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Fall 2004 Feats of Clay

Christmas comes 365 days a year for Debi Allison. As the designer and artisan behind the hundreds of adorable hand-crafted Christmas ornaments Deb & Co. (Buena Vista, VA) sells, Allison prepares for the holiday season every day of the year. She tries to add 15 to 30 new designs to the collection each year, building on the existing families of snowmen and polar bears, puppies, kittens, angels, fireplace ornaments, a line called Deb’s Belly Bears, and many more—each of which can be personalized. Although she specializes in Christmas ornaments now, at one time or another Allison has sold it all: jewelry, quilts, hair accessories, bow-makers, plush and more, running as many as 20 carts in 15 locations at once. But her handmade Christmas ornaments were always her best-selling line.

As if designing ornaments didn’t keep her busy enough, Allison is also co-owner of Deb & Co. (her husband Glenn is co-owner and partner). Deb & Co. is one of many companies comprising the lucrative Christmas-ornament market: according to Milestone Merchant Partners (Washington, DC), that market is currently valued at around $400 million a year, with an estimated annual growth rate of about four percent.

Sold on carts

Allison has been sold on the cart concept since 1974 in Tampa, Florida. After high school she started selling jewelry from a cart in an outdoor mall during the week, and at Busch Gardens on weekends. She made the jewelry herself, using then-trendy puka beads and turquoise as her raw materials. When the add-a-bead craze hit, she added the gold jewelry to her cart inventory, but found that the merchandise was being stolen. So she shifted gears, deciding to try her hand at bread-dough crafts instead.

Using a recipe on the side of a Morton salt box, Allison created baskets, plaques and Christmas ornaments to sell at her two carts. Sales were brisk, so she also began to travel to craft shows, attending as many as 47 one year all across the country. Fortunately, her cart agreement allowed her to set up and work whenever she wanted, giving her ample flexibility to travel to shows elsewhere.

It had always been her dream to have a shop at the Ober Gatlinburg ski resort and amusement park in Tennessee. So in 1983, she took the leap and moved there, setting up shop in a cart at the resort. It was at Ober Gatlinburg that she also met her husband, Glenn, who had a cart selling his calligraphy work.

Buoyed by the popularity of her dough creations, Allison decided to participate in the Gatlinburg Craftsmen’s Fair that year. She took only her Christmas ornaments, which were easier to transport, to test how well they might sell on their own. It proved to be a smart move: The first day of the fair was the first time she had ever sold more than $1,000—and that happened every day for the next 10 days. Sales were so strong that she had to hire someone to work the booth while she stayed home to make more ornaments. “I could make 144 fireplace ornaments a day,” just to meet the demand, she says.

Her success at the Gatlinburg fair led to opening a cart in Atlanta’s busy Perimeter Mall. “The manager approached me about setting up a cart there,” and—not one to turn down a terrific opportunity—Allison said yes. But they had to find a way to make it happen.

“My mother, Gloria Gallo, always says, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way,’” says Allison. Unfortunately, the “way” was countless hours of crafting for her, and seemingly endless travel for him. She stayed in Tennessee and focused on the production side of the business, creating Christmas ornaments day and night. He worked the cart, returning to Tennessee two nights a week to pick up more inventory. “He would leave the mall at closing time, drive four hours home to pick up the ornaments, sleep a couple of hours, then turn around and drive back to be at the cart by the time the mall opened,” she says.

But it was worth it. The $30,000-$40,000 they made that holiday season was the big payoff for their work. Seeing what was possible at just one mall, they decided to expand into others. The downside: she was getting burned out. And so they branched out to other cart concepts. “One year, we had five or six carts in one wing of a mall, all different concepts,” she says. Plush, quilts, hairpieces—they tried them all as a way to supplement the Christmas-ornament business.

They soon discovered that the Christmas ornaments still sold best. So they went back to selling only ornaments, supplementing her creations with merchandise from other suppliers to fill in the selection.

Another discovery: “There are only so many ornaments you can personalize in a day,” she says. As a result, Allison decided to move into the wholesale side in 2001, and during the next couple of years, scaled back the business’s retail operations to just one cart. “We wanted to focus on helping other cart owners be successful,” she says. And perhaps the biggest growth move: Deb & Co. decided to look for a manufacturer to produce the ornaments, and eventually selected one in China that was as quality-driven as Allison was. Now with the Chinese manufacturer on board, instead of having to crank out hundreds of ornaments daily, Allison may do one or two creations a day that will serve as prototypes of possible future designs.

Artist at work

imageDespite the somewhat slower pace of turning out new designs, the work is still quite intricate. Allison hand-sculpts each ornament from polymer clay, such as Fimo, Sculpy or Premo clay, depending on the color and effect she wants to achieve for the particular ornament. She starts each piece by rolling the clay between her hands to form a ball, then shapes it into an individual arm, head or whatever component she needs. For thin, flat pieces, Allison rolls the clay with a rolling pin and then runs the pieces through a pasta machine to flatten and stretch them more. Depending on the piece, she also uses various pottery tools such as a stylus, needle or ribbon tool, to shape and transform the clay. Slowly, the animals and characters take shape.

Once the pieces are assembled, the ornaments bake for 20 minutes to an hour in a conventional oven. (Sometimes smaller pieces are pre-baked and then attached to a larger piece before being finished.) After that, she adds the decorative details with materials such as glitter, ribbon and lace. “It takes me about four hours to do one,” she says. “A few of the more complicated ones can take as long as six to eight hours. And I have one piece I haven’t released that took three days, off and on.” Which still seems speedy, given all the work involved.

Once Allison is happy with a design, she makes 10 to 12 identical prototypes to ship to the manufacturer, including photos and detailed notes as guides to the completed ornaments. The manufacturer ships samples back to her for approval, followed by more notes about what detail may have been missed or what needs to be corrected before production can begin. The whole process takes eight to 12 months, she says.

Unlike competitors that simply pour resin into molds, each of Deb & Co.’s pieces are individually shaped by hand. The factory produces the ornaments much the same way Allison makes them. Workers use the same tools and techniques—albeit in an assembly-line formation—to match and replicate her prototypes.

In the early years, Deb & Co.’s fireplace ornament with personalized hanging stockings was the big seller. Then in the mid-1990s, the snowman family gained popularity. And last year, the polar bear family was the big hit of the 2003 holiday season.

After spending four to five months in the studio to develop the next year’s ornaments, Allison frequently has at least 15 new designs to add to the list of available decorations. This year, however, she was especially creative: approximately 100 new designs for 2005.

What makes Deb & Co. ornaments so special, she believes, is the attention to detail and the care she puts into getting each animal or character just right. Couple her ornaments’ lifelike charm with the growth in the popularity of personalization, and it’s easy to see why wholesale revenue at Deb & Co. has increased exponentially. What began in 2000 as a $200,000 business topped $1 million just three years later, with higher sales expected for 2004. On the retail side, with prices ranging from $7.95-$14.95 ($2-$5 wholesale), Deb & Co. ornaments are affordable, and free personalization increases the ornaments’ perceived value.

Beyond Christmas

Although sales certainly pick up at Christmas, says Allison, many carts sell ornaments year-round, particularly at tourist venues. And with the company’s expanding line of occupational, seasonal and hobby themes, the ornaments offer more than a holiday tradition for buyers, and a bright, busy new year for Deb & Co.

Marcia Layton Turner -- Turner writes frequently for business publications. Her work has appeared in Business Week, Business 2.0, MyBusiness and numerous trade magazines. She is also the author of Emeril! (John Wiley & Sons, 2004).

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