Waiting for the Sample Spree doors to open. Photo by The Quilt Room
“I’ve seen people line up five hours before we open the doors. You’d think it was the Rolling Stones concert circa 1975,” says Bob Ruggiero, Vice President of Marketing for Quilts, Inc. the company that puts on Quilt Market, the quilting industry’s twice-yearly trade show. Ruggiero is describing the frenzied crowd waiting to get into Sample Spree, a cash-and-carry buying event open to the trade only that takes place at the convention center the evening before the show.
Sample Spree has evolved over the decades as the market for quilting products has shifted, but its stated purpose has always been to give quilt shop owners the opportunity to purchase samples or the materials to sew samples, in advance of the products shipping to stores. Over the last fifteen years, the event has primarily shifted from pattern designers selling bundles of patterns and sewn samples, to fabric manufacturers selling precuts. And over the last five years, many of the those precuts get quickly resold online, ending up in the hands of consumers almost immediately.
This year Quilts, Inc., has changed who can enter Sample Spree when. Only those with Buyer Badges will be admitted in the first half hour, followed by those with Industry Professional badges. “It is always our desire to support the entire industry, but feedback regarding his event has told us that change was necessary,” reads the explanation of the new policy. “Items resold immediately through avenues such as Etsy diminish the value of the samples returning to shops and injures the industry in general.”
Ruggiero says, “Especially in the last four or five years its been disheartening to see that people are just grabbing things and taking pictures literally in the lobby outside Sample Spree and putting them up for sale in their eBay or Etsy just to make a profit and that’s not the intent of Sample Spree, that’s certainly not what the exhibitors want. So what we decided to do with staggering it is to try to get the buyers, the people who are actually making purchases for their shop or for their online retail, to kind of have first crack at the thing.”
According to Ruggiero, when they have done cross checks on individual resellers “the vast majority seem to be people who have the Industry Professional badge” but “by no means do I think what I’ve done for research is the firm truth.”
Reselling on Etsy
A search of the #SampleSpree hashtag on Instagram shows 1,500 posts, many of them showing hauls of what people bought, and a subset is listings of precuts for sale including some by SimplyLoveFabrics, an Etsy shop owned by Jessica Taylor and mother, Donna, who live in Lehi, Utah. They went to Quilt Market for the first time in the spring of 2015 and attended Sample Spree where the spent about $900 buying precuts from Art Gallery, Cotton+Steel and Moda.
“We posted a whole big stash picture on Instagram like everybody does,” Taylor says, “and then when we got back home we did some quick Instagram sales on them.” She points out that listing a one-off on Etsy is overly time-consuming so for lines they weren’t planning to order Instagram sales made more sense.
SimplyLoveFabrics inventory in the basement of Jessica Taylor’s home in Lehi, Utah.
SimplyLoveFabrics may only operate on Etsy, but it’s a full-fledged fabric retailer. Taylor has 1,100 bolts, about the size of a small quilt shop, and estimates she’s spent $100,000 on inventory. They attend Quilt Market with Buyers badges.
Sample Spree costs $15 to attend. There are no official rules spelling out what attendees are and aren’t allowed to do with the items they purchase. Bob Ruggiero, Vice President of Communications for Quilts, Inc., says that reselling isn’t against the rules “because it’s not a rule, it’s just an intent. It’ nothing that’s concrete, or set in stone, or has words to it, it’s just down to what’s right, what I think is healthy, what a lot of people think is healthy for the industry. And what’ s not healthy is people who run in and immediately are using this as resale for their own profit.”
Sample Spree Purchases Have a History of Going into the Wrong Hands
Even before precuts took over the retail mix, Sample Spree attendees were known to use their purchases for a purpose other than promoting the goods that were being offered. Charlotte Wolfe, the owner of Charlotte’s Sew Natural in Newton, Kansas, remembers attending the event in the mid-1990s.
