The early episodes of TV drama Mr Selfridge inspired awe and excitement as his staff were sent off to scour the globe and come back with unusual finds for their respective departments. He wanted to innovate and differentiate – he was also creating and building his brand by giving his buyers an ethos and clear brief on what they were looking for.
Just as you want to communicate messages about your brand that will foster an emotional connection with its customers, you now also have the task of choosing brands and products that evoke the desired emotions that connect with your brand’s core purpose and values.
While, of course, what you’re doing is work and is fraught with decisions and having to make choices, this part of the process – the business and task of choosing which labels and products are going to speak volumes for your own brand – needs to be fuelled with excitement, curiosity and passion.
More than seven years into writing Bambino Goodies, we still love the thrill of unearthing a new discovery and feeling whimsy, nostalgic or overcome with shopping palpitations. We’ve refined our tastes over the years and know what we want and look for in anything that we feature, and that’s what you are going to achieve.
You are the ambassador of your brand but you will also have to be the ambassador of the items in your collection. Of course you have to make your choices with your brand and its customers in mind but, as the buyer, you need to know what you love and love what you choose while striking the balance between desire and need, as well as how those choices stack up from a financial perspective.
Your brief includes your budget, market and brand intentions.
Your goal: To put together a mix of products and brands that embody and communicate the core values and ethos, while also being able to meet your financial goals.
You need to ask yourself:
- Do the brands share your brand’s core values? If not, they’re incompatible.
- How do your shortlisted and chosen brands mix together? It should be complimentary and brand-enhancing.
- Do the margins make sense to your overall bottom line and profitability? When you put your brands together with suggested volumes and margins, can you achieve your financial goals?
When it comes to tips for choosing brands, there isn’t a definitive list of hard and fast rules, but there are a few things that you can do to make it a hell of a lot easier to make your decision:
Work out the categories that you’re buying for and assign a budget for your first season’s stock. You may also find it beneficial to allocate a budget for each category.
Categories help you to think in terms of your website, so that you don’t end up with an imbalance and holes in your plan. It will allow you to stay focused and on track because you can think big picture, including about how each category relates to the other and any implications that a purchase in one category makes to another.
Your categories and what’s needed are your shopping list. If you find something that’s surplus to requirement, complete your other buying first or look at whether it’s feasible to rejig the budget.
Note Keeping an eye on margins, as well as good negotiation, can help you to maximise your budget.
Make sure that you’ve done your due diligence and have a good grasp of your values. Sure, you can do some fine tuning and adding here and there, but you will be overwhelmed if you’re just looking around in a general sense, not least because you don’t have the deep pockets to just buy whatever takes your fancy. Even Selfridges has had to have a more coordinated, cohesive approach to buying, because certain departments were not reflective of the brand’s goals.
Case in point, we avoided their children’s department for years because our associations were frou-frou, blingy, polo shirts, mini adults, very expensive. More recently, a tour of the childrenswear and toy/gift department proved a pleasant surprise as the head buyer, has edited the brands and created a mix that understands their customers. What was observed and gleaned during that twenty minutes or so is applicable to all stores, big and small, stocking a variety of brands.
Know. Your. Customer.
If you don’t know who your desired customer is, you don’t know who you’re buying for. This is, in part, a trial-and-error process where you will have to listen to your customers and respond (where appropriate) to meet their needs (when those needs are on brand – remember that you can’t be all things to all people).
Understand your segments.
While, in some instances, it’s pretty straightforward and you have one definitive type of customer, it’s safe to say that you may have more than one type of desired or actual customer (if you’re trading already). Selfridges children’s department seemed to be previously aimed at big-spending overseas customers, but they’re not the only people who come into the store, so if you want those other customers, there needs to be something for them.
Case study: The womenswear boutique. Bow Butterfly, which is local to me, sells women’s clothes with a black, grey, brown and white aesthetic with the odd print here or there, plus detailing and embellishments. Think Odd Molly, jeans and trousers with zips on the ankle and boho accents. The clothes are not my taste, but the printed scarves, rainbow of skinny leather belts, handbags and jewellery collection is. Their core customer is women who love that style of clothes, but the owner has successfully captured customers like me who go there for gifts and who wouldn’t necessarily spend that budget on those brands. Why? Because she listened to who was coming into her store and found ways for people like me to become customers. She’s increased her ‘basket size’ for her core customer, while also picking up smaller sales that keep her ticking over. The accessories sell out. Fast.
A brand must sit well with your overall collection and communicate a cohesive story that sells your brand.
