Inc. is celebrating Small Business Week 2020 with a look at local merchants beloved by customers whose devotion goes beyond loyalty and well into passion.

Debbie Luttrell remembers the "defining moment." It was a late afternoon in 1996, and she was cashing out the day's receipts--a whopping $35--from the register in Stitchin' Heaven, her startup quilt supply store in Quitman, Texas. Outside the window, her parking lot stood empty. "I thought, 'What in the world have I done to make everyone so angry at me?'" Luttrell recalls.

Luttrell had angered no one. But in a town of 1,895 residents far from major cities, she was selling primo fabric at $7.99-a-yard. For good-enough versions, Walmart charged just $4.99. At Stitchin' Heaven's grand opening months earlier, "Everyone in town came out and welcomed us," says Luttrell. "I know now that people left my store saying, 'That lady is not going to make it.'"

Twenty-four years later, Stitchin' Heaven is a 60-employee company, with $5 million in annual sales and fans who travel thousands of miles to take classes and commune with fellow "piecing" enthusiasts. Recognizing a rare small-town economic engine, Quitman's development office gave Luttrell 12 acres, free of charge, on which she recently built 17,500-square-feet of retail, e-commerce, and office space. A retreat center with 10 guest cottages for visiting quilters is rising near a pond she installed across the parking lot. 

At a time when many brick-and-mortar stores are on the ropes, Luttrell--a late-blooming but steely and endlessly creative entrepreneur--is demonstrating just how vibrant retail can still be. For Main Street merchants, the Stitchin' Heaven story is a master class in the wooing, winning, and retention of customers.

If you build it, they won't come.

When Luttrell was 13, her mother taught her how to sew as a leg up in homemaking class. Through high school, the Texas native made most of her own clothes, until she realized it cost less to buy them. "Also, the stuff I made didn't always fit exactly right," she says. 

Luttrell went straight from high school into a corporate job at Southwestern Bell. Ten years later, she moved to the yellow pages publisher GTE Directories, where she helped lead the company's successful application for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. That experience instilled in her a lifelong obsession with systems and customer focus. 

But it was stressful work requiring lots of travel. Inspired by an aunt who started quilting at age 65, Luttrell, then 40, took up the craft. "I would work on my blocks on the plane," says Luttrell. 

In 1993, Luttrell asked her employers for the summer off to spend more time with her son, then in fifth grade. When they said no, she quit. She and her husband, a property-tax consultant, packed up their lives in a suburb of Dallas and relocated to a 200-acre ranch outside of rural Quitman. They planned to raise emus there. But that once hot industry was cooling. "The emus did not happen," says Luttrell.

Bored, Luttrell used a $70,000 bank loan to open Stitchin' Heaven in 1,000 square feet with 600 bolts of fabric. Few customers materialized. With her money running out, Luttrell decided to reinvent her sleepy small business as a destination. "This was not some build-it-and-they-will-come stuff," she says. "I had to stand out. I had to make people come to Quitman to see me."

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Becoming a destination.

Luttrell began traveling around Texas to quilt shows, where serious stitchers display their work and compete for prizes. She would rent a booth and sell supplies. Her objective: to collect postal addresses from potential customers. To them she mailed newsletters announcing classes at Stitchin' Heaven taught by quilting celebrities--chiefly book authors and pattern designers.

But Luttrell could only fit eight or 10 people at a time in her store's tiny classroom. And she needed the instructors to teach classes over several days to justify the few hundred dollars it cost to hire them. So she arranged to rent out a nearby campground when it wasn't in use and started hosting retreats. Avid quilters came to stay in cabins with family or friends, combining social stitching sessions with in-store education. Luttrell dubbed the program Camp Quilt S'more.

"We had mothers and daughters, and good friends who would quilt together during the year but wanted a different venue," says Luttrell. The cost was low: just $100 per person for three days. But the retreats and classes were never meant to make money. "I wanted them to come into the store and buy," says Luttrell. To ensure customers experienced the best possible service, she hired only full-time staff--a rarity in retail--and created procedure manuals for each position. 

Luttrell's strategy worked with Ana Earl, who started visiting the store in the late 1990s during family fishing vacations to nearby Lake Fork. Since retiring there, she has taken almost every course available. She bought a sewing machine from Luttrell after being intimidated by her classmates' "fancy-dancy" ones. "I love that they are so positive there," says Earl. "They believe if you walk through those doors, you can make something. They will take you by the hand and show you."  

The lure of smart promotions.

