Showrooming: Does it Affect the Paper vs PDF Debate?


Several month ago I wrote a lengthy piece in answer to a question we field on a regular basis from our customers, that being…

“Why don’t you offer your pattern in a downloadable format?” (such as a pdf).

In that post, (which you can access by clicking here), I explained our business model and point of view about this issue at length and in turn it generated quite a bit of discussion via the comments section (which I thoroughly enjoyed I might add). And regardless which side of the fence you are, I’ve found that the chances are good that you feel strongly about your point of view. Our stance (which is summarized below in a nutshell) is the same today as it was a year ago when that post was published.

Our B2B relationships are VERY important to us, comprising over 35% of our annual gross income. We’ve worked hard for years to establish, maintain and further these associations. We advertise in national wholesale magazines, and have maintained a consistent presence at Quilt Market since 2008 and the result has been that MANY wholesalers now choose to purchase product directly from us because of the afore-mentioned personal connection. If we were to start offering our handbag patterns by pdf download, it could very easily disrupt this balance. Additionally, our notions and zippers are now accounting for over half of our annual sales, and since there’s an undeniable symbiotic relationship between our zipper & notions sales and the sale of our patterns (both on our website and in retail stores), a drop in pattern sales to retail stores and distributors would most likely be followed by a comparable sales decrease in zippers and notions. For these reasons (and others) will not be marketing our patterns in pdf format now or at any time in the foreseeable future.

But even though our stance on this subject is essentially unchanged, there’s been something that’s changed about the conversation, and it revolves around this word…


Showrooming is defined by Wikipedia as the practice of examining merchandise in a traditional brick and mortar retail store or other offline setting, and then buying it online. (primarily because online stores often offer lower prices than their brick and mortar counterparts because they do not have the same overhead costs AND because there’s no sales tax or shipping added on).

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I first heard the term “showrooming” last Fall at Quilt Market in Houston. A new store owner came into our booth interested in buying a few copies of our new pattern, The Wrapsody, but with an unusual contingency. This buyer wanted assurance that we weren’t selling a downloadable version of this pattern on our website. I wasn’t and told her so, but she added that she’d be checking my website that night, and as long as this was true she’d return tomorrow to make her purchase.  And sure enough she did in fact return and placed a nice order, at which time I asked her why the big concern over the pdf’s and this is what she said…Evidently she’d had the same problem with the last 2 patterns she’d bought.  A customer came in, asked to see the new pattern, opened it and looked it over. She even asked the owner to help her choose suitable fabric carefully noting the name of every product, but then inexplicably announced that she’d be downloading the pattern and purchasing the fabric at an online discount store. And THEN… a few weeks later, a similar incident occurred with a 2nd customer.

WOW! I couldn’t blame her for being upset!

It must have been incredibly discouraging for this merchant, but I didn’t think too much about it after returning home… that is until a few weeks ago at the Spring Market in Minneapolis when TWO  more retailers relayed similar stories to me. And here’s the deal,  I’ve since learned that this behavior has been quite common for some time, especially in electronic stores like Best Buy and Target. Some experts are now saying that showrooming is one of the biggest threats to traditional retail today.

So…. what should we make of all this?

Well… I’ll go first! (don’t worry,  you’ll get your chance!)
I guess it really shouldn’t surprise me that people are engaging in showrooming. There will always be that segment of our culture to whom price is the only thing that matters, BUT I am surprised to find out how pervasive this behavior seems to have become and quite honestly shocked that anyone would be so brazen (and yes…I’ll say it, CRUEL) to announce their intentions to a store owner who had gone to such lengths to help them. In what universe would this type of conduct be considered acceptable? So in closing I’d like to pose the following questions……

1) Experts say that the best way for store owners to combat showrooming is by delivering outstanding customer service, but do you think this will really be enough to convince a showroomer to pull out their wallet and buy from them instead of going online and purchasing the same thing at a lower price?

