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.
- 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.
Joyce Schwaller says
Thank you for the info. on Threads of Success. I am hoping to attend in Houston this fall. You share all kinds of wonderful stuff and I appreciate it.
Lori H says
This post is helping me see that treating online shops with anything less than a full embrace isn’t helpful to the overall sales of fabric. I recently needed a solid in a particular color I didn’t know the name of. I drove across the state of Connecticut to 3 brick and mortar shops. None of them had it, but one did offer me a color chart so I could at least know the name of the color and order it online. I will continue to drive out of my way to patronize this shop. And though I did eventually order the fabric online, I did make other purchases at each stop. I have witnessed with sadness as small mom and pop hardware stores close because of Home Depot, or an independent book shop close because of Barnes and Noble, but sometimes stores close because of reasons not necessarily having anything to do with the competition. I am grateful you continue to raise interesting issues and solutions based on thorough research and analysis. Keep on, Abby Glassenberg!
I am going to Kansas City and have known for a long time that Quilt Market is dwindling. The numbers of attendees and buyers disappoints me every time. However, the exposure to all kinds of buyers and vendors is useful. Nearly every one of my suppliers is there (Bosal Foam, JuneTailor, Pellon, and many more) and we meet face to face, you meet the top execs of each corp. The connections are very valuable. Collaboration happens, and on several occasions I have found solutions to big problems. At my first market I was offered two book deals, articles in magazines, gained several new distributors, made so many new contacts, we got about 50 new direct customers. I have taught numerous times at Quilt Market and now I have a new product and am rolling it out at Market. It is not a quilt design, it is not a design a quilt shop will have supplies for, or resources for. I am betting on customers who crave creativity, to want it; and they are already shopping for it online. But I expect to have a great market and am almost ready.
I agree with you, Deborah. Going to Quilt Market is a fantastic opportunity to connect with companies in person and find new business opportunities that benefit everyone. Nothing beats in-person meetings and the opportunity to see products and test out machines, etc. It’s so important. Bringing new buyers to the show will ensure that it’s worth it to pay for a booth and all the expenses that that requires. And it can’t be ecommerce as an afterthought. It’s got to be head first.
Jo Vandermey says
I think that Brick and Mortar stores need to up their game as well. And if they are not finding Market relevant they need to communicate that to Quilt Inc. Regardless of where someone is selling – online or brick and mordar social media is a huge part of any business. It is the way of business now. A brick and mortar store needs to influence their demographic by using the same techniques as online stores. A great model is the store that combines both online and in person shopping. This is how companies like Missouri Star have become what they are. Great Marketing!
Marketing is no longer done by the traditional way such as ads in print form. I think that an online presence is crucial to any venue to sell and needs smart marketing.
Some of the questions I think we need to ask are who is being successful and what are they doing? Are they a more internet/social savvy person?
And as for the fabric manufacturers they would be plain dumb not to sell to the people who are selling the fabric. Why would they not sell to people with a viable business model?
So I agree Quilt Market may have to up their game if they want their money making show to continue to work for them and prosper”. If they don’t they would be foolish. And they will lose money and go out of business. If so they are making their own mistakes.
Maybe someone will come out with a money making model for themselves regarding how to teach a business to be a savvy quilt store. Maybe it will be an online resources with facts plans and courses.
I really laugh when I read the info I can find online about how to open a quilt store. The often placed statement in the article is “create a good business plan” Maybe Quilt Inc or some other person can come up with a business plan model (like an MBA school) of what that is. Why isn’t someone approaching the business world to do this?
Quilters who love the hobby and want to make it a viable option for an income have to wake up to the fact that it is hard work, long hours, a service industry and you have to be financially and marketing smart. It takes to much money to start a store and fill it not to have a solid plan to sell it.
I wonder about figures such as how much of a bolt of fabric do I need to sell before I start making a profit? Cost of bolt + overhead of doing business (store front, warehouse, office costs, human resource cost etc.) = amount of costs. Then you would know how much product you need to move in a week.
