As the retail marketplace gets ever more competitive, buyers are under increasing pressure to re-examine prices. One way that they can do this is to move a growing percentage of their apparel and footwear business offshore - which means that local suppliers have to fight harder just to keep their existing customers.

Much has been written from the viewpoint of the supplier. But could suppliers learn something to their advantage by understanding a little more about their direct customer, the buyer?

There are many misunderstandings concerning the role of the buyer. Suppliers often seem unaware of the dilemmas faced by the buyer when, for example, deliveries are late or prices are changed at the last minute. How often is the buyer told that: "One or two of the styles are running late". And does the supplier stop to consider the effect that this will have on the total range? The buyer may have the option to cancel the line, but does the supplier take on the responsibility to replace the goods or face a bill for loss of profit?

Common misconceptions
It should be remembered that within most of the high street retail organisations, the buyer is on the frontline. Controllers and directors will set strategies, move goalposts, change margin targets and introduce new sourcing strategies for the good of the business.

Quote from a women's wear buyer: "I often receive up to 25 calls a day from new suppliers, so have to use some kind of screening process. Firstly I ask for a company profile to be sent in and, in my experience, many don't have one or appear to have no idea how to prepare one, while others don't bother to send anything in at all. Then I ask for samples of work; again, some send work in, others give up at this stage."

To clarify some common misconceptions:

  • Changes to garments and ranges are not made 'on the whim' of the buyer. More often than not they are not even made by the buyer directly, but are a result of meetings with the team. o Buyers do not have endless funds to 'just buy a few more lines'. The buying team works to a tightly controlled budget.
  • Buyers actually prefer to buy closer to home where it is easier to monitor production and visit the factory. They would rather not be subject to currency fluctuations, more complex communications and greater lead times.
  • A buyer can easily have 40 or more suppliers with whom he/she needs to arrange meetings to develop and progress ranges.
  • A buyer will have many internal meetings: sales meetings open to buy, selection and range control; PR briefings; store briefings; packaging liaison; team appraisals.
  • A buyer is away from his/her desk for much of the day in meetings. He/she is not necessarily ignoring your attempts at contact when calls are not returned or responses to faxes are slow.

So how can suppliers expand their customer bases?

Quote from a UK women's wear supplier:
"In June we had a meeting at one of the large mail order companies. The buyer said she was looking to bring work back to the UK, particularly on fashion lines for her interim catalogue."

There are still opportunities for local suppliers. But it is certainly not easy, and much perseverance is needed to break in to new accounts.

Buyers cannot endlessly take on suppliers and, if a new supplier is added to the list, the buyer must justify the need.

Buyers receive many calls each day from prospective new suppliers - yet a buyer would not be doing his/her job if there were huge gaps in the supply base.

A supplier must consider its own differentials and ask what it can do better than its competitors. Take a step back and consider how the buyer will view your products, service and presentation against that of your competitors.

Try to discover what the weaknesses are in the current supply chain. For instance, are there particular products that you know are selling for other retailers, but that the new buyer does not have?

Quote from a UK jerseywear manufacturer:
"After contacting a buyer over a year ago we had a call saying that he was interested in seeing us. We are delighted to say that the first set or orders has now been placed."

The current trend is for buyers to rationalise their supply bases, and if you an existing supplier this could give you an opportunity to gain more business by studying your competitors. Can you help the buyer by supplying certain lines that she currently buys elsewhere?

Ask the buyer about the business. Show an interest and you may learn something to your advantage - maybe there is a linethat she is struggling to source or a winning line that she needs to repeat quickly.

When do buyers take on new suppliers?
Buyers take on new suppliers under the following circumstances:

  • A new supplier has a product that is totally unique or is able to source/manufacture a product that current suppliers cannot provide.
  • The existing supply base is too tight for the potential growth of the product sector, or the success of that product for the company.
  • If the current supplier is not performing, the buyer may be keen to change if a better option comes up.
  • A new supplier offers a differential such as better price, lead times or service than the existing supply base.

