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    Helping SMEs Get Wiser to Consumer Choice

     

     
     
    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 1/2002

    How does a home-based craft business showcase its products on international markets? One answer is through a private sector-driven trade support network, an example of which is found in the Canadian province of British Columbia. Businesswoman Barbara Mowat has set up a process that has given over 5,000 small businesses the chance to launch their gifts and household items on the international market. Peter Hulm interviewed Mrs Mowat about her experience of building up a network of small home-based businesses.

    Interview by Peter Hulm

    Several years ago, the Canadian province of British Columbia (B.C.) took the unusual step of supporting a private sector effort to enable home-based gifts and handicraft businesses to present themselves to potential global buyers at a special wholesale traders' show. The idea was the innovative contribution of Barbara Mowat from Abbotsford, B.C. For 15 years she taught human relations before setting up what became a family business with her two daughters and son. She called the company Impact Communications, and apart from specializing in management training and consulting, it also publishes Home Business Report - a magazine that links up workers from home. As Mrs Mowat put it, "Transfer the skills you have accumulated to something you really want to do."

    The result of her efforts was the first Uniquely B.C. Creative Arts Show in 1989, which was an overwhelming success. Mrs Mowat worked in association with Canada's largest wholesale gift-show producer, and their efforts led to similar events in other major Canadian cities. Since then there have been 47 shows, giving over 5,000 small businesses the chance to launch their gifts and household items on the international market. Perhaps the most original idea behind the Uniquely Shows was to bring in a panel of merchandising specialists from major retailers and companies in the target area to give candid and informed assessments of what the products needed in order to become "exportable" from their local home.

    Mrs Mowat's efforts won her the 1993 Canadian Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Award for Impact on the Economy. Her company now puts together the Uniquely Canada Show. In 1998, she and one of her daughters opened a gift shop in the small resort village of Sun Peaks, B.C. The venture led to the idea of an online retail store to get Uniquely Canada products out to the world.

    Finally, as part of her mission to help small businesses grow, Mrs Mowat helped the fast-developing former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia present its products and services at an international trade show in Los Angeles, United States, in 2001. Following that event, she attended ITC's Executive Forum in September 2001 to outline the lessons from the experience.

    Q In Canada, do most of the small businesses you help want to sell to the United States? Doesn't that limit the aid you can give to developing or transition countries?

    A One of the first things that we have to realize when we go into a new country - whether it's in Asia, Slovenia, Puerto Rico or wherever - is that we can't assume that we know everything about their region. So it's very important for us, when we put together our merchandise specialist team, that we ask the developing country first to define which market they are trying to target. We ask: "Are you trying to expand your exports into North America, and even more specifically Canada or the United States, and then where in those countries? To South America? To Europe? To the Asian market?"

    Once we determine that - and in the case of Slovenia, 87% of the small producers indicated that they wanted to target the United States market first and then to possibly look at Canada - our goal is to bring together the best merchandise specialists that will give the country feedback on the product development they require.

    Q How does that work out?

    A What that meant in the case of Slovenia was that I invited along our generalists: buyers from Canada as well as some top buyers from the United States. Then in order to be sensitive to the culture we brought in an anthropologist, the owner of a gallery who was good at indicating why certain people might want certain colours, certain weavings or certain ways in which a product was developed. It is important for us - a matter of respect - that when we give the small producers feedback, that we are very cognizant of the local/regional needs. When our team comes over, we are also going to bear in mind that some products are going to be developed for the domestic market.

    Q Who else apart from the anthropologist/gallery owner was on your panel in Slovenia?

    A We had a top retail buyer from Canada who does a beautiful catalogue and retail gift shows. We had someone from the Ontario Craft Council, and someone who does a lot of buying in Yorkville, Ontario. We were fortunate to get the vice-president of Robert Redford's Sundance Catalogue and Stores as a United States buyer. Together then, as a team of United States, Canadian and Slovenian buyers, we took each product and provided constructive and specific recommendations (these are always phrased positively) on what the producer could do to attract a buyer in the United States.

    Q What sort of changes were suggested?

    A When we have a product that is very traditional in scope or design, labelling is very important for marketing, but we also suggested that little hang-tags should tell the story of the product. People don't want to know just that something is made in Slovenia because the question then for a potential buyer is: where is Slovenia? We think it is important to mention the specific village, say where it is and who makes it. Buyers in the United States and Canada are interested in the human interest element of the product - what lies behind it. That comes almost first in our purchasing considerations, next to the product, of course.

    Q And other suggestions?

    A For someone who was producing porcelain, we wanted to make sure that they were taking a look at magazines that were trendy, to show them the right colours, designs, etc. We wanted producers to understand that saleable colours may change quickly in today's market, that they need to be aware of this in their planning for trade shows that may be eight months away. Wholesale buyers used to have products on their shelves for two years. It's now eight to 12 months. I always caution people about going for big orders from big retailers, because if you spend a lot of time building your production around their demands, you end up losing the higher-value specialist orders.

    Q You have said this is true not just for producers in developing or transition countries, but also for those selling within North America...

    A Yes, I want to emphasize that when we are doing our regional judging in Canada, it's also very important for us to understand where the product is going to be ultimately sold. A product that appeals to a Torontonian is not necessarily going to appeal to someone in Alberta. You might have more success with folk art and jewellery in Toronto because of the influence of New York buyers who come to Toronto. In Alberta, you are going to be selling to a prairie market - a lot of ranching theme products, beautiful art work with wheat (we had a wonderful artist who produced blown wheat glass). That doesn't appeal to someone on the west coast who will be struck more by scenes of whales and mountains.

    In Slovenia we suggested to producers they have to be careful about the products that they are pitching to the Los Angeles/California market, which they might not realize is different from the east coast/Massachusetts market in the products that would have most potential.

    Q So you work with completely different panels to assess the export potential for each area?

    A Every time you go into a new area you have to work with merchandise specialists for that region. You need generalists because some things are true of all products: design so that it does not fall apart; originality; creativity; the function of the design; people who ask: can it be made better, can it be made with different materials? In Slovenia one of the products with export potential was made from plastic. We thought it had a better chance if it was made from natural materials. But we never say to producers that they must follow our suggestions. We only say: here are some options to consider if you want to target your specified market. Ultimately it is their choice.

    Barbara Mowat is president of Impact Communications Ltd., Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada. Background on the initiatives can be found at http://www.uniquelycanada.com. E-mail: Barbara.Mowat@ImpactCommunicationsLtd.com