Sewing Tips

“Shopping in the Time of Pandemic”

(Have you read “Love in the Time of Cholera”? So good…)

The Covid-19 lockdown situation means, for most people, that online shopping has become the new normal. Even if you could visit a brick-and-mortar store (which depends quite a bit on where you live) some departments may be closed off:

….or the inventory may be depleted:

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So shoppers have been forced to go online, and there’s lots of social media chatter about:

  • where to buy things, especially items in high demand
  • where NOT to buy things, because of extended delivery times
  • scams: situations where an item never arrived

Within the sewing community, and more specifically among mask-making volunteers, it’s heartfelt to see the communication, cooperation, and sharing. A year ago, crafters were more reluctant to share their “secret sources”, and understandably so: it can take a lot of effort to find just the right ingredients for your makes, and copiers can affect your business. But charity-sewing is different, and Covid-19 is literally a life-and-death matter, hence the explosion of free patterns, tutorials, videos, fabric-swapping, elastic-sending…..and sharing ssources for elastic, fabric, interfacing, nose-bridge-wires, etc.

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One thing that I worry about is that many makers-who-are-buyers are getting hurt by “desperation shopping”. Count me as one of them! I’ve bought a LOT of stuff for mask-making online in the past couple of months, and while the majority of my many purchases have been high quality….not all were. It’s easy to become an unwitting victim when there’s something you need in a hurry….and the computer algorithms make it far too easy for scammers to take your money.

Shopping has always been a matter of “caveat emptor” (“buyer beware”), since the ancient Roman era, but it’s even more important today because of the digital marketplace. When you’re not buying face-to-face, it’s critical to do your due diligence before pressing “add to cart”. How can you do that? , Maybe you can learn something from my mistakes (and from others I’ve read in social media):

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#1. Understand who the seller is. Know the difference between buying “FROM” and buying “THROUGH”.

  • “From” = the seller who owns the merchandise
  • “Through” = the website who is processing your order

These could be the same entity, for example if you place an order on Joann.com, you are buying “from” the retailer, “through” their own online platform. Joann’s is a traditional retailer who buys the merchandise at wholesale prices*, warehouses it, sells it at retail prices, and then processes your order and either ships it to you or arranges pick-up. If you don’t receive your order, you can take it up with Joann’s. If the quality is not what you expected, you can bring the item back to a Joann’s retail store. In any case, you are buying “FROM” Joann’s.

(*Except for items sold on a consignment type basis, such as magazines and sewing machines: these you purchase “from” the manufacturer and “through” Joann’s….which is why you can never use coupons on them.)

Some other true retailers that I’ve been shopping “from” during the pandemic are:

Wawak….yes I panicked and bought a lifetime supply of white thread.

These retailers own their merchandise, warehouse it, sell and ship directly to you. If receiving is delayed, it’s either because:

  • the shipper is overloaded
  • current distancing rules affecting warehouse personnel
  • the seller is prioritizing essential items…you might see an online message like this:
https://www.fabric.com/

An honest retailer won’t sell what they do not have, or are reasonably sure is on the way in a predictable time-frame. They won’t take orders on stock that is expected to arrive “eventually” from an overseas manufacturer. They don’t take orders for what they don’t have (or can’t pack up and ship out quickly):

https://www.fabric.com/

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What about Amazon.com? Amazon is a mix of corporate-owned product, and outside sellers. In 2016 their proportion crossed the line to over 50% third-party sellers. Even if the listing says “Ships from and sold by Amazon.com”, that does not mean it is sold FROM Amazon. It just means that Amazon is the platform for somebody else’s product. Let’s say that you want to buy an embroidery machine, you go to the Brother site and choose the PE800. The next screen tells you where you can buy it online:

If you click “buy now” it takes you directly to Amazon:

The listing says it’s made by Brother, but it “Ships from and is sold BY Amazon“. That’s very different from “Ships from and is sold FROM Amazon“. It’s sold “BY” Amazon…in agreement with Brother. This way, Brother does not need to set up their own selling website, but they can take advantage of buyers who want to purchase online.

