Friday, September 14, 2007

Illogical, meddling women. (Sadly, they do still exist.)

In honor of my 100th post, I'm going to rant. ;o)

I belong to several Yahoo co-op groups, through which I'm able to afford good-quality raw materials to make things for my family. A co-op is a group of regular 'ol people, whether WAHM's (work-at-home-moms) or SAHM's (stay-at-home-moms) or whoever, who get together to go in on group orders from wholesalers in order to be able to better afford their products. Whether it's the amazing PureWool yarn (soft as cotton, that stuff!), or hemp french terry yardage for home made cloth diapers, or yummy cotton sherpa fleece for pj's for the munchkins, organic cotton bias tape and sewing thread or organic cotton sheeting yardage, they're mostly things that can't be found locally, and are just too expensive retail (if they can even be found). Many of the co-op members are WAHMs who have very small-time operations, and can't afford the minimums required by some manufacturers. (600 yards of custom-milled bamboo velour, anyone?) These co-ops are their business's life blood in a very literal way.

Some wholesalers/manufacturers allow co-ops, some don't. Some require a business license and allow pre-sales, and some don't. Some never ask either way, and don't care so long as you don't cause them a lot of trouble. I've run a couple of co-ops myself, and they're a lot of work. There are long wait times as you try to garner enough orders to meet wholesale minimums; and then wait times for shipping to the co-op hostess and for her to sort, package and send out all of the individual orders. (Not to mention wait times as individuals get their shipping payments in before their orders go out.) Co-ops are a viable way for those of us without two substantial incomes to have access to better quality products for our families, but they're not as convenient or simple as dealing with a traditional retail shop, whether online or brick and mortar.

There is a rather disheartening element to co-ops, though. They're called moles. Individuals who apply for membership to the co-op under false pretense (asking to join as though they'll actually participate in the co-op's orders), who then take the info available at the Yahoo group, and go ferret out the wholesale suppliers and harass them. Sometimes they harass them to offer wholesale prices to individuals and small orders, sometimes it's with the goal of discouraging co-op orders entirely. There have been Yahoo groups with hundreds of members which have shut down completely as a result of moles.

Sometimes they'll come out of hiding long enough to say a piece before disappearing from the group, or sometimes they'll tell the wholesaler or manufacturer that the co-op sales are hurting their businesses (this unfortunately has a fair bit of clout when they have a wholesale account and a live business). Here is my message (recently posted to a co-op I belong to) to those who go about this underhanded stuff, lying to group owners, harassing wholesalers, and knowingly messing with hundreds of people's legal and above-board business dealings.

Unless there's a solid way to document that the advent of a certain co-op has significantly and seriously altered the sales patterns of an established business, (which I seriously doubt), it's ludicrous to claim that a co-op has hurt the sales/income of any given business. Especially an internet business. First, the economy is such a vast and fathomlessly complicated mess that there's no way such causes and effects could be tracked with certainty. For pete's sake . . . even the "big economists" can't agree what causes what anymore. Who are small businesses to make a guess and say that because a certain Yahoo group co-op over there has run a certain co-op recently that it has anything to do with their recent sales? More than likely it was an internet rumor of bad customer service, or high shipping charges, or something along those lines. Something business-specific, not complete-customer-base-specific.

Now, if the Yarn Harlot ran a co-op on Dream in Color yarn, I could see that having an impact. But this co-op? C'mon. 423 members. That's nothing compared to the customer base for even most small-time businesses. Even if the co-op membership was more than an internet business' customer base, what are the odds that EVERY customer of that business would belong to the co-op? I can nearly promise you that there are a lot of places that the co-op members shop in common . . . but not all of us shop at the same places for the same things. No way. It's statistically impossible, not to mention just plain unlikely, barring a campaign. And if such a campaign exists, odds are it will exist for a reason, and said business should sit up and take notice.

The argument that we'd just go buy the co-op'ed products at our local yarn shops isn't sound, either. I don't have the funds to go buy that much yarn locally, even if I could get it locally. For the non-WAHM's around here, co-op'ing is often the only way that we can clothe our families in
much higher quality stuff than we otherwise could. Shutting down a co-op usually means that the money I would have spent on the co-op goes to a discount internet retailer of a similar product . . . not an online store selling the very same thing, or my LYS.

LYS's are competing with internet stores 24/7 . . . internet shops can offer lower prices on a regular basis, but there's shipping and sometimes sales tax to add on, as well as wait times. (I rarely order from Knit Picks because their shipping services are so abysmally slow or expensive. There's no good option there.) Then you can't really see or feel what you're buying, or return it easily if it doesn't work out. The concept of free or reasonably-priced swatch cards hasn't caught on yet, so there's a fair bit of risk involved in ordering online. LYS's can offer a community and support system of knitters or crocheters, and most internet shops just can't. (Besides, even with virtual forums, how many of you can knit and type and the same time?)

Those individuals who are out to shut down co-ops out of fear, or loyalty to some other retail establishment, have no sound defensible base for their actions. No solid way to prove that co-ops are actually hurting anyone's business, and only the red herring of chronology in their defense. And if there is anyone who believes that they do have such a defense please do let me know. I'd love to see it.

Businesses should stand on their own merits . . . not be supported by subterfuge and sabotage.

And to the business owners out there: quit treating your customers as adversaries and try courting us for a change. Businesses are a dime a dozen; it's customers that are the desired commodity. They've got what you want: money. Even if you have the products they want, they'll take their capital elsewhere if you make business transactions painful. (Have you read my Knit Picks rant yet? Do. I'll wait.) Don't do that to your customers. It takes a tremendous amount of back-pedaling and making-it-right to undo the bad taste left in a customer's mouth after something like that. You want prospective customers and happy current customers. Previous customers are really, really bad for your business.

Go read some Seth Godin. He doesn't deal with yarn or fabric . . . but he has innovative ideas on making a successful business, and is darn successful himself. The principles he writes about apply to business--not just to marketing or a specific product or industry. Or, if going to his website is too intimidating, just go straight to Small is the New Big, and read it.

{/end rant}