Ransoms, rickshaws and recognition…

MAY 2018

Fresh out of an amazing double win at the Brand and Lifestyle Licensing Awards (B&LLA’s) in April, we are head down in preparation for our next round of overseas supplier visits. The win was for our innovative collaboration with The Military Wives Choirs, in producing a range of home and fashion accessories to help fund the charity in its endeavours to support the families of our military personnel, and the way in which we executed the delivery of this range in store. It is an amazing feeling to be recognised by the licensing industry for the work we have done; they are an incredible group of companies and people, whom I have the utmost respect for. Licensing is one of the most diverse, exciting and fast growing areas of retail, and it fascinates me how we can take a property and work with the licensees and licensor to create something so innovative and special, across a wide variety of product categories. However, there is no time to bask in the glory, or dwell on our success, we have to get on with the planning and negotiation of our core ranges for SS19.

We arrive in Dhaka in the early evening, as dusk descends and the ever present beeping horns, millions of people and uncontrollable traffic are all swirling in the stifling humidity. By the time we have checked in, and descended to the hotel buffet for dinner, we are a man down already…… one designer with a mysterious sickness bug which can only have been the consequence of something eaten en route. It does not bode well for the rest of our trip! The rest of us tuck into our first meal, accompanied by a glass of wine from the duty free we bought in Dubai. You may think this is an odd thing to do, until you read a wine list in Dhaka…. The cheapest bottle on this particular list is around £80 (Jacobs Creek Shiraz), and we cannot bring ourselves to expect that to be acceptable on expenses!

Day 1 starts off following the usual pattern, as the boyswear buyer and I are picked up for the long journey to our first factory. Surprisingly, we arrive in just over an hour, having taken a “short cut” along some very dubious (and very bumpy) roads. Having arrived to meet our colleagues at this first class jersey factory, we proceed to work our way through style after style, which in true Bangladeshi style, takes forever! Negotiation is tough, cotton prices are going up, as are labour rates in Bangladesh, both factors combining to create quite a tense atmosphere. I have been here many times before, however, and under far worse circumstances, although the current state of the market in the UK is creating significant pressure on both retailers and suppliers alike. With numerous retailer administrations & CVA’s underway for some major players on the UK high street, and the looming prospect of a merger between Asda and Sainsbury’s, our suppliers are nervous about what the immediate future might bring. It is worth remembering that, as tough as it is for us in the UK, it is equally, if not more difficult for most of the sources we are dealing with, and in my book negotiation is all about achieving a positive, and more importantly, profitable outcome for both parties. Our suppliers are no good to us if they are in financial difficulty because we have pushed too hard, and this has to be balanced with the need for us as a retailer to maintain profitability at prices our customers are prepared to pay. It can be frustrating, and is often exhausting, but under these circumstances it is critical to keep emotion out of it! I have witnessed, first hand in the past, the effect that an angry, frustrated buyer can have on the process, with it imploding and agreement reached on nothing. I have probably made reference to this quote in the past, but as Marigay McKee once said, when Chief Merchant at Harrods “the most charming buyers get the best deals”. I still believe this to be true, even after so much change in the industry, and that the relationships we build as buyers, with our sources worldwide, have the potential to make or break a business.

After 12 hours, and over 80 styles reviewed and negotiated encompassing boys, girls and babywear, everyone is exhausted, and we pile into the car, along with some of the merchandising team from the factory to head back into the city. Unfortunately we have barely made it 10 minutes down the road before the traffic grinds to a halt, and we are stationary for over half an hour, in the inky black darkness, lit up only by all the traffic headlights. The only entertainment is to watch other, less patient drivers, careering up the wrong side of the road, or a lorry lurching at an alarming angle, in and out of the ditch beside us as it tries to avoid the queue. At one point it is leaning so dramatically over us that I have to squeeze my eyes tight shut, surely it is going to topple? However, disaster averted the truck continues on its perilous progress, narrowly missing other cars, trees and people wandering about in the dark, or,  having just got out to take a leak. There are men peeing everywhere, where do they all come from? And why do they all seem to need to pee at the same time, in the same place…… I shut my eyes, again! A face appears, knocking at the window, making us jump with surprise, but it turns out to be another member of the factory team, who was in a car behind us, coming to apologise for the traffic! I ask if it is possible to turn around and take the “short cut” back the way we came this morning? His response is not what I was looking for. No, he says, it is far too dangerous, as there are many car jackings after dark on that road. On balance, after considering (momentarily!) the likelihood of the company coughing up the ransom money for a couple of buyers missing in action, we stay where we are! Nose to tail amongst the painted and battered trucks! Only at this point does someone mention the fact that commercial vehicles are not allowed into the city during the day; the ban lifts at 10pm, at which point there is a crazy rush of hurtling, beeping, lorries careering along every route. I look at my watch, it is 10.10pm and why, oh why, are they only telling me this now? We eventually arrive back at the hotel just before 1am, stiff from sitting in the car for so long, starving hungry, having had access only to a bag of mixed nuts and a cereal bar since lunchtime. The restaurant is closed & room service will take 30 mins; I give up, take a sleeping tablet and get straight into bed, only to be awoken a couple of hours later by the most incredible storm. Forked lightening, deafening thunder and wind that makes the windows shake as if they are going to blow in, are not condusive to a good nights sleep, even without the jet lag kicking in!

What feels like a very few hours later, and bleary eyed, we are up to meet our colleagues (including a pale, but recovering designer) for breakfast, and are then picked up to meet another supplier, with whom we plan to spend the day. Here too, negotiations are very difficult and at times we seem to be going round and round in circles, making no progress. We park the trickiest styles, and keep moving on, coming back to the most contentious ones later in the day. After a much needed break for lunch in the company flat next door, the pace of the discussions gains momentum. We have made a breakthrough and managed to get some styles agreed. In the meantime, I have had a  discussion with their new CEO about the state of the UK market, and business going forward, which gives me renewed optimism. By the time we come back to the last few remaining styles, we are on a roll, and manage to get everything finalised. It is 9pm, and yet again, we have spent 12hrs locked in discussion. Everyone packs up their laptops, files, garments and phones, and we leave for a late dinner at a Thai restaurant close by, some of us in the car, and the two remaining (local designer and our British account manager) in a rickshaw. After last nights conversations about carjackings, I am a little worried for her safety, but they arrive a few minutes behind us. It is a real treat to be out in a restaurant that is not encapsulated in one of the major hotels, and once the wine has been poured everyone starts to relax and enjoy a truly lovely meal. Exhausted, we arrive back at the hotel at 11.30pm, only to start packing for an early flight to Delhi in the morning. My 2 days in Dhaka has passed in a blur.

We are at the airport by 8am, and as soon as the plane leaves the ground, I am catching up on much needed sleep, waking slightly dishevelled as we come in to land in a very hot, dry and arid Delhi. I leave my mens and boyswear colleagues, who are catching a connecting flight to Bangalore, and head out through the arrivals hall to be met by one of the hotel drivers, in his white suit and hat! On climbing into the car I am offered a blissfully ice cold and fragrant hand towel, bottle of water and in car Wifi, whilst we undertake the short drive to the hotel, and the oasis of calm amidst the chaos, that is the Trident in Gurgaon. We have stayed here on a number of occasions, as it is close to a number of the suppliers we work with, and they welcome me back with friendly smiles and a complimentary room upgrade.

