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Friday, November 16, 2012

When a simple trip turns into an adventure!

It all started so sweetly...

An Australian reader of this blog came to New York during the last week of October, and was extremely enthusiastic about shopping in the garment district.  No stranger to New York City, she already had her favorite stores in mind, as well as her usual haunts, and very sweetly offered me the opportunity to meet with her for a bite to eat, share her insights as an international customer, and... well, get some additional shopping tips, too!

With the looming hurricane threat (no biggie, right?), and my own busy schedule, I wasn't able to make concrete immediate plans with her, but we were able to correspond via email, with a tentative plan to meet up on October 29th. No worries... we could always bring umbrellas, right? I gave her some "must sees" to add to her schedule, and she explored those stores happily, with plans to continue her Manhattan fabric shopping spree after the weekend.

I suggested she visit Fabrics and Fabrics, which she did... and has since (rightfully) scolded me for sending her into such a tempting fabric wonderland without adequate preparation... or a sedative, at least...

I quote her here...


"A couple of guys at Fabrics & Fabrics yesterday will attest to you that yesterday when I was in the store I could be heard saying several times over “Oh no! What has that women done to me!!” --- meaning you, of course.  Wow, what a store.  I spent hours there...looking, talking to (the proprietor), looking, buying... a lot... To add to the excitement, they were having a sale, with 40% off silks (squeal) and 35% off woollens (all other fabrics discounted as well).  I got silks yesterday and took swatches for woollens on the basis that I would think over the weekend, work out what could go in a suitcase and what I might need to post, get postal rates, then go back on Monday to do my wool purchasing."


You've noticed the timing here, didn't you?

Her original plan was to fly back to Australia on Tuesday the 30th.

Nope.

I thought maybe I could hop into Manhattan and meet with her post-Sandy.

Nope.  No subway.  No driving.  No gas.

We had planned via email to talk to each other on the phone. But after the storm roared through, even that wasn't possible.

The next time I ventured out, is the day I wandered aimlessly in my post hurricane daze.  Sadly, I received this email from her...


"Sorry we didn’t manage to catch up with each other and I’m especially mortified as I have just seen your latest post on  STGD and, I too was wandering around the garment district on Friday and we could have caught up with each other. 

There were big problems with the communications systems at the hotel last week.  Their phones were down for a couple of days and internet too, so while the phone lines were up again on Friday, I didn’t see emails again until Saturday…and then that was all in a rush as I was packing, checking out etc.  The phones were a real problem as I (along with most of the hotel) needed to call airlines and do all other things necessary to accommodate a delayed schedule."

Whatta shame.


What we did do, however, was have a really LOVELY, long  VOIP phone conversation after she returned to Australia, during which, she gave me amazing bits of information regarding her post Hurricane Sandy experience as an accidental long-term tourist here in New York City.  While this part of the story and her impressions of the experience could fill pages on their own, I'll stick to the fabric information for this post. Because she knows first-hand just how hard/impossible it is for her to find all of the wonderful things she found here in a heartbeat were she in Australia, and she seriously LONGS for better access, I feel I NEED to share this information with you.

And, who are YOU?

Some of you, although you may not comment publicly here, are store owners, fabric vendors, and other fashion professionals. Some of you are international shoppers and American shoppers who simply aren't close enough to shop here in person! Vendors, I know that opportunities abound for you among the enthusiastic international buyers, and if you can reach, serve, AND satisfy them,  it will be a mutually beneficial relationship!  For this post, I strongly encourage comments and dialogue.  Shoppers, let your voices be heard... and vendors, let the shoppers know how to find you!

So, this lovely Australian is a particularly business-savvy woman, who adores fabric and the creativity it inspires, and just thrives on the wonderful array of fabrics available here in the NYC garment district.  During our conversation, we discussed online fabric sources, which, while meant to be a great convenience, have more than a few significant issues to overcome.  Among them...

Photography:

High quality photographs whet the appetite for fabric, just as beautiful food photography does. If you can accurately convey its softness, drape, fuzziness, stretch, or sheen in a photo, the viewer can "feel" it, and will be more likely to buy.

Shipping:

Shipping fees, carriers and charges are of GREAT importance to international shoppers, and if the vendor is only willing to do what requires the least thought, without doing at least a small bit of research/fee comparison for the client, that client will not make the purchase.   It is important to understand that shipping fees exceeding or coming at all close to the price of the goods purchased, make a customer feel disrespected and unimportant, and makes the vendor look like he/she is not on the customer's side.


