The Other Season

Owning and running a Christmas product website pretty much means that it is Christmas all year. What with, planning, buying, receiving, updating, photographing, contacting customers, selling and shipping we are busy with Christmas ten and a half to eleven months a year. The main problem with this, as my banker reminds me, is that we make about 70% of our sales in the months of October, November and December.

The obvious solution is to create a counter-seasonal business with sales concentrated in the spring and summer. The easy answer would be a garden product website. Unfortunately, a lot of other smart people had the same idea, so there are many good websites selling planters, birdbaths, fountains and garden statues and ornaments. Rather than find ourselves offering a “me too” website competing mainly on price, we decided to continue our emphasis on the religious aspects of Christmas by offering religious garden statues.

The natural focus was easy to find. Among Christian saints, Saint Francis of Assisi, often referred to as the “patron saint of the birds and the bees” has  a compelling story which appeals to modern sensibilities. He was the first environmentalist and he celebrated Christmas with “live” Nativity scenes using local village people and farm animals. Our vision for the website and product mix was formed during visits to beautiful and peaceful monastery gardens and churchyards in the US, Mexico and Europe. In addition to Saint Francis, we now emphasize, Jesus, Mother Mary and several other Catholic saints.

We now have nice counterbalance to our Christmas business and we continue to study the saints.

Christmas, Made In America

I just returned from a stimulating visit to one of our few factories making Christmas decorations in the USA. This factory, located in a small town north of Tulsa, Oklahoma is a testament to American ingenuity and fortitude. They make a variety of outdoor lighted frames depicting the traditional Christmas figures, including The Nativity, Santas , Snowmen, Toy Soldiers, Nutcrackers, Reindeer, Elves, etc.

Well there is a lot of this product in the US market, mostly made in China, but also in Mexico. The imported product is lighter weight, less durable but cheaper and tempts  retailers who try a container load but rarely repeat their order the following year. In fact, some of this imported product ends up at the American factory for rework, so it can be finally sold.

Why is the American product better? At first glance, it doesn’t look to be made differently, with most of the fabrication and assembly work done by hand. If you look more closely at the US made product, you see heavier gauge steel and aluminum frames and accessories, you see separate clips and extra ties to attach the light sets to the frames and you see much closer spacing of lights in the set. What you don’t see is the incredible attention to detail, both in the planning of the process but also the control of the production and the raw material, semi finished and finished product. What you don’t see is the weekly “Quality Competition” where production colleagues check 55 separate quality items on randomly chosen product and only 100% perfect wins.

This is a family owned and managed company, currently touted by politicians and economists as “the backbone of American business”, When I visit and am so impressed by a 15 year old  company with, at peak, 20 employees, I am inclined, for once, to agree with the “experts”

More On Religious Christmas Displays

My last post attracted a lot of comment. Most of the writers agreed with my position that religious Christmas displays by businesses, communities and institutions continue to grow. Like one of the writers, many of our creche customers, say that they are going back to what their parents or grandparents did, that is replace the Christmas tree with a Nativity Scene as a symbol of the celebration. The size and detail of the new Nativity Scenes make this an attractive decision.Even the folks who cannot bear to part with the tree are adding a Creche around the base.

I grew up in a time when Nativity Creche  were small, table top or mantle-piece figures and the outdoor Nativity display figures were the tacky lighted  blow-mold pieces that were more like cartoon figures than lifelike. In those days the few large life size Nativity Sets were made in Italy by Fontanini,  were limited to indoor use and were very expensive. Well,  Fontanini has now been in business for over 100 years and its Nativities are still very beautiful and very expensive. Like any exclusive product Fontanini  has generated lower price versions, made in the Orient and the Philippines. These Nativity figures are made of resin and resin/fabric combination  and their lower price and great availability as well as a much larger range of sets, has helped build the greater Christmas display of Nativities we see today.

Religious Christmas Displays

A recent article in a Christmas trade magazine had the following quote by a professional Christmas decorator, whose company designs and installs large scale Christmas displays for hospitals, banks and municipalities. He said “religious themes are pretty much out for public displays, unless paid for and sponsored by private funds” Then he remembered two major shopping centers in southern Florida who displayed the full Christmas Creche within the mall. “I had not seen that in a long time”, he mused.