Ten minutes to freshen up, unpack a few necessities, and I am disappearing through the “hole in the wall” into the sister hotel that is the Oberoi, to meet our babywear buyer and head of design, along with one of our suppliers, for a late lunch, and to catch up on progress so far. They have set up camp in a meeting room in the business centre, so having seen our babywear colleagues off to the airport for their early evening flight to Coimbatore, I settle down to talk business strategy in general, and to work on a few styles for boyswear, who will not be visiting Delhi. It is impossible for every team to visit every supplier location on every trip, they would stretch to be unfeasibly long and costly expeditions, so I try and pick up the slack, dipping in and out of one supplier or another in each location, to fill in the gaps and negotiate outstanding prices/review samples etc. This particular supplier is based around four hours by train from Delhi, so it is simply not workable to visit every season. By the time we have finished our meeting, the girlswear team have arrived back from Nehru Place, the Delhi fabric market, filled with inspiration, print ideas, trims and accessories. They arrived in Delhi early that morning, after an overnight flight from home, and are shattered, so we opt for a low key dinner at the hotel buffet, a much needed glass of wine and an early night. I am very pleased to be crawling into bed with the prospect of actually getting a full 8 hours sleep, and still having time for a 7am swim before breakfast!

The following morning one buyer heads off to see a factory nearby, whilst the other buyer and myself, along with the girlswear designer head back to the business centre in the Oberoi for another quick morning meeting. In the afternoon we are heading out into the 42 degree heat and a nearby factory, to begin developing and briefing new designs that the team have been working on. Both girls buyers, and the designer are busy drawing up CAD sketches and swatching, creating a program of samples to put into work, based on our trend boards and colour palettes for the spring 2019 season. Some design packs have been sent out in advance, but in this particular case, most of the development is done on site, taking inspiration from styles and fabrics we have seen here, or samples we have brought with us to work on. It is a very fluid, creative process, which relies greatly on the buyers and designers imagination, inventiveness and product development skills, coupled with their knowledge and experience of what has worked in the past, and is likely to cost into our pricing architecture. I consider myself lucky to be working with such a talented, creative and hardworking team!

I also take a quick tour around the very quiet factory, and stop to greet the pattern master – a couple of our orders are in the finishing and packing department, so I am able to see completed production of these AW18 styles before they leave. It is 9pm by the time we have finished, and again, we head straight out for dinner with our hosts, to somewhere new, The Delhi Club House. The menu is a fusion of dishes from many of the old British colonial club houses around India, and includes just about every favoured dish from a broad selection of cuisines. When combined with a lively crowd and some great music, it really does prove to be a great Friday night out in Delhi!

The following morning is a saturday, and we have an early pick up, heading over to the other side of the city for a visit to a factory which is newer to us. The roads are surprisingly quiet, even for a saturday morning, and we settle down to the job at hand in a really inspiring showroom, full of great new development ideas. We work on through the morning, and stop briefly for a delicious “home cooked” Indian lunch. I am always so grateful for the hospitality we experience on these visits – it still amazes me how much trouble our suppliers will go to to ensure that we are well looked after! I also find it excruciatingly uncomfortable that we rarely manage to reciprocate with a similar level of hospitality when they visit us in London. The afternoon rolls on with a great deal more design and product development, however, it is only a matter of time before we become slightly distracted by events going on back home…… today is the Harry & Meghan Royal Wedding, and it seems our Indian hosts are equally as interested as we are!

Once back at the hotel, we have a brief moment of peace for a quick swim and a Jasmine Martini by the pool, to toast the royal couple, before sitting down for a quiet dinner. It very quickly becomes apparent to me that all is not well! I am hot and dizzy, and feeling very queasy, so I make an early exit and spend a very disturbed night, closely followed by a 6am alarm call. I am feeling very fragile, as I try to consume something for breakfast, before leaving for the airport once more, and the short flight to Bangalore. There is a very long check in queue, and upon reaching the desk, we go through the usual palaver of having to pay for excess baggage; the consequence of carrying all these samples and paperwork, but we are also asked if we have any “batteries, inflammables or coconuts” in our checked baggage!?!? Now that’s one I’ve never been asked before! Apparently they are prone to exploding due to the change in air pressure, but who on earth packs coconuts in their luggage?

Arriving at the Leela in Bangalore a few hours later, all I really need is a light un-spicy lunch and a few hours off to wind down (the only few hours we will get in an 11 day trip), but my day is shattered by some very distressing news from home and the only food on offer being the bottomless brunch buffet and some very questionable, very loud cabaret (Peter Andre meets Tom Jones, Indian style). We eat quickly and leave, meeting the babywear team who have arrived from Coimbatore, and congregating around the pool to catch up on our trip so far, trading information on which suppliers we have seen and the outcomes of each meeting. I depart to FaceTime home, and try to comprehend what is going on from a distance, but it is never easy, dealing with distraught children and partners from a different continent, in a different time zone, and feeling like you really should be there for support, but knowing that even if you were, there is really nothing you can do to make the situation any better. All in the name of clothing….. it leaves me feeling numb and questioning my priorities.

Monday morning arrives, and with it more factory and showroom visits. I am with the babywear team in the morning, visiting a factory which makes soft wovens and dresses.  We have tried a slightly different tactic this trip, in an attempt to drive up hit rate, and reduce the amount of sampling, being much more selective about what gets put into work. The teams have worked on development of new styles/blocks/specs prior to leaving the UK, which have been made up in available fabrics to assess and cost the styles. Having decided which ones are most likely to make the cut, the buyer gets on with negotiating prices, whilst I move on to meet the girlswear team at another factory across town. This supplier has major growth potential for us, but there are some issues we need to iron out. We are not the largest of retailers, and our smaller volume orders are vying for space on production lines which are producing for much larger businesses, who place orders which might be 20 or 30 times the size of ours. In theory, this works for both us and them, as we can benefit from tagging on to the back of much larger fabric orders, whilst the factory is using our small runs to fill in the gaps in their capacity…… It is a symbiotic relationship but we need to re-establish some parameters, in essence, a framework of what, when, why and how to ensure that orders are processed in an effective and timely manner. Yet again, we are at the factory til late, whilst a phenomenal storm rages outside, and the rain descends in sheets, and, yet again, we head straight from the factory to dinner. There really is no downtime on this trip!!!

