Finding the right buying strategy to create a distinctive offer that draws customers back in is the lifeblood of every indie.
Getting the right buying strategy is one of the major challenges faced by independent fashion retailers. How to find the right brand mix, how much of your stock should be forward order and how much in season, and whether your target brands will work with a startup are just some of the pressing issues.
Thorough research of the target customer is a great place to start, advises Rinku Loomba, chief executive of mainstream womenswear brand Viz-a-Viz. Finding a point of difference is key, as it gives consumers a reason to shop with you and not a competitor. “Can the customer get what they need from the competition? How will you stand out? Is it by product, price, service, exclusivity or something else?”
The choice between forward and short order is another issue. While forward order allows the retailer to plan ahead with their collections, committing months in advance means you could miss an emerging trend. Short order allows buying to be more reactive, but product is subject to availability and could be slightly lower quality, warns Loomba.
When brothers Andy and Duncan McKenzie opened Sunderland premium menswear independent Aphrodite in 1994, all their stock was forward order. Twenty years on, the split is 80% forward order, 20% in season. “The advantage of forward order is that you know the stock will be delivered, while the advantage of short order is that you’re not tying your money up in advance,” says Duncan.
The brothers used different tactics to find their brands. “We saw French brand Blanc Bleu in an advert in FHM with a wholesale contact number. I also approached different retailers from outside the Northeast region to gain an insight as to what brands were performing well and get contact details,” he recalls.
Aphrodite opened with 15 to 20 styles from each of its five brands - Ted Baker, John Smedley, John Tate, Armand Basi and Blanc Bleu. In the first year all stock was paid for upfront or pro forma, but two decades later the brothers find obtaining credit much easier, with most suppliers offering payment plans or discounts for early payment.
“The discount varies between 1% and 6% on payment within seven days. Thirty days is standard with most brands, although a few offer 60 days, but we take the discount where possible,” says Mackenzie.
Aphrodite has now grown to more than 40 brands, covering trainers, streetwear, luxury sportswear and contemporary fashion, including Adidas, New Balance, Nudie and Carhartt. For spring 15 Danish label Norse Projects has been added to the mix.
Defining your customer early is essential from a brand mix and pricing perspective, says Juls Dawson, managing director of agency Just Consultancies. “Too often I’ve watched great new retail concepts pulling down the shutters through overbuying. Essentially, underbuy as you can always find stock if you need it. Check out the competition in your town and if other retailers have closed, learn from their mistakes.”
Just Consultancies works with more than 400 UK independents, representing brands such as streetwear brands Foray and Nicce London, heritage-inspired Bellfield and denim label Wåven. The majority of the brands carry stock for in-season replenishment. The team runs forward order and stock from its permanent showrooms in Manchester and London, as well as hosting pop-up showrooms in Dublin, Belfast, Glasgow, Bristol, Cardiff and Newquay.
In addition to heading to trade shows and showrooms, Dawson advises indies to get in contact with agents, who are often on the road looking for new businesses.
A brand making an impression with independents is Without Prejudice, launched in 2006 and now with 60 accounts nationwide, including Norton Barrie in Bolton and Black’s in Stafford. Split between 80% forward order and 20% in season, the men’s tailoring label experimented with phased deliveries in autumn 14, but decided one drop per season was best as customers preferred receiving garments as early as possible and having longer to sell them.
“Without Prejudice works best bought in a merchandised capsule,” says head of retail and wholesale sales Alex Foley. “We carry a little free to sell stock in season, but we’re always trying to reduce our risk, like the independents. It’s a delicate balance that means understanding our customers very well.”
Retailers need to think about how their brand mix fits together, says Foley, who believes Without Prejudice, which launched in 2006, sits best alongside household names such as Paul Smith and Hugo Boss, as it boosts customer confidence in the brand. “However, sometimes these big brands can be very selective with indies so it’s a little bit ‘chicken and egg’ for retailers,” says Foley.
French premium womenswear brand Crea Concept offers payment plans to its 150 UK stockists to ease the pressure of large one-off payments. “The weekly payments are spread over a three-month period,” explains UK sales agent Paulette Cohen.
When Lucy Hinds opened Shrewsbury women’s shoe shop Ella Cru in September 2010, all purchases were made pro forma. “It was frustrating not having lots of money to pay for everything at the same time and having to wait,” Hinds recalls. “Now it’s much easier as we have built up funds and have longer to pay, being an established store.”
When making contact with brands she advises showing clear pictures of the store and having a list of other labels they will be stocked alongside.
Hinds launched with six to eight styles from seven footwear brands, including Lama Peach, Pretty Ballerinas and Esska. She opted for brands she loved or ones that caught her eye at trade shows Pure London and Scoop. “All were forward order, as quality shoe brands effectively make to your specification,” she says.
Just over a year ago, Hinds added clothing, including Swedish brand Odd Molly and Spanish label Vilagallo. Most product is still forward order, but she buys a small amount of short-order clothing to top up, avoiding brands readily available online.
As her understanding of her customer has improved, so has her confidence as a buyer. “You have to be brave and not be a slave to a brand that’s not working for you, however much you love it,” she advises.
Brand evolution is very important to mother-and-daughter team Pat Lewis and Claire Strong, owners of The Copper Tree in Usk, Monmouthshire. Opened in 2005, the boutique offers women’s occasionwear, smart casual clothing and resortwear from brands including Gina Bacconi, John Charles and Ronen Chen. The duo source new brands at trade show Moda or by visiting showrooms.
Not every new brand works out. Four years ago, the pair dropped Spanish occasionwear label Pifer & Mayka after one season as the small fit didn’t suit their customer. “We are very quick to decide if a brand isn’t right as fit is extremely important to our customers,” says Lewis.
After two years, The Copper Tree was approached by mainstream womenswear label Joseph Ribkoff to stock an initial offering of 30 pieces for spring 2007, which outsold all other styles. Drapers Independents Awards 2014 Womenswear Brand of the Year, Joseph Ribkoff is stocked by 300 independents in the UK and Ireland. It offers a mixture of forward and short order, shipping merchandise throughout the year.
The Copper Tree’s new ranges for spring 15 include occasionwear labels Cabotine and Paola Collection, as well as DECK by Decollage, the store’s first truly short-order brand.
The store is also in its third season as a Viz-a-Viz PartnerShop. Launched for spring 14, the PartnerShop programme provides independents with 10 monthly womenswear collections of new colour co-ordinated stock, which the retailer does not pay for until an item is sold. They only need to provide an allocated space for the Viz-a-Viz shopfit, which at The Copper Tree accounts for a third of the shop floor.
“Being a PartnerShop has worked very well for us; the customer response has been great,” says Lewis. “Introducing Viz-a-Viz has brought in a different age group, a 60-plus demographic, who love even the younger-looking, quirky pieces, which sold out last season.”
Viz-a-Viz welcomes startups and established players alike. “We have a duty to support new retailers if we want the market to remain healthy,” says Loomba.
“We understand that items sell differently around the country, so we offer a stock swap operation and can replenish bestselling stock. We also offer exclusivity by town. All these reasons make this concept flexible for retailers,” he adds.
The choice is out there, whether this is a mix of forward order, short order or a third way like the PartnerShop scheme. While it might be a challenge to get brands to support a new business there are labels out there willing to give them a go. And successful independent retailers can testify that, as knowledge of the customer grows and the business itself matures, buying confidence can only increase.