As independent retailers, I hope we are all trying to carve out our own particular niche in an increasingly crowded commercial world.
How this can be achieved is up to the individual retailer, but most will use tried-and-tested techniques such as creating distinctive shopfits and visual merchandising, making sure staff are well informed, tailoring individual offers to particular locations, and using direct mail and ad campaigns that target specific customer markets. But the single most important way to create and develop the identity of our stores is through the mix of brands we sell.
The range of labels not only indicates the demographic - the income, lifestyle, age and social position - of your target customers, but it also illustrates your own approach to buying and selling product that is crucial to running a profitable business.
At the centre of the buying process are the agents, distributors and sales staff from the labels, who are tasked with extending the reach and budgets of their brands season after season. For some, this is a simple mathematical equation that is intended to create maximum exposure with as many retailers as possible over as short a period as possible for a quick return.
But, and perhaps somewhat ironically given the current tough climate for many designers and retailers, there is a different and much nicer equation that has to be worked out over a much longer period of time. This equation is all about labels building careful, considered relationships with compatible stores, protecting their exclusivity and trusting each of them to be an ambassador for the brand. The result is that stores help labels to build a loyal customer base. In this relationship, sales managers and agents are my allies in carving a niche.
This relationship works commercially because it creates a sense of obligation in the retailer. For example, if I feel valued and important to the success of a label, if I feel that the identity of my shop is protected, and if a brand manager places his or her faith in my shop to extend the range of their label, then I feel a greater sense of urgency to seize the opportunity and make it financially successful.
This situation engenders a feeling of confidence. I have dealt with many of my suppliers for several years, and have seen agents and managers in various guises at different companies. The thing that has remained constant throughout is a personal relationship and an understanding of what my business is and what it means to me.
Fundamentally, I would rather work with people whose terms of business in some way reflect my own. Forget about strict minimums and the constraints of rigid financial targets. Look to the longer term and build friendly, working relationships and a sense of mutual loyalty.
This might sound like a crazy, utopian ideal, but I think if you can retain a clear idea of what your store is about, which includes having a clear sense of who your customers are and what they want to buy, then it should not be too difficult to convince any sales team that you are the perfect place for their brand.
- Victoria Suffield is the owner of lifestyle retailer The Hambledon in Winchester, Hampshire.