Day 2 in Banglore and I am back with the babywear team again, weaving our way through the city streets, and the vegetable market (short cut?) out onto the highway to one of our key factories. We are greeted by the team with wonderful bouquets of roses, and get stuck in to a morning of reviewing some fantastic samples, and more price negotiation. This is another factory that always makes a phenomenal effort to create every sample we have requested, as close as possible to our design/colour specifications, which gives them a far better chance of making it through the sign off process and securing orders. Having reviewed all of the samples and made adjustments where necessary, tweaking a fabric base, colour, shape, trim, graphic or embellishment, we move on to negotiating prices, before lunch arrives. This is a “meat free” factory so we tuck into a variety of tasty vegetarian dhals and vegetable curries, and the ever present paneer, which I love! I seem to be talking about food a lot……again, mainly because it can make or break a trip like this. Having had instances of both myself and other team members falling seriously ill on occasions, on these trips, I have a series of rules which I try to adhere to when on these visits! These include a really high potency probiotic, and multivitamin every day; plenty of bottled water to combat dehydration, stick to local cuisine unless in one of the major hotels, and even there it is advisable; never eat seafood unless you are near the coast (I failed on this count but without ill effect this time!) and never, ever, ever eat sushi from a buffet or brush your teeth with tap water!

We leave the central sewing and processing factory we are based in, and head out to see a brand new unit a short distance away. As is to be expected with this particular company, it is immaculate and exceptionally well organised, has every available technical advancement, and the workforce are happy and well looked after. I am in awe of this business, and its owner, whom I first met in my previous role, when it was one factory. Over the past 9 years, I have watched it grow into a vast, well run operation, with 7 production units, its’ own brand of childrens clothing, and a retail network extending right across India. Having viewed this new site, we think we are heading back to the main factory, but our hosts have other ideas. They are keen to treat us on the way back, with a visit to McDonalds, Indian style! I don’t ever eat McDonalds when I am in the UK, let alone in India. We protest that it is not necessary, we are not hungry, etc but they are insistent. I still do not understand why this was such a big deal when we had only finished lunch a couple of hours ago? Maybe they were keen to eat meat, having been deprived at lunch, but I think it unlikely, given that they must be used to it, and meat free meals here are far from unusual. Or maybe they were worried that we needed some supplementary protein, despite the fact that one of us is vegetarian anyway!?!? Maybe it was simply a delaying tactic, for some reason, we will probably never know, unless one of them is reading this post! However, they are insistent, and only after some spicy chicken strips, masala wedges and a photocall with Ronald, are they happy to get back in the car and return to the factory. We plough on through a series of lab dips, fabrics, strike offs, buttons, trims and appliques, approving as much as we can whilst we are here, to minimise the amount of approvals needing to be sent backwards and forwards to and from the UK, eventually departing late in the evening, for another long car journey back to the hotel.

After one final day of product development and negotiation with our final supplier visit on this tour, at their office in the centre of Banglore, and a particularly memorable Indian barbecue lunch (food….again!) we are more than ready to head for home.

My major takeaway from this round of visits, is to reinforce what we already know….. Buying is not a science, and however much we might want to package everything up in a concise and consistent, measurable manner, it simply does not work like that. Buying is a creative art, a merging of technical and behavioural skills, built on knowledge, understanding, personality, teamwork, relationships, passion for product, and often, “gut feeling”. Every buyer has a slightly different way of doing things, and there is huge skill involved in understanding how to adapt their style of development and negotiation, according to the region, and the supplier they are working with. It is not a level playing field; every supplier will be subject to different economic, political, social, environmental and technical pressures, and even dealing with the same source, in the same location may require a different approach between one visit and the next. Yes, there are elements of “best practice” we can apply but there is no single formula for success!

NOVEMBER 2017

A trip like the one we have just returned from always reminds me that sometimes, it is a complete and utter privilege to have the job that I have. Working for a “uniquely” British, privately owned, high street retailer is not without its’ challenges and frustrations; it can be exhausting and infuriating, but it is also enlightening and exhilerating, fascinating and on occasions, entirely inspiring.

This latest round of supplier visits found me embarking on a tour taking in 12 days, 3 countries, 7 flights, 5 hotels, 32+ hrs of hair raising car journeys, 9 supplier meetings, numerous factory visits, hundreds of samples assessed and prices negotiated, and some very questionable toilet facilities! In total we are a team of 10, all leaving and arriving in different places, at different times, intersecting in order to join up for key appointments, with particular buyers and designers focussing on different regions and suppliers, dependant on the department they are buying for. All of my team are buying multi product departments, requiring them to flex between trousers and jackets, denim and knitwear, jersey and shirts, dresses and skirts. We cannot all visit every supplier in every location, so in some places the buyers or I are negotiating on behalf of other members of our team, to cover off particular product types. The whole itinerary is a carefully planned, ever evolving jigsaw puzzle, all put together within a very tight budget, to try and drive out the most efficient and beneficial long term results for the business and its suppliers.

The trip began with our head of design, and one of the buyers, departing for South Korea, in search of new and exciting inspiration for the AW2018 season. I began my journey a few days later, on a sunday evening, leaving Gatwick bound for Hong Kong, where myself and those coming from Korea, along with another buyer and designer, would join forces to see our key Chinese suppliers. The focus here is on outerwear, knitwear and fleece, for which China is still the strongest source for us, despite the increasing costs and instability of sterling vs USD.

Brexit is a hot topic of conversation, and forms part of the discussion in just about every meeting. Our overseas colleagues cannot believe what is happening any more than we can, and many of them think it is simply laughable that we, supposedly one of the most highly developed nations on earth, can get ourselves into such a mess! What do we think will happen? What sort of implications will it have for British business? How might it change the way we trade, both within the EU and with the rest of the world? All I can tell them at this point, is that we really do not know, and until the government gets its act together and starts to make real progress, all we can really do is speculate. However, having recently taken part in a conference staged by the ASBCI, on the potential impact of Brexit, what I am sure of is that we need to be planning for every eventuality. There are many potential outcomes, both positive and negative, dependant upon the sort of deal the government negotiates, if there is a deal at all. Without effective planning we will be unable to react as quickly and decisively as we need to, in order to minimise damage and maximise potential from any changes to the way we trade.

There follows a few days of supplier discussions and negotiations, dashing from one appointment to the next all over Kowloon, jumping in and out of the distinctive Hong Kong red taxi’s with their eternally grumpy taxi drivers! The negotiation is tough; long laborious discussions about rising labour costs, and in many instances, we are trying to move on core products and lead in pricepoint styles. Inevitably, any changes we have designed, tend to add cost rather than subtract it, so it is a balancing act of generating newness, whilst minimising the impact of new styling details. It takes the combined efforts of the problem solving minds of myself, our head of design, and each supplier, to come up with the best possible solutions for the business, which will increase sales turnover and profit, whilst still offering the customer a great product at a great price.

Hong Kong also offers me a brief opportunity to catch up with some old friends from my time with M&S, and it is a great pleasure to see them! We also spend some downtime with one or two of our key suppliers in the evenings, getting to know them and their teams a little better, further developing those relationships which will help us achieve success here. It is my firm belief that making the effort to socialise with our suppliers outside the office really makes a difference when it comes to the buying and negotiation process, and over the years, I have made a great many good friends around the world as a result.

