Scrapbooking may be a sentimental leisure activity, but it's been a boon to the nearly $30 billion-a-year U.S. craft and hobby industry.
The paper and memory craft category, which includes card making and rubber stamping, represents 10 per cent of that market. But after two decades of expansion, then a recession, several key U.S. suppliers and stores have recently privatized, consolidated, or closed.
Canadian firms have stepped up their game in this highly competitive field, with new ones continuing to jump in.
Domestic manufacturers, located primarily in Ontario and Quebec, offer rubber and clear stamps, scrapbooking paper, albums, decorative embellishments, tools and other crafting supplies. The rise of the international market – about a decade behind the United States – and commercial on-line media strategies, have levelled the field for Canadian companies. As Europeans and Asians demand more sophisticated product lines for varied tastes, Canadians are combining distinctive branding with export-savvy business practices.
Several Canadian companies headed to Los Angeles in January for the American Craft and Hobby Association Winter 2011 Conference & Trade Show. CHA's Canadian representative, Paula Jones, showcased nine firms for an international audience of retailers, product representatives and specialty media.
"They're kind of like the underdog," Ms. Jones says. "Canadians know it's going to take more than passion to be successful."
A limited domestic market means entrepreneurs must present diverse designs and colour themes. "Canadian companies know products need to be universally appealing," Ms. Jones explains. "What the globe's going to want, not just what the U.S. wants. I think U.S. companies are coming to this realization as well."
When retailers request multilingual products, Toronto-based Bettina von Gross delivers. The founder of two-year-old photopolymer stamp company MyStamp Box sells internationally in her native Germany, as well as in Taiwan and Sweden, and her products debut this month in Switzerland and the Netherlands. Her stamps, available in English, also have German, French and Swedish versions, which resulted in increased sales.
"People enjoy stamping in their native language," Ms. Von Gross says. "They don't always want English."
Your Next Stamp, a fledgling Kitchener, Ont.-based rubber stamp manufacturer, offers globally appealing, whimsical, multicultural images. Owner Karen Dedman's intent at CHA was to reach as many international retailers as possible. "You get credibility just for showing up," she says.
"I did as much business in four days as I had in the past 12 months."
Ms. Dedman not only picked up clients in the United States, Britain, Singapore, Australia – closer to home she brought four stores in British Columbia on board, and cut a deal with Calgary-based domestic distributor Scrapbook, Eh Wholesale.
Successful Canadian manufacturers have also addressed business obstacles that restrict access to foreign retailers and consumers, either by sourcing international distributors, clearing freight and customs to ship from a U.S.-based address, or moving stateside.
"These companies are diversifying their sales locations," explains Christopher Williams, assistant professor of international business at the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business. "That's important not only for gross sales, but to manage risk.
"If one market becomes a troubled spot, then you have others to fall back on."
He notes that export strategies don't develop overnight. Smaller, nimble Canadian firms have benefitted competitively by surviving limited pre-development domestic sales and sporadic exporting, allowing time for consistent export traffic to emerge.
"Canadian companies have branched out," industry veteran Melissa Frances observes. Back in 2004, when Ms. Frances released a scrapbooking line under her own name, her attitude was: "I'm talented enough to share what I have with the world, and I want to sell internationally."
Business and personal reasons compelled her to relocate her company to Pennsylvania in 2009. Now 60 per cent of her business is international. Scandinavians have responded well to her renowned, timeless vintage products, and Russia is her latest growth market.
Canadian manufacturers also benefit substantially from being on-line, which facilitates global visibility and product education. Ms. Frances says her blog is her "No. 1 sales tool," and she personalizes her sales by posting up to four crafts a week featuring her product line – an important adjunct to the yearly catalogue.
"We did not start our company with money in mind, but we were forced to grow," says Hélène Métivier, co-founder of art rubber-stamp company Magenta. The 20-year-old Laval, Que.-based manufacturer has a diverse sales mix: 15 per cent international, 40 per cent American, and 45 per cent Canadian, with Asian markets accounting for an increasing slice of the pie. The products are sold through independent retailers, discerning stampers, card makers and mixed-media artists.
Since 1993, Ontario licensed artist Kelly Panacci has designed and brought to market about 450 products, accounting for $14 million in retail sales, with collections available in 5,000-plus shops in 30 countries. Ms. Panacci's 2011 Valentine's line, featured in every North American Michaels craft store, included more than 30 designs for U.S. manufacturing giant K & Co. Despite a proven Canadian track record, Ms. Panacci was hesitant to meet the industry heavyweights.
"Maybe they don't want to work with us, because we're from Canada," Ms. Panacci's husband and business partner Mario recalls was their initial thinking. "The opposite was the case: 'Oh no, we know all about you, we want to work with you.'"
Special to The Globe and Mail