Sometimes it’s really hard to see who you are buying “from” on the Amazon platform. For example, I purchased a bolt of interfacing “by Pellon“…..so I assumed that I was buying “from” Pellon, “through” Amazon:

But when the delivery was delayed I checked a bit further and it seems it’s coming “from” a distributor called El Salada, and their reviews aren’t the best:

My order is scheduled for May delivery. I should have looked a little deeper before purchasing…..but like many mask makers I was desperate!

5/18 UPDATE: I checked delivery status and got this message “You may want to cancel, we do not know when this item will be back in stock.”

PS: If an item is marked “Fulfillment by Amazon” that means the item is currently sitting in an Amazon warehouse, and will be picked and shipped BY Amazon…not necessarily FROM Amazon:

Here’s a quick visual explanation of how Amazon works:

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Walmart.com: I always thought of Walmart as a traditional retailer, purchasing all of their product, owning it in warehouses, and distributing to stores or selling direct-to-buyer online. But it turns out that Walmart also has thousands of independent sellers and distributors who sell through the Walmart online shop. Need elastic? It’s long ago sold out at Walmart brick-and-mortar stores. Try Walmart online, there are dozens and dozens of choices you’d never see in a Walmart store:

https://www.walmart.com/search/?query=elastic

Have you ever heard of these sellers? Me neither. Notice the extremely low number of reviews? These are all new-to-Walmart sellers (if you hadn’t noticed, lately there is an overload of elastic distributors flooding the market). Before taking a chance on buying an item “Sold and shipped by” a seller you’ve never heard of, take a look at their reviews. Under 10 reviews and under 5 stars should make you stop and reconsider. The good news is that most of these listings say that you can return an item bought through the online platform to a Walmart store…but your time is valuable and it’s irritating to wait for something when you could have ordered from a more reliable seller.

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EBay.com and Etsy.com do not own any product. They have no warehouses. Shopping there means buying 100% from independent sellers. I hear people all the time say they bought something “from Ebay” or “from Etsy”, when actually they bought it THROUGH Ebay or Etsy. They bought it FROM an independent seller. To be fair, Etsy makes this somewhat confusing by “suggesting” items from other shops….on the same page as the item you are looking at from the first shop.

Right now there are over 6,000 listings on Etsy for “white elastic “, some from sellers who’ve been suppliers to the baby-headband makers for years, others who set up shop today:

https://www.etsy.com/search?q=white+1%2F4%22+elastic

Any individual shop/seller could be someone who has a longstanding business with thousands of sales and great reviews…or could be a shop that literally popped-up today, may not even own any product, could have stolen photos and made fake listings, and might even accept a whole bunch of orders and disappear.

As an Etsy seller myself, this is beyond frustrating. It hurts the reputation of the entire site when unscrupulous sellers do this. When I hear someone say they “Bought (something) from Etsy and never got it”, I tell them to please report that shop (it only takes 2 clicks!). Conversely when someone says they “Bought (whatever) from Etsy and it came in a couple of days“, I urge them to please identify the awesome shop by name! Here are some Etsy shops who have been super reliable and ship fast:

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Since it seems the new normal will involve purchasing “from” distributors or makers, “through” aggregator website selling platforms, what can you do to protect your budget, your wallet, your plans?

#2 When shopping from an independent seller you are not familiar with, check their reviews. Of course every seller has to start from zero, and getting that first sale (and hopefully good review) is not easy….however if you are shopping for something you NEED, it’s important to be assured that it will be as-described, and shipped as-stated.

I’ve seen reviews of elastic that says the product received was:

  • stained, dirty
  • old (lost it’s recovery)
  • smelly
  • off color (one “white” roll I ordered came in grey/lilac)
  • sold as knitted, came in braided (knitted is softer )

Elastic has a “shelf” life of only a few years, depending on storage conditions, heat/cold, and humidity level (which is why much of the PPE stock had expired: the elastic was shot and had to be replaced). You can always ask before purchasing, if the elastic is new. Sadly, it seems that the pandemic has created an opportunity for some unscrupulous sellers to unload old goods.

Carefully study the photographs. Have you seen the same picture in multiple shops? Could it be a stock photo? If so, it’s possible the seller does not actually own the merchandise..or maybe it’s “on the way”. Even on Etsy, which is supposed to be a site for makers, curators, and crafting-supply shops….there are plenty of fake sellers. It’s just so easy to set up a shop.

