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How the Guest Experience is Changing in the Fabric Industry

Working with textiles may appear to be a dying art, but professionals in the industry are adapting to keep that from happening.

As one of few under the age of 40 employed at my fabric store, I am often reminded by patrons that the art of sewing is dying out – or so it seems.

I belong to a new generation of quilters and crafters. I’ve spoken with many longtime professionals about their experience in the fabric industry and how their jobs have changed in just the last few years, and I’ve seen how my peers have helped drive that change.

Though change may not come naturally to some of our 70-and-older customers, the truth is that the fabric industry isn’t dying – it’s just changing. And it’s changing with the same rapidity of the technological world.

Across every industry, adapting the guest experience to the current times is very reliant on technology. At the core, much of the standards of good customer service will continue to remain true. We’ll explore how the world of fabric sales has been changing in a metamorphosis being echoed by merchandising businesses across many other industries.

Selling Online

The pandemic forced many shop owners to make a choice: create an online store, or pause sales entirely.

Naturally, opening a viable online store with options to ship or pick up in person was the safest option. However, for the many retirement-age quilt shop owners, running one doesn’t come easily.

It’s important to remember this: Customers shopping in person expect a clean, organized, and easy to navigate store – that’s a vital point of the guest experience. An online store needs to be the same.

A complaint I often receive, however – and it’s one that all of us quilters generally agree upon – is that it’s hard to shop for fabrics online when you can’t color match. The lighting on photos of fabric can drastically affect how the color appears compared with the real item. Controlling this issue can be a real challenge for small stores with inadequate equipment.

Big fabric manufacturers know this, and they’ve taken a different angle to tackling the online world.

For the unfamiliar, when a new fabric is released, they come in a full line of matching designs, as well as alternative colorways.

For fabric retailers, buying the full line is rarely, if ever, a good purchase. A bolt of fabric can cost over a hundred dollars. That means even a smaller line of fabric can cost well over a thousand dollars, which is more than a lot of local quilt stores see in profit in a week.

The fabric manufacturers have the advantage of advertising their full line, wherein customers can be assured that the fabrics they’re buying will compliment each other.

In the online world, manufacturers can also capitalize off the popularity of their designers.

You might expect that most quilters are well into retirement, and you might expect that most stay far from social media, but big name fabric designers like Tula Pink of FreeSpirit Fabrics boast over 150 thousand followers on Instagram.

The near-celebrity status of big designers are helping to keep the fabric industry alive online.

Sales Between Manufacturers and Stores

Traditionally, fabric sales representatives will sell for any number of manufacturers, working solely off commission.

I’ve spoken with my store’s representative for several big brands, including Timeless Treasures, about the state of the industry today.

Fabric selling is in a very transitional state.

In the past model that still shapes sales today, individual reps sell for whichever big name brands they were able to claim, and they’ve held those titles for decades. Someone looking to get into the game now would have slim pickings until the representative of a big manufacturer retired.

Now, fabric manufacturers are shifting away from paying representatives solely on commission and towards hiring full-time representatives on a salary. Big brands like Michael Millers are beginning to lean into this new model.

The sales representative and shop owners I’ve spoken with have been at it for longer than I’ve been alive, and none know how this new structure is going to play out in the future. But I’m watching as the last generation of fabric professionals are retiring in droves and making way for the new.

Selling In Store

There’s lots of discussion about the implementation of technology and social media into modernized customer service, but much of what makes consumers happy will always be the same.

The core principles of a good guest experience will ring true. Providing a friendly attitude, clear communication, and a streamlined shopping experience is paramount.

One way a local fabric store can take a step beyond being just another business is to be a source of knowledge. I know my patrons appreciate being able to give us a call or stopping in to get advice from our employees, and that’s a big part of what sets us apart.

Just as quickly as technology is advancing, consumerism is changing to match; this is not a reality unique to the fabric industry. We can learn from the experiences and successes of other industries and apply those to our own.

Although change appears daunting, keep in mind that the values important to customers before are still important now.