2) How long can we expect local quilt stores to survive if owners have to deal with blatant behaviors like showrooming? Isn’t it worth paying a couple of extra bucks for a product in order to be able to enjoy the convenience and benefits of a full-service store?

3) and looking down the road, what impact might showrooming have on pattern designers who sell both paper AND pdf downloadable patterns?

4) And what about designers like myself who depend on a substantial percentage of pattern sales to store owners? What do you think our response should be to this situation?

And Now… it’s YOUR turn!

Here’s YOUR chance to sound off on this controversial topic I am SO looking forward to your comments and questions! It’ll be a lot of fun and potentially very educational for all of us as long as we all remember to say what we have to say NICELY!  🙂
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24 Comments So Far, You're Next!

  1. Accu Quilt settled part of that problem with a name online store that was selling their cutting dies wayyy lower than most other dealers. They incremented a rule that dealers had to sell at the same price that they were selling at. Stores (brick & mortar) are allowed a certain amount of discretion on sales but it evened the playing field a bit.

  2. I wonder how they monitor for this? I applaud their efforts but It seems to me it could be potentially VERY time-consuming to check on this with every online retailer. Maybe there’s an easy way?

  3. Monica Powell

    I can quite understand your explanation and if I lived closer I would quite agree with you. However I live in South Africa where our postal system is totally dysfunctional and the cost of posting things to this country is prohibitive – some companies actually say that they will not post to South Africa because of the theft in the post offices. The only way I can get really nice patterns is via a downloadable site. I just love your patterns but at this stage can only drool. I have ordered a few and am grateful that they have arrived even if it takes about four months to get them at a prohibitive cost.

    • But based on your description Monica, You aren’t being a “showroomer”, you’re just buying exclusively online, which in your case seems justified. 🙂

  4. I call *showrooming* by a different name – *the Walmart mentality*. In the USA it seems ‘if it’s cheaper elsewhere then buy where it’s cheapest, even perhaps if it’s not the most convenient way’, has been driven into the consumer mind for so long it is now the norm.
    It is a definite negative to the B&M store who needs the revenue to stay afloat. Just as you, the store depends on pattern, notions, machines etc to generate a good part of their income, fabric sales have also waned at stores as a result of online fabric shops selling for way less than stores. With the advent of *smart* phones & tablets making *showrooming* so easy the trend is here to stay I’m afraid. Good topic.

    • I’ve heard that word… the “Walmart Mentality”. To me, those words make it sound even MORE offensive (and in this case, thats the goal). Thanks for commenting Ann!

      • Abby Glassenberg of ‘While She Naps’ recently queried her readership about what they felt made a *great quilt shop experience*. While not addressing ‘showrooming’ it gives many points of view from responders on why they do or do not shop B&M quilt shops, which includes price & other reasons.

  5. First of all, considering the cost of ink used to print all the downloaded patterns, the inconvenience of not having a plastic bag to store them in, and the paper you use, I would much rather have a pattern from a maker. I purposely look for “brick and mortar” patterns online. I personally hate to have to download and print out the patterns. It all depends on what quality your paper stock is, and you use a lot of ink and time to print out the patterns, so do you really save any money?
    As far as the personally owned quilt shops, in our town all have closed except one. It is sad. I have to drive all over and use the internet to find quality fabrics. i order from you and Annie’s. I also try to find quilt shops online to shop at. It is a shame in our economy that price dictates what we buy as opposed to quality. There is no substitute for personal service. I give it as a seamstress and I know that my small base appreciate it.

  6. Well I do a little of all of it. But my reason is probably different from most. I live on a very fixed income. Each month I only have X amount of dollars to spend for myself, so I shop very carefully and have to plan each purchase of the fun stuff so that I can stretch my dollars to allow me to have some fun.
    I saying that, yes I do shop online for good prices and for things I cannot buy local (no car, I ride a bicycle so it has to be very local).
    That being said, I am very blessed to have a local fabric shop close enough to ride to, so I do make some purchases there. I even like to go when I am broke as it is wonderful eye candy for the creative juices. If I like some fabric, I plan that purchase for the next month, hopefully it is still there. I also support online shops that have great customer service and offer items that I can not get locally. So I use all the different avenues. Oh, I cannot forget yard sales as they can have some unexpected surprises!

