Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Ordering fabrics and craft supplies online

This is not a how-to post, I know, but I feel like crafters everywhere are struggling with the move to web based shopping.  I know it is something that plagues me.  I have so many items I need for many of my projects, and inevitably, something is out of stock.  Brick and mortar stores used to be the only option, and getting rare or large quantity items was basically impossible.  Well, that is not the case so much with the interwebs, but what things are good to buy online and what things aren't?  Is it okay to buy cut yards, sight unseen?  What about trying to save money?  What if I hate what I have ordered?  What about coupons, sales, etc?  So many questions...  I have tried to tackle some of that here, and most of what I say applies to fabric specifically, but applies to other craft supplies, too.

Delving into the true unknown: internet based retailers.  There are lots of different flavors out there from amazon and ebay sellers that might actually be that crazy lady down the street selling the crap in her garage to true internet-only retailers without a store counterpart, to the website of common chains like Joann's.  Each handles things a little differently, and it is hard to lump them together, but I will do my best to represent all the above.

1) Selection and availability.  There are so many options out there for things like fabric, where the quantity of items produced could never possibly be held in a store.  There are specialty fabrics made out of organic cotton, bamboo, and unbleached or untreated fibers, a variety of prints that would swamp any normal retailer, and uncommonly used notions like hook and eye tape, which I discovered a few months ago is basically unfindable.  I love the selection on the internet.  You can find darn near anything!

2) Cost.  Shopping around can really pay off.  Because they do not have the overhead of a brick and mortar store or the hassle of distributors (if you are buying wholesale), online shops can be a whole lot cheaper, and it is so easy to let your keyboard do the shopping.  Especially when you consider buying bulk (usually by the bolt or in large quantities of cut yards), the cost of fabric can come down substantially compared to in store purchases.  Many chain stores run the same sales online as in store, and you can capitalize on that, too.  Also, you can buy things on clearance at drastically reduced prices as they clear warehouses of a particular item that a manufacturer is no longer making or has a defect (usually a minor thing like selvages are messed up or something you can still use).  I have done this several times and been SO glad for it!

3) Quantity.  For large projects, finding an adequate amount of fabric is tough in stores.  Bolts are small, generally under 10 yards each, and rarely do you find a brand new bolt.  But online, you can find large, CONTINUOUS bolts of fabric that don't leave you with 9 yards in one piece and three in another.  I wanted to make 5 bridesmaids dresses.  I ended up getting the fabric at 7 Joann's locations over 4 months of time.  An online purchase of a few bolts of fabric would have been VASTLY easier, if only I had known then what I know now.

1) Untouchables.  The most obvious drawback to buying anything online is that you cannot see what you are buying.  This is a major downfall for creative types.  Imagine trying to compare two pieces of lace trim without having them in front of you or being able to lay them across the fabric you are working with?  Tough call.  Many retailers (ones without a brick and mortar store in particular) do a great job combating this with item descriptions and photos, giving examples of projects that are suitable for that kind of fabric and showing a scale when displaying prints to give the buyer an idea of what it looks like in person.  Some even describe the drape and feel of the fabric and/or include a thread count or gram weight when referring to the fabrics.  A select few offer free swatches, and many others offer swatches for a fee that usually includes shipping cost, generally about $1 or so each.

2) Shipping.  Shipping costs can often eat up any sale or price incentive you found to buying online.  Because fabric is both bulky and heavy, it can be a bear to ship.  Some stores offer free shipping for orders over a certain dollar amount or flat rate shipping promotions, but that forces the shoppers hand on how much to buy and when, and if you want to take advantage of something on sale or clearance, well that pretty much NEVER lines up with a free shipping deal.  Also, the ecological impact of shipping has been cited many times in the argument for buying locally.  Now if it isn't manufactured locally, well, that kind of opens a whole new can of worms, but I am not really willing to get into that here... :-)  And of course, if it has to be shipped, you cannot have it immediately for a short deadline.

3) Couponing and promo codes.  Remember the crafter's creed, Never Pay Full Price!  Some stores never offer sales or coupons (most notably for me, dharma trading co.) which means you can never bring down your materials cost.  Others (like only allow one coupon or promo code per transaction, which means you can't use a free shipping code with a percent off code.  What gives?!

4) Yardage increments.  Most sellers online will not sell less than 1 yard, and will only cut in increments of 1 yd.  This is hardly an issue for me, since garments almost always use more than 1 yd, but sometimes getting 6 instead of 5 1/8 is a little annoying, especially for those REALLY expensive items like faux furs or silks.  I am sure this is horrible for quilters, though, who commonly need only a fat quarter of something for a project.

5) Returns.  What do I do if I hate it?  Probably the scariest con when combined with #1, not being able to touch the item before you buy.  Return policies vary widely from store to store, as does the quality of the merchandise.  The biggest problem I have with returns is that the .com affiliates of the brick and mortar stores are actually separate entities entirely and I cannot return items to a store (such as joann's and  That yanks the security net right out from under me.  (Why they chose that business model is beyond me).  I recently bought from and they sent me 4 yards of defective flannel.  Even though it was their fault the fabric was defective, I had to pay shipping if I wanted to return it.  Shipping was around $11, and the cost of the fabric was about $14, so I opted to keep it so I didn't have to spend $11 and still have no fabric for my project.  I'm certainly not happy with the return policy there!

Bottom line: Buying craft supplies online is a great way to save money, price compare, and find exactly what you are looking for.  However, protect yourself the best you can as a consumer.

1) Do copious research on their return policies BEFORE you buy.  Some will not accept returns at all (especially for cut yardage), some will under certain circumstances but you pay shipping, some are great about returning items, and there is every other shade of grey in between.

2) Have a good idea of what you want before you buy, and if you can, scope it out in person somewhere.  If you are unsure about the look and feel or drape of a fabric, try going to a store and handling similar items.  You can always order a swatch, but make sure you allow yourself enough time to have the swatch shipped and then order the item.  And keep in mind that dye lots may change the appearance slightly from the swatch you receive.

3) Sign up for email coupons for chain stores and newsletters for the online-only retailers to keep up on sales and shipping promotions as well as new products.  Always take a look at the clearance bin before you place your order - you just may find something to love.

4) Only buy from reputable sources you trust.  There are lots of shops out there on the interwebs and not all of them are good.  If a site is questionable, place a small order to "try them out" before going $300 deep on that gorgeous satin you think you want.  Try not to learn costly lessons if you can avoid them!

Happy online shopping!

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