Dogwood Crafters updates with help from WCU

Merchants creating their new system

Tens of thousands of inventory items moved. Renovations and repairs made. A new inventory system in place with the help of Western Carolina University. Dogwood Crafters has reopened!

The Dillsboro shop is extending its hours to 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily and hosted the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce’s “Business After Hours” gathering on Thursday, March 22.

In the beginning years of Dogwood Crafters, inventory and sales reports were done by hand. In an effort to modernize, the shop began looking for a computer system to keep inventory but found no commercial solutions. In 1994, a local programmer created an inventory system for the shop using Pascal, a programming language that now is no longer commonly used.

“Technology changed over the years and we found that our system was obsolete and, with the advent of Windows, the operating system was also obsolete,” says Chris Behre, chairman of Dogwood Crafters’ board of directors who is also a crafter. “We finally replaced our computers, however, and our old system will not run on any version of Windows. We had one computer running our whole system and were really concerned about a system failure.”

Dogwood Crafters’ inventory system is used to keep track of thousands of items a year as well as each crafter’s inventory and daily, monthly and yearly sales reports. “The old program was not broken, but we didn’t want to take the chance of it breaking when we didn’t have an alternate business plan,” says Brenda Anders, president of Dogwood Crafters.

Lack of money for an inventory system rewrite, no commercial programs that would do what Dogwood Crafters needed, and the uncertainty of hiring an independent contractor to do the work led the shop and Behre to seek help from the Dillsboro/WCU partnership. The partnership was established in 2009 to help Dillsboro recover from the loss of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad depot in Dillsboro and the coinciding downturn in the economy.

The shop began work early last year with WCU faculty member Bill Richmond, associate professor in the College of Business, and his students. “Dr. Richmond and members of his class became our new best friends,” Anders said.

The program development process lasted a year and involved many meetings about the needs of Dogwood Crafters and brainstorming about how to keep the numbering and identification system that the crafters who work in the shop are used to.

In January, the new system was ready to be tested and after Richmond quickly fixed a few small program bugs, the 75 crafters were asked to take their entire inventory home, retag each item and bring them back to be entered into the new system. The shop closed for three weeks to reenter inventory and the first report came out perfectly, said Anders.

The new inventory system works similarly to the old with three benefits, said Richmond. First, the system programming and design were done in Microsoft Access and Visual Basic, programs which are both capable of being transported as computers and software are updated. Second, the system can be run on a modern computer that is much less likely to fail. (The computer running the Pascal system was 10 years old.)

Third, the design allows Dogwood Crafters to keep its unique way of identifying crafts and keeping inventory. The goal was to makes it easy to learn and unnecessary to retrain volunteer workers, but also capable of adopting new inventory processes as crafter volunteers are ready to learn them.

The creation of a new inventory system not only benefitted Dogwood Crafters, but also the WCU staff and students who worked on it, said Richmond. Students who developed the prototype gained the opportunity to work with a real-world client and have experiences like those they will have after graduation.

A new inventory system is not the only change for Dogwood Crafters. The shop took advantage of having an empty store to install a new ceiling and carpet, and to make other necessary repairs. Volunteer decorators gave the shop a fresh look by arranging items throughout the eleven rooms when crafters brought back their inventory. The shop’s décor rotates with each holiday. Each room has a theme such as “baby” or “quilting” and the front room is always themed to the next calendar holiday. Inventory being rotated allows each crafter to be featured in the front and keeps the shop modern and fresh. An empty shop was the perfect opportunity for a new rotation.

“This is a great outcome on so many fronts,” says Betty Farmer, professor of communication and public relations and coordinator of the Dillsboro/WCU partnership. “We’re delighted that the new inventory system is such a success and that it also served as the impetus for the refurbishing and redecorating. One good thing often leads to another, and that appears to be the case in this instance.”

Behre describes Dogwood Crafters as “the oldest and largest craft cooperative in Western North Carolina.” It gives crafters the opportunity to sell their handmade items in a family-oriented group that cares for one another. The shop is run by a board of directors and operated by volunteer crafters who sell each other’s items in shifts throughout the week. This work system allows crafters to sell their items without having to maintain their own business and full-time hours.

Dogwood Crafters began in 1976 with approximately 12 crafters and operated off the front porch of its current location. The shop now uses the entire building and serves 70 to 80 crafters.

“WCU has been an invaluable asset in bringing new technology and new programming skills into play,” said Behre, who expects Dogwood Crafters to partner with WCU on future projects.

For more information about Dogwood Crafters, visit www.dogwoodcrafters.com

For more information about the Dillsboro/WCU Partnership, contact Betty Farmer at Bfarmer@email.wcu.edu or call 828-227-3804.

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