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Suffering a catalogue of injustices

Brands that undercut retailers' prices with direct sales are not playing fair, says Sarah Murray

You know how it is in retail - you don't know from one day to the next what little gem this life is going to throw at you. The other day I had only just opened the store for the day when a regular customer popped in to see me and chew the fat.

Over a cup of coffee she rummaged in her handbag and handed me a glossy catalogue-style brochure. "I thought you would be interested in seeing this," she said darkly.

I took a look and immediately felt like I had received a slap in the face. What I was looking at was a glossy mail-order catalogue produced by one of my branded suppliers. It had been posted to one of my best customers and offered her, by mail order, all the items I had already sold her earlier in the season. To say I was furious would be the understatement of the year.

This is a brand that I have been selling for at least six seasons now, since the day when the designer walked into my store and showed me a bag of samples. I showed faith in the brand early on, and as a result thought I had a good personal relationship with it, as well as an honest business one.

When I took the catalogue aside later and thoroughly dissected its offer, things got worse. It was selling all the pieces I'd had in store from the start of the season at a lower mark-up than the prices in my store. I was horrified. A customer looking at this could only think that I was ripping them off. The difference amounted to a fiver or so per item, so the damage was done.

The more I've thought about this, the angrier I've become. This incident happened at the end of May this year, and I had placed my forward order with this particular brand in August 2006. The stock had been delivered to my store in February 2007. Why, I asked myself, at no point had the supplier thought to mention the fact that it was planning to sell directly nationwide via mail order?

Surely this brand's business venture was planned months in advance; almost certainly it was in the pipeline before I placed my order. Had I been told when I was placing my order back in August, I could have weighed up the pros and cons of this new route for the brand and adjusted my order accordingly. Crucially, I could have asked what mark-up it was going to work to and I would then have stuck to that myself.

This isn't the first time I have been dealt a below-the-belt blow from one of my suppliers. Not that long ago there was the shock of seeing a Danish brand I had stocked for a while suddenly opening a concession in the department store around the corner.

As branded retailers, we take all the risk. We order in advance and pay for the goods before we have sold them all. Then our profits get eaten away by those annoying pieces we can't shift.

We sign and agree to all our stockists' terms and conditions, and this is how they thank us.

- Sarah Murray is the owner of designer womenswear retailer Jane Davidson in Edinburgh.

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