West Virginians using their hands and the web to sell art
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Tammy Shuff's collection of personally handmade necklaces piled so high after she joined the Kanawha Rock and Gem Club that she started her own website to sell the beaded and charmed jewelry.
But the lifelong South Charleston resident said she didn't have enough necklaces to make the website successful. So she invited other West Virginians to sell their handmade products.
Treasures of WV went live in May 2011.
That year, online retail sales soared to nearly $200 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The Department of Commerce's third quarter 2012 e-commerce (the buying and selling of products and services on the Internet) www/data/pdf/ec_current.pdf">estimate increased 17 percent from the third quarter of 2011. Online retail sales reached $57 billion at the end of the 2012 third quarter.
Shuff, 50, said the most popular items on Treasures of WV are books about West Virginia and glass artist James Woodson's jewelry. There are 11 artisans featured on the website, which sells only West Virginia-made products.
Woodson, a Charleston native, worked at Milton's renowned Blenko Glass Co. and now has a home studio, Perpetual Glassworks by James Woodson.
On Treasures of WV, some of his glass jewelry is sold as beaded bracelets and dragonfly, turtle and heart pendants.
Shuff is in charge of taking photographs of each product for the website, writing a short description of the item, answering customers' questions, and shipping the sold product, among many other duties.
While she said she hates to have to take money away from artists, she keeps 30 percent of the sale of the product and artists get 70 percent.
Shuff said it is important to her to showcase West Virginians' creations because they have always used their minds and hands to make the things they needed.
"It really means something to the artisans because they put the time into making it. It's so much of their heart and soul into whatever they make," Shuff said. "You can't get these items at Walmart. Everything that is handmade is all different. If somebody makes 10 of the same sort of necklace, they won't be the same. These types of items are very special."
Ordering West Virginia-made products online is "not like ordering a case of ketchup where they're all the same," said Becky Henderson, general manager of MountainMade.
MountainMade.com originated in 1997 as a federal e-commerce project for Northern West Virginia.
Former Rep. Alan B. Mollohan, D-W.Va., "realized that, through the use of technology, West Virginia artists and craftspeople could overcome some of these challenges [such as being isolated in the mountains] and gain more exposure for their work by promoting their creations on the World Wide Web," according to the now private nonprofit's website.
In 2001, the nonprofit MountainMade Foundation assumed the program.
MountainMade has a 10,000-square-foot gallery headquartered in Tucker County that sells sculptures, stained glass artwork, pottery and other handmade products by West Virginians.
A 20,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution center sits behind the gallery in Thomas, where orders are taken for online purchases.
Today, MountainMade.com is funded fully through online retail sales, Henderson said.
MountainMade keeps 40 percent of a product's sale while artists take home 60 percent, she said.
Like Shuff's site, MountainMade -- which has represented more than 750 artists over the years -- sells a lot of glass, Henderson said.
She also credits the consistent sales toward the talent of the state's artists and their resources.
"Our artisans are different, particularly because of what they have the opportunity to work with," Henderson said. "What you find in the mountains is going to be different than what you find in other parts of the country. The resources here in the Mountain State are unique."
For instance, one woman who sells her artwork through MountainMade makes baskets out of pine needles.
Artisans who want their work featured on MountainMade's site must go through a jury process, Henderson said.
Shuff, however, said anyone is welcome on her website, and she is excited to watch it grow.
Shuff said running Treasures of WV alone has been admittedly difficult, especially increasing the website's traffic.
To promote her online site of handmade goods, Shuff recently set up a table at the South Charleston Antique Mall. She is broadening her sales to antiques and vintage items, too.
Being able to advertise Treasures of WV through word of mouth and also by selling some merchandise at the antique mall and arts and crafts shows has helped, she said.
Henderson agrees that using a variety of venues is vital.
"I think artisans feel MountainMade presents their products in a multitude of several venues with the website, retail in Thomas and we sell through the Stonewall Resort gift shop," Henderson said. "We have venues that treat their product with respect."
The state Department of Commerce introduced another avenue to advertise West Virginia-made products through the Genuine West Virginia Products Program in 2008.
The program's website was free to all qualified West Virginia individuals and companies. The website listed a profile page for each member and information about their products.
But last year that program morphed into promoting the state's wood products industry, and a new magazine took over the Genuine West Virginia Products Program's role.
WV Edge is a free magazine that promotes West Virginia products and industries. The magazine is also available online.
The state prints 25,000 copies of WV Edge and distributes them outside the Mountain State and to Forbes' top 5,000 CEOs, said Kim Harbour, director of marketing and communications for the state Department of Commerce.
"We don't want people outside of our state to think of West Virginia as 'old time stuff.' There is quality and attention to detail put into every quilt or beautiful wood or glass piece," Harbour said.
And for the out-of-state customers who buy West Virginia-made products through MountainMade's site -- including from Europe and Asia -- Henderson said she wants to make sure they keep coming back.
"The website is bringing in additional sales, and since we are dependent on retail sales, any cent we can make is needed. [The website] will continue to improve," she said.
To learn more about Treasures of WV, visit www.treasuresofwv.com or call Shuff at 304-993-2316. To find out more about MountainMade, visit www.mountainmade.com or call 304-463-3355. To get a free copy of WV Edge magazine visit the state Department of Commerce's website http://www.wvcommerce.org/info/west-virginia-edge/wv-edge-issue2-2012/default.aspx or call 304-558-2234.
Reach Megan Workman at email@example.com or 304-348-5113.