Becoming the largest privately held craft and needlework mail order company in North America has taken a lot of hard work for Mary Maxim. Now the company is working just as hard to ensure that it can keep up with the ever-changing face of the retail world and the modern consumer.

The company began in Sifton, Manitoba, Canada, in 1952, manufacturing and selling spinning wheels as well as operating a woolen mill that primarily produced blankets and work socks. This led to the creation of a mail order company called Sifton Products. Over the next few years, the company moved operations to Paris, Ontario, changed its name to Mary Maxim, and established an office in Port Huron, MI.

Mary Maxim built a strong reputation based on hand-knit designs in the early 1950s, featuring quality knitting yarns and bulky, knit sweaters with designs influenced by North American wildlife. The company designed bulky outdoor zippered jackets to knit using the first easy-to-follow graph-style charts. Over the years, its sweaters have been worn by notable figures such as Bob Hope, Angela Lansbury, Princess Anne and even the Barenaked Ladies for their Christmas album.  

“What we are known for is our hand-knitting yarns; that is how the company became successful and we’ve stayed true to that mission,” President Rusty McPhedrain says. “A lot has changed and we are selling many different yarns, but hand-knitting yarns in conjunction with our in-house pattern designs are our most successful product.”

Today, the company is the largest mail order merchandiser of exclusive needlework and craft kits in North America. Maintaining offices and retail locations in Port Huron, Mich., and Paris, Ontario, the company employs more than 120 people. 

Owned by the third generation of McPhedrains, Mary Maxim specializes in selling crafts, knitting and other hobby-related items. Mary Maxim's exclusive designs include fashion in all weights of yarn, afghans to knit and crochet, as well as decorative latch hook rugs. Mary Maxim also carries exclusive kits in needlework and beading, and offers specially chosen kits from various industry suppliers. Mary Maxim distributes and mails roughly 15 million catalogs a year in the United States and Canada.

Reaching Out

Mary Maxim understands its' customers. Its target demographic is female, as 90 to 95 percent of its customer base consists of middle-income women, aged 50-plus, living in rural locations. The company reaches out to target clients through catalogs, as well as email marketing and renting lists from publications that feature a craft interest. 

“We can gain many new customers that way,” McPhedrain says. “We have built a very loyal customer base, as we have many customers who have been on our list for years.”

The company strives to predict what customers are looking for by employing a team of buyers that attend many different trade shows a year to look at trends in the gift market and fashion industry. McPhedrain says what the buyers see at the shows takes about a year to get to the craft market. This allows the company to see what is coming ahead of time. 

“We have design meetings about a half-dozen times a year to talk about ideas and decide how to go forward,” McPhedrain says. “It is a team effort.”

The buyers track sales and reorder product, forecasting three to six months in advance, to maintain inventory levels and product flow. Constant review of product sales and inventory levels allow Mary Maxim to share inventory between the U.S. and Canadian operations as well as provide same day or next day shipping on all in stock orders to customers. 

Online Opportunity

Mary Maxim may traditionally be a catalog company, but it is by no means blind to the changes in the retail world. The company has invested heavily in expanding its Internet presence to help it reach new customers and increase profits. In fact, roughly 50 percent of the company’s sales now come through its Internet sales efforts. Mary Maxim's website allows the company to offer more product than it could in a single catalog, including paint-by-number kits, jigsaw puzzles and fabric by the yard.

“The website has been getting a lot of attention over the last few years, so we’ve made major upgrades and improvements,” McPhedrain says. “Whether a customer orders from us online, by phone, or mail in, everything is seamless. If a product is in the catalog, it is on the website. We are working to make it easier for our customers to place an order.”

Mary Maxim has also been engaging in more product marketing efforts on websites such as Amazon and eBay. This has helped introduce the company to new customers. 

“Amazon is changing the way everyone does business,” McPhedrain says. “We’ve had some products there, and the results have been great. We want to put more there because it exposes us to new markets and customers. The same is true with eBay.” 

In addition, the blogosphere and social media sites like Pinterest and Etsy are helping to draw attention to the company and its products. 

“Those sites are beneficial because you can get people to start talking about you,” McPhedrain says. “They are used by a lot of people with an interest in handcrafted products, so social media is becoming more viable for us. We’ve been fortunate to get good feedback from there, which adds to the business.” 

As a business, Mary Maxim will have to find ways to deal with issues such as healthcare costs and increases in postal rates. But the company says it will always maintain its commitment to bringing the best products and services to its customers. Mary Maxim believes there could be opportunities to open more retail locations in Canada, while in the United States, the focus will be on offering exclusive products that can’t be found elsewhere.

“The key for us is strong designs, efficient service and quick order turnaround,” McPhedrain says. “That will fuel growth.” 

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