Glassware manufacturers look to retail stores to save businesses

MOUNT PLEASANT, Pa. - Instead of back-stabbing and underpricing to keep their businesses afloat, a group of competing glassware manufacturers are doing the unusual: opening outlet stores together.

Jamestown Crystal Outlet, which opens Friday at the former Lenox glass factory in southwestern Pennsylvania, will tout vases, bowls and crystal stemware made by area glassware manufacturers.A second outlet store carrying the same name is slated to open next week at the other end of the state in Lancaster.

"There's a kind of belief we don't compete with anyone anymore. For survival, we all need to join together," said Marty Noonan, president of Mount Pleasant-based L.E. Smith Glass, one of the participating manufacturers.

Like most businesses, the glassware industry is trying to weather the economic slump. Although glassware is part of a $29 billion glass industry, nationwide crystal sales dropped 15 percent, from $856 million in 2000 to $725 million in 2001, according to industry statistics.

In January, after battling a shrinking market for fine crystal, Lenox ceased operating its factory in Mount Pleasant, taking away 157 jobs. Meanwhile, the overall number of Pennsylvania glassware workers dropped from 10,783 in 1998 to 10,329 in 2000, according to the state Center for Workforce Information and Analysis.

The statistics prompted Bob Rifenburgh to take action. As president of St. George Crystal, the only company to make 24 percent lead crystal glassware in North America, he spearheaded the outlet and invited competitors to join him.

"It made sense to bring together artisans and crafts in western Pennsylvania," Rifenburgh said. "Crystal is the best quality glass you can get and an outlet is where you can buy for less."

Rifenburgh is hopeful the Jamestown Crystal Outlet, located about 30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, will do $1 million in sales annually to help bolster revenues at all the participating companies.

Besides St. George and L.E. Smith products, the outlet will also feature glass from O'Rourke Hand Cut Crystal of Mount Pleasant, Rolf's Cut Crystal and Glassware of Latrobe, and Youghiogheny Art Glass of Connellsville.

"I think it's going to help us get through the recession and build a foundation for the future," said Rifenburgh, who estimated that business at St. George Crystal is down $2 million from $26 million last year.

Other glassmakers say a strong showing at the outlet is needed to bolster lackluster catalog orders and to help retain jobs.

At L.E. Smith, where clients include houseware-sellers Martha Stewart and William Sonoma, revenue has fallen to $13 million from a high of $17 million three years ago, Noonan said. The 95-year-old company recently underwent refinancing and trimmed its work force from 200 to 130, he said.

L.E. Smith plant manager Barry Madorma said workers take pride in knowing that the company is one of a dozen remaining handmade glass factories in the nation. The glassware industry is dominated by machines and others, like Lenox, now purchase glassware from overseas, Madorma said.

"What we're doing - the hand craftsmanship - makes each piece unique. We take a lot of pride in that," Madorma said.

600450 Glassware manufacturers look to retail stores to save businesses

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