    • Oh there’s nothing wrong with buying online Fran. This post was not an indictment of folks who shop online. Heaven knows I HAVE an online shop and i appreciate my online shoppers… but having said that, there’s a whole new breed of shopper out there who shops locally and takes advantage of customer service to narrow their choices, and then goes back home and orders online to save a couple of bucks.
      For me, if someone sees my pattern in a shop and they can support their local economy by buying it there, then i wish they would do that. That’s how i would prefer for it to be handled. But having said that, there’s nothing wrong with shopping exclusively online, or patronizing an online retailer, instead of a brick & mortar store if this is how you prefer to shop, or if you get great customer service and are loyal to that online retailer.
      My point is, I would rather you buy in the place where you actually do your shopping. That just makes sense to me and seem best for all of us.
      Thanks for commenting Fran and as one who knows you are a loyal customer, we appreciate your business! 🙂

  7. A LQS has taken this on by insisting any student in a workshop buys the fabric and pattern there. Only issue is their fabric selection isn’t right for everyone. Because of that I find I buy fabric online or at shows often…I do have a quality control concern with some PDF patterns. A guild friend brought one to a meeting for help. I’ve quilted for 25 years and couldn’t make sense of the pattern…we did two practice blocks before realizing there was a significant typo! 1/2 inch can be important!

    • I cant blame the LQS’s for wanting to fight back and i can see why they insist the pattern should be bought there. But fabric is such a personal thing, and yes you are so right, not all stores carry what i really like.

  8. I once bought a PDF pattern for a pair of slacks (bought it from the designer) Never could get it put together right because the lines just wouldn’t match up. Probably a printing problem. So, I bought the printed pattern from same person. I will not even consider buying a PDF pattern after that experience. The PDF only saved a couple of dollars and it just wasn’t worth it.

  9. For your type of business, I think your potentially missing out on a lot of sales. I think designers who sell both are generating more revenue. Think about the costs saved on printing. Why are e-books becoming the norm, even for school children? It’s cost effect and a good return. Even charging less more money is made in the end. I think customers will still buy the notions recommended but want to see the pattern now. I’ve actually scanned in a lot of patterns to upload them to the cloud. I now have them in my pocket when I need to check yardage at a shop. Plus I can read a pattern on my iPad, I don’t need the clutter. The less paper the better.

    The reality is your customer base is getting younger by the day and they want downloads and to be able to buy goods at 2AM in their jammies.

    I think we’ll always have shops, but I don’t think any shop owner is going to get rich, if anything only poorer. The margins are too slim, with insane costs for retail storefronts, etc. The business plans I’ve seen for hobby stores do not provide a sufficient ROI. When they make huge investments with little return it’s no wonder burnout among shop owners has been and will be prevalent. It’s nothing like seeing a retirement fund swirl the tidy bowl.

    The reality is the world has changed and if your not maximizing all streams of revenue and social networking, you’re going to be forgotten. Don’t slip down this narrow must be in a shop as a hard copy view. This is not your worry. Your weging yourself into a bad corner with question 4. You don’t want to go down with them. Does it suck for store owners? Yes, but I find the majority of them have very limited business knowledge and should not be doing this at all. A passion for fabric, quilting, etc. does not always translate into a successful business. The ones that have a business background, e.g. Kimberly Jolly The Fat Quarter Shop are going to be successful.

    Think of it this way your patterns are just one of many on a wall in a shop that may or may not been seen. Shop owners don’t have incentive to move one pattern over another. When someone is shopping your website, which is open 24 hours a day, you have their attention and shopping trends show they want PDFs and instant gratification. As for designers, it will be developing a brand and creating a following. Having a great website will be key.

