Web Is Retail’s Future, Here’s Why

Blogged under Crafty Biz by Tammy on Tuesday 2 June 2009 at 9:35 am

Yesterday I had a moment of insight after walking out of JoAnn’s.

I was in the area and decided to pop in and pick up some fabric that was 50% off and also use my 40% off coupon for a new pair of sewing scissors for my mom who’s having a birthday this month. I’ve learned now to always ask the cutter to double check the price on fabric before she cuts it because fabric bolts get moved by customers, and there often seems to be tiny print on the signs anyway about what is and what is not actually on sale. The place in general was pretty chaotic that day. The A/C wasn’t working, the hand-held computers staff use weren’t working, and there pretty much seemed to be no one with a clue working in the store in general.

With some extreme effort, I was finally assured that, yes, the fabric was 50% off, normally $12.99 a yard. So, I asked for two yards, got the rest of my items, and headed for the cash register. No big surprise, it did not ring up 50% off, so I had to go through the whole scenario again. Eventually, I got it for something like $15, which is not what it should have been (anyone with a pea brain would realize if I bought 2 yards at 50% off 12.99 a yard, then duh, that means I owed $12.99 for the material). However, for some reason, the girl checking me out had to use a calculator to figure out how to do this, and she still got it wrong. By this time, I was so hot and tired and cranky, I was ready to just leave without buying anything. I paid the extra just so I could leave.

So back to me walking out the door….As I did so, I thought, “I really need to find some good on-line sources for fabric.”

Much like buying beads and other crafting items, shopping on-line is just not the same experience. It is so much easier to match fabric to threads and trims and other notions when it is all right in front of you. But I have to say that the more I shop on-line, the more I realize how much more pleasant it is than doing it in a brick and mortar store. Now I realize that the poor employees of this store were working in an oven, that when their computer equipment goes down they are basically lost, and that most of them are being paid minimum wage and are under 25, but this is just an extreme example of one experience that has repeated itself to me over and over again in this and many other stores, both craft and other shops as well. In fact, I don’t blame the employees so much as I do the company. Why aren’t staff treated better? Why aren’t they educated and informed as they should be?

Customer service and knowledgeable staff seem impossible to have any more when it comes to a “real” store. Compare this to web sites like LLBean or Zappos. If you call these companies on the phone, you know what happens? You actually talk to a human. Some also have instant chat like Fire Mountain Gems & Beads and JJill.com.

Granted, you don’t get the tactile part of shopping when you do it on-line, and you don’t get that instant gratification of buying and receiving either; however, there is so much you don’t get and don’t want like long lines, clueless sales people, misplaced sales signs, and overly hot stores (I’m think Beall’s now).

I’m sorry to see so many retail stores go. I know, now, how spoiled I was when there were numerous craft stores and fabric stores within reasonable driving distance. They had a great selection and normally had people working in them that actually sewed or crafted at least so you could ask them questions and they had a general understanding of the products they sold. But, that just doesn’t seem to be possible any more. Why? I’m not sure, but I only see it getting worse, not better. My only hope now is to continue surfing and learning to shop better on-line.

Now I’m stepping off the soap box, but feel free to step up yourself: What are your thoughts on retail and the off-line world today? Have you experienced any of the same issues I have, if so where? Do you shop on-line at all? Where have you had good and/or bad on-line retail experiences?

16 Comments »

  1. Comment by Angie Platten — June 2, 2009 @ 10:31 am

    Tammy, I have to say that one of my best online shopping experiences was with Fabric.com. Their customer service is a rare find. Last time I ordered from them, I got my order and one of the pieces I ordered… actually THE piece that prompted me to order in the first place, was not in my order but another piece instead… same pattern, different color. I called the company and the sales person on the phone actually scanned the fabric they did have, e-mailed the picture to me while I was on the phone with her, and allowed me to approve of it. I got the fabric in the mail within a couple of days and they allowed me to keep the piece sent as a mistake. Now mind you, I was only buying a half yard of sale fabric… down to maybe $3.00 a yard. It’s not like I was spending huge sums of money with their company! They spent probably 15 minutes on the phone with me, went out of their way to make sure I had exactly what I wanted, sent what I wanted… they paid shipping, and I got a free piece of fabric to boot! All that for a $3.00 piece of fabric?!!!! They are always on my list for places I will surely shop in the future! I can’t recommend them enough!
    Angie

  2. Comment by Stacerella — June 2, 2009 @ 10:33 am

    Fabric, like all other crafting supplies, are a tactile situation. Customers need to feel the weight, the drape, the texture, and to see the colours in different lights, etc. I try not to buy anything online outside of wire and tools for my crafting and jewellery making, and books of course, but if I could be assured what I saw from monitor to monitor was consistent and an accurate depiction of the products, I would buy online more.

