Women of the Cloth
Sibling rivalry is a common theme in many families, but sisters Deb Mergen and Diane Bunkers get along just fine. Together, they own Always Your Design, a quilt shop in downtown Dell Rapids.
Like most businesses, the pandemic threw them for a loop, but thankfully the impacts were minor. In fact, all that fabric lining their shelves turned into an unexpected opportunity for the businesswomen to help protect people from the virus.
Something Fun and Different
Always Your Design isn’t the first venture for Deb and Diane. They’ve worked together since 1981, when they sold jewelry for F & H Repair Service in Sioux Falls. Other pursuits followed, but by the year 2000, they were ready to strike out on their own.
“We decided, you know, why don’t we build our own business versus working for somebody else?” Deb recalls. “So, on the way home, between Renner and Dell Rapids, we decided to open a quilt shop.”
There was just one minor detail: a lack of experience. Other than a quilting class they had taken together at a shop in Trent, their knowledge was limited.
“We knew nothing about quilting,” Diane says. “We thought it would be fun; something different. We didn’t know if it was going to work or not.”
They agreed that it was worth a try and told themselves they wouldn’t feel badly if things didn’t work out. Two decades later, it’s clear those fears were unfounded. They started out with 200 bolts of fabric when they opened and are up to 6,000 bolts today. Growth has been so phenomenal, they are now in their third location — and they even own the building.
“We weren’t going to buy a building five or six years ago,” Deb says. “Then an opportunity opened up and we realized we have to look at this as our retirement investment. When you’re self-employed, you don’t tend to put things away like you should.”
The sisters say good customer service is the secret to their success. Listening to customers and treating them like family has made a world of difference. That, and a little luck. In 2018, Always Your Design was named one of the Top 10 Quilt Shops in the U.S. by Better Homes and Gardens magazine. The publicity turned them into a destination for serious quilters around the country. The sisters were riding high.
Then COVID hit.
Pandemic Presents Challenges and Opportunities
When the pandemic reared its ugly head in the spring of 2020, Deb and Diane faced many of the same challenges as other retailers. Supply shortages hit them especially hard.
“We couldn’t keep fabric in the store,” Deb says. “It was going out the door as fast as we could get it.”
Two factors were responsible for the strong demand. The need for face masks created a run on fabric; Sanford Health in Sioux Falls made over 30,000 masks for employees, families, and others, sourcing most of the material from Always Your Design. At the same time, a lot of people were stuck inside and looking for things to do.
“They were finishing up their projects,” Diane explains. “And this is like a hobby, so when people are stressed out, they can’t go out to the movies and they can’t go out to eat, they finish up their quilts.”
As tough as it was to source fabric, the steady stream of orders turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Business actually improved, so much so that Deb and Diane were able to move forward with a long-awaited dream project: a remodel of the upstairs. They are taking out the ceiling to open up a mezzanine with an ornate railing that has been hidden for decades. The area will be used for gifts, décor, and quilting classes.
“Thankfully, COVID didn’t hurt us,” Diane says. “We’re very fortunate.”
Golden West Checks In
Always Your Design and Golden West have been intricately linked from the start.
“Golden West has been here with us forever,” Deb says. “They’re our internet and our phones. With online shopping, they called to ask how our line was doing and whether they could improve anything. They always check in with us. Golden West is great. We would never even consider anyone else.”
Though supply issues are still prevalent, business has yet to slow down. Shoppers turned out in droves this spring once things began to inch closer to normal. Deb and Diane are enjoying their hard-earned success as one of the biggest independent quilt shops in the state and looking forward to whatever the future might bring.
“Every steppingstone we took made us better businesswomen,” Diane says proudly. “We just took baby steps until we got here.”