fabric shop
Veronica Murphy opened RICK RACK Textiles in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, in April 2019, but was not yet set up for e-commerce when the pandemic hit. She shut down her store for two weeks so she could set up online shopping. 

Photo courtesy of Veronica Murphy.

When Veronica Murphy opened her fabric store, RICK RACK Textiles, last year, she did not rush to set up online shopping.

“I was fairly new to the sewing industry,” she explains. “I felt my team and I needed to learn the ropes before diving into e-commerce. I wanted to build my inventory and better understand the market.

“But the pandemic changed everything,” says the Calgary-based Murphy, whose sister store, STASH Lounge, sells yarn. “As soon as we closed our doors on March 17, we knew that e-commerce should be our immediate focus to weather the storm.”

vintage sewing machine

Murphy is not alone among small retailers who quickly pivoted to e-commerce. For many, the quarantine was a now-or-never moment and they had to be fast and nimble to get on board, despite a learning curve that could be daunting. Also, the process often meant investing money in a new or upgraded website, a new computer, even photo equipment.

Dressew Supply Ltd., a 59-year-old family fabric business in Vancouver, “never had time for e-commerce,” says company president David McKie. “Only when our store closed did we have time to stop and actually set up a website with e-commerce.”

In about two weeks, Dressew had joined Shopify, bought a new laptop and camera, and uploaded more than 4,000 SKUs. “It was a little scary at first, and a lot of work.”

Kelly Momsen of Yarnology in Winona, MN, also moved fast. Momsen and partner Gaby Peterson opened Yarnology in 2010 and never wanted to sell online. They had updated their website right before the shut-down, but in order to integrate their POS system with Shopify, they needed a new computer hard drive, “which is expensive,” says Momsen, who received a $1,000 grant to help cover the cost.

“Adjusting inventory and not having the POS and website syncing together was a drag,” Momsen recalls. 

Pivoting to Etsy

North Carolina bookbinder and papermaker Jackie Radford always preferred selling her handmade products to retail vendors such as boutiques and galleries, rather than selling direct to consumers.

“My sweet spot is making stuff and letting other people sell it,” says Radford, who also teaches classes at the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden in Belmont, NC. “I’m happy to split the money with somebody who will market, sell, and talk to people for me.”

But when retail shops closed, “my income dropped to zero and I had to pivot to online,” which for her was Etsy.

“I had a choice to make. Was I gonna wrap it up and quit or was I gonna figure out how to keep going. Running my business during the pandemic became a puzzle for me to figure out.”

Getting Thousands of SKUs Online

For retailers with hundreds, or even thousands, of SKUs, compiling a product database was a major challenge.

“We debated about how much product to list before we launched,” says McKie, who carries more than 200,000 SKUs in Dressew. “We knew we couldn’t list everything. Most of the bolts of fabric and trim in the store had already been partially sold, so we had to estimate the quantity on each one as we uploaded it. We should have underestimated more, as we ran short on some orders.

“Launching so quickly,” he adds, “we didn’t have time to fully troubleshoot all the possible difficulties of customers actually trying to purchase items. We’ve had to handle those on the fly.”

Dressew boarded window
Artist Tierney Milne created this mural on the boarded-up windows of Dressew in Vancouver. 

Photo courtesy of Dressew.

Dressew David McKie
David McKie, president of the family-owned Dressew Supply Ltd. in Vancouver. The business, which opened in 1961 to supply milliners, now has 27,000 square feet of space spread over three floors. Two warehouses offer 35,000 square feet of storage. “We have stash issues, just like our customers,” McKie says.

Photo courtesy of Dressew.

bead store
Sea of Beads, a family-owned store that opened in 2006 in Austin, Texas, didn’t worry about e-commerce until the COVID-19 quarantine. 

Photo courtesy of Sea of Beads.

Figuring it out in a hurry

Sea of Beads, a family-owned bead store in Austin, TX, opened in 2006 and established an Etsy shop in 2011, “but we never devoted much attention to it, and didn’t get many orders,” says owner Greg Keville. “When Austin shut down, we loaded more products on Etsy and did more sales there in two months than (the Etsy) shop did since we opened it.”

Keville was on the verge of setting up e-commerce with Shopify when Austin businesses re-opened.

“The lockdown forced me to think ‘yeah, e-commerce is probably something we should be doing.’ But it takes time and money to set up, to figure out how to make it work, how to list items, what items to keep in stock, etc. It’s very intimidating, and fulfilling online orders is labor-intensive.” (At this writing, he planned to continue with e-commerce.)

When sewing became “the darling hobby of the pandemic” demand for mask-making supplies surged, says Murphy of RICK RACK. “Our loyal customers who were self-isolating were taking comfort in sewing and needed supplies, patterns, and project guidance.

“We were so busy fulfilling orders by phone and email that we didn’t have time to work on the e-commerce aspect of the business. It was a catch-22. The website would have streamlined our virtual retail work but we couldn’t work on the website because of our virtual retail work.” Also, she says, fulfilling phone or email orders “was ten times more work than when our customers could shop in person.”

Murphy stopped taking phone or email orders in order to catch up on the order backlog and to work on an e-commerce site, which took about two weeks.

There were other e-commerce challenges, such as how to structure the online shop, how to categorize products, shipping options, collecting or taking photos then integrating those images, and more.

“We had to become spreadsheet experts, copywriters, web designers, photographers and policy-writers all while carrying the stress and uncertainty of being closed due to a global health crisis,” Murphy adds.

“The extra complexities of an online shop has brought a new dimension to job descriptions, daily procedures, inventory entry, and even product ordering.”

For Murphy, there was the additional complication of working with fractions of yardage. “Rather than stress about it or adjust our inventory to reflect half meters we opted to sell whole meters only until we can find a reliable workaround.”

Despite the challenges of setting up e-commerce, McKie of Dressew was happy he could continue to serve his customers, some of whom had their own small businesses to support.

“Our biggest challenge has been keeping up with orders and keeping wait time to a minimum,” says McKie. “It’s been hard not to panic over that.”

Will he continue with e-commerce? Maybe. “We have inventory control issues to deal with before we can run both simultaneously,” he explains. Also, he notes, “We are a tactile business. It’s hard to buy fabric and trim without seeing it and touching it. We can serve more customers via our brick and mortar store than we can online.”

E-commerce was useful during the pandemic, he says, “but it can’t replace our store.”

Roberta G. Wax

Roberta G. Wax


Roberta Wax is an award-winning journalist and imperfect crafter. A former news reporter, her freelance articles and projects have appeared in a variety of newspapers and magazines, from the Los Angeles Times and Emmy magazine to Cloth Paper Scissors, Somerset Studio, Craftideas, Belle Armoire, etc. She has also designed for craft companies. Although she has no art background she was a crafty Girl Scout leader. www.creativeunblock.com

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