Cool row from @crinklelove on Instagram.

Janet Lutz opened Calico Gals, a quilt shop in Syracuse, New York, in 2001. “It was a dream of mine, a hobby store really,” Lutz says. Lutz had raised four children and felt the time was right to pursue her passion.

From the start Lutz believed strongly in the power of the experience of visiting a brick-and-mortar quilt shop. “Calico Gals is a girlfriend place, a friendly place that’s fun,” she says. “It’s not the largest store in the area, but I believe that quilting should be a fun hobby and shopping for quilting supplies should be part of the fun. The secret to my success has been hiring really good staff—people who have a friendly personality and love being here.”

A degree in retail management served her well and she quickly grew the shop’s scope. By 2011 she had 15 employees and had opened a second location an hour’s drive away in a less populated area. That summer Lutz was searching for ways to draw customers to the new shop and tried to get in on a local shop hop.

“They wouldn’t accept me. They said the shop was too new and too far away.” Being turned down for the shop hop led to a powerful turning point in Lutz’s career. “I thought, ‘I want to do something different and be really inclusive.” After talking with a fellow shop owner in California, Lutz devised a radically new shop hop model, one that would be open to quilt shops everywhere.

Typical shop hops are both regimented and expensive for customers and shops alike. To participate, customers purchase a passport and collect stamps at various shops over a period of 7-10 days in order to enter prize drawings. Shop owners have to pay several thousand dollars to join a hop, and they are required to buy specially printed fabric and to donate top-dollar items such as sewing machines as prizes. Lutz’s model did away with all of that.

Lutz called her new shop hop model Row By Row Experience, and made the experience of shopping in person the center point of a summer-long event. Each shop would design an original 9” x 36” inch pattern for a row in a quilt and give the pattern away for free all summer long. Customers would visit shops as they traveled, and the first to bring a quilt with eight different rows would win a bundle of 25 fat quarters.

“Yes, shops would be giving away the patterns for free, but I’ve found that people who visit a shop feel disappointed if they leave without buying something.” Shops were encouraged to sell kits for the pattern and do other things to make the visit unique and memorable. She encourages shops to reach out to local designers for help in designing their rows. “That raises the entire industry,” she remarks.

“Every shop is a different experience and people are collecting experiences as they go.” — Janet Lutz

For Lutz, the three key components of Row By Row—travel, collecting, and quilting—were what would lead to its success. “Each shop creates its own experience. It’s not a competition to have the biggest shop that’s ‘worth it’ to visit. A shop can be in a garage with 50 bolts and participate. Every shop is a different experience and people are collecting experiences as they go.”

Marlene, winner at Hickory Stick Quilt Shop, Hannibal Missouri, July 2015.

Quickly Lutz could see that her idea had caught fire with both customers and shop owners. “I made this up as I went along,” she says. “That first year I had to go to shops and talk them into it. I twisted their arms.” Twenty agreed to join. In the second year, it was 65 and in year three a shop owner in Pennsylvania offered to help bring Row By Row to shops in her state. Today 3,100 quilt shops across the US, Canada, and Europe participate in Row By Row each summer and plans to expand into Australia and New Zealand are in the works. Many quilters plan their summer travel around visiting Row By Row shops; 1.4 million quilters participate in the program.

Lutz has refined and formalized Row By Row over the years. At first, participation was free for shops. She’s slowly instituted a modest fee (today it costs $100 for a shop to join). She’s also realized the value of Facebook for marketing the event. Each area has its own Facebook page and coordinator who posts pictures of prize winners with their Row By Row quilts.

Shops sign an agreement that spells out rules, including not emailing the patterns, not listing them online, and not bringing them to shows. There’s also a “hibernation period” when the summer ends, in which the patterns aren’t available to ensure that customer motivation to participate in the summer months remains high.

One challenge Lutz was forced to reckon with was defining the term “quilt shop.” “For us a quilt shop has fabric by the bolt, batting, thread, and inspiration,” she says. “We’ve got longarmers and sewing machine stores that have added these things in order to participate.” Still, this definition doesn’t sit well with everyone. “I’ve gotten hate mail because I let in a shop that’s a drug store or a gun store with quilting in the back. For me, it’s about the experience. The quilter is going in and getting an experience. I go in with an inclusivity mindset.” In fact, Lutz says she’d consider including chain stores such as Jo-Ann Fabrics at some point. “When I learned to quilt I started at Jo-Ann. My challenge is to move people to Calico Gals.”

She’s also created a huge variety of additional materials and options for shops to enhance their participation. Shops can stock collectable pins, mugs, t-shirts, tote bags, fabric license plates, rulers, stickers, and charms for visitors to purchase. Lutz works with Timeless Treasures to release a special souvenir fabric collection. “It’s their top-selling line now,” she says. And, in what Lutz describes as an unprecedented occurrence, 22 other fabric companies license the Row By Row palette and put together coordinating basics to go with it. Shops aren’t required to stock any of this merchandise, but many do.

What started out as a just an event has become a business all its own. Last year Lutz made Row By Row its own LLC. She sees promise in applying the Row By Row model to other industries, including possibly scrapbooking, knitting, and craft beer, if she were able to connect with experts in those industries willing to do the legwork. For quilt shops, Row By Row has been a boon. On average, the program brings in 200 new customers per store in a period when many shops would otherwise see slow sales, and it leads to $30 million in sales for the participating shops overall. At a time when many are bemoaning the decline of the brick-and-mortar quilt shop, Row By Row is making a significant impact in keeping them alive and well.

Donna Selling, enthusiastic rower

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