What an interesting comment and, like a lot of life, there is more to the story. Our website features large outdoor Nativity sets and Creche. Every year we sell more large sets to municipalities and public institutions as well as nursing homes, hospitals, banks, manufacturing companies and yes, shopping centers. The two sets referred to by the decorator were sold by us as a result of missionary work by our customer who convinced the mall management that they were well within their rights to display this Christian religious  symbol. We have had customers who purchased Nativity sets to donate to their local municipality only to have the council get cold feet regarding the supreme court ruling  and have to be convinced by a constitutional  lawyer that they were not breaking the law. Please see the note on our website under “Useful Information” entitled “Your Legal Right to Display a Nativity Scene”

Imports of Christmas Product

As many of you know,The USA,this wonderful country of ours, has mostly given up making decorative Christmas items. We import our lights and ornaments, glass and otherwise, plastic and non plastics artificial Christmas Trees as well as fresh Douglas Firs and the various tree lights mini and otherwise.Near and dear to our heart are Nativity Sets which are also imported.

Most of these Christmas imports come from China, but, given the increasing difficulty in doing business in and with China, importers  have been moving farther afield, primarily to the Philippines and Vietnam. We also bring in Christmas articles from Canada, The UK and Italy.

Given the impact of this Great Recession on all parts of our economy, it is not surprising to find that volumes of Christmas imports are down significantly in 2009 when compared to 2007. Most categories of Christmas imports are down between 40 and 50%

The Great Recession as impacted many established importers negatively. They have lost long established factory relationships, had factories close down or go bankrupt, change product mix to exclude Christmas product oe the importer has lost their bank lines used for funding of import container-loads of product.

As a retailer, albeit an internet retailer, we have reacted by establishing direct factory relationships with smaller factories in China, the Philippines and elsewhere. We are designing our own add and stand alone Christmas items with these factories to put our own distinct look on the traditional Christmas outdoor displays. This looks like a good strategy for us. Time and the market will tell.

A New Story from Brian “Fox” Ellis

We are thrilled to feature a new story from the famed storyteller Brian “Fox” Ellis from FoxTales International FoxTales We hope you enjoy it.

A SNOW MAN IN FLORIDA?

(Or, Why are snowmen part of the holiday celebration even in the south?)

“Mommy, Mommy, please tell us about the snow.”

“Please, please, please,” a chorus of swimsuit clad children were pleading with their mother as they took a break from swimming on this unusually warm, sunny day in December on Miami Beach.

“You see, I was born in New Jersey,” she began for the hundredth time, “and what I loved most about the winter was the snow, soft, deep and fluffy or the thick clouds of howling, blowing blizzards of snow, I just loved snow.”

“When will it snow here, mommy? Why don’t it snow here?” were Charlie’s constant questions.

His older sister Sarah answered, “cause it’s too warm here, the snow would melt, silly! Shush.”

Mother continued, “When I was a little girl, not much bigger than you, I remember school being cancelled because of the deep snow. I remember being so excited to spend the day playing in the snow with all of my friends!”

“We would all bundle up in layers and layers of clothes, long underwear, two or three shirts, a sweater, a jacket, a coat, mittens, boots and a hat. We wore so many clothes it was hard to walk. We would all meet at the park down the street. My brothers would go off with the older boys and build a big fort for a rowdy, wet and cold snow ball fight.

“One of the older girls would line us all up and make sure we all stepped in the same footsteps, so 30 kids left only one set of tracks. When she gave the signal, we would all fall down on our backside and move our arms and legs just so… this was not just any old snow angel, no way, by working together we could make a whole choir of angels, a heavenly host singing hallelujah!”

“But my favorite part of winter was making a snow man. When all of us kids worked together, the bigger kids making humongous snowballs, the middle sized kids making medium sized snowballs and the little kids making heads, we could make a whole family of snowmen, snow women and once we even tried to carve a snow dog!”

The kids laughed. The mother was lost in moment of nostalgia, remembering those warm feelings on that coldest of days.

The kids ran off towards the surf. As the youngest boy lay down, he moved his arms and legs just so, making a sand angel. Mother smiled. An idea flashed across her imagination.

