I have to make a confession. I’ve been remiss about something. At the end of last year, we asked you to take a survey for us. Over 1,500 of you completed it. For that, we’re very grateful. The part of the process where I dropped the ball was in sharing some of the things we learned. I’ll start fixing that today.
You were serious in proving feedback, and we were equally serious in reviewing it. Over the month of January, we put together a detailed analysis of your answers to our questions and a plan for responding to what we heard.
Now, I can’t say that we’re going to respond to every piece of feedback we received. And I may explain why in a future post. But today I want to address one of the topics that generated a lot of comment: paper vs. digital patterns.
This is a topic on which almost everyone who sews has an opinion. Some people love the convenience of digital patterns. (Immediate delivery with no shipping costs! No need to trace the pattern!) Others hate the idea of having to print and assemble a pattern. It’s always the most vocal who have their opinions heard in discussions on the topic, so I want to share with you what we learned about this from listening to over 1,500 dedicated sewists and from reviewing our sales numbers. The findings are quite interesting to us, and as a result of what we heard we’re making changes that you’ll see beginning next week.
But first, I think it’s useful to have a little background. In the big picture, Oliver + S hasn’t been around for all that long. Ebenezer Butterick, after all, developed the first commercial sewing pattern 1863. (We hope he would approve of the Lisette patterns his company is producing today!) But we have been here through what has arguably been one of the most fundamental changes in business model this industry has seen in its 150 years.
When Liesl launched Oliver + S in 2008, sewing patterns were printed, sold to retailers and distributors, shipped to them, and then resold to consumers who purchased them in local fabric stores–pretty much the same way sewing patterns had been sold over the preceding century. We had a website that sold patterns to consumers back then, but we would ship only a few orders a week.
In October, 2011, we decided to try something new. Retailers were purchasing fewer and fewer sewing patterns to stock in their shops. (It’s a trend that started in 2010 and has continued to today.) We had taken the Puppet Show pattern out of print, but we were getting regular requests for it from people looking for copies–but not enough requests to support reprinting the pattern. So we decided to test whether making it available again in a digital format would work. We came up with a novel way of turning that pattern into a PDF, and we put it up on our website. We sold a few copies. Then we sold a few more. We added a couple other out-of-print styles that people had requested. By the end of 2011, we had sold 382 digital patterns (not a large enough quantity to justify reprinting any individual style, but not zero copies either), and we figured that there might be enough interest in the concept to create more.
Jump ahead three years. In 2014, 78% of our product sales revenue came from purchases consumers made on our website. Of all orders placed on our website last year, 63% were for digital products only. (And even more orders included both digital and physical products.) And across our whole book of business, 50% of our product sales revenue came from digital patterns
Let me spell out what these numbers mean. First, the primary place of sales has changed from the local fabric store to the internet. Second, people purchasing patterns on the internet show a clear preference for digital patterns over paper. These are two major changes to how this industry has operated since its founding a century and a half ago. And those changes have taken place in just the last few years.
These observations are supported by your feedback to our survey. Your responses told us that 30% of people strongly prefer digital patterns to paper ones, and 26% don’t have a clear preference for paper or digital. That means over half our customers are happy to sew with digital patterns. This finding was underscored by the fact that 70% of people said they would not hesitate to buy a pattern they wanted if it were only available in digital format. (Only 16% said they definitely would not buy it.)
What’s our takeaway? Our business has shifted from a B2B model to a B2C model, and digital patterns have rapidly grown to be a major part of our business. This growth will continue—so much so that we expect digital pattern sales to become the majority of our business for the first time this year. As a result, paper pattern sales and sales to retailers will continue to decline. There are, however, still several retailers and many individuals who prefer paper patterns if they can get them.
Frankly, this puts us in a difficult situation. Like most businesses, we have limited capital to use. We need to deploy it in the best way possible to support our short-term needs and our long-term objectives. For our business, the primary use of capital has always been to support product development. (It’s very expensive to create a new pattern—and to develop it right—but that’s the topic of a separate post.) The next major use of our capital is to print and warehouse paper patterns. It used to be that we could predict how many copies of a pattern we would sell in the first 9-12 months after a release. We would print that number of patterns, warehouse and ship them, and then when they sold out decide if the pattern was still selling well enough to reprint it. If so, we would. Our older patterns would go through several reprints before we would decide to discontinue them.
