Fall 2010
The Comforts of ‘Country’

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The definition of country might still be evolving but sales from the category can be rock-solid. At a time when your customers are yearning for simple comforts, find out how selling country-themed products can help you cater to that desire.

When Dorothy clicks her heels in The Wizard of Oz, and proclaims, “There’s no place like home,” she was expressing a sentiment that the nation has clung to ever since. In the world of gift retail, “no place like home” is well represented by country décor. “Manufacturers have cashed in on the country look and feel for years because of its presentation of a nostalgic feeling of home,” says Luke Vaillancourt, director of digital marketing at Vaillancourt Folk Art in Sutton, MA. The country look, says Angela Ringo, interiors editor for Stylesight, a trends analysis and forecasting organization, is one that evokes a simple way of life. “It’s typically a humbler look that honors the art of craft and evidence of the handmade. This can include classic Americana, English garden country, or a provincial French aesthetic.” Yearning for simpler times It is a home décor theme that covers a very wide range of products. Country décor can be handcrafted wooden furniture. It can be quilts, candle accessories, or old-fashioned Christmas ornaments. Or, in the case of Country Life Gifts, framed artwork.

“I’m known as an inspirational artist,” says Gail Eads, owner of Country Life Gifts in Lapeer, MI. “Amazing Grace is my top seller, and also popular is the verse from Ecclesiastes, ‘A time for everything.’ I have over fifty-five pictures on the market right now.” Eads thinks her work sells well because it calls people back to a simpler time. What may also help is how she is able to fall back to her own childhood. “It reminds me of my parents’ families and my roots.”

The company also sells floral designs, antique pieces, candle warmers, and quilts.

During today’s tough economic times, nostalgia, especially at prices Grandma would have paid, would be especially appealing. But, as Vaillancourt points out, it’s difficult for any company that produces expensive items to reach out to new customers who might have not heard of their products.

Even so, Vaillancourt thinks there is a healthy mix of consumers—those who are making more meaningful purchases and yet others who are looking for more disposable chic. Vaillancourt Folk Art reaches out to both ends of the spectrum. The company is best known for its hand-painted Christmas and holiday chalkware figurines. To reach out to younger customers, the company created a Glimmer Line that maintains the highly detailed level of hand-painted quality, but introduces a new look to the old medium.

‘Country’ is changing

The “bling” of Vaillancourt Folk Art’s Glimmer Line can best be described as contemporary, but within the scope of traditional country décor. In fact, says Stylesight’s Ringo, the country aesthetic is being reinterpreted in a more contemporary way.

Cindy Lowry, president of North Lawrence, Ohio’s Blossom Bucket, Inc., agrees. “Country is a term in flux,” she says. “Much of the country product today doesn’t look like the country product of twenty years ago, which doesn’t look like the country product of twenty years prior to that. Subtle changes are always being made in order to keep up with market trends. While some themes remain timeless, a specific look may not.”

Melissa Colucci-Hayes, vice president of ESC Trading Company in Columbus, Ohio, sees it in a slightly different way. She sees the shifts in styles as the evolution of design. “Right now,” she says, “the trends have vintage appreciation.” ECS Trading Company offers an assortment of hand-painted sculpted figurines and signs, along with handcrafted art dolls, pillows, and accents.

Vintage works

Although Colucci-Hayes thinks vintage appreciation is the current trend, there are differing views as to how “country” and “vintage” are defined. Lowry says: “Country refers to a rendering of how we imagined something to be, while vintage is a replication of products that existed within a specific time period.” Ringo, on the other hand, says that country maintains a certain weathered softness and a sense of freedom that comes with living in open spaces. Vintage, according to Ringo, can embrace a wide variety of looks—mid-century modern, industrial, kitschy, and pop-inspired. Julie Kreitzer, owner of Yesterday’s Best in Escondido, CA, puts it succinctly: “Country equals simple, worn, functional, warm feeling. Vintage equals age, memorable, quality, history.”

Yesterday’s Best sells historic greeting cards with a touch of sparkle. “Made here in the U.S.A.,” says Kreitzer. It’s the type of product that fits into any gift store, like all country décor items. “All shoppers feel the need of wholesome products to create that warm feeling now and then,” she adds.

Country roads take me home

Walnut Street Traditions in Lafayette, IN, understands that need and sells a wide variety of country décor items, including wooden and upholstered furniture, candles and accessories, lamps and lampshades, kitchen textiles, and seasonal items. “Our most popular country décor item would have to be our candles,” says owner Traci Bratton. “Our glass hurricanes are very popular, and we love assisting our customers with centerpiece displaying. We show our customers how to buy one piece and use it throughout the year, changing it with each season.” Bratton displays her country pieces as if they were in a home, with vignettes throughout the store to showcase the merchandise and gives customers ideas on how to decorate at home. She finds that her customers have many reasons for buying country décor, but they all come back to one overwhelming theme—the comfort of home.

