Mary Stowe is an independent sales representative that works as a liaison between the wholesaler and retailer.
In late April, boxes full of yarn begin appearing at Mary Stowe’s North Carolina home. The boxes are filled with the newest fall and winter yarns and the newest colors from a variety of yarn companies.
No, she doesn’t have a shopping problem. These are not orders for her Chapel Hill yarn shop, Yarns etc. Stowe is an independent yarn sales representative. Being familiar with samples of the newest yarns is part of her job. Other aspects of her job include visiting yarn shops and cultivating relationships with owners and buyers.
Getting to fondle new yarns and travel to yarn shops may sound like an ideal job, but let’s take a closer look.
What is a Sales Rep?
Sales representatives, or sales reps, sell products or services on behalf of a company. The product might be yarn, fabric, paint, or other craft supplies. Or it might be lamps, screwdrivers, solar panels, or software. There are sales reps for every kind of business!
In the yarn and fabric industry, reps usually act as the main liaison between the wholesaler and the retailer. They search out new customers for a company and act as the company’s eyes and ears, offering feedback on what trends they see and what customers are saying.
Good sales reps understand each customer’s business, their inventory and their unique needs. They are able to suggest products that might sell well, and steer customers away from products that may not be right for their customer demographic.
Not all companies have reps. Some use distributors, others have only in-house customer service.
Sales reps may work for a single company, but more often represent several companies in the same industry. Having a mix of lines or representing a mix of companies allows the sales rep to offer a wider variety of products at each sales call.
A Day in the Life of a Yarn Rep
According to Mary Stowe, there’s no typical “day in the life” of a yarn sales rep. Her tasks vary depending on the time of year.
On a slow mid-April day, she might email an order for a customer, answer a couple of customer questions, and call a yarn company to verify some information. But the arrival of those boxes of yarn heralds the start of a new launch season. She will have all her new samples by the first week of May.
Because she represents several yarn lines, she’ll have to attend sales meetings for each company. In each meeting, sales reps and marketing teams will converge to hear about the new yarns, their selling points, and discuss marketing strategies. Most of these hours-long meetings will be over Zoom, but she will occasionally fly to an in-person meeting. During this process, she becomes familiar with price lists, samples, and new colors.
Then she packs her sample bags, loads up her car, and hits the road, traveling to yarn shops across her territory. The actual territory varies depending on the yarn company, but hers currently includes Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, and other Southern states.
Ideally, she’ll plan an itinerary that allows her to see as many shops as possible as efficiently as possible.
Mary’s car in preparation for a road trip to visit yarn shops in her territory.
While she carries all her samples on the road, she will show an “edited” collection to a particular retailer. This is both because the shop might not be in her territory for a particular line and because not all yarn lines are a good fit for a certain shop.
She’ll tell the buyer what items are selling and trending. Some customers have worked with her long enough to trust her completely. They say, “tell me what to buy,” because they know she wants to see them succeed. And because she also owns a yarn shop, she has special insight into the retail side. Her goal is to help them order the products that will sell best, and she tries not to sell something that she doesn’t think is a good fit. After all, she wants them to stay in business!
When there’s a new store in her territory, she’ll help the owner get an account set up and help them pick the appropriate items that fulfill minimum opening order quantities.
A yarn display at Mary’s store, Yarns Etc.
It can be hard to make a full-time living as a sales rep in the yarn industry. Stores are fewer and farther between, and there is competition with online retailers. According to Stowe, most yarn reps are older and may not have a family with young children at home. They have been at it for years, and they’ve figured out how to make it work as a part-time job.
It’s not financially feasible to carry just smaller yarn lines. In order to make money, reps have to have larger lines, with many products, that can appeal to a larger segment of the market. They can then “fill in” with smaller, niche lines of yarn and tools.
Yarn companies usually pay a 10% commission to the independent sales rep, based on the shipped amount of any order. Out of this 10% the rep must pay all their own expenses, including phone, car, gas, meals, hotels, airfare, health insurance, and more. Reps are often expected to attend trade shows, and the expenses for those shows are also borne by the rep, rather than the company. You can imagine that these expenses add up!
Cashflow presents a particular challenge. Being on the road requires a large cash outlay for expenses and, while these expenses can be charged to a credit card, the credit card balance is due before the commission check arrives.
Since many of the orders are made to be shipped a month or two later, there is an even longer delay before the rep begins to recoup their expenses. The cashflow is extremely seasonal, meaning that there may be months of very little income.
To save on expenses, Stowe stays in modestly-priced hotels. She tries to stay with friends and family members whenever she can. In her years of repping she has cultivated a wide network of friends across her territory, and she uses these visits to maintain friendships and to enjoy side trips to points of interest. She drives a hybrid car to save on gas. She eats some meals “out of a cooler” from groceries she buys on the road.
The Role of a Rep
What skills does a person needs to be a good rep? Besides the obvious knowledge of the products—and the crafts associated with them—it’s the ability to build relationships. According to Stowe, “You need to get the attention of shop owners. They need to trust that you won’t lead them down the wrong path.”
Local yarn shops bring their own style to a community, keeping dollars and taxes local. They answer customer questions, teach new skills, and foster a sense of community. The relationship between a sales rep and a yarn shop is the personal link that allows effective two-way communication flow from retail customer (to yarn shop to rep) to yarn company. In other words, sales reps play an important, if unseen, role in getting the latest yarns to your stash!
And those boxes of yarn samples that went on the road with Stowe in mid-May? More boxes of Spring/Summer yarn will start arriving in late October, and she’ll start the process all over again.
Edie Eckman is a knit and crochet author, designer, teacher, blogger and technical editor. Her husband was a decorative accessories sales rep for the first decade of their relationship; she has personal experience with the challenges of a sales rep’s life. Find Edie at edieeckman.com.