathy Elkins, co-owner and vice president of marketing at WEBS.

Excitement for the Yarn Harlot event draw fans from towns four hours away, as well as California, North Carolina, Ohio, and throughout New England and New York—all through promotion done primarily through WEBS’ blog and podcast, Elkins says. Attendees waited hours at the WEBS store to meet Pearl-McPhee and pick up a signed copy of Cast Off.

With a 5,000-sq.-ft. retail space, an 11,000-sq.-ft. warehouse where customers can “scavenger hunt” for miscellaneous or discontinued yarns, and a staff of knitting enthusiasts, WEBS isn’t your average little yarn store, Elkins says. That bodes well for events like the Yarn Harlot’s visit, which gave fans plenty of room to network, knit, and shop—in this case, until 11 p.m. when WEBS finally closed shop for the night, five-and-a-half hours later than usual. “Once you get them in the store, they’re going to shop,” she says. Sales from the day were four times higher than a typical Wednesday for that time of year.

Any event needs excitement built around it to attract participants, not to mention customers. “If you can create excitement and a reason to come to the store, they’re going to shop,” Elkins says. “You’ve got to be excited about your brand. It’s basic retailing. It’s not rocket science. We’re not sprinkling some magic fairly dust.”

Even when selling a product line that doesn’t change frequently–such as yarn–you have to keep the store assortment looking fresh. Elkins says she and her husband/WEBS co-owner Steve constantly “change things around” in both the catalog and retail store, even if there is no new product to display. “The store will be mixed up and you’ll think we did [get new product in the past week] because of the store layout,” she says.

The Elkins’ took over the business in 2002 from Steves’ mother Barbara, who had cofounded it in 1974 in her basement. The marketer now mails four 64-page catalogs a year including a 32-page summer specialty book offering its own yarn brand Valley Yarns. Elkins says she will separate knitting and weaving supplies into two catalogs and plans to mail a small weaving-only catalog in the fall and spring. The company also includes the Yarn.com Website; catalog and Internet account for 65% of sales and are growing at 30%-35% a year, compared with annual retail growth of 8%-10%.

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