Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Vagaries of the Incense Business

Just in case you think that monks are insulated from the craziness of retail sales...

Many of you will know that we make incense here - and that by "we" I mean me. I've been in charge of the incense business for about 20 years now and it is one of my great loves. It is my craft and by now Holy Cross Incense bears my stamp. I've made enough changes and improvements over these years that my mark is definitely on our incense.

We make a good incense. Each of our blends is made from pure frankincense and myrrh, blended with essential oils, perfume oils and balsams. Most commercial incenses are diluted with sawdust, and we don't do that, so our product is quite concentrated. This means that our incense is very intense, and this has an advantage: the less you use the better it smells. Sometimes I have to work hard to convince customers of this, but it's true. The price is also quite moderate, compared to some other blends, so Holy Cross Incense is a real bargain. It smells great, and you can use less.

There are four blends; Santiago (Lemon), St Augustine (Rose), Sancta Crux (Rosewood) and St Benedict (Herbal - not sweet). The major ingredient is frankincense granules, which are called "peas". A bit of myrrh is added and then a special tincture of the special ingredients for each blend is stirred in and the whole batch is allowed to dry, with daily stirring.

Our incense is intended for church use. It burns on charcoal, and is usually used in a thurible, or censer, though some parishes do burn it in a bowl, as we do here at the monastery. A few people use it at home, but the fact that you have to have a heat proof dish or bowl and have to get the charcoal lit means that most people will opt for incense sticks or cones which are easier to use in a home setting.

We sell it by the pound or the half pound, and as I've said you don't need much. If a church uses it just a few times a year - Christmas and Easter say. and maybe a couple of big feasts - a half pound will do most places for a couple of years or even longer. Parishes that use it more frequently will order a pound or two at a time. Places that use it enthusiastically every week will usually need about 5 pounds a year, though most of them will order smaller amounts more frequently than yearly. Santiago is the biggest seller, followed by St Augustine, then Benedict with Sancta Crux at the bottom of the line (though it is my personal favorite).

And now we come to the tricky part. There is a substantial market for St Augustine, but it is the slowest of the blends to dry, or "cure". I can get a batch (5 lbs) of Santiago ready in 4 or 5 days. Benedict and Sancta Crux each take a week to 10 days, slightly longer in summer. But Augustine takes at least a month to cure, and if the weather is hot and humid it can be longer. So I have to take care that the stock of St Augustine doesn't get very low, because it takes a long time to rebuild. I try to keep about 20 pounds of each of the blends on hand, so that I always have enough.

And thus we come to the story of the week. Business was quite heavy during Lent, which we normally expect, with parishes getting ready for Easter celebrations. I had enough to fill all the orders, but by Holy Week the supplies were pretty depleted, and we were seeing the bottom of the barrel for all of the different blends. Ordinarily this wouldn't be a concern. After Easter sales usually decline and stay very low through the summer, and then start to rise again in the fall. There's plenty of leeway for rebuilding our supplies.

But not this year. This year the sales have continued right on, and big orders. I don't know why. One never knows, but last fall business was very light, which I put down to the state of the economy. It may be that people stretched their supplies and made them last through Easter, and are now having to restock. Who knows?

And what have they been ordering? St Augustine, of course. Nothing but. And only large orders. Parish after parish ordering 2 or 3 or 4 pounds. And it doesn't take too long, if your supply is 20 pounds, before you're looking an an empty bin. And because of the high humidity this spring, I can't get the new batches to dry. It is fingernail chewing time.

This week the crisis occurred. I've never seen a streak like this, but 7 weeks after Easter the orders are still coming in, and all of them are for St Augustine. This week I just had just enough left to fill the orders that came in and that was it. But also during the week the newest batch was finally ready. So I breathed deeply, gave thanks and admired my 5 pound reserve. Surely that will carry me for a while, until I can get some more finished.

On Friday afternoon, I got an order for 5 pounds of St Augustine.

All I can do now is hope. It's going to slow down; it always does. People are going to start ordering the other blends; they always do. Will that be this week? I hope that a new 5 lb batch will be ready within the next week, and several more are curing after that, but right now I'm holding my breath. I hate to put people on back order. Only once in 20 years have I had to do that, and that was only for one customer. Not only is it not good business, but it just makes it harder to finally replenish the stocks, and I'm going to be away a lot this summer, which is stock rebuilding time.

Yes, this is very much small potatoes. And yes, no doubt we will negotiate this tempest one way or another. I can always send partial orders if I have to, and given that our incense is usually used over a period of time, that will probably work just fine. But every one with a business worries about stuff like this, and our business may be small and our worries minuscule compared to General Motors, but I still get stirred up about it.

I do my best to let you know what life in a monastery is like - all the ups and downs. I write a good deal about various spiritual issues, because that is what our life is concerned with. But life has lots of other things, and this is one, and it's my issue of the week. Next week it will be something else.

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