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Tough times mean fewer agents of change

With retailers less willing to experiment as shoppers rein in their spending, fashion agents are focusing on familiar, proven brands rather than taking risks on new collections.

Tough trading conditions are forcing sales agents to invest in and nurture relationships with existing customers rather than invest in new products and strategies.

The tough economic backdrop means consumers are tightening their belts and cutting back on spending on clothes, which is creating challenging times for sales agents, alongside retailers and indies. As a result, a number of agents are focusing on nurturing their strongest brands.

Showroom 40, which represents womenswear brands including Spanish label Nice Things, is one agency concentrating on its existing brand portfolio. Director Jackie Hague says: “We are staying with the same brands this year. It’s a risk to try new ones.

You have to control what you’ve got already and contain the number of staff you’ve got. No one is taking on new brands if they’re happy with existing brands.”

Like Showroom 40, womenswear agency Brand National, whose brands include Danish scarf label Becksöndergaard and Kat Maconie footwear, is sticking to its current line-up of labels, which director Kam Harris says has given it “a relatively good season, because we haven’t chopped and changed and we’ve had time to get on the road and give our retailers that bit of special attention.”

Another womenswear agency, Apt Collections, is focusing on forging closer relationships with its clients through shopfits and concessions. Its director Nigel Hughes says: “We have formed greater partnerships with some of our established brands by helping them with soft shop refits and concession creation. You can get great feedback from a good concession, from customers and brands alike – they are a fantastic marketing tool. This is a growing trend in our business.”

Deepening relationships with indies was one of the core reasons why London-based Brand National opened a showroom in Manchester earlier this year. The agency already has a showroom in Wapping, east London, but the new space is intended to help customers save money on expensive buying trips to the capital.

“We felt it was important to have a base in Manchester, to enable us to offer a better service with more regular contact and closer partnerships with our customers,” said Harris at the time.

Another way for agents to excel in challenging conditions is to hit the road to visit stores. “It makes a really big difference because it’s very difficult for a sales agent to understand a business if we’ve never seen the store – how can you be credible in that situation? You can’t,” says Harris.

“I love building relationships and partnerships with retailers and having that contact that proves that you take their business seriously.”

However, rising petrol prices and train fares have meant the cost of hitting the road has risen dramatically in the past few years, making it a significant overhead for sales agents. Based in London, accessories agency Showroom One deals with department stores and online retailers from its Oxford Street showroom.

“Our main issue is reaching independents, so in order to cover the country as a whole we have had to set up a very costly road sales programme,” says Showroom One executive director Ana Konder. “We’ve gone back to basics to deliver the choice of our brands to indies’ doors. They don’t have the time to travel and although we take part in fashion exhibitions, three days isn’t long enough to meet many people. We found that only by implementing road strategies in parallel with a showroom have we achieved the results we were looking for.”

However, one agency that is implementing a new strategy to woo retailers and brands is Manchester-based streetwear specialist Rogue Agency, which launched a private buying club in conjunction with one of its brands, Love Denim, in April.

Called Club 50, it offers the denim brand exclusively to 50 indie members and will extend the club to other brands in the next year.

However, this approach has been criticised by some. Harris says: “It’s a great idea in principle, but all your stockists should be important to your business, so this is a difficult strategy.” She adds: “How do you choose that list? You may have a small retailer with a great profile, so would they miss out in a system like this?”

However, Rogue Agency co-founder Richard Dean responds with: “I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Club 50 has caused some ‘conversations’. But we focused on retailers that have always stayed true to brands through good and bad; unarguably iconic retailers like Sarah Coggles that stand by traditional retail values.”

It’s an innovative move during a tough year for sales agents. “Our sales are flatlining,” admits Hughes.

An unnamed distributor who recently entered the market as a sales agent with a European brand has also found the going tough, and is bitterly disappointed by his experiences so far. “Unless it is a huge established brand you cannot make enough money, as the 12% to 18% of sales you get isn’t enough. You have to do a huge volume of work to make it worthwhile,” he says.

And once they are through the shop door, sales agents are finding it more difficult than usual to sell new brands and collections to retailers.

This is causing some frustration among agents that are marketing smaller, newer labels to retailers.

One agent, who declined to be named, identifies a paradox: “We are always getting indies saying ‘Have you got anything new?’ and then saying ‘Well, we’ve never heard of that one, so no thank you’. They are looking for something new in a brand that everyone’s heard of.”

Hughes goes further, pointing out that “more and more people are looking at what they are doing well with at the moment – for the next couple of years retailers are going to be risk averse. There is always that moment of excitement that we love when something new comes along that is great, but you have to be absolutely ruthless about what is and isn’t going to sell.”

Story in Numbers

1% to 2% - Proportion by which sales are up year on year at Apt Collections

50 - Number of indies that are members of Rogue Agency’s buying club, Club 50

250 - Number of stockists that Showroom One’s best-performing brand, German scarf brand Codello, has in the UK

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