On the way home she bought a bag of ice. While the kids were showering and changing, she shaved the ice in the icy maker, forming it into large and smaller snowballs. By the time the kids came back down stairs, there was an entire family of snowmen, snowwomen and even a snow dog sitting in bowls on the kitchen table. The kids laughed and clapped as mother coated them in flavored syrup and everyone ate their own icy snow man.

The oldest daughter Sarah had the biggest Cheshire grin, but said nothing. She knew what lay under the tree wrapped in glittery ribbons and bows.

On Christmas morning, when mother opened her present and first saw a picture of herself as a little girl bundled up in many layers, standing next to a giant family of snowmen, she had a puzzled look on her face. She folded back the tissue paper and saw a beautiful glittering snow man and her heart melted.

“Momma, I got you a snowman that will never melt!”

How many Christmases had passed since that first snowman?

“And so you see, that is why we have snowmen for Christmas, even in the south. That momma, that was your grandmother; that boy, Charlie, was your Uncle Chuck; and that older sister, Sarah, that was me. My grandma sent me the picture of my mother from her snowy childhood in New Jersey.”

As the children sat quietly, snuggling with their mother, they knew they had seen beautiful crystal snowmen, wooden carved snowmen, even plastic snowmen that danced and sang with brightly colored lights, but they had never seen a real snowman.

Their eyes were drawn to the shelf in the corner above the Christmas tree, loaded down with snowmen of all sizes. There were tall snowmen standing under the tree, and several snowmen hung as ornaments upon the tree. The children now knew why their mother loved them so, and wondered, because of the snowmen they had seen at their friends’ houses, how many of their friends longed for the cold bite of snow upon their cheeks.

Dedicated to Trisha Shabet, whose grandchildren still make snowmen for her every winter!

© Brian “Fox” Ellis – www.foxtalesint.com

Interesting Times

It’s an often quoted cliche that there is a Chinese curse which says “May you live in interesting times”. Nevertheless, each new development in the market, email from supplier or service provider, rumor of supplier bankruptcy, price increase, price decline or shortage brings that thought to mind.

Recent letters from our logistics company warn of severe shortages of containers from Asia and dramatic increases in container costs to “make up for” shipping company losses over the last few years. As if these shipping companies didn’t have themselves to blame by adding far too much capacity during the boom times and not wanting to bite the bullet when prices continued to fall. What do they think will happen to all that capacity when times get better and shipping volumes increase? These surcharges may not even last very long after the end of Chinese New Year.

With many Chinese factories closing down or moving to more profitable or higher tech products,there will be more business for factories in other Asian and Pacfic countries such as the Philippines. There will also be more new and inexperienced Chinese factories entering the market without the technical skills or Chinese government subsidies which the older factories enjoyed and product quality could suffer.

The traditional and dominant American/Chinese import company, which designed or specified product in conjunction with several factories, used US trade shows to find out what the market wanted and then imported large quantities of goods to warehouse in the US, is giving way to smaller importers who sell direct to commercial users and consumers, often using only the internet for product offerings. The demise of the trading company Pacific Rim a few years ago, began this trend.

More about this in a later blog. So far it’s fun as well as “interesting”

We’re Back!

Well here we are starting all over again in a new year. We have had a long hiatus imposed by great website business in November and December and by our attendance at the annual buying show at the Americasmart Gift Show in Atlanta (more about that).

We were pleased and gratified that many of our previous customer returned to add to their Nativity sets, buy new sets or purchase new non religious Christmas figures. Many new people found our website, purchased  Nativities or other figures and became part of our customer”family”.As a result, and despite a difficult retail environment, we saw a small increase in sales in 2009.

Many of our customers have been contributing product reviews to help other visitors make a decision. We plan to add a Facebook page to the site so our friends can share their photos and experiences and we may add Twitter to stay in closer touch regarding new product arrivals, promotions and stock limitations, among other things.

The Atlanta Gift Show underlined the many changes in the industry, as several suppliers had changed or lost factories, had new partners or had discontinued lines. We were able to find several new suppliers and identify new product opportunities for our website which we will feature in the coming months.

We are excited about the new products and suppliers we have found and we will share these with you at the first opportunity. We also plan to add “About Us” to the website so you know what our vision, mission and credo are as well as hear from Claire, our company president.