    • Thanks for your input Ro. I really appreciate you taking the time to go into such detail. I understand there are lots of folks like you who are passionate about pdf patterns. I get it and I understand it. However, I didnt read where you had any published items of your own out on the market or that you are running a business based on self-publishing. Please understand that I really dont mean this in any sort of demeaning way, only to say that I’m pretty sure you really do not understand how critically important it is that OUR patterns support OUR zipper and notions business and vice versa. In other words, you really dont have inside info about how MY business runs, after all, how could you, right?

      But we have a good deal of data that supports this business model and I doubt we’ll be changing it, at least for the foreseeable future. I know that we are not present or visible in every single retail store in this country, but you know what? That will probably never be the case and that’s OK. It’s not our goal. We have always known that it’s up to US to publicize our own patterns and to get the word out there about our products, In the past three years we have shifted our emphasis from print advertising to social media and the results have been great. Did we reach everyone the first year? certainly not, but our trends are going in the right direction and our sales have increased proportionately along with it. I’m glad for the retail stores we have that support us, but we are not dependent on them to get the word out about our line. Only we can do that and its a slow process with the reward going to those who work hard and stay with it. And after all…. even you eventually found us didnt you? So maybe you’ll remember us sometime down the road when you want a fun zipper or a specialty piece of hardware, no?

      The bottom line is this—- at this point I know LOTS of self-publishing folks. Some of them sell patterns exclusively in pdf format, some of them sell in both formats, and some of them sell paper patterns like i do. And of these groups, the ones that are the absolute MOST successful are the ones who have built a brand and a following thru ALL the venues (retail, wholesale and distribution). And right now the ONLY way to do that is by using that business model, so that’s what we’re doing.

      That doesn’t mean to say that at some point we wont change our focus. But so far, I’ve seen what’s happened for folks who have switched their business over to pdf offerings and the view from here just isn’t all that attractive to us…. yet.
      Thanks again for your thoughtful post. I love it when our readers take the time to respond in this way! 🙂 Have a great weekend.

      • I have something better. I have a BS in Business Management and a MS in Business Organization and Management. My speciality is why some businesses succeed and why others fail. I have a good balance of details and big picture. I have 30 years of experience from the small family business on up…including the e-variety and my last big role was getting a solely traditional distribution business up on Amazon. I’ve also grew up in small businesses and saw good and bad timed. So your right I don’t know your particulars, but I know enough to know. Anyway enough about why I’m qualified.

        When I was at Quiltmarket MInneapolis this year as a consultant to a quilt shop, I saw first hand the things I’m talking about. As a fan of your patterns and tutorials, I find it interesting that your giving all the tips and tricks in the help for free and are shooting yourself in the foot not selling the patterns by PDF. Think of the world wide sales your distributors are not reaching. Those innovative people are using your how-to’s to build other people’s patterns, while they don’t want to wait for your patterns or can’t find them in a local shop. They could be sewing while waiting for your notions to arrive. Bundling the notions and putting a good price on them and very reasonable shipping will still sell as people will want their bag just like yours. Just like samples sell fabric. Make a good sample and sell the fabric, yarn, etc. The pattern depends on good notions. There’s other marketing techniques to sell the notions.

        I like your stuff and would like to see you stick around. When you publish these thoughts and comments out there, it appears you’re not sure where you stand and your looking for input. I’m sure you have data and I appreciate the hard work, but your spending your most valuable resource – time – reinventing the wheel and then your publishing it in an open forum instead of focusing on building your brand. I’ve benefitted from a lot of free advice over the years and I’ve done well. Consider this me paying it forward, normally I get paid for this advice and it’s a lot more than 2-cents. 😉 Think about that professional advice or at least a really good seminar. I normally never comment on these type of posts. I’ve checked doing a good deed off my list this week. Best of luck!

