Channel Craft is a maker of “authentic, American toys, games and puzzles” based in North Charleroi, Pennsylvania and literally began as a marketing class project for Dean Helfer, president and founder. The business initially launched as a marketing class project, where Dean Helfer, president and founder, was asked to take a product from the raw material phase all the way through to the manufacturing phase. Helfer selected the returning Boomerang for this project as he felt it would “create a trend on campus.”
“I peddled boomerangs crafted on my grandfather’s woodworking equipment. I built a mobile woodshop from a 1970 Ford step van and lived on the road for four of my six undergraduate years. I took that marketing term paper to First Federal Savings Bank and used it as my first business plan to land a $10,000 SBA loan,” explained Helfer.
From there, Helfer was asked to exhibit at the New York Gift Fair’s American Craft Pavilion. “I drove that step van across the George Washington Bridge and landed in Hell’s Kitchen for 35 years of gift shows, toy fairs and advertising specialty expos,” he said.
Channel Craft currently employs 30 skilled craftsmen and women at its location, situated on the Monongahela River. According to Helfer, this site was built over 100 years ago and was even the place of the Whiskey Rebellion and the launch of Lewis & Clark’s excursion.
Helfer’s “Channel Crafters are skilled woodcarvers, finishers, printers and laser techs” that have been with the Channel Craft team between 10 to 30 years — and all are integral to product development. Channel Craft shared more about its offerings and trends.
What are your product offerings?
Dean Helfer: Channel Craft creates authentic American toys, travel games and brain teaser puzzles focused on history, sports, science, nature and nautical themes. These “Edu-Tainment” products are featured in America’s national parks, nature preserves, museums and landmarks to educate and entertain guests. All products contain interpretive text and provide meaningful experiences long after they’ve returned home.
Recently, Treehopper Toys moved into Channel Craft’s factory – along with Eric’s unique Christmas Ornament designs. We’ve been able to create small runs of customized laser cut full-color ornaments, magnets, lapel pins and buttons that retail from $2 to $5. There couldn’t be a better time for inexpensive American-made gifts.
Share with us any trends you see which impact your concepts or product offerings.
DH: I’ve been amazed at the consistent reorders of our customer’s images on these simple fridge magnets, Pocket Puzzles and Christmas Ornaments. Unique gifts that cannot be found at mass merchants are trending this season. With holidays at hand – the same stuff is everywhere…and not so special, thus skill toys are ideal gifts for friends and family – as they are experiential and provide actual interaction, unlike the “interactive devices” that cost more and deliver less.
What are your best-selling products?
DH: Our best selling products are Cabin Fever Games. This series of $10 retail family games, skill toys, and activity kits can be enjoyed by boys and girls, young and old, inside or out – and they require interaction. All 15 Cabin Fever packages are graphically intriguing, are similar in size, can be hung, stacked or stood and are assorted to merchandise Channel Craft’s displays.
Do you, personally, have a favorite product?
DH: My favorite product of course is the Returning Boomerang. This is the oldest form of sport, science, art and aerodynamic understanding. Man and stick — go figure how early man determined he could make this magic stick return — thousands of years prior to the Wright Brothers first flight. I’ve personally taught thousands to throw, return and catch Channel Craft’s Boomerangs in the past four decades. Our freestanding video displays and YouTube video demos have taught hundreds of thousands this phenomenon. The Spirit of Earth, Wind, Fire and Free Spirit Boomerangs all have unique flight patterns – and all return. Our Boomer Roomers can be enjoyed indoors, too. They all have illustrated instructions, QR Codes to YouTube video demos and an offer to join the US Boomerang Association.
What is the inspiration behind the concepts for each product?
DH: Each wooden toy, game, puzzle and Edu-Tainment gift is created by Channel Crafters’ hands. This Channel of Crafters starts with the idea of our customer — or a designer that has had Channel Craft products and realizes that we have a collaborative home for their product. I have worked with hundreds of crafters, designers, artists and inventors of intriguing products. Our cooperative relationships have resulted in unique products for our customers’ markets.
Describe the creation process.
DH: Our design team works on manufacturing parameters within our three buildings — and if we cannot fabricate a certain part — we rely upon our crafters nationwide. Skilled weavers, turners, tanners, molders, die casters, metal and glass foundry’s that provide hundreds of crafters skills to Channel Craft’s new products. This channel of distribution is constantly recruiting new talent to provide significant SKUs to a very broad range of retailers throughout America.
How long does it take from concept to design completion?
