Continuing the Store Owner Series, we move to the West Coast. Keli Faw of DryGoods Design in Seattle, Washington, gives us a sneak peak into how she opened her store, how she deals with “competition” and her advice if you are considering a store of her own.
Why did you open your store?
Starting out online, the original intent was not to open a brick and mortar. It came out of so many local people wanting to come and see the fabrics in person, since I carried fabrics that weren’t really available locally. However, my first space was a 9 x 10 room with a wall of fabric, a small desk for my day job and then a cutting table (uh, I mean a door on sawhorses). It was a terribly organic origin but after years of living as a recovering retail person, I decided to find a bigger space that would be open on the weekends only and then online/by appointment the rest of the week. While it was a bigger space, you had to walk through a coffee shop to get to us. We didn’t have a front door on the street, just a window where we could do displays. That lasted five months before we went to six days a week, two months after that I took over the back half of the building for the studio/class space. Six months after that we went to seven days a week. It took two years after launching online before I quit my day job.
What is one thing you want people to know about owning a store?
One thing? There are so many things they might want to know:). It’s extremely hard work, nonstop and yet, when I see a longtime customer come through the door or a new shipment it’s like Christmas-when-I-am-five-level giddiness. I joke that Instagram is smoke and mirrors but really, when you see a post about fabric from us, those heart eyes are not an emoji, it’s my real face;). Probably good that I am answering this when I am not knee deep in tax payment, bookkeeping woes, inventory management or worrying about cash flow.
How do you foster community?
It wasn’t until we started hosting studio nights in the old space that I realized we were fostering a sense of community. Watching people coming together, creating, learning from each other, and supporting each other, even without really know each other is what had me hooked and led to the make*do*mend space expansion. Having customers and students coming in and talking about what they’re working on, showing us pictures, or better yet, using what they’ve made is kind of magical for me, and I think for my staff too. Our main goal around all of our classes is to make the studio a well-appointed, welcoming and non-intimidating space. Learning something new as an adult is a pretty brave undertaking as we aren’t used to the awkwardness that comes with new skills at the beginning. We try to make it super approachable because of that. We also focus all of our intro classes on projects that are easy to make, build skills, and affordable to replicate.
Our new location is in a part of town that is changing and has long been perceived as less than stellar but it’s beautiful and also very central to the rest of the metro area. We are so lucky people battle Seattle traffic and transit to come into the shop and the studio. Service is tantamount to me and I hope that we always honor and respect that our customers and students voted for us with their investments and we show our gratitude through the best service possible, clear expectations and listening to them.
What percentage of your sales would you say are online versus in person?
The storefront outpaces online by quite a bit. That’s probably more owed to the fact that the online shop is somewhat abstract when it comes to the time we spend on it, versus the shop that is much more in need of physical and emotional care. We have maintained our lovely national and international community of online customers and it’s kind of rad when they use a trip to Seattle for work or other events and put us on their itinerary. In the end, online is certainly part of our purchasing behavior but we still love to see fabric, people, and other goods in person.
How do you compete with traditional big box craft stores?
How I am about to respond is not to sound like an ostrich with its head in the sand or a person with their nose in the air, I say it because I think competing is one of the most dangerous and destructive ways you can operate a business, let alone your personal life. Especially in this industry, which has one of the lowest profit margins possible, you have to be aware of what’s out there, set fair prices, take care of your people (both staff and customers) and listen to them. However, you also have to perform, offer, and manage your business/shop/life in the way that’s true to you and your eye, gut, and soul. With social media platforms like Instagram (which I still adore), it’s so easy to fall through this rabbit hole of thinking you need to do more, do it better, and be producing all the time. It can be soul crushing, if you scroll and compare. And so, with respect to our position in the marketplace, we have to forge ahead in a strategic manner that focuses on taking care of each and every customer that walks through our door and making decisions that will keep us growing at the right rate without sacrificing any part of our core values.
You’ve said you don’t always buys whole collections and instead look for fabrics you love.
When did you start that buying process and why has it worked for you?
From the absolute beginning. I do think you have to tell a story with your merchandise but I don’t do that through a same-same approach by way of designer or manufacturer. I do it by thinking about how different designers and manufacturers have mutual benefit to each other. For a few years, we merchandised solely by color and we still have portions of the shop that still are now, but it’s more about combinations now. Without completely making it a mission, we’ve slowly grown to have a specialty assortment of garment fabrics that aren’t quilting fabric companies printing on substrates but specific to the apparel world. That really grew out of hearing from customers that they couldn’t find garment fabrics that were good quality but not crazy expensive. So I took a slower method with knowing we had to start with one category at a time. For example, we started with jersey knits. Then Liberty, then different knits. Then wovens, silks, wools, etc. If everyone is buying certain prints, I am a little more careful about making sure it’s amazing. It’s funny talking to other shop owners in that we can literally buy the same prints and colors, but it doesn’t mean our customers will like or buy them at the same rate. That’s the beauty of retail, the shop can truly reflect the customers and the owner’s relationship versus it making sense to base your buying decisions off of other shops. I’ve stopped carrying lines or companies that have inferior quality, poor customer service, knocking off other designers or sell to big, non-independent chains.
I try not to have a specific aesthetic or completely pigeonhole us but to say there aren’t a lot of chambrays, double gauzes and military green in the shop would be a lie. But there are always going to be fabrics that don’t do well. Even if I love them, that is not a guarantee that they will sell. I’ve just learned that if we don’t love it, we can help a customer in the same way than if we are super excited about everything we carry.
Any advice for someone who is thinking about opening a store?
The truth? Think long and hard, and then think some more. Unless you won’t have a responsibility to profit for at least three to five years, let alone take home any salary, and enjoy working 60 to 80 hours a week for those first several years, with or without small children/family/other job and don’t care about self care, it’s probably going to be harder than you can ever imagine or desire. If you have friends encouraging you to do it, that’s awesome, however, remember, they aren’t your customers. They’re your cheerleaders and it will take tens of thousands of strangers to consistently shop with you that will make it a success, or even manageable.
Now that I have been the cynic, I will say this – ask what yourself what you’ll regret more, saying yes or saying no. If you don’t want to look back three years from now and wonder, what if, then go for it. If you know that you’ll eventually not want to run it or don’t thrive in chaos, then maybe just keep sewing and have some money to buy fabric for fun projects;).
I know I will be making a trip to Dry Goods Design the next time I am in Seattle! Thank you, Keli, for your perspective and being a part of our community.