One of my favorite suppliers of ceramic materials and equipment is Big Ceramic Store. I bought my venerable Shimpo VL Whisper from them 4 years ago and have been doing business with them ever since. Ordering is a cinch on their well-organized website, shipping is expedient, prices are reasonable and they are always responsive to questions. In fact, Big Ceramic Store’s website has a huge database of useful tips and tricks for anyone–experts or beginners–interested in ceramics. Last summer, my girlfriend and I dropped by the warehouse in Sparks, Nevada, to pick up several hundred pounds of clay on our way to a workshop in (somewhat) nearby Tuscarora Nevada. I was surprised to see that the massive internet operation was a friendly, family-owned business. We got a tour of the warehouse and went on our way with a set of BCS bag clips to boot!
Cindi Anderson and Glen Miller started Big Ceramic store about 10 years ago. They began as engineers in Silicon Valley. Cindi did ceramics in high school and set up her home studio in the late 90s, so she sat down to answer the questions I asked.
How did Big Ceramic Store get started?
We were big internet shoppers back then, and we realized that there wasn’t any place to buy ceramic supplies and equipment online, much less get information about which products to buy or how to do ceramics. We thought there should be. We had no idea how much work it would be to put 6000 items and 500 pages of information online, or we never would have done it! Fortunately, I like to pick and Glen likes to pack, so it’s a match made in heaven! Now if one of us would only eat dark meat!
What have you learned since opening your business?
It’s hard to have a balanced life when you own a business. We’ve been at this 10 years and we’re just starting to get the hang of it. The main thing that determines whether it’s fun to own a business or a drag is how good your employees are. We have around seven employees. It’s not as easy to find good people as you’d think.
We’ve learned that it really helps to tell customers what to expect. For example, we clarify everything about a complex order before we ship. If a product is being delivered by truck, we tell them what to expect and what they should do when the driver comes. But you just cannot make some people happy. Ironically, these are often people who made a mistake themselves. They didn’t order the right thing or didn’t plan ahead and place their order so it arrives when they need it. Having a dissatisfied or angry customer never feels good, and sometimes we just have to let those go. But sometimes those people will email back and apologize. That feels good.
What 10 products do you feel every ceramic artist should own?
That’s a tough one, because people can do ceramics with very minimal tools, and because there are so many different ways to work–on the wheel, hand building, sculpture. But these 10 will be useful for most people who work with clay.
1. Good trimming tools (such as Kemper Pro-Line or Groovy Tools). I ruined a lot of pots trying to trim with cheap trimming tools.
2. Electronic kiln. It’s so easy to fire with an electronic controller–that makes it feasible to do all sorts of firing profiles, like slow cooling for certain glaze effects.
3. Kiln vent. I’ve never had many problems with glazes because I’ve always fired with a vent. A lot of people don’t realize how much better glaze results are with a vent.
4. The new generation of glazes that simulate reduction firings in electric kilns. For Cone 5/6, there’s Amaco Potters Choice (with a bunch of new colors just added), Coyote, Laguna Mystic and some Moroccan Sands, and some of the Spectrum glazes. For low fire, there’s Amaco Artists Choice. And that’s just a start. Glaze manufacturers have created a huge choice of glazes that enable artists to get the effects they want. That’s why we carry over 50 different glaze series.
5. Surform or Shredder. There are just so many uses for these tools. To trim excess clay from the bottom of a pot that is too thick. To shape sculptures. To bevel edges on hand built pieces.
6. Gleco Sink Trap. It’s not sexy, but it really does help protect your plumbing.
7. Plaster slump or hump molds. I used whatever I had around as a form–kitchem bowls, a basketball. But once I got plaster molds, it became so easy to make bowl shapes that I could focus on decorating or altering.
8. Texture plaster molds. I’m probably biased because I love texture, but a plain hand built piece becomes so interesting when made from textured slabs.
9. The perfect rib. I can’t tell you which one that is, because everyone has their own preference. It might be wood, metal, plastic, or rubber, and it might be any number of shapes. But everybody eventually seems to find one rib they use for just about everything.
10. BigCeramicStore.com Clay Bag Clips. I can’t live without them!
What’s the strangest request you’ve ever had from a customer?
Usually it is from people who are buying something for a use other than ceramics. Like the people who wanted dry red clay but didn’t care what kind. It was to spread on a stage for a play.
I did have one person who emailed me a question about how to do ceramics at least once a week for several years. Her teachers never seemed to know the answers, so she asked me. I can’t really call her a customer because she never ordered anything from us, but I always answered her emails. One day I finally said, “It doesn’t look like you have ever ordered from us. What can we do to get your business?” I never heard back from her.
In addition to making money, how has your business created value in your life?
We’ve met a lot of great people. In fact, some of our best friends are people who started out as customers.
What do you see in BCS’s future, what are your goals?
We are planning some website improvements, and contests to collect more photos and how-to’s. Our customers love to see examples! But in general, we really just want to continue doing what we do well–helping customers choose the right products for their needs, and getting those products to them quickly at a great price.
How do you keep you business afloat in these tough economic times? What would you like your customers to know?
Consumers don’t typically think about the health of the industries they are buying from. But the health of the ceramic supply industry is critical. Not only is our market small compared to mass-markets, there is a lot of education and hand-holding involved because of the complexity of the products. Suppliers are typically small companies, often family-owned. The manufacturers are also small, often US-based companies, which is rare these days! Mark-ups are not typical 200-300% retail mark-ups. They are much smaller, more like wholesale businesses. This is possible because of the small-company nature of the distribution channel, and it is desirable to keep prices reasonable for consumers.
While competition is a good thing, profits of businesses in our industry have been squeezed about as low as they can without causing damage to the industry. We worry about that, because if suppliers start going out of business, ceramic artists will suffer. They’ll find it harder to get supplies. And fewer people will go into ceramics.
So, whether it’s Big Ceramic Store or a local store, we’d like to see artists support full-service suppliers that treat them well. There’s always a company on the internet who will sell an item for a little less, but don’t contribute anything by teaching or promoting ceramics. We understand money is tight, but sometimes customers buy from these “stores” to save $10 on a $1000 order, even after they’ve received a lot of help from a different supplier.
We also want to encourage buying from American manufacturers, not only because it is good for the industry, but because product support is better. Think about how you’re going to get spare parts 15 years down the road. For an American-made product, no problem! For a Chinese import? Who knows?