  3. Comment by Tammy — June 2, 2009 @ 10:41 am

    Angie – Now that’s what I’m talking about when it comes to customer service. The person helped you and created a customer for life who now is turning others onto the site. Thanks for the tip. I will definitely check them out.

    Stacerella – I agree that there just isn’t like seeing fabric in person. It’s just too bad that there are so few decent fabric stores in the world today.

  4. Comment by Ruth Neese — June 2, 2009 @ 10:50 am

    Interesting report, Tammy. I have never had a good experience at a JoAnn’s store anywhere in Florida. Every store seems understaffed, chaotic, and harried even with functional AC and computers. Upper-level management must have a hand in the uniformity of mediocrity present in the chain. Hancock Fabrics has provided my best fabric purchasing experiences. The fabric selection is phenomenal, personnel are knowledgeable, and the store is not trying to be all-things-to-all-crafters like JoAnn’s. Unfortunately, I have not found a Hancock in south Florida.

    As for on-line experiences with retail, all have been good to excellent so far. I have shopped on-line with a with a wide range of companies from large chains (Kohl’s, Target) to small companies (The Roasted Bean in Davie, FL; Spices Etc. in Savannah, GA). I do very little specialty shopping in brick-and-mortar stores now.

  5. Comment by Tammy — June 2, 2009 @ 11:14 am

    Other than the wacky store in F. Pierce, which is now closed, I have never shopped much at JoAnn’s until recently. At first, they seemed on top of things, but that was maybe the first day I was in there after they had first opened. I’ve been there at least a half dozen times since (if not more), and it has gotten worse and worse. I agree that it is management’s fault. Why hire someone to cut fabric who has never sewn? If that person doesn’t sew, then how about teaching him/her? Back in the day when I worked in retail, we were required to have an understanding of the merchandise. Otherwise, we either weren’t hired to begin with or they trained us. Those who did not learn were eventually let go. I often buy a little extra fabric now (1/4 to 1/2 yard) just because I’ve been concerned that the cutter has zero idea of what he/she is doing.

  6. Comment by Janice Parsons — June 2, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

    Hi Tammy,
    I’m always so interested in what you have to say and the discussions you start. I sometimes use JoAnn’s, but it is mainly for ribbon and trims when I am forced to. Like Michaels, they have replaced the wonderful fabric/craft stores we used to see dotted in towns and cities throughout the country. Remember?
    As you know, I had to close my retail store, The Bead Shop, in Palo Alto last August after 27 years in business. Our website, http://www.beadshop.com, has been online for 11 years and I really don’t see much difference between a great relationship in-store and one online. If we can care about our friends via phone, email and text, it’s possible to experience the same “high touch” with online stores. Find the companies that make the shopping experience fun, informative and easy. There is an article today in the Wall Street Journal about many retail stores closing and the owners starting their businesses out of their homes and working online. it’s just what is the reality. I hate to say it, but the government is as responsible for the state of retail as the management of a poorly run company. I never thought I would say it, but the cost of real estate taxes (which the tenant’s pay), unemployment and disability insurance, employer taxes, health insurance, benefits, etc. is so prohibitive for a small company that it drives the costs up to stay open in brick, especially when you add the costs for being open holidays, weekends, keeping the store spiffed up, etc.. Whereas, online the employee pool is larger because customers don’t demand well-dressed, informative, happy-all-the-time staff 7 days a week. 80% of the educating of the customer online happens at point of sale- most of it is done by reading about the product, checking out reviews, photos of it from many angles, tips on how to use it, etc.. So, the only people we “see” are the voices at the other end of the phone line or the email response. it might seem more “faceless” because it is! But, it’s also usually easier and we can, as Luluemon, shop naked! More and more, online stores must be all about the customer service and have the products in stock. To be competitive online, stores need to feel and look like a brick and mortar experience. We’re going to see more of it and consumers are expecting it.
    I see changes, some good and some not so good. But, I also see the return of the local fabric and craft store, but we now have our online favorite. And, they get to know us and value our business, so maybe it’s a win-win for the smaller retailer who would never stand a fighting chance against the likes of JoAnn’s.
    Take care!
    xoxo janice

  7. Comment by Tammy — June 2, 2009 @ 2:43 pm

    Great input, Janice! Since you’ve dealt with both a brick and web store you have some excellent points. It will be interesting to see how companies reshape themselves over the next few years as the economy continues to shift. Right now, stores like JoAnn’s do well because in many places they are the only game in town, but that may not last long considering the push towards smaller and more customer friendly companies heading to the web.

