Quilt Market is taking place in Kansas City in just a few weeks. Unlike the fall show which is always in Houston, the spring show rotates through different cities which makes it harder to compare year to year. Still, looking at the exhibitor list the show appears to be down 25 exhibitors from last year in Portland, Oregon, and 202 down from the last time it was in Kansas City in 2012.
Why is this exhibitor number dropping?
Choosing to exhibit at Quilt Market means making a significant financial investment and there’s got to be a compelling reason to sink money, time, and energy into it twice a year. The single most convincing reason to do it is knowing that there will be buyers at the show.
Who was the show for in the past?
Quilt Market was founded in 1979 by a Karey Bresenhan, who at the time owned a quilt shop, and for the past 40 years, the show has catered to brick-and-mortar quilt shop owners. In a letter sent out to shop owners in February of 2017 Bresenhan wrote, “Because Quilt Market was started by a retailer (me), it’s always been run for the good of the retailers.” Herein lies the problem.
Retail is changing. It’s already changed. And it’s never going back. The number of brick-and-mortar quilt shops in the United States is steadily is shrinking. There were approximately 5,500 quilt shops in the US in 2010 and now there are closer to 3,200. Only a fraction of them attends each show. If those are the buyers you’re depending on, your trade show is going to steadily shrink, too. Fewer buyers mean fewer exhibitors, and on and on until you reach a breaking point and the show no longer works for anyone.
Who is the show going to be for in the future?
But here’s the thing. Talking with the fabric manufacturers it doesn’t appear as though there’s been a decline in fabric sales. It’s just that there’s a new, and different population of buyers.
Quilting fabric is a product that lends itself well to selling online. Once you’ve felt the hand of a particular manufacturer’s substrate, and you follow the designer on Instagram, it’s very easy as a consumer to know what you want and to place an order on your phone. Kits and precuts are especially tempting. The technology for color matching and the ease for mobile optimized online purchasing is only going to get better as the years go by. Savvy ecommerce sellers have figured this out and many of them now stock inventory that matches the size of small and mid-sized quilt shops. These are the buyers of the future.
Quilts, Inc. needs to ask themselves whether they’re fully embracing this new kind of buyer. And it goes beyond Quilts, Inc. In fact, if we want a trade show at all, the whole industry needs to think about our attitude towards online shop owners. To what degree do we see ecommerce sellers, including Etsy shop owners, as legitimate buyers on par with brick-and-mortar shop owners? Turning up our noses at online shops, accusing them of undercutting everyone on price and ruining the industry, will, in the end, alienate the very buyers we need at the show. If their pricing needs work, the show is a place to provide that education. But scorn is not helpful.
I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating. Here are some class ideas that would attract web-native shops to the show:
- 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. As it is effective to thoroughly learn the benefits of logistics.
- 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
This fall Quilts, Inc. is introducing a new conference that will take place simultaneously with Quilt Market. Called Threads of Success, the event is for people who are new to the industry and hoping to break in. I applaud efforts at innovation, and I think it’s great that conference goers will populate the show floor on the final day when attendance is typically light which will likely help elevate the mood, but the conference doesn’t solve for the underlying problems. We need more energy placed on bringing in buyers and we need it now.