Small stores tutor customers

Classes help build loyalty, increase sales for materials

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Becky Pierce, owner of the Smocking Birds Baby and Children’s Boutique, can’t resist giving out homework to her customers.

From her storefront in Costa Mesa, Calif., the longtime teacher offers Saturday classes on “smocking” — an embroidery technique that Pierce learned in the 1980s, which now serves as the boutique’s theme.

Students learn basic stitches on a bonnet during the first of the course’s two parts. They take home projects to practice and return the following week for a critique and to learn more advanced designs, all for $45. The homework ensures “that they at least understand it without me being there,” said Pierce, who plans to expand the course to young girls this summer.

Pierce, 59, is part of a growing wave of shop owners — ranging from chefs and bakers to yarn sellers — offering classes. Classes can draw new customers as well as build loyalty among regulars.

The trend reflects the rise of younger do-it-yourselfers inspired by websites such as Pinterest, which lets users bookmark inspirational craft projects or recipes, and Etsy, where people can buy and sell mainly handmade wares. Combined, those sites report 85 million unique users every month.

But coursework gives brick-and-mortar businesses a weapon against online retailers, who can promise the speedy shipping of a scarf but not hands-on instruction on how to knit one.

Kyla Benson found Smocking Birds on a routine family outing.

The Costa Mesa mom of two and fan of the DIY culture was so enamored with the store’s offerings — from handmade day gowns to bibs — that she decided to take one of Pierce’s smocking courses. After two classes, she was hooked on the stitching technique.

Rosemary Stoll, owner of Mission Viejo, Calif., yarn retail shop Yarn del Sol, says knitting and crocheting, once pigeonholed as senior-citizen activities, now also attracts women in their 20s and 30s.

Stoll, 57, has seen it in her store, which last fall began to offer craft classes and chances for customers to drop in for project advice. Courses range from $15 to $60, and materials may cost extra.

Her clients, regardless of age, appreciate the instruction because it helps “preserve the craft for future generations,” she added.