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 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.
July 23: Quilts, Inc. released the business seminars for Fall 2018 Quilt Market today. Although there are several courses focused on social media and ecommerce, they are not geared toward web-native shops.
Constance Petersen says
Spot on Abby! As an online-only retail shop, I go occasionally to Quilt Market, but the education tracks are mostly useless with respect to running an online business. I have found the industry to be almost clueless about the costs that go into running a successful online business — nearly always assuming that the costs are much lower than those that go into running a brick&mortar business. Lets have some real education about how to improve our online businesses. And, while we are at it, lets educate the distributors and wholesalers who sell to us, but who don’t understand what we need to grow our revenue and profits — and by extension their revenue and profits.
Andrea Rennick says
Not only that, it seems the industry sees brick and mortar and online shops as two different beasts, when many brick and mortar shops have these same online shop issues.
Or, they would get an online shop if only they had the resources!
In short, there does need to be more of a focus on retailing online, as well as targeting the brick and mortar stores that want to also move in this direction.
Missouri Quilt Co is a prime example. Some shop owners want to emulate them, without realizing how much is online. Can’t replicate that sucess with a near-static website and bare minimum social media.
I agree! I feel like this article is drawing a line in the sand between online retailers and brick & mortar shops.- But the reality is EVERYONE needs training in online business best practices, logistics, and social media presence!!! There is a black hole in training for this at Quilt Market. Quilts, Inc needs to find someone savvy in both technology & quilting to guide them into developing modern seminars. Too often, older generation quilt shop owners rely on the tech expertise of their younger relatives who could care less about crafting and it’s painfully obvious on their websites & whatnot. They need to know technology isn’t scary & can be rewarding for them on multiple levels.
While I agree that all shops need a savvy web presence, I think running a brick-and-mortar shop and selling fabric exclusively online are two different kinds of businesses. Sometimes they certainly morph into one another though (there are plenty of brick-and-mortar shops that also sell online, and many online-only shops aspire to one day open a brick-and-mortar store). Either way, if Quilt Market were to offer seminars and workshops of the kind I’m suggesting shops of all sorts would be able to sign up depending on their needs and that would benefit everyone.
Constance Petersen says
You wrote, “As one online shop owner told me, ‘Retail has totally changed, and the industry needs to stop complaining and start innovating.'”
One can have a healthy, profitable online quilt shop (OK — in my case, an online quilt, sew, knit, etc. shop) without selling quilt fabric at all or only as a small portion of one’s shelf space. We have stayed small and profitable by not stocking hundreds/thousands of bolts of fabric. However, if the fabric companies themselves understood my company’s business model and made it easier for us to present and sell a curated subset of their fabrics, I’d be first in line to give it a go.
Great comment Andrea! It certainly shouldn’t be an us versus them kind of deal. More b/m shops need to up their game online, and maybe the tech/socisl media offerings at market might be a little light, but anyone serious about online business can find this elsewhere. (By all means ask Shopify to come, but it’d be a better ask to have them offer the ability to sell in decimal units or fractions first….say, 1.75 yards of fabric.) Should the premier trade show for the quilting industry be lacking in these subjects? Likely not. Should online quilt shops get special invitations like they’ve never heard of the biggest trade show in their industry? Again, probably not.
I kind of find this article insulting to both online retailers and B/M shops and a bit divisive in approach. While I don’t think all online shops need to become B/M shops, I do think all B/M shops have got to be online to grow. Most online shops have their shtick, their specialty. Some have celebrity quilters at the head, some have a unique collection of product, some focus on price. Now there are online shops whose shtick is that they are a B/M. We have more in common than different.
I certainly didn’t mean to be insulting or divisive. My focus here was intended to be on how to revitalize the trade show. From talking over the last couple of weeks to some online shop owners of both large and small shops, about half of whom go to Quilt Market and half of whom have never been, it seems to me that if the show were to welcome online shop owners and offer programming that was specifically geared towards their needs, they would be more likely to come, many for the first time. And this could be the a real piece of the solution to the problem that Quilt Market is currently suffering.
