The Shop's Business: Decline of the wholesale trade, 1972-1978
For six years after 1972 the focus of the Ragnarokr family was on the settlement at Frostpocket. Insufficient attention was given to growing the business of the leather shop. The result was that, although retails sales increased somewhat (to a yearly average of $21,890.), expenses increased even faster. The total annual wages paid to the co-op craftsmen stayed flat at about $7,000. Although productivity increased, the workers were squeezed by higher rents in Toronto and by annual monetary inflation. The labor share of the retail sale price dropped in February 1973 from 50% to 45%, in 1975 from 45% to 40% and in 1979 to 30% as the shop’s non-labor expenses rose. By way of comparison, between 1972 and 1978 the Ontario minimum wage increased from $1.65 to $2.85 per hour and the Composite Cost of Living rose from 484 to 780. The wages at Ragnarokr were stagnant despite the efforts of the workers at Ragnarokr to increase their sales and to produce goods more efficiently. In the beginning of this period the craftsmen hoped that by building the settlement at the Frostpocket, they could escape this downward spiral. However by 1976 George and Philip realized that the decline was driven by forces outside of the shop and they were actively searching for another way for the Ragnarokr workers to make a living.
In January 1972 the Artisans and Craftsman’s Co-Operative was organized at Rochdale College with a grant from the Government of Canada under the Local Incentive Program (LIP). Tom Bonanno, Mary, Randy and Philip were all paid to teach leatherwork under the sponsorship of the LIP project. Students come to the workshop after hours and received individual instruction in leather work.
Ragnarokr continued to sell its leather goods at craft shows throughout Ontario and achieved recognition as an innovative small business. In February Mary flew to Fort Francis, Ontario for a craft demonstration sponsored by the Northwest Ontario Craft Association and in April she flew to Thunder Bay, Ontario for a conference of the Ontario Craft Foundation. In May 1972 Ragnarokr entered the Craft Fair at the Sheridan School of Design in Oakville near Toronto and in June participated in a craft sale at Northwestern General Hospital in Toronto. In October the shop had a booth at the Oakville United Church Outreach Craft Sale. In 1973 Ragnarokr had a sales table at the Ontario ORT Festival of Crafts in March, a stall at the Oakville United Church Outreach Craft Sale in October and a booth at the Oakville Art Society Crafts for Christmas sale in November.
The leather shop also continued its wholesale marketing efforts. In 1972 Ragnarokr was again represented at the Spring Gift Show in Toronto by the Ontario Craft Foundation (OCF). By 1973 the shop’s wholesale business was in decline although Ragnarokr continued to be represented at the Spring Gift Show by the Ontario Craft Foundation. In May the Ontario Craft Foundation ended their Wholesale Marketing Program. Liz Cera, who had been in charge of the OCF Marketing Program, continued to work the wholesale accounts and made some sales for Ragnarokr. Until the end of 1973 Chris Risk also had a number of wholesale accounts that he serviced out of his home at the Frostpocket. In February 1974 Liz Cera once again displayed Ragnarokr’s line of leather goods at the Spring Gift Show in Toronto and a new Ragnarokr wholesale catalogue was mailed to the shop’s 33 steady wholesale accounts. Ragnarokr had 58 active wholesale accounts. Most are in Ontario but a few were on the East Coast of the US. In March or April the name of the wholesale company was changed from Fourth World to Uplands Manufacturing Company with addresses in both South River and Toronto.
Despite the efforts of Liz Cera and occasional sales trips by Philip, the wholesale trade continued to decline. Clothing fashions had changed and Ragnarokr’s style of leather goods had become dated and out-of-fashion. Although new products were introduced on a regular basis and every effort made to keep popular items in stock, the shop’s retail sales in Toronto peaked in 1974 and did not increase significantly until 1980 when Steve Spring took charge of the store. The wholesale trade to outlying towns continued strong well into 1975. After that it became more and more difficult to produce a product that could be sold to retail stores. In January 1978 Uplands Manufacturing Company ceased to operate and the wholesale trade stopped altogether.
In Toronto the shop’s retail sales exceeded expectations during the 1974 Christmas season and new products were introduced. In contrast, in 1977 the store’s sales in December totaled only $3,000 because “only small items seemed to sell well”. Christmas sales usually accounted for 30% of the annual sales volume but that did not hold true in 1977 when the total sales were $23,424. Christmas sales were heavily dependent on the weather. A heavy blizzard, an ice storm or, even worse, no snow at all during the first three weeks of December dampened the retail sales while a gentle snowfall stimulated sales immensely. In a “good Christmas season” the leather shop literally sold to the bare walls even as the assembled leather workers frantically worked to complete custom orders in time for Christmas delivery. In bad years the craftsmen contented themselves with shoveling snow or chipping ice from the frozen sidewalk in front of the store.
The narrative continues at The Shop's Business: Mexican and other imports, 1970-1979