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I have one last morning appointment on our final day in Hong Kong, before heading to the airport with one of my buying team for the journey that will take us, via Bangkok, to Dhaka, Bangladesh. The second leg is delayed, and we eventually arrive at our destination at around 2am. No time to unpack, I need to cram in a few hours sleep; the menswear buyer and I have an early pick up, heading out to a major knitwear supplier, for which the CEO is joining us.

We spend the morning discussing mens knitwear programs and key seasonal deals, before breaking for lunch, which is a selection of tasty, but also spicy, local dishes. The boyswear buyer and designer arrive and we move on to our next appointment, with a key source for casual wovens, the first introduction to this supplier set up for our CEO. We discuss the factory units we are using, the management set up and design/fabric sourcing resource The day ends with us heading straight to dinner with the supplier, at a newly opened nearby hotel, where the other buyers and designers join us. The Italian food is delicious, but I am stunned by the prices in this place! It never ceases to amaze me that, here in Dhaka, eating a meal, or drinking a glass of wine, can be extortionately expensive.

The following morning, two of the buyers, a designer, and myself, head out for a flight to Chittagong, to visit three factories. This is not a journey I have undertaken before, and it is with some trepidation that I board the small propellor plane for the 40 minute flight. I needn’t have worried, it passes without incident, and we are soon deposited into the slightly greener, leafier surroundings of the city, although the roads are in significantly worse condition, and we enjoy a boneshaker of a car journey to our first factory.

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Dedication, diligence and determination………

As is frequently the case when we are planning and undertaking these mammoth buying trips, things do not go according to plan! This time we are a team of 12 buyers, designers and technologists, not necessarily all arriving and leaving the same place at the same time, but frequently intersecting and overlapping in hotels and supplier offices along the way. Being a childrenswear, menswear and homeware team, each buying/design team is responsible for every clothing product type within an age range, sourcing everything from swimwear to outerwear, denim to t-shirts, knitwear to dresses and so on. The homeware buyer is similarly buying everything from towels to bedlinen, cushions to kitchenware, and all manner of home accessories.

All of them have to be multi-tasking experts, with a very broad product knowledge, and the ability to work at breakneck speed, while delivering unique product, of great quality, at the best price, from a wide variety of predominantly direct sources. They are all dedicated, diligent and determined to deliver the best possible product offer for the business, and as a result, they undertake a punishing schedule of early starts, interminably long car journeys, through horrendous traffic, and late night flights, frequently working late into the evening and over the weekend. We also endeavour to socialize with our suppliers and factory owners on these trips, in order to build and further develop long-term relationships, built on trust, and a thorough understanding of what makes them tick. Many of the suppliers that I have worked with over the years have become lifelong friends because I take this approach, and I firmly believe that it is necessary to develop a deep understanding of their business, and what motivates them, to really achieve true “partnerships”. We are not the biggest of retailers, and we face some unique challenges, but one of the things I hear time and time again from our suppliers, is that they really love dealing with my teams because of their professional approach and willingness to work together to achieve the best end result for both parties. After all, it is really not in our interest for our suppliers to suffer or be in financial trouble as a result of ruthless negotiation techniques. Having said that, I don’t think any of them would say we were a pushover! We drive a hard bargain, but we are also realistic and pragmatic in our approach!

We travel “en mass” this way because it offers us the best opportunity to consolidate and negotiate cross-departmentally, with me acting as an “umbrella” across all departments, pulling together the potential and price over a variety of deals, offers and programmed lines to deliver our promotional plans and ensure that we meet all the criteria outlined in our strategy. It is a very complicated itinerary, with myself and our head of design dipping in and out of as many appointments as possible, to ensure that we end up with a cohesive, cost-effective and deliverable product range, which lives up to our values of offering a great choice of product, with broad appeal, at great value, which absolutely meets the needs of our customer. At a time like the present, when the high street is suffering, footfall is down, and we are really feeling the effect of Brexit on the exchange rate, we have to be even more creative than ever to motivate our customers to buy, and that starts with brilliant, innovative product at fantastic prices.

This trip starts with a disaster! The one-year-old daughter of one of our team has a nasty accident the day before we leave, and requires an operation to repair severe damage to her finger, on our day of departure. Operation over, ever dedicated, the buyer in question hot foots it to the airport, just in time to catch the flight, leaving her little girl in the care of loving relatives. I have vivid, heart-stopping memories of being in Sri Lanka, when my then teenage son ran into a wall whilst playing football at school, breaking one arm and dislocating the other shoulder, and waiting over an hour for an ambulance. I, meanwhile, helpless, had a meltdown at the other end of the phone, whilst waiting for a flight home which could not come soon enough. It is never easy, as a mother who travels regularly, leaving your children behind, even more upsetting if they are unwell or injured. We spend long days, and often weeks, away from our families, and I still cannot fight the feelings of sickness in the pit of my stomach as I get in the car, leaving my “children” (aged 18 & 23!) behind. This may seem daft! Obviously, it was more difficult for me when they were tiny, and it does get easier as they grow up and become more independent, but the type of worry simply evolves and changes…….it never leaves you. This time, as I depart, my daughter is in the middle of her ‘A’ level exams, and my son is working hard to develop his fledgling osteopathic business, both things that they are now more than capable of dealing with on their own, but it still doesn’t shake the feeling that I am deserting them when they might need me. Dealing with this type of anxiety is a finely honed skill, and something I have learned to cope with over many years. The sickness fades, and a bubbling excitement starts to build, as we arrive at the airport and I begin to adjust my focus to the task at hand, two weeks of non-stop flights, sleepless nights, negotiations, product development, relationship building and factory visits. As I have mentioned many times before, I love this element of my job – I love airports, the flying itself, the exposure to different cities & culture, the creativity, the negotiation and banter, and above all, the people. This is a people focussed business, built on the strength of reputation and relationship, and one that I revel in!

Having met a few of the team at Gatwick, we embark on a movie fest on the first leg, before meeting up with the rest of the team, in what is now an 11 strong group, in Dubai, making our way towards Dhaka. There is always a slight sense of anticipation and trepidation as we land, even more so for those who have never been here before. We arrive in the early evening dusk, to be greeted by the hotel staff, out into the hot and sticky, teeming streets of the city, thronging with crowds of people. A group of western women the size of ours attracts a lot of interest, and as we pull out into the ever present traffic jam, there are a lot of people staring, small children waving at us from the cars alongside, and the inevitable desperate individuals, weaving in and out of the cars, buses, rickshaws, and motor bikes, tapping on the windows, begging for money. It is a reality check, a reminder of the poverty that is ever present here, and a motivator to ensure that we continue to support our contacts and suppliers in this region, enabling them to maintain ethical standards and levels of employment. Walking away from production in Bangladesh is not an option for us; the business has been producing clothing here for over 40 years, and to walk away now, when it is more difficult than ever, would simply result in even greater poverty, unemployment and homelessness. We have a responsibility, as a retailer sourcing in this region, to work with our sources to ensure that they are efficient, safe and treat their workforce well. We also support a charity here that takes children from deprived areas and puts them through school/university, enabling them to qualify for better jobs and work their way out of poverty.