Due to the rapid rise of the digital pattern, that’s not the way it works anymore. Now we plan on printing a pattern just once, and we’re constantly adjusting our initial print run size to try to hit the right number. We’ll eventually sell through the print run, as we always have. But that takes much longer now, and we don’t reprint very often. This means that over time our inventory turns less frequently and we end up sitting on more and more paper product. This is a very inefficient use of capital. We find ourselves keeping more money tied up in inventory each year, and our warehouse costs continue to increase as we need more space to store more items that stick around for longer.
On the one hand, it would be easier for us if we didn’t produce paper patterns any longer. We would have more capital to use in more ways, we wouldn’t need to worry about the size of print runs, and we wouldn’t need to store paper patterns in a warehouse. (I’ve calculated that it costs us ten cents a year to warehouse a pattern; when you’re talking about the number of patterns we have in the warehouse, those dimes add up.) On the other hand, limiting our products to digital only at this point isn’t the right decision either. Even though the number is shrinking, many retailers and consumers still want to buy paper patterns. We want to give them what they want.
So here’s what we’re doing in response to your feedback. The Oliver + S patterns we release next week will be available in both paper and digital format. And we are investing in producing our next collection of Liesl + Co. patterns for women in paper format too—which is something we have never done before.
After what I explained, this doesn’t seem to make much sense, does it? On the surface, no. But we have listened to you and we have a history of doing what’s in the best interest of our industry and our customers. We want to continue doing that. Need an example? We keep releasing sewing patterns for boys, don’t we? How may other independent kids’ pattern companies do this? Not many, right? And why is that number so small? Like we’ve said time and again, boys’ patterns never sell as well as cute dress patterns. It’s just a fact. But we know that many of you have boys you want to sew for, so we continue to make those products available for you, even though we know they won’t sell that well for us.
Printing two new pattern collections ties up a lot of our capital in a less-than-efficient way, but we’re moving forward anyway. We’re doing this primarily for the retailers who want to carry our patterns and for those of you have expressed a preference for paper. We will keep making paper patterns available as long as both retailers and consumers keep purchasing them. So if you’re a retailer or one of those people who is vocal about your preference for paper, we’re relying on you to vote with your wallet and purchase a few. To be honest, if I look long term, I don’t see paper patterns being around for another 20 years. How long we keep producing them will depend on how long those of you who like them continue to purchase them at a level that supports their production.
For those of you who prefer digital patterns, we listened to your feedback too. You’ll see some changes to the Oliver + S patterns that are released next week that have been made directly in response to your requests:
- All patterns will now come with A0 sized pages for those of you outside the United States whose print shops use this format.
- There will be consecutive numbering on all pages to make it easier for you to move through the various sections and to check that your printer has printed everything you wanted it to.
- There will be a guide up front telling you which pages of the document you will need to print for each of the views included in the pattern so that you can print only the pages you need for the item you are making.
- There will be new trimming lines to indicate where you should cut the pages apart prior to tiling to make it even easier to assemble the pattern pieces.
Many people requested that we produce our digital patterns as layered PDF files that allow you to print just the size you are planning to make. (Yuki from Waffle Patterns does this exceptionally well, and we think it’s a great feature.) Unfortunately, the work required to create a layered PDF needs to begin quite a ways up in the development process, and we were already well past that point for the Spring 2015 Oliver + S and Liesl + Co. patterns. So that feature won’t be included in this season’s digital patterns, but we do plan to produce future styles as layered PDFs.
So there you go. Way more behind-the-scenes information about one small area of our business than you thought you would ever read. But, like I said up top, we really appreciate all the time and thought so many of you put into completing our survey, and we want to let you know how seriously we are taking your feedback.
This post breaks every major rule we have for what an Oliver + S blog post should be: it’s too long, it’s about us not about you, and there are no inspirational photos. But since I wrote the rules, I figure I get to break them once in a while. If you’ve stuck with me all the way to the end here and you’ve found this interesting, leave a comment to let me know. If I’m convinced that people have actually read this and appreciated it, I’ll do another one or two on other topics related to our survey and what we’re changing in response to what you told us.