Economic Indicators? How About Picture Framing?
Economic Indicator? How About Picture Framing?
I have just come back from the annual picture-frame trade show — yes, there is one! (in fact, there used to be three) — in Las Vegas. Like many small industries, picture framing has been in a slump. During tough economic times, people somehow manage to survive without getting things framed. Go figure.
But this year was different. I talked to many vendors at the show, and without exception, every one said it felt like the old days, meaning six or eight years ago. People came to the show for all of the old reasons; to meet with vendors, to find new products, to take classes, to compare notes with other business owners.
As far as I know, picture framing is not considered a leading indicator of how the economy is doing, but maybe it should be. When the economy took a dive in 2008, custom framing dropped with it. Every frame shop owner and vendor I knew was crying the blues. And it went on for quite some time. Last year the mood was hopeful but cautious. This year was downright exciting (until you have partied with picture framers, you haven’t really partied). So what changed?
It is not as if business has bounced back to where it was five years ago. My sense is that it is creeping back slowly, but it has a long way to go. And that is part of the reason I don’t think the newfound optimism is all about the improved economy. I believe it has more to do with evolution and survival of the fittest.
The complainers and pessimists have either gone out of business or stopped going to the trade show. At the peak, there were 28,000 custom frame shops in America. Now there are about 8,000. Who is left? In most cases the better shops, which does not necessarily mean the shops that do the best framing. It means the shops that run the best businesses. That probably does include doing good framing, but it also includes the shops in the right neighborhoods, with the right employees, the right selection, and the right pricing.
And then there is the evolution part, adapting to change. While the total market has shrunk, the survivors have been going after bigger market share and expanding their product lines. Some shops have started to get into digital printing because customers ask for it. And others have expanded into selling home décor items and gifts.
But there was something else different about this year’s show. There were many new people who were just coming into the industry. Maybe it is because the job market is bad, or because the economy seems to be stabilizing. I’m pretty sure it’s not because custom picture framing is the hot new thing. But entrepreneurship is.
More and more people see owning a small business as a viable alternative to getting a job, which is very different from when I started 34 years ago. I find it interesting that despite all of the news reports about struggling small businesses, tight credit and government regulation, entrepreneurship marches on. Does this mean that the economy has recovered? Of course not. There are still far too many people unemployed, and business, in many cases, has not rebounded to where it was.
But I will repeat what I said months ago. Judging from the people I talk to, business is getting better. Maybe not in every city, maybe not in every industry. But this is no longer about hope, it is no longer about optimism. It is about confidence. It is about real people on Main Street. It is about custom picture framing. And cars. And travel. And computers.
It would feel better if everyone were working. But if this little trade show in this little industry is any indication, 2012 should be better.
Jay Goltz owns five small businesses in Chicago.