Shades of blue fabric on the cutting table.

Photo courtesy of Janet Lutz.

Some people might stick to the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but that’s not Janet Lutz’s way.

For nine years she’s been the force behind Row By Row Experience, a popular and widely adopted program that draws customers into brick-and-mortar quilt shops throughout what might otherwise be a slow summer season. Now, despite its success, she’s reshaping the program entirely, with a new name and new vision. Although changing things midstream is risky, Lutz is confident that Quilters Trek, Row By Row’s new incarnation, will serve shops, and customers, even better.

Organic growth

Lutz opened her quilt shop, Calico Gals, in Syracuse, New York in 2001. Ten years later she was searching for a way to draw customers into her shop over the summer. When a local shop hop turned her down, she came up with a new shop hop model that would be more inclusive. She called it Row By Row Experience.

Participating shops designed an original 9” x 36” inch pattern for a row in a quilt and gave the pattern away for free all summer long. Customers collected the patterns as they travelled, and the first to bring a quilt with eight different rows into a shop would win a bundle of 25 fat quarters. The program grew organically, first to surrounding states, then spreading nationally and internationally. At its height 3,100 shops participated.

“But over the last two years we saw our numbers on the consumer level dip,” Lutz says. She tried to stimulate excitement by diversifying the format of the quilt blocks, but participation continued to droop. “If you don’t have the consumers following it, then the shops are less interested, too.” It was time to do some rethinking.

Row By Row had grown up without any real plan and as the years went by there were things about it that Lutz knew needed to change. “I didn’t plan to create this big event. It was something I was doing for my own shop and the stores around me. So the fact that it grew to include all the states and provinces and countries in Europe was kind of an accident,” she says. The opportunity to start over, with intention, suddenly felt very appealing.

Quilters Trek is Row By Row reimagined. 

Photo courtesy of Janet Lutz.

A fresh idea

So while vacationing in Orlando last December with Deborah Gabel, Row By Row’s Creative Director, she threw out the challenge to come up with something brand new. Lutz admits that the idea of change felt scary. “You know, it was the largest event in our industry. And we were just going to say, ‘never mind?’ This was a big ship and it’s really hard to turn a big ship.”

Customer choosing fabrics for a design.

Photo courtesy of Janet Lutz.

New dates

They had a brainstorming session in the hot tub and came up with Quilters Trek, a new program that Lutz describes as “Row By Row-ish.” Each tweak stems from a pain point in Row By Row. First up was the dates.

“The dates in Row By Row were all about me. This is my party and this is what I want to do in my store in Syracuse where summer doesn’t start until the end of June,” Lutz says. Shops in Alaska pleaded for years to be allowed to offer their Rows in early June when the tour ships came in, but an exception for one state would inevitably lead to others and so she could never make one. Quilters Trek begin will on May 22, before Memorial Day, and go through the end of August, truly encompassing the whole tourist season.

A cohesive aesthetic

A second change is focused on creating a more unified aesthetic for the finished quilts. “Everywhere you went with Row By Row you could buy a kit. The kits were very fun, and very interesting, but they would not create what you might call a beautiful quilt,” Lutz acknowledges. “They were meaningful, but not beautiful.” The customers who did make beautiful quilts curated their own fabrics in a unified color palette. “We came to realize that those people didn’t buy kits.”

The Quilters Trek tokens represent symbols from each state.

Photo courtesy of Janet Lutz.

To rethink that the theme for Quilters Trek is a color, rather than a motif. This year’s theme is blue. Not a specific Pantone shade. Just blue. “Blue can mean many different things to many different people and to many different shops. But how fun!” says Lutz. “We call it a color-guided shopping adventure.” Shops are encouraged to come up with a design that represents something local to their area. Timeless Treasures will continue to create a souvenir line of fabric for the event. This year’s line will, of course, be all blues.

A refined social media presence

The social media presence for the program is also getting a makeover. Row By Row’s Facebook presence had mushroomed into 64 pages. “It was a big animal to maintain,” says Lutz. Quilters Trek will have just four regional pages. There’s also new newsletter called Friday Four Points.

Some of the terminology has changed, too. Rather than calling the blocks the shops offer “rows” they’re now called “designs.” Shops are asked to create four 9” designs that can be assembled in to a 9”x36” row or an 18”x18” square. A shop can choose to just create one design and repeat it four times, or create four unique designs.

Tighter rules

The relaunch is also a chance to tighten some rules. “One of the challenges we’ve always faced was that there were these loopholes,” Lutz says. “In order to win quilters would take the nine rows and reduce them down, so instead of making a big quilt, they’d make a little quilt. And then other quilters would get upset.” With Quilters Trek winning entries must use 32 nine inch designs, four from eight different stores.

The prizes have been tweaked, too. Rather than one prize per shop for the first traveler to bring in a completed quilt, there are now two smaller prizes. “The difficulty became when someone won on the first or second day,” Lutz says. “So I’m hoping there won’t be that urgency of having to win right away.

New items to collect

Collecting was an important component of Row By Row, and it’s been built into Quilters Trek as well. To give customers an incentive to purchase the kits, Quilters Trek will offer “tokens” to all participating shops. A token is 2 ½” square of fabric themed to each state (prints might include the state bird, state flower, and state flag, for example). Each shop will get 77 tokens to put into its kits and the only way a “trekker” can get one is to purchase a kit. Each shop will also get three “golden tokens” (a golden fabric square) to slip into random kits. If a trekker buys a kit with a golden token they can take a selfie to post in a special Quilters Trek Facebook page for some added fun.

Altogether, Lutz is hoping Quilters Trek will capture quilters’ attention and bring renewed interest to a program that’s doing its best to bolster brick-and-mortar retail sales. “Basically we’re taking all the feedback and learnings from Row By Row and editing it to create something that hopefully will better serve shops and thereby consumers,” Lutz says. “Hopefully with a whole different name they’re going to look at this with fresh eyes.”

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