Wal-Mart to cut fabrics from sewing department

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 29, 2009

Plans by Wal-Mart SuperCenter to eliminate its fabric department have local stitchers hanging by a thread.

The loss will leave the city with two fabric speciality stores, but no place to buy the variety of materials needed for many general-purpose sewing projects such as drapes and curtains, throws, children’s play clothes and even such fancier items as wedding and prom dresses, said alterations and repair seamstress Judy Leggett.

“We need a place that’s handy to get to for fabrics,” said Leggett. “Wal-Mart has had things for the people who can’t afford or don’t do speciality sewing.”

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She cited fleece, satin, jacquards and home-decorating fabrics in addition to pillow forms, zippers and other sewing basics.

Wal-Mart spokesman Anna Taylor said the store will continue to stock sewing notions such as thread, needles and yarn, and will carry sewing machines, but bolts of fabric will be removed later this year. It remains unclear whether such items as zippers, patches and patterns will continue to be stocked.

“As part of the remodel at our Vicksburg location, which is scheduled for summer 2009, Wal-Mart is converting the fabrics and crafts department into a newly expanded assortment of merchandise that focuses on life’s celebrations,” Taylor wrote in an e-mail. “We will offer customers a new crafts and celebrations center … along with information on current trends in the area of life’s celebrations, such as holidays, weddings and birthdays.”

Nationwide, Wal-Mart has been closing fabric departments for several years, prompting protest from online sewing sites and message boards. One Web petition begging, “Wal-Mart: Save the full-service fabric department!” has nearly 42,000 e-signatures.

The protests have been to no avail.

“We are always interested in hearing customer feedback,” Taylor wrote. “That said, when decisions like this are made, it’s important to understand that a large number of factors are taken into consideration, including customer demand and sales. We do our best to offer the products and selections that our customers want and to meet the needs of our overall community.”

Fabric on the bolt is generally a very low-profit item, said one former Vicksburg shop owner who did not want to be named. Selling fabric became a service she provided to her customers, but not one that helped her pay the rent.

“There’s no money in fabric,” said the woman, who owned a sewing shop for 23 years and managed the fabric department at a variety store for 14 years before that. “People want Wal-Mart to keep it, but that’s not their problem. They need to make money.”

Taylor said Wal-Mart does not provide sales figures by department or geographic area, but the company reported February sales for its U.S. stores up 8.1 percent over the same month last year, and an increase of 6 percent for the fourth quarter of 2008. Earlier this month, Wal-Mart’s board of directors announced a 15 percent increase in dividends payable to stockholders, from 95 cents to $1.09 per share.

“The strength of our operations and the resulting strong financial position allow us to increase our dividend payout to shareholders again this year,” said Mike Duke, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. president and chief executive officer, in a statement released on the company’s Web site. “Our free cash flow remains strong enough to fund Wal-Mart’s growth around the world, make strategic acquisitions and fund returns to shareholders through dividends and share repurchases.”

“They have had an increase because they carry what sells,” said the former shop owner. For the most part, she added, it’s just cheaper to buy clothing and drapes than to make them.

For those who still want or need to sew from scratch, closing the fabric department at the Vicksburg Wal-Mart will force customers to travel to Hancock Fabric, Leggett said, which operates stores in Pearl, Ridgeland and Monroe.

“We’ve been hearing it for years,” Sandra Reed, owner of The Scarlet Thread on South Frontage Road, said about the Vicksburg Wal-Mart’s fabric department. “Other stores across the country have already closed theirs.”

Reed is in the process of selling her shop, she said, but the new owner will continue to offer fine fabrics, most of them imported, as well as some notions, embroidery floss, ribbon, lace, trims and a limited selection of children’s patterns.

Stitch-N-Frame, also on South Frontage Road, carries an extensive assortment of quilting fabrics and supplies, said an employee there.

That Wal-Mart is one retailer making a profit in a slow economy has not been lost on such Web sites as Slate.com, moneycentral at msn.com and Ask.com.

In 2003, National Public Radio produced a four-part series called “Wal-Mart’s Social and Economic Impact,” devoting one segment to “Main Street USA, Surviving the Wal-Mart Challenge.” Theatlantic.com wrote about the economic destruction of a West Virginia town when Wal-Mart entered the picture.

One online magazine site, FastCompany.com, supports the complaint and even supplements it with claims the mega-retailer — not simply the world’s largest retailer but the world’s largest business — throws the profit margins of its suppliers out of whack and sometimes puts them out of business, too, reducing prices drastically and purchasing from overseas markets.

Locally, Marie Grant, who owned and operated The Fabric Place on South Frontage Road for about eight years, and the other former shop owner said they closed their stores because it was simply time to retire.

“The fabrics I carried, you didn’t get at Wal-Mart,” Grant said.

But in an ironic twist, it could be the phasing out of goods rather than the selling of them that ends up hurting Leggett and other Vicksburg seamstresses if they are unable drive 50 miles to get the material and supplies they need.

“I will have to quit,” Leggett said.


Contact Pamela Hitchins at phitchins@vicksburgpost.com.