Customer Service:

This goes hand-in-hand with shipping.  The best online vendors have excellent customer service.  Even if sent in the form of a standard script, the answer to a customer who has not received his/her goods yet, or wonders about your shipping procedure should contain at least the following:

  • We sent your package via _____ on ______(date)
  • Please allow _____ days/weeks for it to arrive
  • If it hasn't arrived by __________, please let us know.
  • At that point, we will ____________ OR ___________.


Accurate Fabric descriptions and fiber content:

Fancy terms and words that make the client wonder will lose the sale for you.  It is great to give a fabric a fun name, but care instructions and real-life words, like cotton, silk, or wool, are more easily understood.

Some stores in the garment district sell online, and those that my client has used have big challenges in at least one of the above-mentioned areas. Keeping in mind that selling internationally opens up the world as potential competitors, it is an area where you really have to bring your "A" game if you want to compete.  But here's the thing; the quality and variety the stores offer right here, gives many of them an automatic advantage, as she was just floored by the options available to us right here!

The international (and long-distance shopper) is real.  And special. And, perhaps... an untapped market??? And a boost to business and the economy of the garment district and New York City.  They should all get one, great, big virtual HUG!

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts....







25 comments:

  1. It's a 2 hour, door to garment district trip into NYC for me out here on Long Island, so I do a lot of online shopping for fabric. I do wish that more of the shops were available online. But getting a working website that is user friendly and easy to update is not a cheap proposition, and we've all seen poor websites.
    I shop the websites that have great photography and good service. There is one rather large, well known store that is working on getting a new website up and running(the current one is awful) and they've been at it much longer than they originally thought. Their customer service is also pretty bad, and really that's a big part of any shopping experience. Sending an email that your package has shipped is really something that should be included in all transactions.

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    1. Thank you for that feedback, Nancy. This kind of information is valuable to the readers out there!

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  2. I work in logistics and supply chain, and I know first hand what a colossal pain for all involved international shipping can be. The fact is that shipping globally is expensive. If you don't believe me, go on the UPS, DHL and USPS sites and see what they say the cost to ship a 5 lb package to Australia is from New York. I have several clothing manufacturing clients who have onshored their sewing operations because it's cheaper than sending the work to China and then shipping the goods back. While you may think it's 'insulting' that shipping costs are equal to the cost of the goods, they are what they are, and they can bankrupt smaller companies.

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    1. Great info! I appreciate your point of view, and have worked in textile exporting in the past (from the US), and while these were large shipments traveling on huge vessels, I know that when sample yardage was needed, some carriers were AMZINGLY reasonable compared to others. Who knows if this is still the case, but it seemed, at times to be country specific. TNT to Austalia was significantly lower than other carriers then, for example. I know the rewards of volume business made such things possible...

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    2. I checked the website and for a one off shipment 5 lb to Australia TNT costs a minimum of $194.67. My clients are typically shipping 40 foot containers, not what retailers are sending. I can't imagine most retailers doing enough volume to reduce the charges to a sustainable level.

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    3. Even that price, though, is still about $80 less in shipping than she was quoted, for similar yardage.

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  3. This is a good post and as someone who lives across the country (U.S.) in a fabric and geographic desert, I appreciate online fabric shopping. I have been to the garment district in NYC and now I can only dream about it. :) but I digress.

    As I started to say, this is a great post but it will be lost under the wonderful story you started with. How many people will read to the end?

    Postage is expensive. I'm not sure what can be done about that. But your comment regarding giving fabric creative names - that is one of my pet peeves. Call it what it is so that we can all recognize it for what it is. Weave and fabric content is so helpful as is weight or great pictures of drape as you pointed out.
    --LindaC

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    1. And yes, the creative names will drive us all nuts, eventually!

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  4. Well, I hope people read to the end, and for some of the business owners I talk to regularly, this stuff is in their pleasure/business reading category, and some of them are looking to improve or start an online presence. Postage is expensive, indeed, but the amount these stores pay in rent is ASTOUNDING!

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  5. I am a little surprised that no one has come up with a co-op type of online portal to the garment district.
    It seems like it shouldn't be THAT hard to create a website that can be used by multiple vendors to load their fabrics for sale, and to fulfill orders independently.

