I just hit my one year anniversary at The Fabric Store, and think it’s high time I reflect on some of the insights I’ve gained about human nature, as my friend Molly so delicately puts it. I like to see the fabric store as a giant metaphor for life (like everything these days), representing how we as humans react to what seems like unlimited choice. If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that we, as humans, are really bad at making decisions when faced with a world of choices.
Here are some pictures of the notions department (found on google), which easily houses over 150,000 separate items (70,000 styles of buttons alone).
Home Dec trims
Our collection is arguably the best and broadest in this part of the Bay Area. My job is simple: help people find what they are looking for. Problem is, most people don’t really know what they want.
I’ve come up with a system for helping people find things. It involves asking questions, allowing them to reject me and tell me I’m wrong, and then asking more questions until I get a hold on what they’re actually going for. Then, magically, I make they thing they want appear (and they think I’m a genius) but really all I’ve done is listened and translated.
Lots of times people can’t find what they want because they don’t know sewing vernacular and or, they lack the descriptive vocabulary. For example, I’ve had people come in looking for push buttons (these do not actually exist to my knowledge), toggles, seam binding, silk cording, and iron on hexagons, only to find out after a series of questions that what they really wanted were snaps, cord locks, bias tape, polyester covered cord, and hot fix crystals. It’s hard work figuring out what people have going on in their heads and translating that into what actually exists.
My job is very draining in this respect. I’m constantly putting myself into the heads of others. One coping mechanism I’ve developed to deal with this condition has been to become overly direct. I don’t beat around the bush. If I want something I ask for it, if I don’t know what I want I admit that. If I don’t know what someone is talking about I tell them. I deal with people in a very direct manner, because I don’t have the time or the space not to.
Still, I find it amusing to watch people navigate the floor, especially for the first time, and search for something that suits them. These are the three most important lessons I’ve learned over the past year.
1. You will probably find what you’re looking for as soon as you start asking questions.
I cannot count the number of times someone has asked me where something is, only to find out they’ve been standing right in front of it all along.
Sometimes all you need is someone to slightly redirect your attention to realize that what you want is staring you right in the face.
2. There aren’t as many options as there appear to be.
When I started asking customers really specific questions about what they were trying to do and how they wanted their projects to look or function, I quickly began to realize that only one or two products actually met their needs.
Buttons are a great example of this concept. People come in and are immediately overwhelmed by our collection. I can usually narrow down the options to two or three styles in the first two minutes based on qualities like size, shape, color, shank or sew-through attachment, presence of sparkle, and how formal the garment is. People don’t like this. They want to look at as many buttons as possible, so even if I find the right one within the first five minutes, they usually make me open up five more boxes…just to make sure. The number of times a customer has gone with my first suggestion, even after sampling other boxes, is astounding.
I have a coworker who uses buttons as a form of relationship divination. Her claim is that you can tell they way a person picks a mate, by the way they choose buttons. I think she’s right.
3. You can’t turn a sweatshirt into a smoking jacket.
People come in with garments that they don’t wear, that they don’t like, ones that should probably just be given away, and attempt to turn them into something that they like more. Sometimes this is successful, most times it is not.
I had a customer who came in with a white denim jacket, and she wanted to do something to it to make it feel more dressy. I gave her some options, most of which she rejected, before telling her that no matter what she did, it would always be a denim jacket, and that there will be a point when, no matter how many alterations she made, it still wouldn’t look better. The take away lesson: get what you want the first time around, don’t get something that you kind of like, that you hope you can change.
I’ve learned lots of other lessons, of course. The most important has been that people really appreciate it when you give them an honest opinion, grounded in your own experiences. I’ve, in the past, been hesitant to tell people about my opinions and preferences. I doubted that the things I thought mattered at all. Now I know that my experiences are valuable not just to me, but to others as well. So if I can honestly say, “I’ve used ________ and it works great,” or, “I don’t know. I don’t have experience with that product, but I am pretty sure it works like this,” people will appreciate my input. They can use my knowledge and combine it with their own know-how to come up with great solutions.
All I have to do is apply this Fabric Store Wisdom to my own life….
Love and Enjoy.