What the buyers say
Speaking with a number of buyers helps identify common problems. Here are some of the comments:

Nicki Bagshaw, senior girl's wear buyer: "My main issues are on price and quality. When we see UK suppliers we sit down with them and explain the quality standards and the prices. The response is 'this is not a problem, we can do this and meet these prices.' We (buyers) don't want to waste their time by doing masses of samples and then finding that they are £2 higher than the target prices. Suppliers need to be more realistic about what they can do. We don't make lots more money in the Far East and although we don't expect them (the UK) to achieve the same prices, we can't afford to carry them. Last week I saw 3 suppliers and told them exactly what I needed (cost price), and they all came in above this. They still think they will get the business."

Helen Harding, men's wear buyer: "False promises are my issue. Suppliers say to me 'we can do it, no problem, these delivery dates are not a problem', but when it comes down to it they don't achieve it. Workmanship has been a problem. For example, with zips in fleeces, they just can't get them laid in properly and don't seem to understand how I need it to be correct. They go for cheaper make-up, no facings, but I need a consistency of standard".

Tracey Nemorin, buying controller: "UK suppliers need to be more flexible. We look at previews and we need suppliers to be able to react in that timescale, to get the garments in and react to sales. A lot take far too long, whereas we try to react to maximise the volume. A recent case was where we needed 15,000 of a style after a preview, but we couldn't get it. Turkey is actually often quicker than the UK, but we want to control it from the UK ideally. In the ladies' wear market, those that survive must be reactionary. In the UK, manufacturers don't seem to have deals with their fabric suppliers; they just take the lead times that they are given."

Monique Louis, merchandiser: "The overwhelming thing for us is that suppliers in the UK don't seem to want to compete for the business. They think that having a good lead time is enough, and that price, quality and design are secondary. The Far East and the Philippines work so hard, but the UK wants to be spoon-fed. Companies are not as aggressive, and they don't seem to want to work as hard to get business. I have found that they [UK supplier representatives] have lesser knowledge of the product, particularly compared to the Far East and the Philippines. Some of the [sales] people they are recruiting here just don't appear to know anything about their production. Buyers receive many calls from new suppliers each day, so it is very competitive; but there are opportunities since retailers need to respond quickly to satisfy a fast moving market."

Dos and don'ts
If any of these comments apply to your business then perhaps this list of do's and don'ts might prove useful.

Dos

  • Ensure that you visit the company's store before a meeting, familiarise yourself with the range, and understand the customer profile.
  • Be prepared to give a price guide, even if it is just a ball-park figure when showing a range of garments.
  • Be aware of buyers prices in store. It is irritating to be shown a product and quoted a price that would never achieve the target margins.
  • If you are given a target price and agree that you should be able to meet it, do not then quote a price way above it. A buyer will have taken you at your word.
  • Take notes in a meeting. A buyer will be more convinced that you intend to follow what has been requested if you write it down. Do bring your own pen and paper!
  • Have ideas of your own. Even if the buyer gives you garments and sketches to work from, the buyer will appreciate the fact that your designer is up to date on trends. He/she will be more confident that your interpretation will be accurate, even if she does not need your design ideas initially.
  • Ensure that samples are correct, well made and on time for selection meetings.
  • Be aware of the impact on a total range if you fail to deliver an order. It may be the key piece in a range, or used in magazines or catalogues. You have a responsibility since the order was given to you rather than your competitor.

Don'ts

  • Don't telephone on a Monday morning. Nearly all retailers hold a sales meeting then, and buyers will be preparing ranges and figures for this meeting
  • Don't bring too many people to a meeting unnecessarily - generally 2-3 is enough. Space is often limited, and the buyer will wonder how you can afford to take so many people out of the business.
  • Don't quote a price and delivery date that is unachievable at the outset. Buyers will often take you at your word and may have actually 'sold in' your product at the quoted figures. You will have put him/her in an awkward position and could reduce your chances of obtaining business.
  • Don't give price changes after a contract has been issued. This often causes buyers major problems since amendments will need to be signed off and the buyer will need to give reasons for changes such as a price increase. The changes may not be easily agreed.
  • Don't sample in the incorrect colour or cloth without pre-warning the buyer. Remember, your samples form part of the range, and if everyone supplies wrongly coloured garments the buyer will have to explain and excuse the garments rather than letting the range speak for itself.
Liz Bolt has experience in both buyer and supplier roles in the fashion industry, and has worked for companies such as Next, Boots and George Clothing. She is currently a sales and marketing consultant for a number of fashion and textile businesses, and is a lecturer at Nottingham Trent University.