Online purchasing is giving rise to small businesses that take the middleman out of the supply chain. The so-called “direct-to-consumer” model has changed the way we buy even the most mundane products, from mattresses to razor blades.
One example is an Asheville-based pottery maker hoping to capture a larger slice of the ceramic dinnerware market. East Fork Pottery is facing some challenges -- due largely to its rapid online success.
A line of people formed along the brick sidewalk, outside East Fork’s shop on Lexington Avenue on a Thurs. morning in April.
They started arriving around 10am, hoping to beat the anticipated deluge of online shoppers to East Fork’s website, which didn’t stock the new inventory until noon. The Black Friday-like anticipation surrounded the release of two new glaze colors, “big sky” and “celery.”
“I think I’m team celery,” Lillian Childress, one of the first in line, said. She came to buy some mugs in the citrusy green hue. The $36 coffee mugs are usually the first item to sell out.
“I remember when I bought my first mug from them a few years ago, and I fell in love,” Childress said. “No, I’ve never waited outside for pottery before. But this has been on my calendar!”
The doors promptly opened at 11am, and the crowd shuffled in. Very soon after, people started stacking bowls and plates in their arms, cradling them like newborns. Childress held a mug in hand, and gave it a few gentle bounces. What is it that makes it so special?
“I feel like I am holding Earth. It is solid, it’s heavy, it’s simple. Look at that. It’s got mojo,” Childress said.
Whatever “it” is, East Fork says its inventory of 1,704 mugs sold out by 4pm that afternoon.
Traffic to their online store spiked 500 percent, more than any other day in the company’s history. It could be partly to blame on the Food Network posting a story that very morning, dubbing the clay vessel “the internet’s favorite mug.”
Co-founder Connie Mattise shared a frantic update to East Fork’s Instagram story.
“Not everyone will get a mug today, believe me we wish that wasn’t the case, we are doing our very best, we are just humans,” Mattise said.
That’s East Fork’s biggest stumbling block right now. Demand has grown so rapidly in a few years, and the company can’t always keep pace. While selling out of product may seem like a good problem to have, co-founder and Connie’s husband Alex Matisse says it comes with logistical challenges.
“It’s difficult to plan for it because the way we plan is by knowing exactly how much we can make. Right now we’re in this funny paradigm of referring to our sales goals as an actual sales budget, meaning there’s something to meet and not exceed,” Matisse said. “Which is kind of an odd thing for a company to say, but we hope that's not always the case.”
The supply-demand imbalance isn’t new or unusual. Particularly as businesses like East Fork -- called direct-to-consumer brands -- take up a larger share of the market.
“Consumers are much more focused on niche requirements. They’re not buying as many commodities, they're more interested in diversity and specific kinds of products. It’s becoming a much more fragmented market, which is good for companies like this one in Asheville,” Robert Handfield, Bank of America distinguished professor of supply chain management at North Carolina State University, said.
Handfield says businesses struggling to keep up with inventory tend to stabilize by doing one of two things -- raise prices or continue to scale up operations.
“The question is would you lose some dimension of what makes your product unique and what makes it valuable to customers,” Handfield said. “I think that the question they have to face right now: Which of those two paths do they want to proceed and how to work through that dimension.”
East Fork appears to be choosing the latter. Alex Matisse says he doesn’t plan on raising prices. This past year, the company moved from a workshop in Madison County to a 15,000 square foot manufacturing facility in Biltmore Village. Some of the machinery used to press clay into bowls and plates are salvaged from decommissioned plants that are no longer in business.
That’s part of Matisse’s aspiration -- to bring back manufacturing and jobs to the region.
"If this can be a place where people look forward to coming into work every day, and they feel fulfilled, we’ll have done something really right there," he said.
One area where that could happen is the harvesting and processing of the company’s most prized resource, clay. East Fork currently contracts out to a local supplier -- and the company just switched to a new source because the previous producer couldn’t keep up with demand following holiday sales.
Matisse says, no sweat, there’s still plenty of clay in North Carolina, and plenty more mugs on the way. Customers might just have to be patient for a while.