5 Things I Learned From My Failed Attempt at Starting an Online Fabric Shop in Canada

A year and a half ago in the summer of 2013 my husband got posted by the military from the city to a small town. Postings come with extra pay to help with the move and general inconvenience of it all. We thought that since we had a bit of extra income and it was a new beginning that it would be a good time to order a fabric line and start the online fabric shop we had always wanted.

I did the background work before the move including registering my business name and making it a partnership with my husband being a silent partner. I researched the fabric companies and distributors and sent out emails to make inquiries on purchase minimums and requirements for setting up accounts. Several companies had minimums that were out of our reach. The Canadian distributor for Windham Fabrics was helpful and had attainable minimum order levels. I decided to order in Heather Ross' Briar Rose line that was coming out that summer.

If you order the whole line you get a better rate per meter so I ordered the whole line including the knits. My plan was to sell bundles of the complete collection on Etsy. When the bundles sold through, or even half sold, I would order in another line. I already knew I wanted to order another Windham Fabrics line by Allison Harris called Wallflowers. It was her first line and I was excited about it.

Well, I waited and waited and waited some more for my fabric to come in. I had ordered a couple of months ahead of our move and thought we'd hit the ground running with the shop when we arrived here. In my mind I envisioned the UPS truck pulling up with all of my fabric order the same day as the moving truck. That did not happen. Shops in the US got their bolts. ALL of their bolts. They were listing the full line in their online shops. I was still waiting. I kept calling the distributor and they kept telling me that not all the bolts had come in yet. Finally I asked them to send what they had. Now, the whole line is great but let's face it... people really wanted the cute bees and frogs.

This is what came in.

These are half bolts (7 meters).

Beautiful fabrics but only one bolt of the Nanny Bees (in orange) and two bolts of the clover with the crickets. The rest are what I would call supporting fabrics.

I tried to sell them as bundles but I never actually sold a bundle. I gave away four fat quarter bundles in various giveaways trying to promote the line. I even bought an ad in a Canadian quilting print magazine. I also sponsored a Canadian podcast. Still no sales.

Two people bought the orange nanny bees from me and one person bought a yard or two of the calico knit. Only one of those three customers was a Canadian. The rest of the fabric sat. By this point, anyone who was desperate for the whole line had ordered it from the United States. Including me. I still have my fat quarter bundle from Westwood Acres uncut downstairs in my sewing room. (But I will sew with it this year.) Then the American shops started putting theirs on sale and it was costing Canadians the same or less than what I had paid wholesale. I wasn't going to sell for less than I paid wholesale! So, I took my listings down and added the fabric to my stash. They are almost gone now as I have backed several quilts with them.

In the end I cancelled the rest of the order that never did appear at the distributor's warehouse and paid about $600.00 for what I did have.

So here's what I learned:

  1. It is stiff competition out there especially when you are competing with the whole world and not just within your own country.
  2. Due to high minimum orders (We are talking $3,000.00 here) it is tough to get into the business without a substantial amount of money.
  3. I can't prove this but in my experience it seemed that the American shops were favoured over the Canadian ones as they got their fabrics (and the full collection) first and my order was put on back order. Or maybe they were more established and well respected accounts.
  4. When the Canadian dollar was near par with the American dollar it was almost impossible (for me anyway) to sell in Canada, especially when I didn't have the whole line to bundle. Now might be a better time to start up as Canadians are shopping in Canada.
  5. You are not going to sell through the fabric as fast as you think you are and could potentially have it around for years. So the buy a line, sell it, buy another line scenario did not work (at least in my case).
Am I giving up? Well, let's say the dream is on the back burner. It's still a life goal to have the online fabric shop.

So what about you? Is this a dream of yours? Have you made an attempt at achieving it? Are you a Canadian fabric seller who has more insight on the topic?

What I am working on though is building an email newsletter! Would you like to sign up? If you do you will receive a free pattern from me. :) There's a sign up at the top of the sidebar. I would love to help with ideas for using your stash, keep you updated on great things I find on the web, my new pattern releases and fun projects I am working on.