A train passes us by, not only crammed full of people on the inside, but with hundreds traveling seated on the roof. I shudder to think what might happen if it had to stop suddenly. Someone comments that the embattled buses look as if they have been through the car crusher, and then unfolded to try and create, fairly unsuccessfully, what they looked like before. Most of them have not a single inch of undented, unscratched surface area, many have huge cracks in their windscreens, and we even see one with no windscreen at all! What seems to be normality in Dhaka is certainly very different to the reality back home. We have a brief rest, time to partially unpack (no point in unpacking everything, we are only here for 4 nights), and then meet for a light dinner before getting an early night to try and banish any jet lag.

Day 1 and we are raring to go! I am with the girls wear teams this morning, visiting one of our denim suppliers. We have worked with them for a number of years, but the buyers have never been to the factory before. I make a spectacular entrance, tripping up at the top of the stairs and sprawling on my hands and knees……the after effects of the jet lag, lack of sleep, heat and 8 flights of stairs seem to have gotten to me already. Still, I always like to create a memorable first impression, I don’t suppose they’ll forget me in a hurry! Having reached the meeting room, we put our bags down, and then its back down again, all the way to the bottom, to start the factory tour…….

Denim production is fascinating, and we see everything from incoming fabric, fabric inspection, cutting, sewing, hand beading, metal detection, and all manner of wet and dry processing to achieve the customers desired appearance and finish. It is absolutely amazing, what can be achieved during washing and processing to create the worn, ripped or embellished appearance of modern jeans in our stores. Most of it is very manual, you simply would not believe the way in which this is achieved unless you saw it with your own eyes, so here are a few of the most interesting elements of making a pair of jeans…….

As day one draws to a close, we all gather for dinner, various teams arriving at different intervals, dependent on where they have come from and what the traffic was like. The same journey here can take an hour one day, and three hours the next, which makes it very difficult to plan anything effectively. However, eventually, we are all seated and looking forward to our dinner, with many opting for tandoori style kebabs, delicious! Each arrives, however, with a small cabbage leaf at the base, with a smoking piece of charcoal in it; an attempt, I guess, at creating the smell of the grill, but successful only in surrounding us with choking smoke. I am not sure whether to be worried or relieved that the smoke alarms fail to go off!

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Day 2, and I am at another denim supplier’s showroom, this time with the boys wear team, looking at new development samples, agreeing on fabric qualities, and discussing prices. I move on to meet another supplier, leaving the team to visit the factory and wash house. My afternoon is spent in another showroom, looking at potential new product opportunities, being joined by our head of design sometime later to review samples and decide on a course of action. We strive, as a team, to be always delivering “newness” within our ranges, to entice and excite our customer, so it is always worthwhile looking at what our suppliers are making for other markets/retailers – often this throws up a new way of looking at things, or a new price point opportunity, which our design team can turn into a new product appropriate for us.

We have just enough time to head back to the hotel, for a brief freshen up, and to pick up another colleague, before the three of us head back out into the darkness and chaos…….we are eating at another hotel close by, and it becomes apparent as we arrive, that this is the source of the chaos! Apparently, the President has only just left! We sit down to dinner with our colleagues from the supplier we have met earlier in the afternoon, continuing our earlier discussions, and getting to know a little more about them and their business – we have been working with them for a while now and I have high hopes for long-term growth. We head back to the hotel, where I start picking up emails, trying to keep up with what is going on back in the UK, and responding to anything urgent. Before I know it, it is 1 am and I really need a good nights sleep!

Day 3 in Dhaka and it’s an early pickup, with the boys and menswear teams, for the long drive to meet with one of our key jersey wear sources, on the outskirts of the city. Sleep eluded me overnight, and I am feeling weary and have a raging headache……40 winks in the car, a Coke on arrival, and some Panadol, the caffeine, and painkillers kick in and I am starting to feel more normal! I travel with a veritable medicine cabinet on these tours…..there is nothing worse than feeling ill (and at some point over the two weeks, it will happen!), and not having the necessary medication at hand. I am also a firm believer in preventative action…..a heavy duty probiotic every evening, Berocca or vitamin c tablets in the morning, and whenever possible, some form of exercise. My gym kit always makes its way into my suitcase, but rarely comes out again en route! Hitting the gym whilst trying to cope with the heat, tiredness and jet lag, does not appeal, although one or two of my colleagues seem to manage. My best option is the occasional swim, or a little pilates in the morning before breakfast, to release a bit of tension and iron out the kinks in my back and neck from all the flying and endless car journeys.

We start by looking at samples…….they have made an absolutely fabulous job of most of the designs we sent out for sampling and costing prior to our visit. And so the long process of costing begins – the teams separate into two rooms to try and speed this up, but progress is slow. There is a lot of entering and leaving the room again, various people involved in the costing, coming and going, and we are struggling to get to where we need to be. It becomes very apparent, at this point, that the value of the individual as well as overall business relationship here is critically important. The buyer they know well is making good progress, but the buyer they are less familiar with, is finding it difficult to make headway…..it will take a lot of time and effort to gain the same level of trust and understanding between them! We break to head off on a factory tour, seeing every stage of the process from knitting of the fabric, through dyeing, finishing, testing, cutting, printing, embroidery, sewing, packing and despatch.

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The buyers head back off to continue costing, while we go on to see their new, state of the art, bacterial water treatment plant, which enables them to recycle the majority of their water and ensures that any water going back into the environment is clean. To the untrained eye, it looks like those boiling pools of acid that the baddie always falls into in a Bond movie!!! We see the lab here, where there is a team responsible for ensuring that the water is being constantly tested and that the good bacteria are doing their job to clean up the water. As I look at a slide of bacteria under a microscope, it takes me right back to being an “A” level biology student……I knew those lessons would come in handy one day!

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After a brief, local Bangladeshi lunch, a couple of us head off to catch up with the girls wear teams at another supplier, leaving the boys and men’s buyers to continue their discussions. The buyers are also deep in negotiation here, so we head off on a tour around the various showrooms, each of which has a fingerprint identity scanning device to enter! Far more sophisticated than our own office back in the UK! Back at our hotel that evening, we sit down to dinner with the jersey supplier we saw earlier in the day, a number of their team joining us – we are quite a party! But not a party that is enjoying a glass of wine with their dinner……it is a religious festival on this particular evening, and there is no alcohol being served!

The following morning, we are packed, checked out and ready to leave Dhaka. On reaching the airport, we are yet again attracting a lot of attention, not least our baby wear technologist, who, at 6ft 2in, dwarfs the local people, as well as the rest of us! The lounge is closed but no-one seems to know why, so we head straight for the gate, to be met by one long snaking queue. Now I am normally known for being pretty patient, but I do expect to get what we’ve paid for, and having business class tickets, I decide that the only course of action is to head to the front and present our paperwork. We are sent straight through, but I can feel the black looks of those still in the queue, burning holes in the back of my head.

