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Buying trip gives 1970s flashbacks

A customer tip-off flares Victoria Suffield's sense of nostalgia for the cash-and-carry approach

I have a somewhat mixed attitude to cash and carry. On the one hand I feel very nostalgic for the 1970s (or is it just for John Simm and Life on Mars?) and strange childhood afternoons spent in Acton or Hounslow in west London. I used to sit in a dark office eating Indian sweetmeats while my mother was in the warehouse sifting through vast boxes of printed cotton sun dresses and tiered skirts. I remember then helping to load the car for the drive back to Dorset, during which I would sit wedged between piles of cellophaned clothes that would solve The Hambledon Gallery's looming stock crisis.

On the other hand, the grown-up version of me is looking around at the brands in my shop 30 years later and feeling relieved that the forward order process takes place in the comfort of a glossy showroom, with pristine sample rails, line sheets, a digital camera and time to consider the choices made. But my business has had a successful season so far, and it is not just the sweetmeats that are making me nostalgic for an afternoon in Acton.

The recollection of mum's quick trips up to London have made me reassess the solution to our very own looming stock crisis. We have been able to do a few in-season top-ups from our existing suppliers and we have made sure that resort and high summer collections play an increasingly important role in keeping the shop looking fresh.

But it was a chance encounter with a customer at the end of last week that really reinvigorated our in-season buying. She recommended a new label, and after a few persuasive emails and a couple of phone calls we convinced the UK agent and distributor that we were the store for the brand. We were fully prepared to make an appointment in July to look at spring 2008 product for delivery sometime after February. But hurray and hurrah, they sell in season, had a lead time of just 10 days, had some product in stock in the UK that we could take away with us and they could meet us whenever we were free. Does that ever happen any more?

So up to Kensal Rise in north-west London I went for a highly productive day. After a morning there writing both a fairly hefty order for almost immediate delivery and a small but perfectly formed order for immediate delivery via our car, we drove back to Winchester and spent the afternoon merchandising and, much more gratifyingly, selling the new range.

I have to thank the sales staff at the agency who rummaged through the boxes for me and gave the cash and carry buying process all the sheen of a regular forward order appointment. I also have to thank the customer who sent me down this path in the first place.

I feel like I created my own little time warp on this visit to west London. Sadly, we had to ditch the Ford Cortina, the rasagulla, the jalebi and the cheesecloth shirts, and the postcode was a little more upmarket than Acton and Hounslow. But what matters is that we have come home with some great product, which should make a lasting impression in the shop.

- Victoria Suffield is the owner of lifestyle retailer The Hambledon in Winchester, Hampshire.

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