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The evolution of fashion sales roles

Agents quotes index v2

As the fashion industry has shifted, many positions have had to evolve to keep up with the pace of change. Drapers analyses how sales roles have developed, and what makes a good sales person today.

Sales roles have always played an integral part in the fashion industry. Whether working internally at a brand or externally as part of an agency, sales people are the middlemen of the wholesale business – the conduit between brands, buyers and the products that end up in stores.

The essentials – expert product knowledge and forging great relationships – remain the same, but the market is changing. Trade shows are evolving; etail giants are taking market share and independents face tough conditions; shoppers now buy directly from brands; and the online revolution allows retailers to purchase product without engaging with a sales representative. In the face of this turbulence, people in sales roles – whether in house or at an agency – are having to expand their skill-sets to keep up.

Once upon a time, independents made up a huge swathe of a sales person’s focus, often sliced up into regions across the UK. But the current retail landscape is unrecognisable compared with just a few years ago, as the number of independent retailers has declined, forcing change and consolidation.

Larger businesses, such as department stores and multiples, have been joined by new power players: dominant forces such as Sports Direct and JD Sports, and digital giants including as Asos and Net a Porter, offer big wins for brands that they stock. This mix of big accounts and smaller, specialised retailers has had an impact, birthing big sales agencies such as Four Marketing and Zone Two, while also allowing smaller, niche agencies to pop up.

There are some things that have not changed. Sales people still need to be product experts – they need an eye for newness, a nose for a bestseller, and a specialised grasp of the market.

Forging bonds

Relationships also remain of the utmost importance. Although the heady days of buyers being wined and dined at flashy parties and buzzy trade shows might be a thing of the past, a strong network of retailers is still a sales person’s strongest asset. Connections based on integrity and trust, built via excellent communication, organisation, and the ability to promote yet manage expectations remain valuable traits.

The role has changed beyond recognition

Juls Dawson, Just Consultancies

Michael Shalders is director of agency Love Brands, which sells Guess and Nü Denmark, among others, and worked as a sales agent for more than 15 years before co-founding the business. He argues that sales people can no longer count on their network: “You can’t rely on a relationship just to write an order any more. In the old days, a retailer would give [your collection] a go just because they knew you. That doesn’t happen any more. They might look at your collections, but they won’t give you some of their budget just because of their relationship with you.”

This has led to a need for sales people to upskill, bringing a much more strategic approach and adding value to their roles.

“The role has changed beyond recognition,” says Juls Dawson, managing director of Just Consultancies, which represents brands including Nicce, Slydes footwear and bag label Mi Pac. “Before, a sales agent simply used to be a vehicle for a brand to procure orders during a selling window. So much more is required today.”

This includes getting involved in more tasks than ever: range planning; devising pricing architecture; defining a target retailer strategy; forecasting short- and long-term sales; formulating selling and delivery windows; negotiating terms; advising on in-season trading and reporting; market analysis; store training; staff incentives and end-of-season reports.

Agents are expected to work with buyers on fresh retail concepts, in-store events and exclusives, while also sharing invaluable feedback to drive design-led changes and shape collections. 

Tracy Stone, CEO of sales agency Polly King, which sells labels such as Champion, Self-Portrait and House of Holland, agrees, and believes that sales should be as integral a part of a brand’s team as possible: “Management of a brand in season, such as sales, stock and sell-throughs, has become a vital part of the role and key to a brand’s success. Likewise, [aspects such as] input into a collection, pricing and range planning should be part of the way a [sales person] adds value.”

“The sales role has become so much more hands on as brands now expect much more,” agrees James Waller, co-founder of menswear brand Blood Brother and co-founder of sales agency Common Trde, which represents labels such as Alife, Mallet and designer Daniel W Fletcher. He believes the role has morphed into more of a consultancy position, with a much broader remit and influence on both brand and buyer.