Cynthia Herms says
I am always stunned to go to a brick and mortar shop’s website and find I cannot look at their fabric. This is 2018. I am NOT going to hop in my car and drive anywhere without knowing you have what I am looking for (or something close to it). There needs to be some definite assistance to the shops in how you run an online business as this is a complement to a B & M store and is, without a doubt, mandatory in today’s world. Perhaps this is one reason the number of LQS are shrinking? They have not stepped into the world as we know it today.
Totally agree with this article. For many years I have heard bricks and mortar complaining about online shops that have low overheads and are ruining retail. Online stores take a great deal of work and expense that others do not see. We need to have websites built by experience people, market for customers to even know we exists online, become social media experts. None of which, if done properly is cheap.
We also have to run through a minefield of so called experts taking your money and giving nothing in return.
For many of us the learning curve is huge.
Quilt market did have a website builder there last year, however I feel they were an easy sell to those. That have little experience and knowledge of online websites.
More education is needed definitely required for our industry to move forward..
I believe the website builder that was at the show was LikeSew and while LikeSew is a solid solution for a shop that needs to track inventory between online and brick-and-mortar sales, it’s not necessarily the best solution for an online-only shop. If the show were really catering to online businesses the organizers would ask online shop owners what they truly need most and I don’t think the answer would be a LikeSew specialist.
Stephanie Soebbing says
The last time I spoke with LikeSew (it was a couple years ago so this could have changed) they had no way of tracking where online sales came from in Google Analytics. Without knownkng what actually brought in the sale, you don’t know what marketing actually worked. Data is so key. Anyone who want to do business online needs to embrace it.
That’s interesting. I may reach out and ask to learn more.
Stephanie P Soebbing says
Before building my own business I worked in digital marketing at ad agencies, doing everything I do now to measure marketing ROI. Now I, or my staff that I have trained, manage all aspects of our website and digital marketing, including measuring where all online sales come from to the penny. We save big $$$ by doing it all in-house, but I learned everything by reading articles online and experimenting. There were no classes on this when I went to college, and I only graduated in 2007, so not that long ago, but an eternity in digital advancements.
Hi Stephanie, I reached out to LikeSew and they do have Google Analytics integration now. They do also offer 1/4 yard, 1/2 yard, and 3/4 yard increments which is something Shopify doesn’t offer unless you customize it. They also have class management. The thing is that Shopify with customization and apps can offer all of these things plus a perfected checkout process, Apple Pay, buyable Pins on Pinterest, and Instagram product tags. It’s hard to beat.
Laurel Kindley says
Interesting article. I have both a brick and mortar shop along with a web store to sell my products. I hear this same “us vs. them” argument all the time. The brick and mortar only stores feel threatened by the on-line only shops that do sell fabric for less. But it’s not just the on-line stores that do this. I know other brick and mortar stores that don’t have the rent and overhead I do that run their business as a hobby so they don’t charge as much. Is it hurting me? Possibly, but I prefer to focus on what I’m doing and not what others are doing.
From my experience, most of what I sell on my website is fabric that people already have purchased and need additional yardage. So there is not a need there to “touch and feel” because the buyer already knows what it feels like. And while the larger shops like MSQC sells out quickly at a lower price, I sell the same fabric for a little more thanks to MSQC already having done the marketing on a fabric line.
So do I think your idea of opening up Quilt Market to include on-line only stores? I think it would be great to bring in some classes for this. As stated by someone else here, those of us who do both will benefit. For me, the on-line store is just an additional avenue for me to make sales. It’s not enough to just have a website but you need to be on the right platform and be knowledgeable in search engine optimization (SEO) and know how to get your products showing up on page 1 of Google. I have had my website for about 2-1/2 years. I moved to Shopify in January. HUGE DIFFERENCE. I went from about 2-5 orders a month to that much some days. It’s amazing.
Another trend that I am also seeing is a catering to the larger quilt stores. The fabric companies are raising prices, offering more and more lines, and larger discounts to stores that buy in large quantities, thus allowing them to charge less. Smaller shops don’t have the money or the space to carry large inventories. And that means the fabric companies are less willing to work with you. After all, if you have the choice to sell 100K to a large store vs. 10K to a smaller store, which would you want to do. And unfortunately, some small shops out there are struggling to pay their bills on time. This has an impact on the fabric companies.
So as easy as it is to “blame the on-line stores” for a brick and mortar shop closing, I am here to say that it’s not that simple.
