Stores are helping customers shop for fabric via FaceTime.
Shop photo courtesy of What’s Your Stitch
Editor’s note: regulations for essential businesses and restrictions on retail operating procedures vary by region. Please refer to your local government’s guidelines to learn what type of customer pickup options are allowed for your business.
Linda Fahey, ceramic artist and owner of Yonder in San Francisco has found early success using one-on-one virtual shopping appointments during the period when her brick-and-mortar shop has been closed due to COVID-19. Fahey handles the appointments via FaceTime during her weekly visits to her shop in the Richmond District, which has been shuttered since early March.
Fahey felt that virtual shopping appointments fit well with her style of customer interactions. “I am a big fan of spending time making sure customers get what they want,” said Fahey. “I like that personal service aspect.”
Fahey was inspired by Colleen Mauer, who sells her handcrafted jewelry in her storefront in San Francisco and her studio in New York. Just before the stay-at-home order was announced, Mauer was on her way back to San Francisco to prepare for her annual Sample Sale, which typically takes place in late March. “Normally we’d host 300-400 people [at the shop] during the sample sale weekend,” Mauer said. “March is our busiest time of the year, other than the holidays.”
With just days to create a new plan, Mauer worked with her staff to brainstorm a solution. They redesigned their homepage to reflect their new system: shop the sample sale on Instagram Stories, or schedule a one-on-one virtual shopping appointments. Mauer uses Appointlet to make it easy for customers to book their 30-minute appointment, and so far she’s been able to meet with more than 150 customers via FaceTime.
Kate McIvor offers virtual personal shopping appointments from her store.
Photo courtesy of The Confident Stitch
Fabric Stores Adapt
In Missoula, Montana, Kate McIvor has been booking virtual shopping appointments for her fabric store, The Confident Stitch. McIvor’s staff already had shipping systems set up for online orders, so shipping virtual shopping orders hasn’t presented additional friction. McIvor also offered home delivery, until the local health department began restricting deliveries from non-essential businesses.
Rachel Bishop has also been offering virtual shopping appointments at What’s Your Stitch, her fabric store in Long Beach, Mississippi. The state relaxed restrictions on retail shopping, but Bishop has opted to push back her re-open date until May 12 to protect her customers’ health and safety.
Most of Bishop’s virtual shopping appointments have been for out-of-town customers since What’s Your Stitch doesn’t have an ecommerce website. “It is just me [at the shop],” said Bishop. “I feel I would be unable to run [a retail website] and my brick-and-mortar shop with the effectiveness I would like. I do try to post new product pictures to Facebook and Instagram. This helps drive sales because people request appointments or just call and order,” said Bishop.
Customer Service from a Smartphone Screen
The average personal shopping appointment at Yonder’s ceramic studio and gift shop has been taking about 30-40 minutes. Many of Fahey’s customers are locals who opt for “contactless pick-up.” Once an invoice is paid, customers can schedule a pickup time, and Fahey will place the package outside the store for pick-up. Fahey is also trying out free local delivery, which she handles personally.
For McIvor, most virtual shopping appointments at The Confident Stitch take about an hour. “I don’t cut the fabric during the appointments,” says McIvor, “and cutting takes another 30-45 minutes.” The calls tend to take longer than usual shopping trips because the customers aren’t in the store and they can’t organize their thoughts or their items based on the store layout. “I find myself bouncing all over the store because the customers can’t see that the ribbons are right next to the rayons, or the books are above the knits. That was one aspect I didn’t foresee when I started offering the service.”
While the FaceTime shopping appointments are time consuming, McIvor sees more than a few benefits. “We try to have everything in the shop also on the web, but things fall through the cracks. During the appointments, it’s easy to add the things that should be on the web but aren’t — 3/4″ elastic, I’m looking at you! The appointments also allow me to really show how much a fabric stretches, or whether it’s opaque, or whether it goes with another fabric.”
For McIvor, this is an opportunity to really highlight her expertise and inventory. “I can have a more nuanced conversation about how a specific fabric works for different patterns,” she said.
“I also find myself slowly panning the camera along the fabric bolts, waiting for the customer to say ‘stop…I like that one!’”
Colleen Mauer is connecting with customers one-on-one via Facetime.
Photo courtesy of Colleen Mauer Handcrafted Jewelry
Stocking Up and Spending More
Despite the uncertain times, Mauer, the jewelry designer, says her customers have been spending more than average during her virtual shopping appointments. “We offer an incentive of $20 off during your first virtual shopping appointment… We’re actually seeing double the sales we’d usually see during April,” says Mauer.
Bishop’s streamlines her virtual shopping appointments at What’s Your Stitch by pre-selecting items to show her customers, based on their needs. So far, her sales from virtual appointments tend to be higher than average, perhaps because customers are stocking up. “This has been more purpose-driven shopping,” she said.
At The Confident Stitch, McIvor is also seeing virtual shoppers spending more than average — much more, in fact. “We ask them to get organized and send us an email before the appointment with the projects they are working on and the fabrics they might be interested in, and that organization helps increase the number of things they buy. They also can’t see how much is in their carts (virtually or in real life), so they just keep adding things. Additionally, I think virtual customers really appreciate the time I’m spending with them and want to make it worth my while.”
Virtual Personal Shopping: the New Normal?
Will one-on-one virtual shopping appointments become more popular in coming months? At What’s Your Stitch, Bishop is seeing continued interest. “My non-local customers tell me how much they enjoy the virtual appointments, and would not mind continuing even once things go back to whatever our new normal is,” Bishop said.
Mauer is finding the appointments fulfilling, and plans to keep the virtual appointment option even after reopening. “This has really reinforced for me the importance of building a community around your brand… I’ve been completely humbled,” Mauer said. She has been meeting with her customers from around the world: France, Singapore, New York, and more. Mauer shared one memorable customer interaction during a shopping appointment: “She was out in her yard, and showed me around her outdoor studio… It’s such a great moment to connect with customers on a deeper level.”
For McIvor, the virtual appointments may need to shift after The Confident Stitch reopens. “Because I end up racing all over the store, and piling up a lot of fabrics before cutting them, I don’t think virtual shopping will work during regular store hours,” said McIvor. “If and when things return to normal, I will only schedule virtual shopping sessions before or after the store is open.”
Asked about the pros/cons of FaceTime shopping appointments at Yonder, Fahey replied, “I think it’s pro all the way. I am seriously considering going full by-appointment in the shop, and encouraging these appointments.
“It’s the safest way for me and the customer. There is so much to navigate with restrictions, and thinking about safety.”
Fahey sees potential in this new approach. “I’m really hoping people will jump on and get into it! It will, if it takes off, help us maybe survive and continue being a local shop!”
Erin is the textile designer and artist behind the home décor company, Cotton & Flax. She licenses her surface designs for fabric, home décor, stationery, and other clients. She’s also a teacher, writer, and enthusiastic advocate for small creative business owners. She lives in San Diego, California.