Among the many changes that have occurred within the industry in the past few years, the changing relationship between independent fashion retailers and suppliers is one of the most intriguing.
In an ideal world, they should operate like finely engineered cogs, knitting together perfectly for their mutual benefit.
Fashion retailing, alas, has never been an ideal world and those cogs always have clashed now and again.
In the early days of my career I used to listen to the complaints from each group about the other and wonder if they had lost sight of their mutual desire, which was to sell more merchandise to Joe and Josephine Public.
Unsurprisingly, good trading conditions have always been a sure-fire way of reducing the moaning and groaning from supplier and shopkeeper.
I detect now a return to more fractious relationships between supplier and buyer. The rise of the discount outlets a few decades ago can be seen to be the start of a pathway that leads to the situation today. Brands began to become retailers, often at first in a rather unglamorous way, but many soon learned that they sold more by going directly to the consumer. The expansion of single-category suppliers into lifestyle brands accelerated the process. A regular complaint from expanding brands was that their carefully co-ordinated collections were not effectively shown in many small units.
The discount outlet initiatives led to full-price shops on the high street, in the major shopping centres and in department store concessions. The reduction in the number of independent retailers further fuelled the expansion of the brands’ shops, which then itself contributed to the independents’ demise.
The incredible rise of online retailing has only added to the tension. Whether it is the “unfair” competition (as traditional retailers see it) of online-only traders or, even more annoyingly, the transactional websites of brands themselves, the new trading realities have definitely made the relationship between supplier and independent buyer less stable. The unpredictable cutting of retail prices online is the great bugbear for traditional stockists, of course, as consumers of all ages and classes are now very skilled at price matching before buying.
I have been surprised at just how bitterly betrayed some independents feel. Once-loyal brands are now seen virtually as enemies. Conversely, suppliers are becoming more vocal about the problems of getting paid by smaller stockists, as our lead story alludes to. Large suppliers have long been used almost as loan companies by some independents, but in the present-day situation, in which many suppliers that want to sell to small shops are indeed small companies themselves, there needs to be more responsibility shown by retailers. Settling a bill promptly is not optional. It is essential to keep many suppliers afloat.
I am encouraged that many good relationships between independent businesses and their suppliers exist, but the start of the new buying season is a good time to reflect that fashion retailing should be a fruitful alliance between brands and their stockists, not a battleground. At Drapers, we’d be delighted to hear our readers’ take on the current situation.