I thought I wanted to be a vendor at local and provincial area shows. I found out quickly that I just couldn’t . It was just going to be logistically too hard for me. I was quite naive. It was to be a hobby business. Just could not do it. So I feel for people who aren’t prepared for it.
I also wonder how many quilt stores have closed because the people have run it till their retirement and have found it impossible to sell off the goodwill of the business. A closing sale will recover some of their investment from inventory but I have seen several stores close without finding a buyer to take over. Costs to open a store are very high especially with rents and costs of goods. (I am in Canada where it is more expensive to buy the cost of goods because of our weak Canadian dollar to the US and taxes and import duties)
So that is probably my thoughts on Quilt Market. The owners of Quilt Market need to change and if they don’t their business will continue to go down. That will be their fault. But the public has to make that known to them. I think there is a market for a great business model out there for future vendors of quilting relating items to create other than advice of make a business plan.
And I have to say that your articles are so illuminating and I enjoy each one!
Hi-Full disclosure here-I am on the consumer side of the industry and have never been to Market, but I would love to be on the business side of things someday (which is why I read the article). I would love to see more innovation in the lqs! I do most of my fabric shopping online-probably 98%- but when we travel I always stop in every quilt shop I see and I’m usually disappointed. They seem outdated or not to my taste, and I’m quick to think “no wonder brick and mortar shops are going out of business” but then I see online shops closing, too! But yet fabric is still being sold at a strong pace. I think sewists and quilters build up their stashes to the point of having their own mini quilt-shops in their home studios, and replenish as necessary or buy the latest designer fabric lines-and this is something I personally am trying to get away from. I don’t know what can be done-but I’d love to walk in my lqs and have it not look like they are going out of business. Maybe there is an answer in the way inventory is sold to shops from suppliers in order to support prices people want to pay and have a fresh inventory. The online world of shopping is “latest greatest” but in-person fabric shopping is vastly different for the most part.
Jo Vandermey says
One way I think fabric manufactures could make it easier for LQS is to make smaller bolts available so owners could buy more or less of a line. Think of a line being over 20 bolts with 15 yards on a bolt at say $5 a yard ( just a guess whole sale it is probably more these days) that is $75 dollars a bolt or $$1500 a line. For each fabric line at least they bring in. And they pay the shipping and handling to get it in and all the other costs to sell. If they had smaller bolts they could bring in more variety. Variety in the store all depends on their cash flow…..
Good business models is what out LQS’s need!
Yes! That’s a great idea if smaller bolts could be available! And a new business model!
I recently read about digital printing vs. screen printing fabric. As more fabric companies move to print digitally, we might see changes like smaller bolt sizes, and popular designs being reprinted due to increased speed of production.
Sarah Ann Smith says
Near me in midcoast Maine, we are lucky to have multiple great quilt shops. The ones that do best are the ones who have created vibrant online sites to supplement the brick and mortar stores or (for one shop) working regional quilt shows. By having a two-prong approach, they are able to turn over inventory in the brick and mortar store which keeps locals coming back. The annual Shop Hop (which has over a dozen stores spread across a large territory in the state) also takes quilters on a happy road trip. Given distances and winter road conditions, I expect the shop hop encourages Mainers to buy from in-state-but-distant (at least during winter snows) shops by email/internet. Sometimes I even buy from a shop about 45 minutes away because shipping costs less than gasoline.
I’d love to see Market and Festival as well really pitch to the new generation (AQS / Paducah may be a lost cause). I was stunned to hear a 30-something say not so long ago “why would anyone go to Houston when you can go to QuiltCon?” Well, Houston is still my mecca, but I’m 61. Quilts, Inc. is definitely starting to take steps in the right direction, I just hope they step quickly enough to attract the 20-40 year olds before they are moribund.
Alla Blanca says
Insightful as always, Abby! Thank you so much for beating the drum on this issue.