“There is a lot of emotion attached to this decorating style,” says Bratton. “From the feelings to the smells to the memories, country decorating has a warmth to it that no other style allows. It’s a constant welcoming feeling that breathes hospitality.”

So, what is driving this strong interest in country décor? According to Kim Forney of Kp Home Collection in Columbia, PA, it is the way the products remind us to slow down a little bit and enjoy life. “Everyone is busy and tired of being busy. We want to live in comfort and relax when possible,” Forney says. Ringo agrees. “There is definitely a desire to pare down and simplify life, which does drive the demand for a more country aesthetic.” This desire for the more simple life leads to an even more specific area of country décor—primitives. Forney of Kp Homes describes primitive as simple and uncomplicated. “Primitives can be anything old, anything new made to look old and everything in between,” she says. “We tend to mix it up in primitive decorating. We realize it’s okay to mix some old rustic wood items we love with some new items too, and even throw in something handed down through the generations. It’s more about your personal taste in the items and making it come together. Pick a theme and go with it.”

She provides some examples of taking what’s old and giving it a new twist: An old stained hope chest that’s been handed down many generations now makes a statement as a coffee table, or make a cushion for the top using favorite fabric to create a window seat. “A side table or dresser found at a garage sale can be sanded down, beaten, and repainted or stained,” she adds. “Something we once wouldn’t have had a second look at, now has become something different and now we display it with pride.” Kp Homes offers items that could fall into the primitives category: baskets, tinwares, framed prints, and woodcrafts and supplies.

“Primitives are the ‘unfinished’ product,” says Blossom Bucket’s Cindy Lowry. “They don’t have clean lines and crisp colors, they’re not smoothed out along the edges. These are homespun treasures that reflect a time when tools and materials were limited, and every cut, stitch, or brushstroke was applied by an imperfect hand.” With over 20 artists contributing their designs, Blossom Bucket offers extensive lines for every holiday, as well as pieces for everyday collections ranging from farm animals to inspirational. They are products, Lowry believes, that appeal to everyone.

Demographic details

“I don’t think that country product is limited to one type of gift shop.  Country is a bit of a blanket term that covers a wide range of products which have a much broader appeal than may initially be suspected.  While our primary dealers are small, independently owned businesses, we have also successfully expanded our market to include several chains and larger retailers,” she explains. “Likewise, I don’t believe that country has a specific demographic. Everyone has some space that they decorate and everyone purchases gifts.”

At the Village Merchant in Grove City, Ohio, however, there is a particular demographic. Storeowner Kelly Phillips says the store’s primary customers are women between the ages of 30-60. As the customer base gets older, Phillips says the store will try to capture a younger demographic by changing the product mix from time to time to appeal to younger customers.

Her store sells country items that mostly concentrate on general home décor, with candles and home textiles being the most popular items. “Candles can trigger fond memories. Perhaps of Mom baking cookies or a lilac field outside of Grandma’s house,” Phillips says. “Our home textile sales are driven mainly by selection, display and price. We carry a very large selection and many of the styles can fit in many different types of home. We display each pattern and style.  The stock is neatly organized so the customer can find what they are looking for in the display.”

Phillips understands that not only is it important to attract a younger customer base, her store must also stay current with the trends. “Country has changed a lot since I started my store 20 years ago. It has gone from cutesy farm animals and other themes to a slightly more contemporary look.” Country complements Phillips also believes that country has a special ability to run with almost any look the customer might want. “You can add the most primitive looking items to a more traditional looking decor and they look great together,” she says.

Kristi Paulson of wholesaler Sawdust City, based in Eau Claire, WI, thinks that items that are both stylish and functional will best appeal to younger customers. “The current trend is for less cluttered living spaces, so home furnishings and decor that are not just for looks, but are also [functional], resonate well,” she says. “Also, keeping up on current colors helps draw those who keep up on new trends.”

Which is really the beauty of country décor, she adds. “The simplicity of the country style allows it to fit in amongst other styles as well. Shelves, pictures, frames, and tables in clean lines and contemporary colors can fit well in a variety of gift stores.” Sawdust City LLC makes solid pine furniture, signs, frames, and décor, including hutches, cupboards, bookcases, mudroom benches and lockers, shelves, and more. 

Whether primitive or vintage, whether focusing on a demographic that wants nostalgic or enticing a new customer base with sleeker styles and a little more “bling,” one thing holds true for everyone who sells country décor products. As Traci Bratton of Walnut Street Traditions explains best, “Selling country décor is very near and dear to my heart. It reminds me of my childhood. There is a calming force attached to country decorating that feeds my soul.”

Dorothy had it right all along. There’s no place like home.

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Sue Marquette Poremba

Sue Marquette Poremba is a freelance writer based in State College, PA. She specializes in technology, engineering, energy, and IT security topics. She has also published over a dozen essays and is the author of a book about the Philadelphia Phillies.

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