The team are met by hotel staff at the airport in Delhi and are whisked away to check in and freshen up, before heading off to the fabric market. Outside it is 44 degrees celsius, and as soon as I step into the sun, I can feel it searing the skin on my arms. I do not envy my team a trip to Nehru Place in this weather, but it really doesn’t take 8 of us to go searching for fabric developments. Meanwhile, I spot a familiar face in the crowd and head straight off to a supplier showroom for a meeting. They have, as usual, laid on a really lovely lunch, and at this point I am ravenous. We discuss various aspects of our business together, the state of the retail market in the UK and the impact of the exchange rate, and what we hope to achieve over the next couple of days when two of my teams will have meetings with them. These are not going to be easy negotiations!

Our homeware buyer joins me, having arrived from China a day or two earlier, and we head down the corridor to see a home accessories company, before making our way back to the hotel. On arrival, they appear to have moved the front entrance, from its usual spot to the far side of the hotel, down a long driveway inside the grounds. I cannot for the life of me understand the purpose of doing this until someone later explains. A new law has been introduced, banning the sale of alcohol within 500m of a “highway”, so they have moved the entrance, meaning that technically, the hotel is now more than 500m from the road, despite not having actually moved at all. The reason for this law, apparently, is to stop the truckers and drivers from stopping off and having a drink or two before continuing their journey, which all sounds very sensible, but what are the chances of them stopping for a drink in a 5-star hotel????

I take the opportunity for a brief, refreshing, early evening swim in the still suffocating heat as the sun fades, before changing for dinner. It is now Friday night and we are off out to dinner at Cyber City (Delhi’s very modern tech hub, full of internet companies, bars, and restaurants) with a key factory owner and his wife, a couple that I have a huge amount of time and respect for. By the time we actually sit down to eat it is very late, but the Indian “tapas” style food is great and a glass or two of local Indian wine goes down very well! Sleep, however, is still eluding me, and despite the very comfy hotel pillows, I toss and turn all night, and am suffering by breakfast the next day.

Saturday morning dawns and we are off to first one new factory, with our girls teen wear buyer, then another that we deal with regularly, where the girls wear team are busy putting the fabrics they picked up from the market into sampling for development. This factory is small, but perfectly formed, and on a completely different scale to the huge set ups we have seen in Dhaka. We have worked very closely with them for a number of years so that they have a real understanding of what we are looking for, and they make a beautiful job of dresses, sets and other lightweight wovens for our baby and girls departments. I would like to see this factory at maximum capacity all year round, but with the best will in the world, on both sides, our production requirements ebb and flow, and it is very difficult for us to guarantee a consistent level of production every month. I leave the teams here, working on developments, while I head back to the hotel with our newly appointed Asia Sourcing Manager, who has joined us in Delhi, for another supplier meeting.

So, it’s Saturday night in Delhi, and we deserve a night off! We all pile into a couple of cars and head out to a friend and long time suppliers’ “farm” on the outskirts of Gurgaon.   Some are arriving straight from their last appointment, and by the time we all gather we are quite a crowd. The unwavering generosity and hospitality of the people we know here never ceases to amaze me, and we are treated to a much more relaxed evening, in a beautiful house (it is still too hot to eat outside), and in great company. I am eternally grateful for evenings like this, when we can break from the relentless pressure of negotiation, early starts and meeting after meeting, but we are all exhausted, so having eaten a fabulous home cooked Indian meal, we all head back to the hotel, and bed!

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Sunday morning, and I drag myself out of bed for an early morning massage. This is a real treat in the middle of one of these trips, restoring a little energy and releasing a lot of tension. There is no time to waste, however, and we are quickly off to the airport for a flight to Coimbatore. There is chaos at the check-in for our IndiGo flight, no-one seems to have any idea what is going on, and the queue isn’t getting any shorter. Time to “take control”! I find an exceptionally helpful man who takes all our details and works through the complicated process of checking in 11 people, 14 suitcases, and numerous pieces of large hand baggage containing designers and buyers laptops, paperwork, and files of information. It is essential in India that, not only do you have a paper copy of your ticket, to even get into the airport but also that each piece of hand luggage has a label on it which will get stamped at security. Almost an hour later, and following a £212 excess baggage payment, we are finally on our way, and the flight passes without incident.

Arriving at our hotel in Coimbatore, we find the bar closed, due to the 500m rule…..there is no opportunity here to change the point of entrance! However, it seems that the Italian restaurant at the back of the hotel is, for some reason, still able to serve wine, presumably because the restaurant itself is more than 500m from the road. The head waiter, however, insists that it is because it is an Italian restaurant, and “you simply cannot have Italian food without wine”. This rule seems to have many loopholes, and is open to all sorts of interpretation! We all turn in early, a week of sleep deprivation getting the better of us, and I resort to a sleeping tablet; I simply cannot deal with yet another sleepless night.

Monday arrives and I have, at last, managed a night of uninterrupted sleep! We say goodbye to a number of the team; they will be going straight from their afternoon appointments to the airport, for a late night flight. We will catch them up in Bangalore tomorrow. The rest of us head out to various appointments, this morning I am with the baby wear team, visiting one showroom in the morning, and then on to a huge factory in the afternoon, followed by a couple of hours spent in price negotiation. With an hours journey back to the hotel, it is long after 9 pm when we get there, only to find that the hotel is full to bursting with conference goers. There are so many of them waiting for the lift that it will take hours to get up to our floor. Where are they all going, they must be sleeping 5 to a room?!?! We find a back way up to the first-floor restaurant…….a bowl of pasta, a glass of wine and I am ready for bed! Tuesday morning and we are packed and ready to leave again, fighting our way through the chaos of the conference goers checking out.

Our early morning car journey is truly hair-raising. I am fairly hardened to dealing with car journeys throughout Bangladesh and India, but this one was something else! Even I find it disturbing when we appear to be on the wrong side of the road, driving headlong into the headlights of an oncoming painted truck…….it’s like a grown-up game of chicken. There seem to be no rules at all, and after discussion with one or two of our suppliers, there are mixed opinions on whether it is necessary to actually pass a driving test, perhaps someone could enlighten me? Regardless, the traffic is erratic and frequently frightening; I simply cannot understand how anyone ever plucks up the courage to even get behind the wheel here!

This is one of my favourite factories, a great set up, turning out immaculate production. They have made some great samples, and while the baby wear buyer gets stuck into negotiation, the designers are drawing up new ideas for development, and I head off on a factory tour with our sourcing manager and technologist. They lay on a fantastic lunch, and the merchandise manager gives us his views on healthy eating, i.e. 6 days a week vegetarian, 1 day a week meat, yoga every morning (it turns out he is a yoga master). Unsurprisingly, I am not that disciplined! We move on to another factory in the afternoon, leaving the buyer and designer deep in negotiation and sample development. I make for the airport as night descends, along with our head of design, and we share a dinner consisting of the last of my emergency rations (a Graze flapjack and a packet of fruit pastilles) while sitting at the gate. We are hot, sweaty and shattered, life has never felt less glamorous! We board the tiny, propellor-driven plane, and arrive late at night, after a forty-five-minute flight. We go from the ridiculous to the sublime, as we arrive at our last hotel of the trip. It is one of my favourites, and I sink into bed as soon as I can, unpacking just what I need for the next three days and the journey home.

