At Calico Gals Quilt Shop in Syracuse, New York, proprietor Janet Lutz says sewing machines are back-ordered and it’s been difficult to predict when fabric deliveries will be coming in.
At a time when the craft industry is booming, many businesses are finding it increasingly difficult to deliver goods on time. The pandemic fueled a rapid increase in demand for craft supplies, while strained supply chains coupled with a labor shortage and shipping delays continue to create stresses from all sides. Many craft companies are feeling the pressure of ongoing delivery delays.
Janet Lutz, owner of Calico Gals, a quilt shop in Syracuse, New York explains, “The challenge from our end is not being able to plan. Everything seems so random.”
For example, Lutz has struggled to restart Block of the Month programs because she doesn’t know with certainty when the fabric will arrive and if the order will be complete when it does. “We just advertised a new one last night and attempted to take pre-orders, telling customers ‘it will start sometime in late summer we hope.’”
In Rock Island, Illinois, Stephanie Soebbing, owner of Quilt Addicts Anonymous, is facing similar struggles. “We have pretty much stopped taking pre-orders for popular fabric designers because the expected delivery dates can be off by as much as two months,” she says. Her customers express their frustrations to her as a shop owner, rather than the manufacturers or the mills which are the genesis of the delays. “We just order conservatively and sell when it comes in,” she says. “Both us and the fabric companies could be making more if we were able to take pre-orders, but since the arrival dates seem to just be a shot in the dark, we’d rather sell less and have happy customers.”
When it comes to the delivery of sewing machines, Lutz says there is no such thing as ‘on time’ anymore. “If you buy a machine from me today, you may not get it until September. We basically wait months for what used to arrive same week.” She says many of the sewing machine companies sold out of their stock early in the pandemic and have struggled to restock. They’re allocating just a few machines to each dealer.
Besides being a shop owner, Lutz is also the founder of Quilters Trek (formerly Row By Row), a summertime promotional program encouraging customers to visit local quilt shops all over the world. She says many of the shops enrolled in the program haven’t received the fabrics they need and are being forced to use other options.
Big Sky Fulfillment has many open warehouse positions.
One cause of the delay is a labor shortage. Participation in the labor force remains well below where it was before the pandemic and hiring is a widespread challenge, particularly for low-wage, hourly workers. Some companies have raised pay or are offering signing bonuses. “When we are hearing stories of businesses having to raise wages in order to attract workers back, that’s a good thing,” White House economic adviser Bharat Ramamurti told Bloomberg TV in a recent interview. “That is a positive development, especially for lower-income folks in this country.” Right now, though, hiring woes seem to be continuing.
“Unfortunately it has been hard to find good hires,” says Casey Unrein, general manager at ByAnnie.com, a family-owned sewing company located in southern Utah. He says the company has raised wages from $13 an hour to about $15.50 for warehouse workers in order to attract more staff. Recently Unrein received an email from zipper company YKK stating that they’d added a third shift in order to meet demand, but were struggling to find personnel to work it.
Patrick Claytor is the owner of Big Sky Fulfillment, a company that does warehousing and order fulfillment for a wide variety of businesses including many subscription box and ecommerce crafts businesses. Big Sky’s main operation is in Missoula, Montana, and, prior to the pandemic, Claytor opened a second facility in Charlotte, North Carolina. He says he has a lot of positions to fill right now.
“I would say right now the labor crisis is more economically motivated than motivated by fear of catching COVID,” Claytor says.
One of his frustrations has been with interviewing candidates. Per state regulations, in order to maintain unemployment, a person needs to book several interviews each week, and during the pandemic, those interviews can be by phone. Once they’re scheduled for an in-person interview, though, Claytor says candidates often just don’t show up.
Beginning June 27 the state of Montana will shift its unemployment benefits program from giving out an extra $300 weekly in unemployment benefits to giving out an equivalent “return to work” benefit paid to new hires after one month of employment. Claytor is hopeful that this will help him fill open positions.
Unrein says he has also faced difficulty with interviewing at ByAnnie.com including five no-shows for in-person interviews from confirmed candidates, and one new hire for a managerial role at a $60K salary who accepted the job and then didn’t report for work.
Shipping delays continue to present difficulties for craft companies as well. All of the major shipping carriers have struggled through the pandemic to deliver on time due to a marked increase in ecommerce shopping combined with reduced warehouse capacities. “I know they’re struggling with the same hiring issues we are,” adds Claytor.
Brittany Gray, president of EE Schenck, a major sewing and quilting distributor, says shipping and delivery delays continue to prove frustrating. “We do our best to notify customers about delays. Just being open and upfront,” she says.
EE Schenck spent much of the pandemic working to increase efficiencies.
“Our customer service team jokes that all day they’re just answering one question, ‘Where’s my fabric?’ Retailers want their goods. Getting it to them is our responsibility.”
Rather than add more employees to respond to the increased demand and uneven delivery of goods, Gray says EE Schenck spent the pandemic closely examining their processes in order to increase efficiency. “Adding more people didn’t seem to be the best move,” she says. Instead, they cross-trained staff so that they could shift people around as needed, optimized the layout of their warehouse, and invested in a new computer system that would help them to react faster.
Still, deliveries have presented challenges at times. In December and January, for example, they received a flood of inventory all at once. “I had never seen it like this,” she says about that time. We were putting pallets everywhere, tucking them into aisles. We taught people in the front office to do receiving.”
Gray says creating a warm and welcoming company culture has been vital to retaining staff during this challenging stretch. “There’s no difference here between the warehouse culture and the office culture,” she says. “It’s all just our company.”
Abby Glassenberg co-founded Craft Industry Alliance and now serves as its president. She’s a sewing pattern designer, teacher, and journalist. She’s dedicated to creating an outstanding trade association for the crafts industry. Abby lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts.