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One thing I've gotten accustomed to in the art glass world is change. I attended my first stained glass class in 1983, began working at the studio a few months later, then filled in for the absent manager and ended up working that position for 8 more years. In those days, stained glass was pretty much "meat and potatoes". You either did leaded or copper foiled stained glass methods, and your choices were limited to handblown antique or machine rolled glass, a few different tools, and a few design books and patterns.
In 1991 the shop I worked at was sold, and Andy and I felt it was time to start our own business. We opened Expressions Art Glass in March of 1991, selling glass and stained glass supplies to hobbyists, teaching classes and making sidelights and panels for homes and businesses. We saw lots of interest in our copper foil and leaded glass classes, as people wanted to make stained glass for their homes. Pretty much every stained glass shop across the US was following this model.
In the late ‘90s more people were experimenting with glass fusing, and manufacturers and suppliers of glass and equipment responded to the demand for tested compatible glass and fusing materials. Bullseye Glass Company has been an innovator in the glass fusing movement since the ‘70s, and Spectrum Glass Company now entered the fusing arena to offer interesting glass choices in 96 COE. Glass fusing rapidly approached stained glass in popularity, and eventually eclipsed traditional stained glass methods. The time it takes to make a finished fused glass piece compared to completing a stained glass panel or lampshade has contributed to its allure. You can cut and assemble a fused glass plate in one or two hours, though kiln firing time will be another day or two. To make a 30-piece 12” diameter stained glass hanging will take five to ten times as long, and is a much more tedious process. I find the stained glass process relaxing, but also appreciate the appeal of having a fused glass project ready for the kiln in only a few hours. Most stained glass shops have had to jump on the fusing train or get left in the dust. We still see many people interested in learning stained glass methods, but not to the degree we saw in the ‘90s.
With the advent of the internet store, a different type of competitor came on the scene, enticing customers away from brick and mortar stores with lower prices. Brick and mortar stores have higher operating costs; paying employees and local taxes, and maintaining a nice facility for customers to enjoy as they shop and attend classes. Some internet stores can operate out of a garage or bedroom with little overhead cost, which gives them the ability to charge lower prices on similar items.
Our industry leaders told us not to panic, and that we would not have anything to worry about if we were offering good service and products. Within about 5-7 years, this country saw a huge decline in local stained glass shops affected by internet sales. Small mom-and-pop stores found it difficult to compete with lower internet prices, and slowing sales caused many to close their doors. In Tucson, I've seen over 20 stained glass shops come and go, with as many as 6 local shops operating at one time. We constantly hear from our winter visitors that their local stained glass shops back home have closed, and they seem mystified that this thing has occurred. We try to explain about how many of our customers have shifted a large part of their buying to the internet, but I'm not sure they understand the tremendous impact this has on a small business.
For awhile we happily offered the same generous advice and friendly assistance we have always given our customers. Then we realized that more and more people were just coming in for free advice and "show-rooming". Show-rooming is when someone visits a local store to see in person what they intend to buy on the internet. It is not very ethical, as it costs the retailer money to pay for an employee to wait on someone who has no intention of purchasing items at the store. We've seen whole glass clubs switch their buying to mainly internet sites, which has dramatically affected our business. Expressions has been able to succeed by offering unique classes not taught anywhere else, by reaching out to crafters who work in other media, and by becoming as “lean” as we can. Nevertheless, it remains challenging to run a small business in this environment. We do realize that we can't stock every single item that people want, and some may have to make internet purchases for certain things. I can't find everything I want in my local Walmart, and yes, I do have to order some things from their online store. I don’t really like going there anyway, and avoid it as much as possible. Hopefully you don’t feel that way about us!
Right after 9-11, we noticed a big shift in the climate of the art glass world. We had just moved into our beautiful new location on Broadway, opening our doors about a week before the terrible event. Someone threw out the old rule book, and we had to figure out the new "rules". Stained glass methods were losing ground to fusing methods, and we had to work quickly to keep up with the rapid innovations in glass fusing techniques and materials.
The economy slowed, causing some suppliers to begin selling directly to our customers. The retailer has historically been the door through which customers enter the art glass world. A person comes into a brick and mortar shop, sees the beautiful art glass objects and inquires about lessons. The shop owner or employee takes time to show the potential student around the store and answer their questions. We have easily spent 30 minutes or more with prospective clients, hoping to sign them up for a class. Many do enroll for classes, but many others use us to gather information, then “disappear”. We’ve had a few of our suppliers aggressively target our customers, so I’m wondering who will supply them with customers once the retail shops are gone. I am sad to see the blatant disregard for the local retailer by large manufacturers and suppliers, and think this is terribly short-sighted on their part. We have many loyal customers who enjoy taking classes, and appreciate the service and technical advice we offer, based on 33 years of experience in the professional glass world. We certainly appreciate the friendship and loyalty of these special people, and will continue to serve you as long as we can.
The climate of the art glass world has definitely shifted, and now we are experiencing "Art Glass Apocalypse", to boot. If you have not yet heard, the art glass world has suffered quite a blow this year, due to new government regulations on the production of sheet glass and the closing of a major glass producer, Spectrum Glass Company. Just “Google” this subject to see a plethora of information and news reports.
Our local world is also changing; Andy and I announced our approaching retirement this year. We find it difficult to manage the business full time while also teaching evening classes. Last year we lost our two faithful employees and had to go through our busy season with almost no help. Clyde’s wife became very ill, and he’s had to stay home with her. Maile was newly married and wanted to focus on her home, so Andy and I have had to fend for ourselves. This is not to complain; it’s just to explain the changes in our lives which have led us to the decisions we’re now making. We also want to be more involved with volunteer work outside the business, and this is very difficult with working 50-60 hours a week.
We have loved getting to know you all over the last 25 years we’ve been in business (33 for Jennifer), and we do hope to find a new owner for the business who can carry on this legacy. The property has been put up for sale, but our desire is for someone to continue the glass business and gallery as well. If that happens, we may well stay on, teaching classes and helping out; just not working as many hours. We are considering offers at this stage, and will keep you posted through our E-Newsletters. If you are not receiving them, please sign up on our “Contact” page. We are extremely grateful for your patronage, and want to thank you for supporting us over the last 25 years. I am still getting lots of new ideas for classes, and will offer as many as I can before the end of the year.
By Jennifer Cole
Jennifer Cole has been involved in the art glass world professionally since 1983, designing and fabricating art glass for homes and businesses, teaching classes, and creating books and patterns for stained glass methods. Jennifer runs Expressions Art Glass and Firefly Glass Gallery in Tucson, Arizona with her husband, Andy. Expressions Art Glass is celebrating 26 years serving Southern Arizona and beyond.