  10. ps. I read your other post again on pros and cons of PDF patterns and some of your cons are out of date. Like being able to scan even large pieces in, sharing, and storage. A average user can do those things with a print pattern. It might be interesting if you approached a MBA school and asked if the students/instructors would be interested in doing some modeling for you. It’s win-win and the students and instructors love real world examples. By the way I live between 3 major cities and we have a plethora of shops in this area and I never see your patterns. I found you solely on social networking from someone posting a bag.

  11. I suppose I do a bit of “showrooming”. But I do try to do so without tying up any store personnel. I have my favorite LQS (about a 45 minute drive) and do my darnedest to support them. But I cannot afford to buy all my fabric there, nor most books. Where I purchase fabric depends on the project and/or recipient. Some are worth the extra money, some are not.

    I do insist on using them (my LQS) for any machine repairs, as well as the few and far between machine purchases. I detest Wal-Mart and avoid it as much as possible. But as others have mentioned, I have a limited income and do have to plan and budget.

    As to the PDF patterns, I have not bought any. I’d rather not have the paper, ink, and so on expense. I’ve also found there are not many ebooks I actually read all the way through, so I have cut back my spending on them. Rather like Jean-Luc Picard and his antique books, I like physical books and physical patterns. But then again, I’m not in the up-and-coming young generations any longer (sigh!). I do have storage issues, but it’s still easier for me to thumb through filed physical patterns than computer files.

    I like your current model and wish you continued success with it. BTW, 2 of your patterns have finally shown up at my LQS! Huzzah!!!

    • Thanks for writing Frances. I really appreciate your honesty and candor (as well as your supportive words for our line!0

  12. Here are some of my personal thoughts about your four questions (and the situation in general):

    1. Customer service is incredibly important to me and I will not return to a shop which does not provide courteous assistance. At the same time, however, it is important to me to be a courteous customer. I am appalled at the gall of someone who would blatantly tell a shop owner that they were going to buy elsewhere. Rude behavior seems to only increase in our society these days. Even so, surely the majority of customers are genuine and really do make purchases in the shops where they receive good service. I hope so. I wonder what the percentages actually are? I wonder if anyone has made a study of trends–number of actual sales as compared to number of potential customers visiting the shop.

    2. It seems to me that there are fewer quilt shops now and definitely fewer fabric stores these days. I am not sure how much is due to the economy, the possible lack of business skills (as mentioned above), or to ‘showrooming.’ I much prefer to purchase fabric at a brick and mortar shop because I like to finger the quality and compare the colors with the other pieces of fabrics I’m buying. It’s hard to be sure of quality or actual color when looking at a computer monitor. I do like to buy sometimes online from a trusted shop because I have to travel some distance to find a brick and mortar shop. That is a luxury that happens a couple of times a year usually. And when I do have the opportunity to shop in person, I don’t think of not buying from that shop. I go with a project in mind and buy the items that work with my project as well as other things that catch my eye and fit into my budget. I have worried about the quilt shops I love, as they are become more scarce as times goes on.

    3. I really don’t know enough to have a personal opinion on the impact of showrooming on designers who have PDF and paper patterns. It seems to me that if showrooming is becoming a problem to the shops selling paper patterns, then this will become a problem to the designers also. I agree with someone above who does not like to print out PDF patterns, but that’s not the problem here. What you have said about it seems reasonable to me though.

    4. I think you need to be as supportive to the shop owners who sell your paper patterns as you can possibly be. If someone wants to buy PDF so they can read the fabric requirements, I’ve noticed that some patterns being sold on line include the fabric requirements in the description so that the customer will know how much fabric to order. Or in your case, they would know how many zippers and pieces of hardware to order. That’s why I appreciate your hardware and zipper kits for the various patterns. All I need to do is order the kit, choose my colors, and know that I don’t have to run around the country looking for a store that sells the specialty items I need. To me that is a huge convenience, and I truly appreciate your providing this as an option. Thanks. But concerning PDF patterns, I think that if some people like them, they are fine so long as the designer isn’t also trying to sell paper patterns in stores. The designer needs to be as fair as possible with her wholesale customers–which you are doing.