Laura Murray says
Online retailing is rapidly changing purchasing preferences, and business survival requires adapting. Abby, I agree with your comments about Quilt Market, which is uniquely positioned to provide resources for the future and must do so quickly if it is to survive.
However, I’m wondering just how much sales volume is required to get a decent ROI on the time and $$ required to develop/buy the skills and technology needed to create an online business? This seems daunting, especially since I already wear many hats (designer, production, accounting, purchasing, sales/marketing, teacher, author, etc, etc) Are we moving to an environment where a single person is unlikely to be successful on even a modest scale?
Rebecca Grace says
Oh my goodness, Abby — yes, yes, and yes to ALL of it. One more point: Your proposed seminar topics would be invaluable resources to all of those traditional brick-and-mortar quilt shops as well, because adding an effective online shop to an existing quilt shop business would really be the best of both worlds and enable those LQS’s to stock and SELL much more inventory than their local customers can support on their own. I have done some research into the quilt shop business myself and it seems that most new quilt shop owners vastly underestimate the amount of inventory they need to stock in order to be successful — if you want to be the local one-stop-shop for quilters, then you need to have EVERYTHING from full ranges of solids, reproduction prints, batiks, modern prints, holiday fabrics, novelty, etc. I know if I go to check out a new quilt shop and they don’t stock enough fabric for me to find what I’m looking for, I don’t bother going back. Yet it’s a catch-22 since shop owners need to move yardage off the shelves in order to be profitable. For an existing shop, adding an online presence is such a small investment compared to the potentially exponential explosion in sales that will result if done right. If Quilt Market wants to remain valuable to the industry, they MUST provide training, resources, and invite the tech vendors who can teach their existing customer base how to survive as a quilt shop in the 21st century. This is not just about catering to online retailers at the expense of brick-and-mortar. My favorite example for this is Sears & Roebuck versus Amazon. The idea of selling absolutely every product that any family could possibly need via mail order is NOT a new idea — the Sears & Roebuck Catalog sold everything from bicycles, groceries, jewelry, even prefab homes by mail order in the late 19th century. Yet Sears failed to foresee the way that the Internet would dramatically impact retail sales, allowing Amazon to basically copy their 200-year-old business model, just swapping out those 300-page paper catalogs for an Internet storefront. Today Sears is gasping for breath, closing stores and selling off brands in a desperate last-ditch effort to return to profitability after years of losses, yet Amazon’s record profits continue to climb quarter after quarter. Amazon’s owner Jeff Bezos is currently making $275 million dollars PER DAY… Now, what vendor in their right mind would want to waste time and money exhibiting at a trade show that excluded Amazon and other online retailers from attending? Clearly, any retail business owner who is NOT interested in having an online shopping presence in 2018 is NOT really interested in maximizing their profits. If Quilt Market wants to cater only to those “hobbyist” quilt shop owners who are not interested in maximizing their profits, then it’s a total sham of a trade show, excluding serious business owners who are embracing Internet sales and the many ways that technology and social media can help them sell more fabric, notions etc. in the digital age, and instead catering to backward-looking, sour grapes business owners who blame online innovators for their own failures.
I want to clarify that there are business seminars at Quilt Market about ecommerce and social media, and have been for many years. I don’t think Quilts, Inc. is at all pretending that these topics don’t exist or aren’t relevant. What’s missing are seminars geared towards web native businesses and those that operate entirely online.
Nancy Dill says
I also agree with you and thank you Abby for continuing to bring these conversations to the forefront. I know it is not easy to write an article like this and I’m so glad you did. I stopped attending and having a booth at Market a few years ago because the costs FAR outweighed the benefits and we can now do most everything we need online. I really enjoyed attending and would love to attend again if it makes business sense. (I will travel to Pittsburg next time it is there because it is only 5 hours away.)
Perhaps, Abby you and your colleagues could plan and execute a totally new “market” for online and B/M stores. Perhaps the CIA market. Organize and plan all seminars and classes based on the immediate needs of today and tomorrow.
We have an awesome trade show. I would much rather see it continue to flourish.
Nancy Dill says
Great idea, I would be willing to help! And PLEASE hold it in the CENTER of the country!