The case for baskets

Published 5:24 pm Thursday, January 24, 2013

Longaberger consultant Debra Mitchum shows off part of her collection of new Longaberger flameware in her kitchen.

Her thick Southern accent might be the only marketing strategy Debra Mitchum needs, but it’s far from the only one she has in her arsenal.

The Longaberger consultant can talk up the company’s designer baskets, demonstrate how to make a pone of cornbread or a rotisserie chicken in its cookware, show how the serving pieces fit neatly into the baskets and convince anybody they need a few Longaberger decorations.

Her best endorsement might be her own love of the products. She has more than 9,700 pieces of Longaberger, and it’s not just baskets — from curtains and couch coverings to pillows and decorative tea sets, Mitchum’s home overflows with Longaberger.

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Her obsession began more than 35 years ago, when her sister-in-law was selling Longaberger. Mitchum bought woven cradles for her daughters with the credits she got from hosting parties for her sister-in-law.

Debra Mitchum says the new Crimson Hill line is currently her favorite Longaberger product.

“I just kept buying them and buying them over the years,” says the retired dental assistant. “My daughters grew up liking it.”

Before she knew it, her daughter was a Longaberger consultant. Then Mitchum became one herself about 10 years ago.

“She was so thrilled, because I’m her top seller,” Mitchum says of her daughter.

The husbands of her customers are slightly less thrilled. If she had a basket for every time she’s heard “Please don’t sell my wife any more Longaberger” ….

But her own husband doesn’t mind her obsession, telling friends that she earns the money and products herself. Even her friend’s husbands are won over eventually, but what wins them over depends on the guy. Sometimes it’s hearing the baskets are completely American-made, from the maple trees grown all over the United States to the manufacturing facility in Dresden, Ohio. Sometimes it’s tasting the meals cooked in the flameware. Sometimes, one imagines, it’s simply seeing their wives happy.

Longaberger certainly makes Mitchum happy, but it’s hard to say which piece makes her the happiest.

The Collector’s Club decorative tea set is one of her older pieces. The set is released one piece at a time over the course of many years. It sits in her parlor beside a framed photo of her grandson, one of the few things she loves more than Longaberger.

“My grandchildren are everywhere,” she says, waving her hand to indicate the entire house. “They’re the next best thing to my salvation.”

An entire room in her home bursts with pink products, part of the company’s Horizon of Hope line that raises money for breast cancer research — $18.5 million since the line came into being.

There’s also the cookware. She gushes over the 8-in-1 entertainer, which can be a cooking dish, serving tray, cake plate and more. She tells the story of how a customer dropped and broke part of it and called demanding to have a new one, saying she couldn’t cook without it.

Mitchum, who cooks dinner seven days a week, says her husband has never been disappointed by a meal that comes from Longaberger flameware. Her newest set was christened with a pone of cornbread.

“It came out crispy and beautiful and perfect,” she says. “That sold me.”

Pressed to choose a favorite, Mitchum settles on her current love — the new Crimson Hill line of baskets, which features crimson, green and brown earth tones.

But there are so many more possibilities — all her sales awards, which come in the form of commemorative baskets; the Ruritan baskets, which carry the Ruritan National logo and which she is the only authorized consultant for; and many more.

It might be hard to believe, but Mitchum doesn’t have anywhere near the full Longaberger line. That won’t stop her from trying.

“I really like the fact Longaberger is so inventive,” she said. “There’s always something new.”