    Buyers would search across all the inventory as if it's all in the same database.

    Then again, I guess I understand why - I think the site would have to be built first, and then "sold" to the vendors as a really great idea. If anyone knows any venture capitalists, I am available to lead the project :)

    The other issue I see for vendors is how time consuming it is to photograph, describe and load inventory. It really is an added cost to the vendor in labor.

    Having said that, I sure would like to see more using Pantone colors in their descriptions.

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    1. Pantone colors... yes! Pantone colors!!!! So RIDICULOUSLY helpful! I think a co-op situation could be wonderful, if vendors weren't offering competing products. Many businesses would probably be thrilled to pay someone who would simply do the legwork and receive a commission for doing so.

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  6. As an international customer (Europe) I can absolutely rely to this post. Luckily I am in the city this weekend for first hand shopping.

    My two cents:
    - postage fees: it doesn't always have to be express... there are good, cheaper options that are available that take longer. And most of the time, I am willing to wait for that special nice fabric I can't find somewhere else. And in those times of rush, I'm happy to pay the rush fees.
    - fabric descriptions: funny names make it sometimes IMPOSSIBLE to find what you're looking for. I'm all for decent descriptions and mentioning of color/fibers.

    And now, back to my search of stores to visit on my too short passage through the city!

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    1. Thanks for your input! If you;re looking for anything specific, I'll be happy to let you know what I know!

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  7. My pet peeve is that some of the best-stocked stores in the city have some of the worst websites. Either they don't have their merchandise pictured at all, or they only show a fraction of what they actually have in the store. It's frustrating to have seen something in person & then not be able to find it again on the website. "I know they had...." They are losing my business between trips, and the business of everyone I would refer to their site if it represented their store and their merchandise more accurately.

    As far as shipping cost, I compare that with what it costs me to fly to the city & stay to shop for several days. Even when I shop in person, I often end up shipping things home or checking another suitcase, so it still costs me $$. No easy way around it for me. What does irk me with any online business, though, is when I get charged shipping (within the US) by merchandise total instead of actual weight, especially when I'm ordering something lightweight like ribbon.

    There's a non-Garment Dist. NYC store I like to shop at in person, but they have a ridiculously high website order minimum, and a hefty surcharge if you can't meet it. That's a slap in the wallet for sure, and it comes across as if they don't care about your paltry order if you just want a thing or two from them. From my perspective, that's more lost business.

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    1. I feel your pain... I do think it would be overwhelming to present the entire range of goods on the website, but things a store has plenty of, or regular stock of, would make a lot of sense! If you develop relationships with some store owners, you can call and say, do you remember that orange stripe on the right, next to the...? And they will let you place your order over the phone and ship it to you, if you are specific enough. And I will attest, shipping is a huge pain in the rear parts, but how can they sell to a distant customer without taking a step to make it easier/more affordable/worth their while... somehow?

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  8. First of all, I hope you have all recovered from Sandy.

    OK, very interesting post on shopping in NYC! I live in Ireland, and have managed to order from NY once via a friend. In general I agree with what you have posted, I haven't visited the shops but the selection of fabrics from what I can see on-line is great! When it comes to shipping, I understand it is expensive but what really helps is clarity. If I'm interested in a fabric, it helps to have a price for shipping to Europe upfront, not to have to go digging, or have to send off an e-mail to get a price, then I'm not going to bother, IYKWIM.

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    1. Thank you. New York is recovering from Sandy, and, while some neighborhoods are still really suffering, some are still just awful. Overall, it was quite a blow to the city, but the energy and spirit are pretty good right now!

      Clarity. YES. I mean really, Ebay vendors do a great job of it... I would think fabric vendors could do the same.

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  9. I live in the Philippines and totally agree with all the above regarding shipping costs. I have worked in garment export ( i.e shipping clothes made here to all you out there ) for many years . Yes shipping is expensive, but if you set up a business and get a contract with one of the courier companies, you will pay substantially less than someone who just walks in the door and wants to ship one parcel to somewhere in the world. The main challenge I have with buying on-line, is the local importation costs. I am sure that in countries like Australia or Ireland, you can probably find a way of predicting if you will be paying any import duties, taxes or VAT on your on-line purchases. Unfortunately here in the Philippines, it totally depends on the way the customs officer is feeling that day, and the duties could end up costing substantially more than the fabric you purchased! There are quite a lot of fabric stores here in Manila, but with bad quality and abysmal customer service. I would love to put up my own fabric with store with on-line capability for all those people who live outside the capital (7000) islands) and also want nice fabrics! So if there are any kind fabric store owners out there who may be interested in helping me source nice summer fabrics (probably not, as who would want to divulge their sources, but I though I'd ask!) , please send me an e-mail at welovesewing@gmail.com!

