According to Paul Johnson, the owner of Quilting Hub, a quilt shop registry, the total number of brick-and-mortar quilt shops in the United States is shrinking. Johnson’s records show that there were approximately 5,500 quilt shops in 2010, whereas today that number is closer to 3,200. “The majority of quilt shop owners that were hobbyists are failing,” he says.
As more brick-and-mortar quilt shops close, attendance at the industry’s trade show, Quilt Market, has also begun to shrink. Meanwhile, there’s a very real growth opportunity in the industry for online retailers as more and more consumers go online to buy fabric and quilting supplies. In order for Quilt Market to survive it’s got to embrace online fabric shop owners by welcoming them to the show and providing programming that’s specifically catered to them. It’s this new constituency that will bring the trade show into its next chapter.
Who is buying online?
According to the Quilting In America survey, the U.S. quilting market was valued at $3.7 billion in 2017. Yet 72.2% of the total industry expenditures were made by what the survey terms “dedicated quilters.” These are consumers who spend more than $500 per year on quilting. The average dedicated quilter is a 63-year-old, well-educated woman from an affluent household who has been quilting for 19 years.
It’s interesting to look at how the habits of dedicated quilters have changed since 2014, the last time the survey was conducted. Dedicated quilters now spend 7.9 hours a week interacting with quilting-related content online, up from 2.5 hours in 2014. That’s a significant increase. What’s also significant is that in 2017 68% of dedicated quilters were buying fabric, batting, and thread online. There’s a misperception that online buyers of quilting fabric are millennials, but the data shows that this simply isn’t true.
Missouri Star Quilt Company is the dedicated quilter’s paradise. Frequently described as The Disneyland of Quilting, 8,000 tourists per month visit its 12 quilt shops and two retreat centers in Hamilton, Missouri and the company does an estimated $40 million in annual revenue. CEO Mike Mifsud recently told Forbes that brick-and-mortar sales account for just 10% of Missouri Star’s revenue. The other 90% is online sales generated through proprietor Jenny Doan’s YouTube videos.
The online migration
Even more noteworthy is the size of the opportunity. Mifsud told Forbes that only $200 million of the industry’s $3.7 billion worth of commerce is currently taking place online.
All of these signs seem to point to online shops playing a significant part in the industry’s future. What’s striking, though, is how little the industry trade show, Quilt Market, currently does to serve the needs of online shop owners. The lineup of business seminars offered at the show is focused on creating in-store displays, doing demos, and hosting kids workshops. The classes that focus on online content are at an introductory level. None of this serves online shop owners at all.
We’ve all watched Quilt Market attendance numbers slowly decline over the last decade; 33% fewer people attended fall 2017 Quilt Market than fall 2007. Lower turnout has led to fewer exhibitors and the show has slowly been in a slow, but steady decline. I would argue that we’re at a critical turning point now. If Quilts, Inc. made a concerted effort to cater to online shop owners they could potentially reverse this trend and breathe new life into the show right when it’s needed, raising attendance and bringing exhibitors back. As one online shop owner told me, “Retail has totally changed, and the industry needs to stop complaining and start innovating.”
Of course, there’s a risk here of alienating some of the current constituency in the short term. Online fabric shops have gotten a bad rap among brick-and-mortar shops owners who often accuse them of undercutting on price, luring away their customers and forcing them to close. Quilts, Inc. would need to take a firm stance that online shops are local mom-and-pops just like brick-and-mortar stores and are equally welcomed at the show.
There is no other venue that’s offering programming tailored to the needs of online fabric shop owners in particular, so if it were offered at Quilt Market it could be a big draw. Running an online fabric shop presents unique and complex challenges. Without physical space where customers can unroll bolts in order to feel the hand of the fabric, match colors, and understand scale, online retailers have a tremendous amount of work to do to help customers feel confident in their choices before they buy. They also have to work to develop relationships virtually, often through social media, and managing the tech side of an online business is intense, both with upkeep and innovation, as well as expense.
Here’s what online shop owners say they need:
- Shopify expertise- Representative from Shopify, or Shopify experts, who can present a workshop on the themes and apps that work best for selling fabric
- Product photography and photo styling – The swatch images from fabric manufacturers are not enough to sell fabric online. Customers need to see beauty shots of fabric and project (ie. stacks of fat quarters) for listings and social media
- Video workshops – How to set up a basic studio with sound and lighting equipment; best practices for YouTube and Instagram video/live video.
- Fulfillment By Amazon know how – How to get started, how to wade through Amazon’s bureaucracy, is it worth it.
- Shipping and logistics – Creating an efficient pick, pack, and ship setup.
- Copywriting – How to write compelling product stories in listings, Instagram captions, and email campaigns
- Email marketing – Advanced strategies including collecting high-quality customer data, list segmentation, sending personalized messages, and automations
The new track of business seminars should be accompanied by a targeted marketing campaign inviting online fabric shop owners specifically to attend the show. This should include Etsy sellers, most of whom have never been to a trade show. The track should be in addition to the existing seminars that are catered toward brick-and-mortar shop owners because they are certainly vital, too, and need to continue to thrive alongside the online retailers.
The remainder of the show, of course, is for seeing what’s new, networking, and placing orders. Although the buying power of some of these smaller sellers may be modest now, if they’re nurtured as customers their shops have the potential to grow (Hawthorne Threads was once an Etsy shop, after all). If our industry has a future, online retail is going to be a strong part of it. Manufacturers and designers need to develop relationships with these online retailers, just like they do with brick-and-mortar shops, and the trade is just the place to do it.