Of all the sewing hobbyists and professionals in Fresno, Veronica Hitter may top each of them.
She’s third generation in the sewing machine business, while her husband, Ralph, is a second-generation in the vacuum industry. Originally from Florida, Hitter actually met Ralph at a sewing convention and their store — Authorized Vac and Sew — is an amalgamation of the two. There will always be competition, especially, online, but according to Hitter, they have an asset in their expertise to not only sell, but also to teach and build a community.
Over the last ten years, the Hitters have been hosting classes on sewing, quilting and embroidery, while also holding events related to the craft. According to Veronica, it’s been not only a good generator of revenue, but also a vital part of their identity as a business.
“That’s what really differentiates us is that we’re not just selling a product — we’re selling a service behind the product,” Hitter said. “If someone buys a sewing machine, we teach them how to use it. We have ongoing classes for them to come in and be supported with it.”
Actually, the Hitters and others argue that such services and forms of outreach are necessary to stay in business as the competition from online retailers continues to increase. And in competition the timesaving and convenience of shopping from home, brick and mortar establishments everywhere are more and more relying on customer service and personal touch to beat back the rising tide.
As a response, stores in the Central Valley and across the country are relying more and more on the expertise of their staff and the knowledge they have on the ins and outs of any particular hobby or activity. Horn Photo in the Villaggio Shopping Center in Fresno, for instance, has multiple courses on different camera techniques and advice on the cameras they have in store. According to the company’s website, they have eight courses and events between mid-January and late March. These range from lessons on how to use 35mm film cameras to a boxing match for aspiring photographers to shoot.
Relying on education has also been advantageous for Kiki’s Quilt Shack on Palm and Bullard avenues, with them moving into a former Walgreen’s in August. In September, Mannie Massengale co-owner of Kiki’s quilt shack, told The Business Journal that rather than merchandise, it was educating quilters that was considered their primary product.
In the case of sewing, quilting and embroidery, the lessons not only give valuable advice and help with measuring the clothes they’ll make for themselves, but will also be a place for many to socialize and meet new people with shared passions.
“The collaboration is what people like, seeing what one customer is doing with their machine versus the other. They bring in their projects that they’ve been working on and they can get ideas off each other of how they did it,” Hitter said.
Hitter says events and lessons like these here and elsewhere have helped sewing make a comeback as a popular outing for men and women of all ages.
Online courses in hobbies do exist. However, Patrick Balakian, owner Patrick’s Music Etc. in Fresno, argued that the quality of these lessons will be nowhere near as good as the one given in person. He says the musician can certainly learn to play in front of a computer screen, but learning to play correctly is an entirely different matter.
And while his store offers everything from kazoos to bagpipes, he said that his best customers are often the online purchasers who come into his store for adjustments and music lessons.
“Now what happens is when you’re teaching yourself and nobody’s watching you, chances are you’re going to develop bad habits, because the Internet can’t tell you if you’re doing it wrong,” Balakian said. “And guess what? They’re paying the teacher to unteach you, so they can teach you right.”
These lessons, he added, are likely to result in the customer buying their future instruments at his store, thus generating more revenue. It’s not just the beginner’s instruments that can be sold, he said, but also more well-built and expert-oriented instruments that get purchased with the growth of the musician.
Back at Authorized Vac and Sew, this seems to be the sentiment for customer and student Deni Wilcox. A retired teacher, Wilcox says the enjoyment she gets in embroidery classes only makes her want to do more and continue to upgrade her equipment.
“They’re very accommodating, very helpful. You can come in any time you want, someone will help you,” she said. “And then I end up buying another embroidery machine that was a little fancier.”