The boys and men’s teams have completed their visit and we see them off to their last appointment, after which they will head straight to the airport. We are spending the day with the girl’s team at a couple of appointments, before they too, head for home, leaving me on my own to have dinner with one of our key suppliers. The baby wear team will fly in to catch me up later that night. The next day is the longest of the trip so far. Leaving the hotel at 8 am, we make our way through the morning rush hour traffic to our biggest, and I believe, best, factory. It is a vast, immaculate and incredibly efficiently run organization, making newborn baby wear for the entire UK high street. It is a factory that I have visited many times and still get a thrill out of going to see. We take up residence in the showroom, and begin the long process of negotiation – we have somewhere between 50 and 60 styles to review and agree prices on today, it is going to be a very long day indeed, particularly for the buyer in the thick of it. Meanwhile, the babywear designer gets sketching, the technologist is fitting new samples on the baby stand, and I am mucking in to approve lab dips and make my comments on the fit of any new styles also. We break for a brief, vegetarian lunch (no meat is allowed on the premises), and then our technologist and I head off on a factory tour. We get caught up in discussion with the manager of the print workshop, and by the time we leave, are absolutely dripping – the temperature in there is unreal!

Finally, at around 8 pm, we have achieved most of what we set out to, but it is a reminder that one day here is not really long enough! We make our way out to the car, where, by now, the mother of all thunderstorms is raging. The drive back to the hotel is……interesting!! Violent, jagged spears of forked lightening pierce the night sky, while thunder crashes all around us. The roads are badly flooded in places, people on motorbikes are wearing plastic bags to try and keep dry, and cars/lorries are breaking down in the middle of the giant, pond like puddles. It takes nearly 2 hours to reach the hotel, so there is just time for a quick dinner, before packing up for our last day.

It’s the last morning, our baggage is all downstairs (it is coming with us as there will be no time to come back to our hotel before the flight), and we are checking out. The babywear buyer has been covering the bills all trip for her designer and technologist also, and her credit card finally gives up! Good job their head of buying is still here to bail them out – I knew I’d come in useful somewhere along the way! We have to fit in three appointments today, and an hours drive between two of them, so these are real speed visits. Firstly we are back with a supplier I saw earlier in the week, the baby team discussing new development, and me rounding up and agreeing on any outstanding prices for the other teams. They have laid on a beautiful birthday cake for our technologist, whose birthday will arrive whilst we are in the air on the way home. Chocolate has never tasted so good! Then on to visit another showroom, and finally, to a huge factory making woven shirts, dresses, trousers, and tops. We practically run around the factory, stopping only briefly in each section to meet the key people and understand the processes. Our host keeps telling us we don’t need to leave until much later, but I know what the traffic can be like in this city, and I have no intention of missing the flight home! Eventually, we are packed up and on our way, arriving at the airport in record time. We whizz through check-in and security, catch up on email correspondence in the lounge and board the first leg. I lose the plot with a man next to us, who is still talking on his phone as we are about to take off. We make it to Dubai without further incident, where I check in for a shower and a massage (we have a 3 and a half hour layover, so I might as well make the most of it!). We board the last flight at around 3 am, and apparently, the turbulence en route was absolutely dreadful – I am so tired that I sleep through it all…….

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Hold on tight, it’s going to be a rollercoaster of a ride………

I cannot quite believe it’s been a year since I last posted this blog; the trip I was about to embark on did not go according to plan!!!!!!

After a 6.30am departure to Gatwick airport and what should have been an uneventful journey to Delhi……if only I’d known! The fog was thickening as we made slow progress round the M25, and eventually the traffic almost ground to a halt, leaving me slightly panicked that I might actually miss the first flight of our trip. Finally, having taken an inordinate amount of time to complete a 40 minute journey, we pull into the Emirates check in zone just 90 minutes before take off. Check in goes without a hitch and I battle my way through the overcrowded security channel, making it to the lounge just in time to meet one of our designers before boarding.

Once on board, having been offered a hot towel and a drink, I settle in with my feet up and a good book! For those of you who are unfamiliar with my blog posts, I love to fly; it is the only time in my crazy, busy life that I get to sit on my backside for several hours straight, with a movie (or several!), a book/magazine, or some music, and am only interrupted by someone offering me food, wine or a chair sized mattress…..what’s not to like?

An hour and a half later, we haven’t moved an inch and the steward is telling me not to concern myself about the connecting flight in Dubai, which we now have absolutely no chance of catching! There is nothing to do but sit back and enjoy the experience, we’ll worry about what happens next when we get there. On arrival at around 10.30pm we are met by a very helpful steward, who explains that we have been booked onto a Jet Airways flight to Delhi…..tomorrow afternoon at 3pm!!!!!!!! And our luggage has been checked straight through so there is no possibility of having it back at this point! What a disaster! The only available earlier flight is at 4am, with a 3hr layover in Mumbai,  arriving only a couple of hours earlier than the direct flight. We will have lost a whole day in Delhi whichever we take, so we opt for the later, direct departure, and are whisked off in an Emirates chauffeur driven car to a hotel for the night, and not just any hotel, this is the tallest hotel in the world, all 72 floors and 1600 rooms of it……I can now honestly say that I have, been there, done that, and yes, I did buy the t-shirt!

I cannot fault the Emirates hospitality, they really looked after us! We decide that the best option in this situation is to get a decent nights sleep, and work our way around the most extravagant breakfast buffet that, in all my years of travelling, I have ever seen! There is English, Chinese, Japanese, Indian and all manner of fruit, pancakes, pastries and artisan breads on offer, and I only wish I had a big enough appetite to try it all! Disappointingly, we cannot get up to the viewing platform at the top of the hotel until after 5pm, so we head back to the airport with plenty of time to spare. Having not seen our luggage since checking in at Gatwick, I am in yesterday’s crumpled, well travelled clothing, I have no make up, and have used every available kit, lotion and potion in the hotel bathroom. Anyone who sees me today will have to accept me au naturel!

Whilst we slept in Dubai, our colleagues on the later flight, have passed us by without mishap, and arrive many hours before us. However, having boarded the plane, I am still not convinced that our bags will have negotiated their way to our next flight. Too many hours have passed, giving them plenty of time to get lost in one of the largest airports in the world! I am avidly watching the ground staff load the luggage into the hold beneath us. Truck after truck of suitcases appears, and one by one the bags make their up the conveyor belt, but I have seen nothing that looks remotely like mine! Just when I am about to give up, one final little trolley rolls up with half a dozen bags on it, and I can barely contain my excitement when I spot ours among them……I will have clean clothing and my own toiletries when we get there!

