Retailer Scope: Insights from Keith Recker

Image courtesy of Keith Recker

Keith Recker is a busy man. When he isn't color forecasting for clients like Pantone and WGSN and taking the helm at Barberry Handmade, he's running HAND/EYE magazine. HAND/EYE profiles creators of craft, innovations in handmade design, and transports its readers to faraway places. If that weren't enough, he also sits on the boards of International Folk Art Alliance and The Global Center for Cultural Entrepreneurship. Did we say he was busy? That's a bit of an understatement. His enthusiasm for creating connections through craft and storytelling was immediately apparent, and his excitement is infectious. We had the privilege of getting some profound insights from this industry leader for you, our retail partners. Read on for some amazing tips on how to create meaningful connections with your customers and keep things fresh all year round. 

After working with big companies such as Saks, Bloomingdales, and Gump’s San Francisco, what are some of the best brand practices that smaller retailers can implement? 

That’s a big question! The notion of “brand” these days includes everything from tissue paper to advertising, and then some. Essentially, successful branding means that your customers and almost-customers know sensorially and intuitively something about the experience they’ll have when and if they enter your business. This requires some clarity on the business owner’s part: what is the story I want to tell, and how can I tell that story effectively? Why will the customer care about my story, and am I telling that part of the story well and loudly?

The next step is to look with a cold eye at what you’re doing, from first impression to purchase, and encourage yourself to strengthen that story at every turn.  We try to do this every Tuesday, which is usually a quiet day. We stand on the sidewalk and look in. We stand at the doorway and look in. We walk around the store as if it were our first time.

It sounds old fashioned, but street-facing elements like windows and awnings and signage are investments that pay off quickly. Are they fresh and visible? Do they convey a clean and concise message that can be discerned as people walk and drive by? 

Image courtesy of Barberry Handmade

What does the customer see when they walk in? Are the first displays the customer sees fantastic, seasonally relevant, recently refreshed, organized? Does your greeting convey the kernel of your story, and let the customer know you’re there for whatever they need? 

When the customer purchases, what do you send them away with that makes them feel like they’ve had an experience they won’t have anywhere else? A small example from our store: a hand-spun red jute knot is tied to every Barberry Handmade bag or package, and we let our customers know that this is a mark of gratitude for their purchase, and of respect for the makers who created their purchase. 

Oftentimes, small business owners might not have the resources to keep up with changing trends. Do you have any tips for keeping inventory fresh and relevant year round?

Even as someone who is really interested in trends and the evolution of taste and product, I’m very respectful of the core tastes of the region where our store is located. These tastes change slowly -- and they have something to do with good quality; practical, modest colors, textures, and patterns that will serve the customer for a long time; and a respect for natural materials and time-honored techniques.  

How we combine these products in the store, and in the windows makes all the difference. Creating monochromatic displays one color one week, splashes of fun color the next, and then shaking it up and showing great tottering stacks of every kind of basket the next...we keep moving and look for a sense of fun whenever we can. 

Image courtesy of Barberry Handmade

We’re also not afraid to move things around. If we’ve had an indigo story on the west wall for a month, we’ll move it to an entirely different place and replace it with a different look. It keeps the store’s chi fresh, and it gives our repeat customers some new sensory data every time they come in.

When selling handmade products, how can retailers go beyond the surface and create an experience for the customer? 

Two words: knowledge and conversation. We know at least 2 important narratives about every item in the store: sometimes the story of the artisan who made the product, sometimes an understanding of a technique, sometimes a cultural story or detail that informs the product. If we have to spend some time online getting more information, we do that and share it with our sales associates. We all practice telling these stories, and WE TELL THEM! We hear from customers that re-telling the stories behind the product become part of their gift giving, and part of their own appreciation of the product. 

We don’t print up every story, as we feel it brings down the level of interest and intrigue overall -- almost as if we’re imitating the methods of bigger retailers who need to standardize the buying experience for efficiency’s sake. We like to keep things personal, conversational, intimate, and service-oriented.

In an interview with The Kindcraft, you mentioned that craft is here to stay. How can we expect the world of handmade to evolve in the years to come? 

Image courtesy of Barberry Handmade

It’s axiomatic that constant change is the only constant, so we must expect that the handmade will evolve. The need for intimacy and experience in our everyday lives will continue to pull customers towards the touch and tenderness implicit in artisan goods. I think we will see a need for enhanced understanding of the supply chain, and an ability to articulate pricing structures and how they fairly compensate ALL the hands that touch product on the way from maker to market: if a service is provided, the provider needs to be compensated. I also see that the increasing connectedness of our world opens up the possibility of a more culturally informed customer -- which means that our storytelling might deepen and become more interesting. 

If we see the handmade as an antidote to the effects of screenlife, we will need more of it in our lives rather than less. And we’ll need it to resonate with intimacy, skill, narrative, and humanity. 

As larger companies are joining the handmade movement, what advice do you have for small retailers who are looking to distinguish themselves? 

As a veteran of some very good large companies, I’d suggest that it’s very hard for them to maintain knowledge and narrative and rich experience across big employee rosters, multiple locations, and huge numbers of transactions. Smaller retailers have the advantage of being in relationship to both maker and customer. 

Maybe if we see ourselves as matchmakers rather than retailers, we can bring our advantages to life!  We’re not just selling, we’re creating happy relationships. We’re not just stockists, we’re organizers of the greatest global family reunion ever, linking everyone from everywhere through cultural commerce. We’re not merchants, but celebrants of human creativity and students of global traditions.

Would you like to add to the conversation? Comment below. If there are topics you’d like us to explore in our next Retailer Scope installment, comment or send an email to In this series, it is our goal to provide retail insights from industry leaders.