In 2000, Stitchin' Heaven was named one of the top 10 quilt shops in America by Quilt Sampler magazine. Quilters from around the country signed up for the newsletter, which now went by email. They joined the retreats and traveled to Quitman for an annual outdoor quilt show that Luttrell had launched in a local park. "It gave people an outlet to show the work they'd done and attracted them to the store," she says. "They became repeat customers."

As the internet boomed, Luttrell looked for opportunities to expand her reach beyond Quitman. She came up with Block of the Month, an early version of a subscription service that is still one of the company's most popular offerings. Each month, customers receive in the mail the pattern and pre-cut fabric for one block of a quilt. "At the end of 12 months, you have all the blocks and you are able to put them together," says Luttrell. At $29.99 per month, the program is significantly more costly than simply buying all the fabrics and patterns at once. But customers find the "bite-sized approach less overwhelming," says Luttrell. Today Stitchin' Heaven sends out roughly 8,000 block kits each month.

Meanwhile, a popular variation called the $5 Quilt Program lured people to the physical store. Stitchin' Heaven customers who turn up on the first Saturday of every month receive the fabric and instructions for the first block in a featured quilt for $5. If they return on that day a month later with the block finished, they get the next block for free, until the quilt is complete. Of course Luttrell leverages those crowds to trot out all the store's new products.  "You see all the new notions and fabrics and patterns and magazines," says Earl, who before Covid-19 had never missed a first Saturday. "Everything they demoed I had to have."

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At sea and on the road.

From the Baldrige experience, Luttrell learned to always listen to customers. And it was a customer who, in 2010, suggested she offer quilting cruises. Stitchin' Heaven Travel--an LLC run by Luttrell's son, Clay--partners with Royal Caribbean Group to offer 15 cruises a year to places like Mexico, Hawaii, and Alaska. The ships turn over their conference rooms to the quilters for classes led by high-profile instructors while at sea. They work with materials sold by Stitchin' Heaven which, for an extra charge, will pre-cut the fabric. Luttrell ships sewing machines from port to port.

Kathleen Bell has been on eight cruises since 2017. "It would be 10, but the damn virus canceled two," she says. Bell calls the cruises "over-the-top wonderful," with "outstanding instructors" and "stunning" projects. "You can tell Debby's cruises aren't about making money," she says. "They are about quilters and quilting."

Temporarily exiled from oceangoing by Covid-19, Luttrell recently launched Land Ahoy Quilting Cruises. Starting in February, quilters will gather at luxury hotels in cities like Orlando, Nashville, and Las Vegas for socially distanced activities similar to those on shipboard.

Despite the success of the cruises and programs like Block of the Month, Luttrell remains intent on getting people to Quitman and into her store. Toward that end, a few years back she started running bus trips from cities within a three-hour drive. Ten times a year, 56 quilters assemble at designated parking lots in places like Shreveport and Houston. For a nominal fee, they are transported to Stitchin' Heaven, where "we feed them lunch, give them wine, let them shop, have a show for them, give them wine, let them shop, play games, give them wine, and let them shop," says Luttrell.

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Quilting through quarantine.

Of course the bus trips, like the sea cruises, are on hold during the pandemic. But in other ways, Covid-19 has been kind to Stitchin' Heaven, whose sales this year--many through its web site--are up more than 60 percent. "People are sewing again," says Luttrell. "They have dusted off their old sewing machines or are buying new ones. They are buying fabric."

And the company has received national recognition--including a spotlight on The Kelly Clarkson Show--for spearheading a facemask drive among its community of quilters. The company's customers and social networks sewed more than 50,000, which Luttrell distributed to clinics, doctors' offices, and other businesses in her corner of East Texas. Although Stitchin' Heaven could have produced the masks itself, "We knew our customers would want to be the ones to make them," says Luttrell. "They are giving people."

Meanwhile, Luttrell is revving up for 2021. Starting in May, a new and improved version of Camp Quilt S'more will emerge as a year-round offering on Stitchin' Heaven's 12-acre property. Luttrell anticipates the 9,000-square-foot retreat center she is building will be ready by March, as will 10 cottages that each sleeps two to four quilters. Until things are completely back to normal, the new retreat center will host smaller groups, with social distancing enforced.

Joy Mardon expects to be among the retreat center's first guests. A customer since 2009, when she traveled to Quitman from her home in Calgary, Alberta, Canada just to take a class. Mardon loves Block of the Month, the cruises, and the "incredible customer service." From a distance of 3,000 miles, she has kept up with news about Stitchin' Heaven's new store. "I can't wait to see it," says Mardon. "As soon as they open the borders, we are there."