DH: I’ll invest up to 20 months in a product before bringing a product to market. With all of our focus groups and merchandising mentors we can be fairly certain of a product’s success. However, we can’t convince everyone of our enthusiasm for all 20 new 2020 designs, so we guarantee their sales and our customers’ satisfaction.
Do you ever retire products? If so, how do you know it is time to retire a particular item?
DH: Channel Craft’s “SOS” — Satisfied or Swap — stock-balancing program offers every customer the opportunity to swap out stock at any time. Museums can keep fully stocked all the way through their exhibit and gift shops can keep stock right through Christmas week, then swap out for new designs in Atlanta, Toy Fair or MSA Expo. Those swapped SKUs are either repackaged and sold or re-gifted to Samaritan’s Purse and Toys for Tots each season. No gift is left in the “Land of Misfit Toys.”
Describe the process of creating a new line.
DH: Channel Craft creates new lines every year. Our focus is on specialty retailers and our ability to provide significant designs to fit their customers’ interest. Over half of our accounts are on the Atlantic, Pacific or Gulf Coast, so sea life and nautical designs fit their market. Then there are the mountain folk who identify with nature, wildlife and outdoor adventure so we have a broad pallet of themes to work into our toys, games, puzzles and activities.
American history has been my favorite Edu-Tainment theme to work into game play and puzzle projects. This is where we have the opportunity to expand our lines beyond toy and game products. We have gathered a broad range of Edu-Tainment gifts such as historic documents, coin replicas and rulers of the world that cover dozens of historically significant events and retail from $2-10.
We created Old Tavern Shooters for Colonial Williamsburg – as an interpretive game derived from Pitch Penny in Tarpley’s Pub 250 years ago. It’s now one of our best-selling games that mimic modern day Corn Hole as an indoor pastime.
Do you offer any limited edition selections, or customized selections?
DH: Several years ago, I was offered Thomas Jefferson’s tulip poplar tree that had to be removed before it would inevitably fall on his Monticello home. We milled it, stacked and dried it over winter, then hauled it back to our Pennsylvania factory in the spring. We created a limited edition of Heirloom Hobby Horses with Monticello and Thomas Jefferson’s signature laser engraved and numbered. We created wine racks and accessories from smaller cuts and paid royalties to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation for each piece sold. I’ve had the opportunity of working with many landmarks and museums over the past four decades, and our life’s work lives on as cultural and historical keepsakes.
What are your future aspirations for your business?
DH: My aspirations for the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s is to ascertain that every child has the opportunity to experience Channel Craft’s authentic American toys, games and puzzles. These Edu-Tainment experiences are integral to physical, mental, emotional and cultural development – and my mission is to provide Americans with Quality Crafted Fun for another 40 years.
How do you help retailers know about the uniqueness of your products and brand and relay that information to their customers?
DH: This COVID pandemic has been a real challenge for retailers and vendors as well. Shelley (my wife) and I spent seven weeks alone in Channel Craft’s factory working all five departments in three buildings until the Governor allowed our crew to return to work. Realizing that many of our retailers were not able to open their doors, we put together several service programs to keep them in business. We created six Priority Mail Family Packs with themed toys, family games and Edu-Tainment activities. These were formatted for internet and social media pages with retail prices posted so we could drop ship (postage paid) directly to their customers’ homes.
Channel Craft hosted Museum Store Conference, ASTRA Expo and gift shows via Zoom with hundreds attending our factory showroom presentations. After the events, we scheduled 15 minute pow wows to provide undivided attention to individual customers’ stores. With each display set up and every product within reach, we’ve been able to focus on their needs, balance their stock and create customized product right before their eyes. We’ve assembled a Market Specials Wheel with fourteen deals to win free freight, free displays, custom setups and extended terms each visit.
Many of our museum stores have yet to re-open and those that have are mandated to short hours and limited capacities. Realizing that they’ve lost retail revenues and are dependent on memberships and sponsorships — we’ve created a Museum Support Program, which provides membership gifts and promotional premiums.
How does Channel Craft assist retailers with merchandising, signage, and other retail selling tools?
DH: Channel Craft creates merchandising programs with handcrafted fixtures for any assortment of toys, games and puzzles. Video displays demonstrate products and how they are crafted. YouTube videos can be loaded onto the video chip and can be linked to a retailer’s website and social media presentations. All of Channel Craft’s displays are offset with free merchandise and can be upgraded free of charge.
Channel Craft’s 18” x 24” canvas banner is grommeted, and boasts: Authentic American Toys, Games & Puzzles that are made in the USA and sold here. Canvas banners are free with display orders.
Channel Craft provides free demos and Play Day Kits to Edu-Tain customers at store events. The customers that play will become your best salesmen – and you don’t even have to pay them.