“There were gaggles of women on the sidelines protecting their loot,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘they must have a gift shop, or they’re decorating their homes.’ Instead of getting exposure in all those shops, the samples were ending up in someone’s dining room.”
In this blog post by Allison Aller about Fall Market 2007 she describes Sample Spree as “a huge room where vendors have goods on the tables for buyers to buy for their personal (or sometimes their shop) use, at wholesale prices” and in this post by Angela Yosten dated a year later she shows off a bracelet and handmade purse she bought at Sample Spree as gifts for her three-year-old daughter.
Precuts are a particularly easy product to resell, especially online. They’re neatly packaged, tied with ribbon and a tag. It’s simple to convey with a single photo exactly what they contain. The demand for early release bundles of fabric from popular designers is so high that making a nice profit quickly is basically a sure bet.
Fabric Companies are Beginning to Pull Back
Sample Spree effectiveness has become questionable to the point that some fabric companies have given up altogether. In fact, total vendor numbers at the event are down from 133 in 2014 to 92 last year.
Art Gallery Fabrics has recently withdrawn. “The reason that we are not attending Sample Spree any longer is that the effort and investment weren’t bringing enough return to justify it,” CEO Walter Bravo explained in an email last week. As attendance at the show declines overall, the company simply wasn’t seeing a high enough return on its investment.
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Ruggiero of Quilts, Inc. notes, “Sample Spree used to sell out pretty quickly once the catalog went out. Now it’s not uncommon to still have spaces available for Sample Spree at the time of the show. That could be fewer people going to Sample Spree. That could be reflective of overall lower attendance at Market in general.”
Others fabric companies are still hanging on. Aaron Hoffman of Hoffman California Fabrics points out that the day of the event is jam-packed for his staff with Schoolhouses all day and a sales meeting that begins at 4 o’clock. “You go straight from our sales meeting, you run to Sample Spree, you unload these boxes, you throw them on the table, and it’s just a long day,” he says. “From our perspective, the purpose that it serves is maybe it will pay for half of our staff’s hotel rooms and some of the meals we pay for them; the giant expense of the trip. Is it worth it for that? No. It’s not worth it.”
Free Spirit did Sample Spree once, at Fall Market 2016, but now is opting for other sorts of promotions. “With the cost of getting goods to Houston and the internal energy (time and cost), it is hard to justify selling our goods without knowledge of who is buying, what they are doing with it,” Nancy Jewell, Director of Marketing, said in an email. Although the event was fun, and a team builder for her staff, “it is much more prudent to take these goods and build a promotion around our product, ensuring our retailers get the benefit,” she says. An example would be offering an advance precut bundle plus a pattern to retailers who buy a particular collection.
Moda is consistently the most popular vendor at Sample Spree and the company seems dedicated to continuing to participate in the event. “The excitement it creates and just how fun it is to watch, I would hate to lose that,” says Cheryl Freydberg, Vice President and Design Director at Moda. Still, she says they’re bringing about half of what they brought to the event eight years ago, due to decreased attendance.
Moda is the only company that limits Sample Spree sales to one precut bundle of each new line per customer. “Our intention has always been that it’s strictly for shop models and we have always limited it to one per customer so that somebody could not come in and buy a dozen fat quarter bundles and sell them early,” Freydberg says.
And yet, according to one shop owner I spoke with the frenzied atmosphere makes that limit difficult to enforce. “Have you been to the Moda table in the first 10 minutes? It’s literally reach through two layers of people and pull a bundle out to you, wave your credit card in the air and try to get someone to swipe it, move down a few steps to the next bundle, repeat,” she says. She reports that it’s fairly easy to buy multiples of the same bundle from Moda if you know what you’re doing.
Sample Spree Power Resellers Are shop owners
This shop owner, who wished to remain anonymous, is what could be called a Sample Spree power reseller. For 14 years, she co-owned a brick-and-mortar quilt shop on the West Coast. She and her partner always attended Fall Market, and often came to Spring, too, and after each show, they hosted a Market preview night at the shop. “It was basically a big show and tell of anything we could carry back, a preview of what’s coming. It was a fun night with lots of energy and that always translated into sales. Of course, we would sell everything we brought back.”