Another Security Idea for your Nativity Set

I had a nice chat with a gentleman from Texas, who shared with me a neat method of securing outdoor Nativity figures to guard against theft, vandalism and toppling over in the wind. He said he got the idea originally from his mother in law or perhaps his father in law, in that it came through his wife who got it from her family.

Living in a windy area, they like to tether or secure any figures they display outside and this method seems to do the trick. It calls  for measured lengths of gas pipe, which is about one half to one inch in diameter along with the pipe brackets used to secure the pipe to a wall or ceiling. Usually, these are attached to a surface with short screws. What he does is measure and cut the pipe to the length needed for short or tall figures and for one or two attachments. He then drives the appropriate pipe into the ground deep enough to be firmly secure and then attaches the pipe to the figure with the screws and pipe brackets.

If he is setting up a 2D wood figure Nativity set, this is easy because he has flat surfaces to attach to. When using this method with three dimensional  filled resin or fiberglass figures you must be careful to find a nearly flat surface, use short screws and proceed slowly so not to crack the statue material. This method may not work for statues with thin sections and many compound curves. Use you own judgment and be cautious. It’s not worth destroying a figure to protect it. We have discussed other, non invasive methods in this blog.

A New Story from Brian “Fox” Ellis

From time to time we are honored with a Christmas related story from the famous raconteur and children  story teller Brian “Fox” Ellis of Fox Tales International. Brian has taken time out from his busy schedule of movie making, musical theatre  production and live performances to write several of his intriguing and entertaining stories for us. The first one is entitled:

Dancing Toy Soldiers, Wrestling Ballerinas and A Nutcracker

The ballet company’s annual production of “The Nutcracker” is a ritual for many families with young children. Every little girl dreams of dancing with the sugar plum fairy. It is the one time a year when everyone and their mother dresses up for a night at the ballet. Everyone wants to see their niece, granddaughter, or little sister in their glorious moment.

My daughter danced as one of the little mice who fought the toy soldiers in a ferocious mock battle. The choreography was thrilling. The audience gasped, held their breaths and let out a palpable sigh when things turned south for the mouse king. In graceful pirouettes the mice wrestled the toy soldiers and everyone applauded. My daughter crowned the Nutcracker with her sword and sent him reeling. Everyone laughed, except the Nutcracker.

For one night we can imagine a cornucopia of candied confections twirling and leaping, exotic treats prancing and dancing on stage. The whole production takes the Victorian idea of ‘visions of sugar plums danced in their head’ to a sweeter level of fancy.

The nutcracker is the prized toy, gallant in his uniform, firm in his self confidence, and the one who cracks the hardest shells so you can get at the goodness inside. He leads an army of toy soldiers to protect the confections from the wicked mice.

At the cast party after the show my daughter won a door prize, a three foot tall nutcracker, nearly as tall as she was! She beamed as she struggled to take it out to the car after the late night wound down. I placed it on the hearth of our fire place, next to the Christmas tree, next to the little table where we would place Santa’s cookies. We all went to bed.

When I woke up the next morning, the Nutcracker had moved. It was over near the back door. The doggy door looked askew. I peered through the frosty glass. There were a wide variety of fresh tracks in the new fallen snow, tracks large and small, some like feet, or should I say boots, and others looked like paws, mostly little tiny paws, but one set was huge. There were also more than a few indistinct wet footprints inside on the rug.

Did the mouse king track down the Nutcracker for round two? Did the Nutcracker beat back another attack on the sweetest confections and exotic treats? What happened last night as visions of sugarplums danced in our heads?

As I placed the Nutcracker back over by the fire place he looked a little disheveled, but there was a hint of a smile painted on his stern face I had not noticed before. As I turned to walk into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee, I thought I heard that song, that unforgettable melody of Tchaikovsky’s most famous waltz whistling in my head. I turned to see where it was coming from. Just then a gust of wind lifted the doggy door. A flurry of snow blew in on the rug, wiping clean the footprints inside and out. This could not all be in my head, but now there was no proof. No one would believe me… it was only the wind I tried to convince myself, it was only the of a smile Tchaikovsky whistling wind…

Our Nutcracker still shows the faintest hint of a smile.