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#3 Check delivery dates. Pre-pandemic, we had become accustomed to receiving online purchases (especially with Amazon Prime membership) in 2 -days. Not anymore. Even Amazon-owned products, stocked in Amazon warehouses, are being delayed by days or weeks due to being “non-essential”.

These days independent sellers on Aliexpress, Amazon, or Walmart may have a whole different set of delivery dates. If you see this on a listing:

…then it better be something you don’t need in any kind of hurry, because that ETA is just a guess. Chances are that the item needs to be shipped from overseas, then wait to go through customs clearance, and it may or may not arrive within the guidelines….if ever. Lately I’ve heard on social media of so many scammers taking people money and disappearing. (Personally I have an order for “Made in USA” labels that have disappeared en route…twice.)

Another issue is that if the product from an indie seller is not as advertised, what can you do about it? The online retail site that you are buying THROUGH will likely ask you to converse directly with the seller you are buying FROM. Often you’ll be given the option of mailing the product back overseas at your own expense, which can be cost-prohibitive if it’s going to China from the U.S. simply because American taxpayers subsidize shipping from China to the US, but not the other way around. (As I’ve said many times before on this blog and on Instagram, I love China. I love travelling there, working there..the people are great, but the government does not require businesses to follow the same rules of commerce as other countries.)

#4. Read the listing copy carefully. Buyers are complaining lately of receiving a yard of elastic when they thought they were buying a spool, or getting a dozen nose-wires when they thought they were a gross (a dozen-dozen, or 144) based on the photo. Read everything twice and think carefully about shopping after midnight, or when you are burnt out from mask-making, or desperate (same advice as “Don’t grocery shop on an empty stomach.”)

Also watch out for missing information. If you saw this photo of a roll of elastic, would you assume it would be shipped on the roll?

Chances are that it wouldn’t because elastic is generally rolled at 72 yards, 144 yards, or 288 yards. Ordering 100 yards usually means that it will be shipped in “hanks”:

When ordering fabric, consider lack of information about “continuous yardage”. Some retailers will regularly ship broken lots that add up to the yards ordered. This might not make much of a difference when sewing small items like masks (or for piecing quilts) but it can be hugely important for larger projects…especially if the cuts are from different dye lots.

In addition, if you purchase fabric from the home of an Ebay or Etsy seller, unless it says “smoke free” or “pet free”….it might have an odor. Feel free to ask!

#5. If this is important you, pay attention the where the item is shipping from. Some things that typically are imported (because we no longer have that industry) can have a shipping address is within the U.S. due to drop-shipping (ordering a wholesale amount of product, then warehousing it). There’s nothing wrong with drop shipping in itself, however if you are interested in supporting local industry, it’s easy to be misled that the product itself is made in USA. You can always ask where the production is located. A listing that says “USA Shipping!”…is probably not “USA Made”.

#5. When in doubt be sure to use a payment form that will back you up. Paypal in particular offers protection that the item sold is accurate to the description, and will help you out in case of fraud or scammers. American Express is known worldwide for supporting buyers in case of fraud.

If you notice shipping being severely delayed, consider cancelling your order and buying elsewhere, if it’s something you really need. This is where your payment method can make a difference in getting you a refund.

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Good luck shopping online! Try to avoid the mistakes that I made. May we all be allowed back into fabric shops soon.

Janet

3 Comments

  • Eleanor Sue Crable

    Excellent article. I knew some of this information, however, when you condensed all of it and put it into context with the way most of us are now dealing with our purchases, it is nice to have a knowledgeable reminder. Thank you for taking the time to do so. Stay well.

  • JustGail

    Thanks for the info on shopping Amazon, Etsy, etc. Reminders are always good, especially for those, like me, who have not (yet) gotten into much on-line ordering. And it points out why I don’t like to order much on-line – such careful reading of descriptions is needed. Showing bolts and rolls in photos, when the listing header, and fine print in description don’t all match, etc. Then add issues of never getting what you ordered or it being delayed by weeks.

    I had no idea about rolls of elastic in multiples of 72 yards, anything else is not a roll. I probably should go through my elastics drawer and give each a good tug. I did check the 1/4″ elastic I found before using it, and some was no longer elastic. I know some is way past several years old.

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