Next time you’re in Chicago for a long weekend, here’s a unique destination to add to your list of downtown attractions: Craftsman Experience (CE). It’s an almost-new, interactive display space that provides hands-on tool stations, visits by guest tool experts, clinics and live demonstrations on all sorts of DIY and woodworking topics, using Craftsman tools. And it’s located right on Huron Street in Chi-Town’s River North neighborhood.
Maybe you caught Rob Johnstone’s juggling pin and bowl-turning demonstrations that were live-streamed over the Internet last November. I was at Craftsman Experience just last month making a shop safety project and holiday candle accent pieces for two broadcasts. So, we’ll both attest to the uniqueness of this new venue Craftsman opened just last August.
If you haven’t logged onto Craftsman.com to catch any of the 60-some live-streamed video presentations so far, you might be wondering what exactly I’m talking about here. Good question. It’s a novel concept, to be sure, and the first of its kind for a DIY or woodworking tool brand.
Recently, I spoke with Kristin Phillips, one of Craftsman’s brand managers who was instrumental to the planning and launch of Craftsman Experience, as well as its continued growth and development.
First off, Craftsman Experience is a physical space — about 8,000 square feet of it at 233 West Huron Street in downtown Chicago. But, it’s not a typical Sears retail store. “We wanted to create an interactive venue where tool users could come in and explore Craftsman tools but not feel like they have to buy something. That’s what customers expect to do in the tool department of a Sears store. Instead, Craftsman Experience is divided into five different hands-on project stations where you can learn about and use various tools and products across our brand. Experts at each station can help you do that. It’s a chance for us to strengthen our existing customer relationships and reach out to a new, younger demographic as well,” Kristin says.
Those workstations include woodworking, automotive, lawn and garden, garage storage and one dedicated to Craftsman’s newest product innovations. Each station is set up with benches or an appropriately outfitted workspace and a collection of relevant tools for that product category. An on-staff group of active DIYers and tool users is present during CE’s hours of operation to offer advice and assistance. Currently, C1raftsman Experience is open Thursdays and Fridays from 5 to 9 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 8 p.m.
But the physical makeup and hands-on philosophy is only part of the inventiveness of Craftsman Experience. Here’s the other half of what makes it groundbreaking: you don’t have to live in Chicago to benefit from what happens each week at CE. If you’ve got a computer and internet access, you’re “virtually” there. Each day it’s open to the public, CE features a live-streamed video demonstration from one of the hands-on areas. You can log in, ask questions of whomever is presenting, and offer feedback while it happens, in real time. Or, if you can’t catch the live stream, Craftsman Experience posts the edited video segments to YouTube. It also has a Facebook page that’s being continually updated with new information of scheduled upcoming shows and other Craftsman news, plus more links to the taped segments. For more extensive projects shown in some of the video segments, you can log onto Craftsman.com and download the plans that provide additional important information, a material list and tools required to build the project yourself.
So, I guess you could call CE an immersion experience for all sorts of DIY advice and projects as well as a state-of-the-art video projection facility. And, Kristin informs me, I’m not precisely right about CE not being a store … “Actually, anything we’re currently demonstrating in our Innovation Station is available for purchase at Craftsman Experience. If you try it out and like it, you can buy it right then and there. But, it’s not a place where we carry Craftsman’s full product line.”
There’s another social-media aspect of Craftsman Experience that also needs to be mentioned. In addition to live-stream and web-posted videos, the facility also broadcasts Internet radio. Currently, radio broadcasts happen on an occasional basis. But Kristin revealed that later this month, CE radio will take its next big step forward. Frank Fontana, HGTV’s host of “Design on a Dime” and author of “Frank Fontana’s Dirty Little Secrets of Design,” will begin to host live-streamed radio shows twice a week, as well as providing a new video segment once a week.
That makes CE a shop space, a broadcast studio, a meeting place, and an outlet for DIYers and woodworkers near and far … all with a Craftsman approach. Very new, very different and, at least in my experience, refreshing.
While Craftsman Experience is inventing a new wheel, of sorts, within power tool brands, Sears is trying an equally unique approach with its kitchen and home appliance brands. Just a block or so down Huron Street, there’s a Kenmore Live Studio that offers live-streamed cooking demonstrations by invited chefs, plus other types of appliance presentations. If you’re in the area, you might want to stop in and catch a live performance there, too.
To date, Craftsman Experience has posted 140 videos to YouTube. In addition to Rob and yours truly, a sampling of previous guests have included Chicago Cubs legendary outfielder Andre Dawson, who was on hand to sign autographs and help build a display case for baseball memorabilia; X Games expert ramp builder Nate Wessel built a quarter-pipe bike ramp, then BMX pro and X Games medalist Ryan Nyquist did acrobatic demonstrations on it. CE has also hosted carpenter-turned-comedian Adam Carolla, Ace’s Home Expert Lou Manfredini, the $500 Craigslist rally car driver Bill Caswell and many others. Some of the past projects have included the construction of the ultimate tool chest, a hovercraft, climbing wall, a picnic table with built-in beer keg storage and a working trebuchet. A full calendar of appearances and new projects is being planned for 2011.
When asked about the most popular DIY subject areas for viewers thus far, Kristin says automotive enthusiasts and woodworkers are tuning in and getting involved more than other focus areas. But, overall, CE is receiving strong response across the DIY market as well as some good turnout to the Huron Street location. Between 30 and 300 people have attended past clinics or demos, depending on the topic and invited presenter. “We’ve only been open five months so far, but we feel Craftsman Experience has been a huge success, and we’re definitely pleased with what we’ve seen. We’re still in our infancy, with so much more planned for the future … Our goal is to continue to provide fun, hands-on and other social media opportunities for tool lovers. We want to showcase our innovations and get you involved in new ways with our brand and rich heritage.”