  8. Comment by Stacerella — June 4, 2009 @ 7:55 am

    Tammy, Fabricland used to exist about ten blocks away from me in this dinky town, and then the owner of the building sold the lot to a developer and the store had to close. Since it was a huge location, they haven’t been able to source another store location in the last 3/4 of a year to reopen. Now I have to truck to one town over to my right or one town over to my left (about a 20 drive either way, really), or wait till I have to go into Toronto to see my doc who is located three blocks over from another big Fabricland. It pisses me off to no end because sewing is a growth industry lately, not a declining one. We sat in front of one of the two stores closest to me on a Sunday. We got there about 11:45AM. In the 15 mins we had to wait for the doors to open, the empty parking lot filled up quickly. My husband was stunned and laughed about everyone who ran into the store the second the store finally opened up. He was blown away. There were brides with their mothers, women with pillows who are doing some redecorating, and the rest were like me – looking for materials and notions for spring and summer clothes.

    We need more crafting stores, not less. Martha and Julia Roberts would not approve of fabric stores closing down, now would they? 🙂

  9. Comment by Barbara — June 4, 2009 @ 2:18 pm

    I’d like to second the vote for Fabric.com — and add a “two thumbs up” for FabricDepot.com. Although, if you choose to visit Portland, Oregon,… you’ve GOT to come visit Fabric Depot’s brick-and-mortar store, as well as Mill Ends brick-and-mortar store. (Both FD and ME have websites, though you can’t buy anything from ME’s. Which is probably for the best….)

    When you pair FD and ME with Powell’s bookstore?
    Yeah, there goes the budget 🙂 I try to not take too many trips to Portland 🙂

  10. Comment by Kenneth Fron — June 4, 2009 @ 9:18 pm

    Tammy- You had me cracking up. But, the reality is..I had to laugh to keep from crying! Shopping is the pitts these days. I rarely do it. The incompentance is America is astounding. Now, I go to String A Strand Bead Store on Wells St. in Chicago. I like to buy a few strands of beads on my way home from my day job. It is important to me as a designer, that when I sell to clients I am communicating to me clients what my necklaces are made of. There are 4 ladies at this store. 3 of the 4 are pretty good. My last experience last Friday was with the one lady who was not that great. I presented her with strand #1…she “thought” it was onyx. Me, personally, I didn’t think Onxy had gray speckles or spots in it, but okay. Strand #2…was a brightly colored orange/gold/tan variety which was very vivid and pretty. She didn’t know what the material is. I bought it anyway. It looks like coral chunks, but I will show it to someone else that makes jewelry and we shall figure it out together. Strand #3… green coral. Can it really be??? I know black, red and peachy coral…but green so green it looks like grass? I am sure it is man made. Finally, the other lady I bought from sold me some beautiful beads. I asked her to write down what they were… She said: CHALCADONY… I verified today and it is CHALCEDONY. There are very few people you can really rely on in the retail world…

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  12. Comment by Tammy — June 5, 2009 @ 11:46 am

    Barbara – Thanks for the info on fabricdepot. I’ll look at them too. I was very impressed with fabric.com’s website.

    Ken – LBSs are a good example as well. I pretty much gave up on the bead store around here, though it’s actually a pretty far drive for me anyway. Again, I think this is a management issue. They should train staff if they don’t hire people who already have some knowledge. I have had so many retail or similar jobs that required me to study the merchandise, know it, even get tested on it!

  13. Comment by Eileen — June 5, 2009 @ 6:14 pm

    What a fascinating discussion.

    I prefer shopping online for most things, but worry a bit about identity theft.

    However there are some things that need to be seen and fingered or tried on. How can the Internet get around those requirements? I guess it will come: HD Internet, virtual products you can rotate, upload your measurements and try on clothes (how cool would that be?!), but the touch part … hmmm …I dunno

  14. Comment by Pat Riesenburger — June 8, 2009 @ 11:59 pm

    Tammy:
    I have been reading your blogs for a quite some time now and always enjoy them…thanks. I had to laugh when reading of your experience at JoAnn’s. I have had the same experience at the big box computer store, the big box beauty supply outlet, the big box department store, etc. I typically have outstanding service at the Mom and Pop establishments because the relationship between customer service and the owner’s family income is much more closely related! I have owned a retail brick and mortar store and am now a manufacturer/distributor in the craft world. My retail store customers are incredibly hard working folks who are struggling to pay the rent while competing with lower priced internet resellers. One thing is certain, whether on line or brick and mortar….retail ain’t for sissies!

  15. Comment by Tammy — June 9, 2009 @ 8:35 am

    Pat – You are so right. Retail is tough, and I’m sorry to say that around where I live you just don’t find many mom and pop stores. I read a lot on line about supporting your LBS and LYS, but we’ve never had those in my county to begin with. We went from nothing to Walfart, so that has pushed me to go on line more to shop.

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