    In conclusion, I don’t think we’ll ever get away from the ‘looking for the lowest price’ mentality. I’ve known people who will drive a distance to shop at a larger town for groceries just to save money on milk. I’ve never been convinced that they didn’t spend more in gas than they saved in their lower cost shopping. Not that I can find everything I need in our small town, but I firmly believe that if enough of us don’t support our local stores now, we’ll someday have a problem when we become elderly and can’t drive long distances. We’ll have a problem getting groceries and other products in the future if we drive our local stores out of business. That’s speaking about general shopping though, which is not quite the same as the PDF vs. paper pattern problems. I just hope that you and others can find a way to keep the businesses successful in spite of the ‘showroomers.’ Good luck!

    • GREAT comments Beth! Thanks so much for crafting such a thoughtful response! 🙂 I guess only time will tell!

  13. I’m afraid I’m a bit guilty of “showrooming”. However, there is ONLY 1 quilt shop, a Jo-anns (YUCK!) and a Hobby Lobby (DOUBLE YUCK) that have fabric.

    The quilt shop, albeit a big one, carries mostly OLD and I mean OLD fabric (found a bolt that has a date that was 15 years ago) . Lately they’ve been getting in some newer lines, but nothing like batiks, or anything bright. And that’s because the owner (who shows up about 5 hours a week & is a very spiteful person) hates that stuff and most of her staff love the reproduction, older looking stuff. I had made the mistake of asking why the fabric is old and out of date.

    Patterns there are old and non existent and same for the books. She will order a pattern but you have to wait weeks to months to maybe get it and then it’s got a mark-up of at least 200%. S-O-O I rarely go in any more. If I do – it’s for the main purpose of “showrooming”.

    The next closest shop is about 35 miles or so away and is very small with more part-time hours (I work full-time), and then I have to travel about 50 minutes to get to another 2.

    BTW – I do have a business tax ID, but mostly I’ll buy beads wholesale and go to the one “local” (1-1/2 hours away) bead wholesale show. (I don’t bother with fabric.)

    The reason I like a PDF file is because I’d rather not have to wait for the shop to send a pattern to me. Sometimes I can start on something right away. The cost is usually less (note usually) but at least I don’t have to pay shipping and most of the time no tax.

    I really ‘showroom’ books or other items more than fabric or quilt-related patterns.

    I will admit – Amazon is my best friend.

  14. This is despicable behavior, people are just not thinking about what they are doing to the store owner and their local economy. A friend and I once produced a Doll clothing pattern and later found out Doll studios were buying one pattern and then copying it to give out to classes, we never made any money for all our work. I’m so sorry this is happening.

  15. I am shocked that anyone would do this with any product. I do purchase some things online but would prefer to purchase what I can see and feel. I can see that this will probably be a bigger problem as time goes on and more people do purchase online. Also I like to take classes at my local fabric shop even if they are teaching something I could probably work on just fine at home. I like to see the fabrics that others are using for the same project and any extra embellishments they might add. But mostly I like the interaction with the teachers and other students. You don’t get that camaraderie sewing at home alone. lol.
    I recently purchased a purse pattern at a fabric shop and signed up for the class on that purse, but the date was changed and I couldn’t attend the class. I actually feel left out that I had to miss the class and haven’t even started on the purse yet. The shop owner did tell me I could find a good tutorial online if I needed it. Which I probably won’t, but there is also a demo on youtube. As a consumer, I do appreciate her telling me just where to find the tutorials so that if I were not adept enough to figure out the pattern, I would not be stuck with an expensive pattern and no help if I weren’t able to figure it out. After all this rambling I guess I’m just wondering if maybe there is a happy medium in there somewhere. I would be offended as a shop owner (if I were one) to be treated badly by the showroomers, but surely there must be some way to work together so that everyone is satisfied with their shopping choices.