Building relationships with your suppliers is crucial for business to succeed

Building relationships with your suppliers is crucial for business to succeed

Regular communication, ensuring buyers are fully trained, and that both sides are up-to-date with the latest trends are all important ingredients for a good working relationship between a supplier and a retailer.

"Oasis has great communication with its suppliers," Jane Wach, head of supply UK and Europe for British fashion chain Oasis, told delegates at the recent Fashion SVP sourcing event in London. "We carry out updates both weekly and daily, talking to them about where they're at with their production and what they're working on so we have flexibility with sales for product in store."

Wach says she also encourages her suppliers to meet up face-to-face on a regular basis, in order to continually build the relationship she has maintained with them for many years.

The same is true for M&Co. Julia Redman, head of buying for the UK fashion retailer, emphasises the importance of the quality of communication, rather than the quantity.

"We do a lot on email but we do try to have face-to-face meetings with as many of our suppliers as we can. We use video conferencing, we use Skype, they visit us in the UK quite a lot, and we go out to the Far East to visit them. But the closer they are to home, the easier it is to spend time with them."

M&Co uses a smaller number of suppliers to avoid spreading themselves too thinly, Redman says, which enables the buying team to build closer relationships.

"We spend a lot of time with our suppliers, having regular updates, getting in tune with and under the skin of the supplier so we understand what makes them tick, and likewise, they understand what works for us."

Fine tuning the relationship

And that relationship-building works both ways. From a supplier perspective, improving processes in order to better sync with the customer can be key.

Elvan Unluturk, director of Turkish ready-to-wear producer Sun Tekstil, a supplier to retailers such as Tesco and Marks & Spencer, says the leaner a company is, the faster it will be.

"We are trying to adapt our organisation to that of our customers' organisations. Most organisations are top-heavy and sometimes it takes ages to get decisions and to make things happen.

"We work in teams, which means every customer team has a merchandiser, a person for planning production, purchasing, fabrics, etc. And within that team there is a team leader who is the main point of contact for the customer. Organisations, in order to be quicker, have to be the same as their customer. Improving processes is the most important thing. It takes time to understand how to implement it, but it's definitely worth it."

M&Co, which has a similar set-up with the majority of its suppliers, says it can be cost-effective in the long run to make such changes to the business.

"Obviously it depends on the size of the business…but as the business grows, to have a dedicated account manager at a supplier dealing with all of our business is the best way forward," Redman says.

Attracting buyers

Also key for a supplier is ensuring they are on the ball when it comes to knowing what its customer wants and needs.

"It's about keeping up with trends, and knowing what's going on in the market, offering styles you think the current design team has missed," Wach explains. "You need to keep your supplier up to date with what's selling so they can react quicker. We work so closely with most of our suppliers they are aware continually of what we're actually working on."

Redman agrees. Particularly when supplying for M&Co's teen range, which involves catering for a fickle target market that can require a quick turnaround as fashions change direction, sometimes as often as daily.

"We source a lot of product in the UK and Turkey [for this range], close to home so we can react quickly. What they want on Monday might be very different to what they want on Wednesday so you have to be very reactive and very quick to get the product to market.

"Helping a supplier understand our business is a big part of what we do, for them to understand what we're looking for. For any supplier wanting to increase its business with a retailer, it's really about getting under their skin. I've had many suppliers approach me over email trying to sell me something completely inappropriate. You need to visit their stores, look at their website, understand their consumers. That will make it much easier to then sell into that retailer."

With competition amongst suppliers ramping up as retailers and brands increasingly look for speed to market, Unluturk agrees it is important for a supplier to put themselves in the consumer's shoes.

"This is a buyer's market so suppliers need to understand what the person on the street wants both at home and abroad. If you want to sell to the UK, you have to understand what the UK consumer wants. But if the company is selling globally, you have to also understand the end consumer.

She adds: "You also have to be very trend driven and trends don't wait. You have to be very quick in finding the right garment to put on the right shelf at the right time. And timing is a crucial part of that.

"People think big brands are designing all the time but not always. Most of the time they pick up the phone and say, we want so many skirts in this style. You have to be willing to make more than you should, and to make mistakes. But creating the right product pays off."

For many large brands, like Oasis and M&Co, the relationship with their suppliers has been built over many years, and changes very little – for as Redman explains, this can be a complicated and long process.

"The door is never closed to new suppliers but we are very selective about who we see. There is a lot of work to be done before we would consider taking product off a supplier. And it requires a lot of research. We don't change them that regularly, but with the exchange rate the way it is currently, there is always pressure on price and speed to market. So at certain points in time, an opportunity might pop up where we might need a new supplier. It's rare that we take on a new one, so when we do it has to be the right one."

Changing role of the buyer

Building a strong and lasting relationship between a retailer and a supplier, however, also depends on ensuring buyers coming into the industry have the right training and knowledge to do the job to the best of their ability. But all too often this is not happening, the executives say.

"These days people want to get where they're going so much faster than they used to, and training and gaining the experience as a buyer takes a long time," Redman explains. "Buyers now are getting promoted to that level quicker than they used to, and therefore they aren't getting the right level of experience and understanding of how suppliers work.

"I gained an understanding from the ground up of what goes on in a factory and how that impacts business. These days it's very rare that an assistant buyer would get the opportunity – for many reasons and cost is generally the main one – to have that level of training and that level of growth. It has changed quite a lot."

To try to address this M&Co offers training schemes for its new buyers, covering everything from measuring a zip to ethics, in order to give them "as much detail as possible." The company also uses a shared platform where those travelling can post videos and pictures from factory floors to help teams back in the UK better understand the process of manufacturing a garment.

The close relationship brands are building with their suppliers is almost allowing them have something of a vertical system without actually owning the factories.  

"That is what we're aiming for in terms of how that relationship should work," confirms M&Co's Redman. "As a business, we try to deal wit suppliers in the Far East, for example, that have a vertical set-up. Having as much of the yarn spinning, dyeing and garment producing done on the site as possible. You are reducing the amount of time and having as high a level of control as possible. Those days of retailers owning factories are very few now."

Click on the following links to read other articles based on seminars at Fashion SVP:

Top tips for choosing and evaluating your suppliers

What are the advantages and challenges of local sourcing?

Apparel manufacturers mull uncertainty of Brexit