Around 2005 she developed a strategy for shopping at Sample Spree, one that she still employs even after moving out of state and transitioning her store to an online-only shop. “Sample Spree is an opportunity to make money and that’s the only way I see it,” she says. “I take back as much merchandise as I can carry that night and I usually have a partner with me, as much as they can carry. I have a rolling cart outside that I load up as soon as I get it out the door. The more I bring back the more frenzy it creates. It’s there for the taking.” she says she typically spends a few thousand dollars and turns it all within a week, some of it at a higher than 100% markup. As a fabric retailer, she attends Quilt Market with a Buyer Badge.
Now that her shop is an online shop, she sells her Sample Spree goods on a separate Instagram account she’s set up specifically for this purpose. She knows that her current business model could be subject to critique in a way that her former shop never was. “No one balks at the idea of me loading up with goods from Sample Spree, taking them back to my brick-and-mortar shop, and selling them the next day. But do that online? On Instagram, Etsy, Facebook? Suddenly you’re part of the problem. Why? Because people can see you doing it?” She points out that Sample Spree goods aren’t selling at a discount and the buzz and desire they’re creating online are often intense, a good thing for the industry overall.
Ruggiero of Quilts, Inc. does see a difference between taking the goods back to the store and reselling them a few days later versus selling them online that night, even though he acknowledges that there’s no way to control what people do with what they buy. “It’s just the almost blatantness of it and some of the posts that I’ve seen are almost ‘haha, we got one over on Quilts Market’ or something like that. I guess it’s just the immediacy, even before the event is over.”
She isn’t the only power reseller at Sample Spree. She’s in touch with others and says that all of the ones she knows have Buyer Badges because they are fabric retailers. “The people who are really doing it, who are in there to seriously get as much merchandise and resell it that night at a profit, take the picture that night in their hotel room, put it on Instagram, those people have Buyer Badges.”
Pop-up Shops Appear on the Show Floor
Increasingly fabric companies are setting up pop-up shops in their booths offering cash-and-carry precuts to shop owners, sometimes as an alternative to vending at Sample Spree. Ruggiero of Quilts, Inc. explains, “Six years ago nobody had pop-up shops, but I’ve seen them become increasingly popular, especially with larger exhibitors.”
Quilts, Inc.’s official rules regarding selling items on the show floor states, “Sales of single items are at the discretion of the exhibitor and must be at full retail price,” yet more than a dozen people I spoke with reported buying items at wholesale prices from the pop-up shops. “
I’ll be honest, it’s hard to enforce,” says Ruggiero. “If somebody does come to us with concern we can act on it, but are we going to every popup shop and watching transactions? No, we don’t do that.”
Bloggers Take the Blame
Carolina Moore is a quilt blogger who posts craft and sewing tutorials on her site, alwaysexpectmoore.com. As a blogger, she attends Quilt Market with an Industry Professional Badge. At Fall Market 2017 she bought a precut bundle of Katarina Roccella’s collection, Blithe, at Sample Spree and made an English Paper Pieced pillow which she blogged about. When Art Gallery saw her post they asked her to join the blog tour for the fabric collection and put her project in the lookbook.
“This was a good example of me being able to buy the fabric at the wholesale price and the company getting plenty of benefit,” Moore says. “I don’t maintain a wholesale account anywhere because I don’t have any retail business so Sample Spree is a great way to buy fabric not at a full markup.” Moore hasn’t resold any of the precuts she’s bought at Sample Spree.
Now she’ll be kept out of the event for the first half hour during which precuts of the most desirable new lines will likely sell out. “Differentiating the value of different parts of the industry is a slippery slope,” she says. “I’m valuable enough to attend, but not valuable enough to be granted the same entry privilege? That speaks volumes.”