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The case for shopping small

The case for shopping small // why you should skip the big retailers and head straight to the independents

Last year at the beginning of December I walked into a very large retail fabric store in Perth. If you’re an Aussie you know the one. This store is less than 10 minutes from my home and has long retail hours so it felt like an easy choice.

We were planning on helping the kids decorate tea towels for their grandparents for Christmas, and I was looking for some pale linen to use: white, cream, beige or flaxy. I was keeping my mind open. All i knew was i wanted it to be light coloured, and good quality.

I stood in front of a wall of linen which was actually mostly blends of linen + polyester or cotton and “linen look” fabrics. It all felt cheap and thin. I asked the sales assistant for help. She immediately snapped “whats here is what we have”. I was a bit taken aback, so i asked again, very politely if they had any pale linen, anything 100% linen. Did she know? The bolts of fabric didn’t seem to be organized and i was quite confused. She turned to me looking quite irritated and said that she didn’t know and what was there was there. It should be noted that as i was asking her these things she was stacking linen on the shelves and updating all the prices.

My confusion turned to frustration, and after pulling out a number of bolts and sorting endlessly (on the ground with the sales assistant less than a metre away from me and ignoring me) i finally found a kind of nice 100% linen that was cream coloured. Victory! Or so i thought. At the register i was told that the fabric was $75 a metre. Huh? At this cheap store? I asked them to check, and it took 2 sales assistants quite some time to figure out that it was $75 a bolt, and no they couldn’t cut me one metre and that i had to buy the whole bolt. I pointed out that this was different than what their signage stated, and shoulders were shrugged. I asked for the manager- which turns out one of them actually was. I wish i was making this up.

By this point i couldn’t take it anymore, and told them exactly what i thought of their customer service, and left.

The next day i drove in the opposite direction to a small independent fabric store. One of my favourites – but i had avoided going as it was a slightly longer drive (20 minutes), more expensive and the opening hours weren’t so convenient.

As soon as i entered the sales assistant greeted me cheerfully and asked how she could help. When i told her the plans for our project – she said she knew exactly what i meant. She immediately pulled out three bolts of beautiful 100% linen and laid them out so we could look together. She gave me advice on which would work better for the kids to decorate, and which would hold up to drying dishes. Which colour is the cleanest looking? How much shrinkage should i expect? She didn’t rush, she didn’t walk away or look bored or irritated or tell me she didn’t know.

I admired her outfit and she pointed out which fabrics she had used from the store, and chatted about the sewing patterns. Other customers arrived and we all laughed at our inability to leave with one thing and our mutual love for every fabric in the store.

My purchases were wrapped and put inside a little paper bag, and i was wished luck with my teatowels. I walked out feeling immensely pleased.

I had spent 3 times the amount i would have spent at the large retail store, and I didn’t even care.

Do you see what I’m getting at here?

At the end of the day you always get what you pay for. Always. The big retail stores will always be cheaper. They will always have a wide range of cheap junk and sales assistants who don’t care about you and know little about sewing.

The independents care. They are more expensive, yes. But because their products are a higher quality and their service is at a higher standard. They are like you and me, they sew and they love it. They are one of us. If you need help they will actually give it to you.

I know many have said it before me, but it bears repeating. Next time you head out to buy fabric, skip the big retailers. Take the drive to the small store with the heart. We should be supporting the stores that actually care about our craft and practice it with us.

(Oh, and the tea towels turned out really great)

About Author

Meg is the Founder and Creative Director of Megan Nielsen Patterns, and is constantly dreaming up ideas for new sewing patterns and ways to make your sewing journey more enjoyable! She gets really excited about design details and is always trying to add way too many variations to our patterns.

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gilliancrafts
gilliancrafts
6 years ago

That’s so frustrating! I love my big fabric chain store here in Canada, and I’m gutted that my local branch is closing… I’ve become friends with several of the employees, and everyone is always exactly as helpful as I’d hope! (aka. not in my face, but happy to answer questions.) I’ve got an independent store in town, but they cater to quilters, not garment sewing, so i never go. I’m sorry your experience was so much worse!

Kalle
Kalle
6 years ago

I had a very similar experience a few months ago at a big chain store, but instead of looking for linen I was on the hunt for lining fabric that wasn’t polyester. I was very (VERY) rudely and snidely told “all lining is polyester” by the very unhelpful sales clerk. So frustrating and inaccurate to boot! Three cheers for local shops. Thanks for the great post.

kristin
6 years ago

Arg so true, so true. I live in an indie fabric (and yarn) shop mecca and rarely go to big boxes (when I do it’s usually for notions with a coupon). I’ve never had such a bad experience as you did, but the personal touch and knowledge does seem to be missing from the large stores. Cheers to the little guy!! I feel bad for my sewing friends across the US that don’t have indie shops available to them. It’s such a good experience.