This is the place where many retailers fall down. Brands and products need to make sense from a standalone perspective, but they also need to make sense to the overall picture with your other brands. Many retailers choose brands and products in isolation without considering their relation to others that have been chosen or are being considered. The brands and products need to have things in common that unify them under the umbrella of your brand.
Case study: the Danish high-street retailer. Flying Tiger, the Danish destination that’s full of colourful, well-priced, stylish temptation has a large mix of products, but they all deliver the same thing in terms of aesthetic and value. It’s also captured that element of shopping that’s a good thing to replicate – mixing aesthetically pleasing practical stuff with delightful, impulse buys that also look good.
Create a unique collection
This is how you achieve a mix and balance that ultimately narrates your brand’s story. Even though you will stock brands with other stockists, the buying choices you make should create a unique collection, from what you choose, to how it’s presented. That is your branding at work. This is another area where online boutiques get caught out. The last thing you need is to have the exact same brands and products on sale as another store. Stretch your mind. Push yourself boundaries wise. Remember, a customer chooses to shop at an independent because they’re looking for something a little bit different. Deliver!
Case study: the US homeware emporium. Crate & Barrel is another brand that knows its story and creates a unique collection of goodies unified by an aesthetic that they have gradually taught you to associate with them. I thought that they had a factory somewhere pumping out stuff, but, nope, they’re just very good buyers. They sell green and yellow pot scrubbers for a couple of dollars that now mean that washing up in our house can no longer be done with something that doesn’t look attractive. Again, this brand knows who it is and then seeks to buy products that reflect this.
A worrying trend is emerging where many independent retailers are relying on agents to do their bravery for them. Agents are, of course, needed but if your buying decisions are always reliant on another store, probably a competitor, having purchased that brand, you are diluting your instincts as well as the values that brought you to this process. Independent retailers are not under the same constraints and political red tape that large retailers are – that is your advantage. Use it. Don’t make comparison and keeping up with the Joneses the basis of your decision-making because you will lose your brand and end up looking like the Joneses.
Edit and curate.
The mix of brands and products goes awry once they’re on your website or the shop floor and it turns out that they’re not distinct from each other. When this happens with clothing, it causes clothing blindness, where everything starts looking the same and it’s tiring on your eyes. You then assume that remaining pieces are the same, even when they’re not. The best example of this is what happened at Selfridges – they had to cull their brands and edit the collections that they were buying in, because why does a customer want to go into a department and look at polo shirt after polo shirt and frilly dress after frilly dress by lots of different brands?
It’s crucial to remember that your products need to make sense as standalone brands, but also together as an overall collection.
- Some brands have quite a large range to choose from which makes it easier to have a unique collection of their pieces, or certainly unique when put into the context of your store.
- If you’ve already chosen a brand, subsequent decisions should compliment that choice. Your brand choices should flatter each other.
- Avoid situations where you have two or more brands that are very similar. All that does is invite you to have to struggle to explain the difference, plus it makes it confusing for your customer. And pisses off the brands involved.
- Does buying in one brand confuse or undermine the story of another?
- If you were selecting related products on your website, would there be at least one thing to choose from?
- Do they all look fabulous together? Buying is just one part of the process. You have to sell these products and that means that you have layouts to do for email newsletters, promotions, possible photography for your website and… the list goes on. Your brands need to be capable of teamwork.
Money, money, money, margin… MARGIN!
You’re in business and that means you’ve got to think about your bottom line and whether your brand choices are profitable. Your business needs to make money, so when you decide which brands to buy, you need to keep an eye on your goals and targets. Does a choice take you towards those goals or in the opposite direction?
A mix of margins/price points can ease pressure, but this all depends on your concept. If you’ve pitched yourself as high end, then you won’t be going below a certain price and it means you will sell less but make more per sale.
Allocate a purchasing budget – allow yourself a buffer for contingency (if resources permit), otherwise decide what your budget is and stick to it. This means that when you consider or make a choice, you have to understand – how does this affect 1) what budget I have left and 2) my target revenue?
Let’s imagine that you have £5k to get started and, for this season, you want to make £12.5k. This means that the sum total of your stock purchases need to yield a profit margin that equates to £7.5k or more.
You come across the brand Quirky Werky and fall in love with their scrumptious soft blankets. They have a minimum order of 25 and the wholesale price is £50 each. That’s £1250.
You then need to know:
What do you stand to make from these blankets? If you think that you may run an offer, work out the average.
Margin is £75
If they’re all sold at £125 then you will make £3750
If 3/4 sold at full price (£2375) and the remainder at 30% off (£525), you will make £2900
How much budget you have left and whether you can achieve the remainder of your target?
