As a small business owner, I have come to appreciate local businesses, and I try to support them as often as possible. I am a member of several online sewing discussion groups, and the topic of Joann’s comes up at least once a day. Joann’s, if you’re not familiar, is one of the few nationwide chains that sells fabrics. Most sewists have strong feelings about Joann’s, and love them or hate them, they are often seen as the “only choice” of a sewist.
Whether you’re familiar with Joann’s or not, there are many complaints about this store. Coupons are issued when practically the whole store is on sale. The fabric selection is poor, or the quality is bad. Store employees are not competent. In short, people don’t like Joann’s. For one reason or another, most people who sew view Joann’s as a necessary evil.
Many sewists don’t care for ordering fabric online. It’s difficult to know for certain what a fabric will be like when it’s ordered sight unseen. More specifically, the problem is less about seeing the fabric than it is about feeling it. A fabric can be described on a website, but that doesn’t tell you the way it feels or the drape. For example, a while back I ordered some fabric that was described as a suiting fabric. Most suiting fabric has a certain amount of drape. It is usually soft with very good body. This particular suiting fabric was much different. It was more like burlap than something I would use to make a suit. I think it might make a decent handbag or tote, but never a suit.
Shop Local, Support Your Neighbors
One fairly easy way to get around dealing with the Big Box stores, or ordering online, is to shop local. I admit that I don’t always shop locally, for several reasons. A few of those reasons are:
- Lack of suitable selection
- Poor customer service (!!!)
No matter how good the selection is, if it’s a pain to get to the store, I often skip it. If it’s in a bad area of town, I skip it. Because of where I live in Houston, the majority of the local fabric stores are focused on quilts. I buy most of my quilting fabric locally as a result. But fashion fabric is a different matter. It is hard to find fashion fabric in Houston, and when you do, there are so many other considerations. Many of these stores don’t tick all the important boxes for me.
Frankly, there are not a lot of fashion fabric stores in the area. There are some, but by and large, this is the biggest barrier to local shopping for me. A quick Google search turned up six pages of map results. Remove all of the Hobby Lobbys and Joann’s locations, the stores that are specifically selling interior design fabrics, and the quilt shops, and you are left with less than ten stores that sell fashion fabrics. To a non-sewist, ten stores may sound like a lot. But the reality is, those ten stores will carry many things that you’re not going to use often – fabrics for weddings and special occasions, fleece, flannel and other fabrics not suitable for an “average” blouse project, as an example.
There is also the issue of poor customer service. Frankly, this one baffles me. As a small business owner myself, I try to go out of my way to be friendly and welcoming to people who contact me, or who visit my booth during a show. I try to explain the benefits of my products. If someone asks me something specific, I try to answer their question as best I can. Yet I’ve encountered small business owners who treat their customers like dirt.
There is one fabric store here who gets consistently bad reviews. They treat everyone who is not their perceived target audience very poorly. I guess they must get enough business from their community to stay in business. They could do so much better if they were more welcoming to all people, but instead, they ignore customers, are rude to them, and generally treat them poorly. I don’t get it.
Let’s talk about the two ton elephant in the room – budget. It is often cheaper to buy fashion fabric at Joann’s or online. I hear complaints from people all the time about how much more expensive it is to buy fabrics from small, local shops. What they seem to miss, though, is that the local shops are buying relatively small orders of fabric. They simply do not have the negotiating power of a Joann’s, who has close to 900 stores. Joann’s can afford to sell fabric just above cost, because they make money on other things – patterns, thread, craft items, etc. A local shop just can’t do that.
Most small businesses operate on a thin margin; the owners are not getting rich. I’ve looked in to the wholesale cost of quilting fabric myself. After taking in to account the cost of the fabric, employees, shop rent, electricity and all the other overhead costs, the shop owner might be able to retain about a dollar a yard on fabric sold in their shop. Then they get to pay taxes on that money – AGAIN! That’s selling fabric at the regular price. If they put it on sale, they may be selling at a loss.
I try to remember that when I’m shopping in a local quilt store. While it might appear that the owner is “making bank” it’s more likely that they’re making enough to live without being hand to mouth all the time. I can’t begrudge anyone like that their paycheck. And it’s highly doubtful that your local quilt shop owner is going to ever amass a fortune the likes of Bill Gates. They are like you and me – treading water, hoping to save enough up for retirement one day.
My Own Personal Theory
So, maybe the costs at the local place are a little more than what’s online. I still try to shop at local places first. I know what it’s like to make a sale. It makes me SO happy to see an order come in, or a customer walk up and buy something. As I said before, I don’t buy everything locally. I try to buy as much as possible locally though. I have a tendency to find a fabric I like in a magazine and go to my local stores and see if they have it. When they don’t, I order it online. Then I take it to the local store (my new favorite is Sew Special Quilts in Katy) and look for blending and coordinating fabrics.
It’s nearly impossible to shop local when you’re talking about things like crock pots or dishes. There are very few Mom & Pop type places in cities anymore that sell those items. But for things like clothing, fabrics and other soft goods, local businesses are your best bet for high quality items. And you’re supporting local families, friends and neighbors with your purchases. Even if it means we buy fewer items, isn’t it worth helping a local business owner, who brings commerce, jobs and other benefits to your community?