Kat @ House of Lane
6 years ago

I must be amoungst one of the lucky few who has a great large chain store close by. The girls there always ask what I am planning to make and always chat to myself and the kids. A few ladies have been working there since before Imogen was born and always say hello. While I love the joy of shopping in smaller shops when I get the chance on the Gold Coast we aren’t always lucky to have those close by. In fact the last two small independent shops I offered didn’t make me feel very welcomed at all. I will always grab the chance to visit Tessuti & The Fabric Store when in Melbourne but I can’t always make it to the Brisbane store especially when it is a 45 minute drive with two kids. But I do agree that the quality is above and beyond when visiting an independent store!

Becky
6 years ago

I’m not saying you’re wrong, but shopping indie locally isn’t always an option. Where I live in the States, I have one chain store with two branches nearby, the better-stocked one being a full 40ish minute drive away, and a quilt-specific shop that’s over an hour away at the beaches. So threads and basic notions/big 4 patterns/those basic poly blend fabrics are all I can get around here. I recently had to order online just to get 100% cotton jersey in any color for a baby project.

Laura
Laura
6 years ago

Yes! Totally agree :)
The big chains never used to be like this though. The sales assistants all used to sew and wear handmade like the smaller indie shops. Now they look at you blankly if you ask a question. I’ve even had customers come up to me while I’ve been shopping to ask for advice and I don’t even work there!!!

Deanne
6 years ago

Awesome blog! Shared on our Facebook page. You wrote this article beautifully and it really affirmed my decision to try and shop small and local more.

house of pinheiro
6 years ago

Customer service in the UK is the worst and I always feel a bit angry when shopping at large chains. Messy, dirty etc. I support all my local independent shops because I like having them around. Creates a sense of local community.

Nic
Nic
6 years ago

Ah, yes. I know the store well. Always a shambles, staff there for the job not the love (except one very helpful lady), never enough staff, needs a good vacuum…
I was so excited when an independent fabric store opened up on the corner of our street. I knew I’d spend way too much time and money there. I didn’t care. I bought some quilting fabric to make a dress from them (it was predominately a quilting store but had other things too). The next time I went in I was wearing the dress and was told the fabric was quilting. I replied I knew but loved it. She huffed and puffed and muttered something under her breath about it being wasted on a dress. I didn’t go back into that store unless I had to and they’ve since closed their doors. I’m not surprised. That one lady was rude to so many people. I feel sorry for her business partner who was lovely.

Carmel
Carmel
6 years ago

Yep, I sure do know the shop you’re talking about. Unfortunately Brisbane, perhaps like Perth, doesn’t have enough competition for that particular chain so they almost have a monopoly. But, I will definitely be looking further afield in the future, because customer service and knowledgeable staff are so important. I should say that sometimes I have received excellent service from that chain, and I feel the staff must be under enormous pressure at times.

A
A
6 years ago

Had you bothered tell the staff at the first store what you were making, I’m sure they would have found something for you. The second smaller sat ore probably only has around 20 customers per day so yes they can spend time chatting. I spark from the experience of actually working in one of Perths largest craft stores. Yes our stock is often a mess because we simply don’t have enough staff to serve, assist and put away after our messier customers. Shame you didn’t tome in a see me, cos I know my fabrics and would have been delighted to help.

Angela
Angela
6 years ago

If you’re ever in Launceston, go to Ruche. It’s my favourite independent – and I live in Brisbane!! Fantastic service and the range of fabric and notions is exceptional.

Lauren
Lauren
6 years ago

I had a similar experience at the very likely same store over this side of Australia. It wasn’t always this way, for years they were quite good, but they’ve become terrible with constant pricing issues and very poor customer service. It makes me so upset that many of these large stores have taken over and driven out the smaller businesses, and then they can’t even be bothered keeping their store tidy, properly ticketed or adequately staffed. The same thing has happened with hardware stores too. To be honest, most of the smaller independent stores are now gone as they’ve been driven out of business by these big guys, so there isn’t much of an alternative sadly.

Heidi
6 years ago

Love this post!!

I work at a fabric store, and try my best to be one of those “cheerful sales assistants with heart”! It makes a WORLD a difference to people :0)