Based on full price, £8450
Including reductions, £9600
Now let’s imagine that you come across another brand, Toot Toot, and you’re all over their vintage-inspired, handcrafted bedside and side tables but they have a minimum order of 20 with an average wholesale price of £120, this would mean:
It would cost you £2400 to bring them in.
Add £1250 from the blankets and you’re up to £3650, which leaves you with £1350.
The tables sell for an average of £200, so, at best, you will make £4000.
£4000 + £3750 = £7750
This would leave you with £4750 to make from £1350 of budget.
Possible, but you’re pushing it.
You will also have 62% of your budget in 2-3 products.
Your remaining budget may skew or even limit your choices.
You also have to ensure that if you did go with these choices, that you would still be effectively telling the story of your brand and communicating those all important messages.
Sometimes crunching the numbers will help you to understand where you need to add some budget, edit your brief a little, seek alternatives, or negotiate a better deal from the supplier.
Make sure you look at your categories and that you understand the budget allocation for each. This will temper your decisions.
Remember that you can pretty much start a store with whatever budget you have and tell your story, but it all comes down to the buying choices you make. Let your budget help you with the types of brands you need to be focusing on. Don’t make hasty decisions based on falling in love with something, that may make it harder for you to buy other stock, or even cause you to drop a category.
Where else are they stocked?
You don’t want or need to be doing an exhaustive investigation of other stockists, but you should know how many stockists there are in your country and also your area, particularly if you or they are bricks and mortar. Side note – some stores can be very funny about proximity regardless of whether you’re on or offline. In an ideal world, we’d live and let live, but money, pressure and even insecurity about competitors can cause some stores to lay down the law to brands about who they sell to.
- If any of your competitors are stockists, do get a sense of their pricing. Are they selling at RRP or above?
- Are they on sale a lot?
- What is the brand’s policy on reductions and pricing?
- Does the brand sell through its site? Make sure that they’re not competing with their own stockists!
- Are they appearing in a lot of those flash sale/group buying type sites? This can affect overall perception of price or it may be reflective of a past season where sales weren’t as great and there was a lot of stock left over. If in doubt, ask about their policy on this. Note that it’s not good practice for a brand to run one of these sales within weeks of a new season starting, especially with that season’s stock.
Does the brand appreciate and get online retailing?
We are champions of both independent online and offline retailers, but the same cannot be said for all brands and designers. Let us give you a piece of advice: don’t buy brands who act as if they’re being forced to ho themselves in the red light district by ‘having’ to be sold in an online store. Work with brands who respect and value what you’re doing, and actually want to see you do well because their brands will do well, too. Good brands who are looking to be stocked want to be part of like-minded retailer’s stories. It is good for business.
If they’re approaching you with archaic notions, treating you as if you’re something they stepped in, or giving you a worse deal even if you’re actually doing equal or more business with them than a bricks and mortar retailer, tell them to jog on. If the preamble to buying in a brand is positive and even collaborative, that’s something to be noted in your shortlist criteria. If they don’t return your calls, are rude to you when you meet, are being passive aggressive and trying to put you off by by making the terms as difficult as possible, drop them. There are, of course, independent online retailers who make it difficult for others with dodgy practices but that is the exception, not the rule. If they can’t see past that with you, even when you’re trying to do business in an above board manner, step away.
- Do they have their own PR?
- Will they provide marketing and promotional materials?
- Do they have good product photography/visuals?
- Are they active on social networks?
- Do they have valuable associations?
- Are there collaboration possibilities?
- Do they have a minimum order?
- What is their ordering policy and lead time?
- What are their payment terms?
- What is their delivery lead time?
Is it ticking your boxes and compatible with your brand?
Think look, feel, quality, aesthetic, professed values, competitors, their story/the designer’s story, your emotional response, their ethics etc.
Other things to consider
- Do they have seasonal collections?
- What are their future plans?
- Could you put together a look book?
Activity: Make a collage of some of the items you are considering for your store. Think of it like a mood board and write down words that the collection evokes. Do the products tell a story? Set up a secret board on Pinterest or go old school with a scrapbook, scissors and glue.
Activity: Think about the items and brands you’re looking to stock and order them into simple categories for your website. Are there gaps or weak areas? Does the collection look well curated?
Tip: Some stores choose a theme for that season’s buying and this can make it so much easier when it comes to making choices as well as putting together copy for the website, any promotional material and press activities. It gives you an angle but also gives you a brief and is something that will resonate with your customers.