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    1. Ah yes, another layer of complication. Lots to think about!

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  10. There are a couple of things that stop me from purchasing that gorgeous piece of fabric:
    - the funny name with no fibre content, love the plain simple wool, cotton, silk,
    - there is only one freight cost which seems expensive and I can understand why. However like anonymous I am happy for fabric to come on the slow boat, as long as I know it is on its way and expected delivery time
    - Pantone colours are a life saver as what your computer screen shows is not necessarily the same as the real fabric colour.

    I am from Australia and one day I do plan on visiting New York and being able to visit in person all those amazing stores, but in the meantime it would be nice for a bit more information up front on the websites.

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    1. Lots of great information has come out of this post, and has inspired another one, based on some research I have pursued to satisfy my own curiousity. Another post on this subject will be going up shortly...

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  11. *This comment is from Liz (the Australian mentioned in this post) - she was having trouble posting to blogger, so I am posting the comments on her behalf!

    "There’s lots to say about shipping! I saw the comments above about the exorbitant courier ship fees --- but there are other options. I shipped a 7lb+ package from NYC to Australia a few weeks ago for around $70 using USPS and pretty well all of the packages I receive (here in Australia – home now) are delivered using USPS. Forget 5lb for $200, that’s outrageous, but I think even that amount is more competitive than some couriers. The shipping issue is not whether the ship fee costs more or less than the fabric being purchased. The issue is whether you are being asked to pay a reasonable ship price having regard to the available options. I tried to buy from a large online retailer that has a strong presence in the garment district (already referred to in a different context in these comments) and was asked to pay $230 for delivery of a package using UPS when the same package would have cost around $30 using USPS --- I know as I looked the cost up, emailed back and asked if it was a possibility to have the package sent USPS and there was a total lack of interest. It was pretty off-putting…and I cancelled the order. A $300 cancelled order was no biggie for them I suppose, but the larger issue is whether the right business model is in place for online retailing. The domestic US market is so big that perhaps it is not of much interest to cultivate an international market…but I think it is truly the way of the future…and for goodness sake, wouldn’t every NYC garment fabric store that pays shocking rents and frets about their business future in the declining district want to think about additional revenue streams? Even though Australia is a small country (population wise) we punch above our weight. Australians are fanatical online shoppers. One international clothing retailer lands 2 cargo planes of packages in Sydney EVERY DAY…EVERY DAY!! Australians were fast on the uptake with online shopping, and continue to be fast on every new internet, mobile thingy that comes along, so it’s the perfect market destination. (And for the time being too, there are no import taxes for packages under $1,000). In my experience, there is only one garment district fabric place that serves the international market well (thank you Eugenia!!) but here’s hoping that others give some thought to their business model and online presence and make it easier and more appealing to shop online. The one other feature that I would add to the list drawn up by Mimi is to keep the online site active and fresh and new…create reasons to come back often. Some sites are so tired and dull with very little new listings…big yawn. I for one look forward to the NYV garment district coming alive online in a model that works for international shoppers, though it will never replace the trawl between W40th and W35th, no matter what the weather!"

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  12. Dear Mimi and fellow readers,

    As a fabric vendor here in the Garment District, we would like to thank all of you for your comments and input.

    The information shared here is highly helpful to us, as we will soon be launching our new website, www.fabrics-fabrics.com.

    We will do our very best to serve both domestic & internationl customers, by researching the best shipping rates.

    Also noted your comments about the photography and simple fabric descriptions.

    Best Regards,
    Justina Hakimi
    FABRICS & FABRICS
    A Division of Lace Star, Inc.
    270 West 38th Street, 3rd floor
    New York, NY 10018
    T: 212.391.7777
    F: 212.944.9499
    info@fabrics-fabrics.com
    www.fabrics-fabrics.com

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