New approaches

Shifts in selling patterns are also forcing sales people to adapt, as main ranges are joined by more pre-collections, mid-season drops, and in-season and short-order ranges. This is driven by two things: the need for retailers to introduce constant newness to engage customers, but buyers seeking to minimise risk by spending less up front and more in season.

“Many brands now have four collections per year, some with six, while many brands also carry stock. All of this means we are always selling all year,” explains Just Consultancies’ Dawson.

This has meant that sales people have needed to modify their strategies, but also look to new ways to engage with buyers and secure sales. For example, Dawson reveals a digital shift: he shows new collections via email and completes sales on phone messaging app WhatsApp, particularly for repeat business.

“You need to be more dynamic now,” says Darren Skey, former head of menswear buying at Harvey Nichols, who shifted to a sales role as director of Nieuway agency, which represents brands such as Band of Outsiders, and footwear labels Auxiliary and Mallet. “Buyers are becoming more time poor. This is a key reason behind trade shows diminishing. Buyers can’t give two hours to walk a show. Therefore, sales people need to become more flexible in their approach to working with them. The ‘one size fits all’ method is dead. The way forward is personalised services such as curating areas to allow buyers to visualise the product within their store.”

It can be tricky for an agent to ensure they are keeping all sides happy

Deryane Tadd, The Dressing Room

Etailers and the emergence of the multichannel model have also affected sales roles, while the power of social media has brought new challenges – widening the reach of retailers but also creating yet more competition.

“With such a dynamic marketplace, it can be tricky for an agent to ensure they are keeping all sides happy while ensuring growth for their brands,” says Deryane Tadd, owner of St Albans independent The Dressing Room. 

“Currently, the biggest challenge is online advertising,” she adds. “It’s a modern-day way of retailing, making use of Google ads and third-party affiliations, but often a brand wants to own the online marketplace themselves. This creates a challenge that the agent has to try to diplomatically navigate without upsetting either side. Territory used to be the big battle – now it’s online.”

Another battle of the sales scene is the in-house versus external debate.

“I think there are lots of different advantages of having in-house sales people,” says Christian Jensen, international sales director at Danish brand Wood Wood, which is stocked at retailers such as Liberty London, End and Goodhood in the UK. “Everyone working in an in-house team is a real brand ambassador. You develop expert knowledge based on unrivalled dialogue with different in-house departments, and communication is a lot easier. You can also better manage quality control, resources, assets and training to assist your retailers.”

He adds that agency-based sales people can often be split between several brands, often meaning that “whatever is bringing in the most cash will also be getting the most attention”.

More than ever, the sales person needs to live and breathe the brand as if it were their own

Ben Banks, Four Marketing

However, as Common Trde co-founder Waller points out, the expense of internal sales teams can be off-putting, particularly for smaller or newer businesses: “The cost of senior sales personnel is very high, and building relationships with stores takes both money and time. Some [brands] would rather outsource this to specialised showrooms with a good reputation and track record.”

Dean Cook, head of menswear buying at Browns, who worked in sales for labels such as Giorgio Armani and Jil Sander before switching to buying, reveals he has seen more and more brands in the luxury space bring sales in house to “focus on ensuring cohesive messages and controlling distribution”, but argues that the curated nature of agencies, where a sense of trust has been built around the quality of the brands on offer, makes buying easier.

“The pros for an external [agency or showroom] from a buyer’s perspective are that you see more brands under one roof – almost a one-stop shop,” he says. “For new and established brands, this can be a positive, as buyers have the opportunity to discover more.”

What is clear is that to stay ahead, sales people, whether internal or external, need to be one step ahead, as the importance and influence of the role continues to grow.

“More than ever, the sales person needs to live and breathe the brand as if it were their own. You have to act like the legitimate guardian of the brand,” says Ben Banks, founder and director of Four Marketing, which represents brands such as Stone Island, Napapijri and Iceberg. “That’s the fundamental philosophy, and I don’t see that ever changing. The people that do it well, just like good retailers, are the ones that are innovating and focusing on their customers. They are the ones that will be successful going forward.”

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