In the weeks leading up to the release of the spring 08 collections, most of our suppliers have hosted presentations of their ranges. These get-togethers have varied from hours of statistics, in German, on an overhead projector with a ham roll and a coffee, to endless vino-fuelled lunches and a fashion show on an Italian beach on a balmy evening.
Whatever the venue, the objective is to enthuse the attending agents and sales teams into a frenzy of activity on their return to their territories. Nevertheless, each gathering of sales people encourages us to dwell on our collective problems: the biggest one being the decline in numbers of independent retailers.
Also around this time of year, we hear the first complaints from independents about the timing of the Sales. Many complain that with little or no regulation of the timing and duration of Sales, they are forced into earlier and earlier discounting to match the multiple and department store retailers. Along with other agents, we are expected to "do something about it". Quite what the "something" is, we decided to find out.
In July we took a straw poll among our customers about the timing and duration of their summer Sales. This revealed some surprising answers and solutions.
The most novel suggestion was that second programme deliveries (arriving in-store during February and March) should have a much higher recommended retail margin to compensate for the shorter time in which to sell the product and to finance markdowns, while retaining a reasonable margin during the Sale. I think we'll leave this one to the multiples and furniture retailers!
The most common request for change was to shift the entire delivery and sales pattern of the industry. Leading brands are now delivering spring merchandise from late October or early November, and for some retailers, cash flow pressure in a slow season means Sales are brought forward to generate revenue. These retailers saw the solution as having deliveries more in tune with the natural seasons - spring deliveries starting in February, summer Sales in late July or August, winter deliveries from September and winter Sales in January.
This change would force consumers to buy more product at full price, extend the winter selling season, roll-back the "Sale mentality" of the consumer, push back buying dates to September and March and allow those of us with kids at school to take a summer holiday. It seemed to be the complete answer.
Then a strange thing happened which changed my thinking; independent retailers acting independently. Far from the collective action envisaged above, the more retailers I spoke to, the more I found the successful independent ploughing their own furrow, irrespective of the rest of the high street.
One experienced buyer said that unless there was a compelling reason (merchandise too good to miss) she had simply stopped buying first programmes, and if the brand didn't like it, tough. Another had different Sale dates for their men's and women's departments, another simply never went on Sale, while many others continue to have their Sales at the end of July.
So it seems that it's everything but the Sale that's important. Irresistible merchandise and wonderful sales staff are a start. But I'd still like to be able to take a holiday in the summer. To this end, in the age of global warming, we have to convince people that the Mediterranean lifestyle is the one to follow, in that August is for holidays and September is for ordering. Please write to your suppliers accordingly.
- Curtis Jacoby runs womenswear agency the Jacoby Partnership in central London.