When Steve and Kathy Elkins took over day-to-day operations in 2002 of the Northampton-based business, WEBS—a.k.a. America’s Yarn Store—they knew that its future was on the internet. “Back then, the shift to the internet was scary, because our customers are very tactile,” Kathy told Marc Weinberger’s class, “Managerial Perspectives on Marketing Strategy,” on the students’ site visit to WEBS earlier this fall.
Since then, Steve and Kathy’s repositioning of the business has proved prophetic. Today, with 90% of its business online, it is the nation’s largest online retailer of knitting services and supplies (15,000 SKUs). And its 16,000 square-foot facility (Since 2012, it has operated a separate warehouse in Easthampton), is the biggest knitting (and weaving) shop in the world and a prime destination for savvy knitters.
A Social Imperative
Ninety-five percent of those consumers, noted Steve, are women—“Your marketing to them can’t be an Old Spice commercial,” he told the students. They skew toward age 45 and up, he continued, but are tech-savvy and comfortable with social media. That dovetails, he said, with the strong social component of the knitting subculture.
To that end, WEBS has 10 million members on Ravelry, the leading web site for all-things-knitting, which includes reviews and interactive discussions of knitting products, techniques, and retailer performance. WEBS customers also share insights on the retailer’s own blog, its Facebook page, and Twitter. And they listen to its weekly podcast, hosted by Kathy, on its website and iTunes. Its 400 archived podcasts receive 10 to 12 thousand downloads each week.
WEBS’ social media footprint has other positives, including “how-to’s” on YouTube and tips from fellow knitters. “When customers have complaints, other customers take care of the problem 90% of the time,” observed Kathy. The company’s adaptive marketing channel mix, she emphasized, reflects the internet’s dominance with its customers. “We’re dropping 75% of our print advertising this year,” she confessed. (The company still issues four major hard-copy catalogs each year.)
Steve and Kathy inherited WEBS from Steve’s parents—Art '57 and Barbara Elkins (pictured right with Steve, Kathy, and other family in the Elkins Business Intelligence Boardroom located at Isenberg). The business dates from 1974, when Barbara and a friend—both avid weavers—conspired to support their habit by teaching weaving, selling yarn, and renting looms to fellow enthusiasts. Barbara became sole owner in 1977 and Art, a 1957 Isenberg grad, who subsequently taught management at the school and became its associate dean, joined Barbara as co-owner in 1987. Together, the couple grew WEBS into a national leader in retail yarns and supplies for knitting and weaving. When Steve and Kathy—both with MBAs and Fortune 500 experience—took the baton in 2002, annual compounded growth accelerated to 25%.
For the current owners, optimizing every interaction between the WEBS team and its customers is critical. That includes Steve and Kathy’s own high visibility as owners. “We want them to see us as real people—that they’re buying from the Elkins’,” she emphasized. At the same time, “getting each order out is just as important,” remarked Steve. “It’s as much a part of marketing as anything else.”