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January 25, 2019

Five ways to get the most from buyer-supplier relationships

As the internet grows in importance, the balance of power is shifting between fashion buyers and their suppliers. Jo Byrne, head of buying at UK fast-fashion retailer New Look, offers some advice on how to best leverage the relationship to improve lead times and efficiencies.

By Hannah Abdulla

As the internet grows in importance, the balance of power is shifting between fashion buyers and their suppliers. Jo Byrne, head of buying at UK fast-fashion retailer New Look, offers some advice on how to best leverage the relationship to improve lead times and efficiencies.

The relationship between the buyer and supplier has never been more complex than it is today. Buyer needs products quickly, they need suppliers to respond to trends and deliver them even faster. Conversely, the internet has also put more power into the hands of the suppliers, enabling them to reach consumers direct.

Jo Byrne, head of buying at UK fast-fashion retailer New Look, explains that the rise of the internet means the buyer “is no longer king.”

Speaking at the Fashion SVP sourcing event in London last week, she noted that “suppliers no longer ‘need’ the retailers to get their product to market. That relationship has definitely evolved. We [buyers] really have to adapt and ask ourselves what we want from that relationship.”

Nevertheless, good supplier-buyer relationships are more important than ever before, she asserts, adding that careful selection of suppliers and trusting them to do their job will help brands and retailers achieve the “holy grail of speed, flexibility and price” – fundamental for business success in the apparel industry today.

Byrne outlined five ways to get the most out of buyer-supplier relationships and the burning issue on every buyer’s lips: how to improve lead times and efficiency.

#1: Faster time to market

This is definitely top of mind, and it actually starts at the very beginning of the process. From trend prediction, design and fabric selection, through fitting, sealing and production, even getting the product to store and uploading images to websites, everything needs to be as efficient as possible. Working more closely with the supplier base is an important consideration in speed improvement. 

  • Make inspirational trips with your supplier so that new designs and ideas can immediately be put into work. 
  • If you have fabrics and trims on the floor, you can essentially start off the season trialling and scaling up those options as the season goes on. 
  • Include suppliers in your weekly and monthly design meetings so that you can discuss how your range is developing and ways to make the range stronger. Collaboration is key. 
  • Suppliers can also self-seal. These options are becoming pretty standard. If suppliers are self-sealing, you can shave two weeks off your lead time, again giving you that speed that is critical to get to market.
  • In China, New Look had a supplier delivering directly to store, “which enabled us to get those really quick reactions and then scale them quickly for that market, which satisfied the customer and made us more profitable.” 

#2: Real-time reactions

“We are a little bit fickle in the fashion industry; we change our minds, fast. Today it might all be about midi-dresses and trainers, tomorrow it might be about tonal dressing. Who knows what the new colour might be this season? We need to be able to change our minds. We need that flexibility and that’s really hard when you’re trying to marry that with being faster and more price competitive. It is about finding a balance, which is why planning and capacity planning is important. Having those yarns and those fabrics on the floor to trade into – and even blank garments to react quickly to trends – is very much the way to go for the retailer. 

“We can book capacity up to a year in advance. We all know the mix that we want from fashion to the basic products within our ranges thanks to the sales data we collect daily, weekly, monthly and yearly. But how often do we share that with our supplier base? When we do share that information it gives us the option to buy more product. but also the flexibility. So if we were to plan the capacity in advance and therefore get the blocks ready in advance, we can then colour our plates to a season after receiving information from the catwalk.

“Using spectral [colour] data we can reduce the lead time further with our suppliers by getting them to self-approve. We are not sending lab dips around the world wasting two-to-three weeks doing so. We have to trust that supplier to get it right. Often spectral data is more efficient than the human eye. 

“You have blank garments on the floor that eneable you to trade quickly into slogans or react to something topical in the media giving your brand more personality and credibility in the market. We’ve actually done this on denim jeans. We’ve had blank denim jeans and were able to then do the slashes, finishes and washes and turn them around in two weeks and get them to store – incredible, given this is usually a long lead-time area.”

#3: Plan ahead

“With the fabrics on the floor you’re able to trial those emerging trends more quickly by seeing good-performing styles and getting them into stock more quickly for the customer. In order to improve your hit rate you need to do the research, know the trends, spot new opportunities, get to know your customer, run customer events, focus on his/her interests, as well as being focused on your product. Listen to your customer, their needs, their insecurities, what they’re looking for and determine how you can tap into those emotions to improve your sales. Trial the trend and scale winning styles more quickly. 

“A trusted supplier, fabrics and trims on the floor, and making sure your relationships are good enough to be able to trade into those fabrics and trims more quickly, are essential to this process. Make sure your supplier has those relationships with their mills and trim suppliers. Focus on fewer suppliers that have a meaningful role in your business. Focus on key fabrications to ensure numerous styles can be made from one fabric to make you more agile. This will also help with relationships with mills and suppliers and give you a price advantage.”

#4: Live and let live

As well as flexibility and speed, price matters – to the supplier, the buyer and the customer too. “Consumers are becoming savvier when it comes to purchasing decisions. It’s less important that something is cheap but more important it is great quality, that they are able to identify well with the brand, and it has been sourced sustainably. The final price relies on a number of ingredients and requires both the buyer and supplier to be experts in their own areas. A supplier needs to focus on approving, fitting and producing efficiently. The retailer must focus on range building, styling, marketing, and customer experience. The common goal is the customer. Ultimately, this comes down to trust, so it is important to build those relationships with your key suppliers so your business is their business and both are respectful of the others expertise.”

#5: Know your customer

While many buyers rely on trend sites, catwalk shows, street trends and social media, the real research needs to be closer to home, Byrne said. “Sitting in fitting rooms and overhearing conversations about a product and watching how people co-ordinate garments and style them delivers a far more compelling lesson. It’s as important for suppliers to understand your customer as it is for you. Once they understand your market they become more integral to your business. Do the trips together, collaborate together through design and sourcing processes, research together and spend time doing customer events and groups. Involving them in every step of your process is definitely the way forward. If you let your suppliers work closely with you they will give you endless opportunities, endless options to trial. It’s when we don’t have any plan at all that we lose flexibility.”

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