I love the quirky vibrancy of QuiltCon. Even though it’s a retail rather than wholesale show, it attracts the audience of the next generation of quilters. Pay attention, Quilts, Inc! I will be at Quilt Market as a vendor, still trying to connect with an audience, because the biz I work with is too small not to go (if that makes sense). We are still building our customer base, offering new and unique as a small distributor. And, just like some struggling brick and mortar shops, we haven’t gotten our online presence figured out. So we have to meet in the marketplace, even if that is much diminished of late.
Side note: I fear that TNNA is also losing touch with its base of buyers/sellers, with increasing costs for both sides of the equation resulting in lower attendance and the possibility of a downward spiral.
Great insight Abby.
I’m a pattern designer/company and have had a booth at Spring Market since 2004 since my business began. And I too have watched as the number of buyers at market has dwindled over the years.
Each year as market approaches, I ask my customers who are shop owners if they are going to market. Only a small percentage of them say “yes”. Of the ones who say “no”, I always ask their reasons. The list of reasons is pretty much the same with the top reason being this: Most shop owners are sole proprietors with few to no reliable employees who are capable to run the shop while the owner would be away at market.
So, they think “what’s a shop owner to do? Close the shop for 3 days and attend market, which is always held over a weekend, when shop sales are at their best? Or stay home, save the travel expenses and wait for the reps to come and show me what’s new”.
At this point in the conversation I want to reach thru the phone and strangle them, because sitting in your bubble waiting for the new to come to you is the worst business strategy ever!
But . . . . . I get the reasons why they stick their head in the sand and never even consider going to market.
So – my magic question is this:
“How do we bust the barriers they face or at least change the mindset of shop owners, so they see nothing but a “Blue Ocean” of opportunities that will arise out of them going to market?”
I wanna see the percentage of shop owners (online or brick n mortar) who attend market increase from the puny percentage that is, to at least 25%! A lofty goal, but market is still the best bang for the buck, to get in the face of buyers all in one shot.
I’d love to hear your comments on this Abby
Next time you talk with them ask them what would make them come. And it can’t be a show discount. That’s not a sustainable strategy for anyone. Discovery is a strong draw. I know that’s why more and more American businesses are going to h+h cologne – there are interesting products on display that you simply don’t find here. Really good education is also a draw. Like really good.
Beth Hunter says
I have been following the Threads of Success (TOS) as well and under the original concept, I was under the impression it would be for Industry “newbies” and geared for both the start of the business as well as running it successfully. After seeing the TOS curriculum I see that it seems to be more for the pattern and fabric designers and the Media and less about how to be successful in business, (income, business form necessities (licenses, taxes, regulations), website/media management, bookkeeping including (spreadsheets, P&L, Cost of Goods, etc). Those courses would be more relevant than a lecture on “Those That Made It Big” we all know who they are… “Negotiating the Road of Hard Knocks” Really one person’s journey may be inspirational, but how much entrepreneurial help will it be? “Better Quilt Photos” Maybe a course about better photos, in general, would be a much better offering. Most creatives are creative and their best suit is not always the “BUSINESS” part, including the organizational parts and the paperwork parts. However, it is the “nuts and bolts” of records management that the startups need. They already have great ideas, but may not realize how fast the capital goes and how many hours it takes to round up records at tax time. I also think they did the attendees a huge disservice by not offering some of the courses several times, making it a very difficult decision for some… have fun or boring numbers? and in some cases, not one of the 3 courses is interesting enough to sit through, for those that it doesn’t pertain to.
Laura Estes says
The expenses of attending has to be reduced. Flights aren’t getting any cheaper, and the hotel costs have risen to the point, cost is prohibitive. $3000 is a rough estimate for a buyer to attend the whole event. The amount of events is more than can be taken in by one person, so double if a second person comes along.
I am missing spring market this year as a vendor because we have sick family members needing our attention and I hate too, because I need that face to face contact for my applique patterns. I am open to all shop owners, online and brick and mortar and a venue where buyers come together is important to me. Classes and demo’s are important to the program, but some of the other events remove buyers from the show floor and are purely entertainment.
Within reason, activities should keep attendees on the show floor. Demo Alley is great, it has brought me the most paying contacts outside of my booth.