32 hrs after leaving home, we finally reach a dark and steamy Delhi, arriving dishevelled into the calm, jasmine fragranced interior of the Trident hotel, looking and feeling somewhat like evicted “I’m a celebrity” contestants, rotten in yesterday’s rancid clothing. A light dinner, a quick catch up with our colleagues and it’s time for bed again…..I feel as if I have wasted two whole days of my life in limbo, and my body has no idea which time zone I am in or what time of day it really is!”

And that was just the beginning; there followed a quick succession of appointments, a late night crazy buggy ride through a Delhi golf club to dinner; too many late nights, 5am starts, too little sleep, an aborted landing in Chennai (after flying over the 90,000 seat cricket stadium and the beach a few times, we made it onto the ground at the third attempt!), and a bizarre experience with some Monsoon paperwork which has somehow ended up in my luggage (concierge left it in the wrong room, and they send someone to the Leela Hotel to collect it…. “do you have the package Ms Redman?…..very James Bond!). We head straight out to a supplier and a very long day, developing samples and negotiating prices, in the middle of which all the men in the room quietly disappear for Friday prayers leaving us wondering where everyone has gone. I finally have the luxury of a lone swim in the hotel rooftop pool at sunset, and this is the sort of moment that makes it all worthwhile and reminds me, despite the exhaustion, why I love this job! It is stunningly beautiful! The following day, another round of supplier visits and a late night dinner, before I am back at the airport for a 2am flight!

Moving on to Hong Kong, the relentless pace continued with several days of appointments, and supplier dinners, and finally a brief stop off in Dubai/Abu Dhabi to meet our franchise partners and visit some of our middle eastern stores.

So a year has gone by and a great deal has changed, which will make an immense difference to the trip we are now about to embark on. We have won awards, launched new ranges, and developed a celebrity collaboration, but it will be Brexit that has had the greatest impact. The volatitlity of the exchange rate and subsequently oil prices, along with rising labour prices in India, and the increasing price of cotton, will all conspire to make negotiations very difficult this time around. We are lucky; we have a very loyal core of suppliers who will support us wherever they can, but at the end of the day, we are all in this together, and it only works if we can all make a profit…..

The retail landscape is changing on a daily basis and to remain competitive we are going to have to make some very tough choices about what business we place and with whom, to ensure that we maintain the sales and profit growth we need. A number of clothing retailers have already indicated that retail selling prices will have to increase to compensate for the rise in costs; it is like an elaborate, grown up game of “chicken”…..just who is going to make the leap first, and do we hold firm, relying on selling more volume at a lower margin to make up the difference, or increase selling prices to maintain margin, and accept the fact that customers might react against this and buy less? Both strategies come with significant risks attached, only time will tell how it will work out, and in the meantime, we will continue to try and second guess the impact of the yo-yo, will we – won’t we Brexit???

 

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Even before leaving the ground…….

The last few weeks have seen us in a frenzy of inspirational shopping trips and the start of the planning process for Autumn/Winter 2016, with various members of the team heading for Antwerp, Copenhagen and New York, as well as scouring the London shops, returning with new ideas for creating a wide variety of new lines and products. As is often the case, we need to be “wearing several hats” at one time! Alongside planning A/W 2016, we are trading our way through A/W 2015, and doggedly working our way through the critical path for S/S 2016, chasing through all our long lead time lines from the Far East, ensuring that all of our stock is making it to port and shipping on time to meet our in store launch dates. Meanwhile some of our teams have been in Turkey, and up and down the M1 to Leicester and Manchester, filling in the gaps with shorter lead time lines and key fashion pieces.

Trading through the next 10 weeks, in the run up to Christmas is the most critical time in our calendar year, what happens during this time period can make or break our season, so it is absolutely key that we get it right, and what we get wrong…..we learn from and incorporate into our strategy for next year!

In the midst of all this we had booked our next major sourcing trip overseas, confirming all flights well in advance to get the best deals, but as is often the case, these things rarely go according to plan! We always need to be prepared for every eventuality, although the drama doesn’t usually start before we have even left the UK! In producing clothing for the UK high street, and always trying to deliver the best possible prices to the customer, we are often involved in making product in developing countries and/or volatile regions in the world. We have encountered typhoons, dehydration inducing temperatures, traffic like you wouldn’t believe, the occasional minor car crash, and even, on the last trip, an earthquake, but events this time have forced us to draw a line and pull out of the Dhaka leg of our tour! There have been two incidences of foreigners being shot over the past couple of weeks, and the government have implied that they believe further attacks and terrorist activity are likely. Now, I am a fairly hardy individual, but let’s be honest, we are making t-shirts, not saving lives! I have the utmost respect for anyone who goes willingly into dangerous regions of the world to work in hospitals, or for aid agencies etc, but I really don’t feel inclined to expose myself or any of my team to that level of danger in the name of garment manufacture. It is simply not worth the risk! So, a change of plan, our itinerary turned on its head, and the flight jigsaw puzzle goes back to square one…….

Back to the day-to-day and we are, as usual, running at a hundred miles an hour just to keep our heads above water! A “buyer’s life” is a very strange combination of exhausting and exhilarating; a quiet life it will never be, but I think that is what has kept me in the industry for so long! Trade meetings, planning meetings, trend presentations, store layouts, meeting suppliers to start new product development, trade fairs, store visits, photoshoot preparation, stylist meetings, model selection, window planning and approval, and range sign offs are all packed into our daily itineraries, and there is much juggling of many different balls going on, but there is one underlying theme that the buying teams must manage effectively, without fail, regardless of whatever else may be going on around them……the critical path. An explanation of this process is long winded and complicated, so for all you “buyers of the future” out there, I thought I would share the potted version that I used to explain this to students at the FRA. I hope you enjoy it, and that it gives you a valuable insight into this complex process!

What is the “critical path”?

  • —A series of key deadlines for product development and production, which must be met, in order for a product, or range of products, to be delivered to store on time.—
  • Also known as KDP (key dates plan) or progress chart/chaser.
  • —Critical dates will vary according to the product launch date, product type and sourcing location.
  • It can be months long, for example, in the case of outerwear being sourced from China or Vietnam, but may be as short as 4 weeks, if sourcing t-shirts in the UK.
  • The critical path is developed by working backwards, from the required delivery date.

Who is responsible?

  • —Ultimately, the buyer and merchandiser are responsible for ensuring that all products that they have placed orders for, are delivered on time.
  • —On a day to day basis, the assistant buyer will drive/manage the critical path and hold weekly critical path meetings with the team, and, if possible, the relevant suppliers.
  • —The buyers assistant is responsible for ensuring approvals come in and are approved on time, and for highlighting any lateness to the rest of the team.

Communication is the key to success!

  • —Communication, both within the buying team, and with suppliers, is of paramount importance in managing the critical path effectively, and the process relies on developing strong, open and honest relationships with all involved.
  • —The best way to do this is to ensure that all members of the team (buying, merchandising, QA and design) attend the critical path meeting.
  • —The buyer/AB will follow up with supplier through face to face meetings/video conference/skype or phone call.
  • It is important to incorporate as much face to face discussion as possible, remembering that, particularly if you are dealing direct with overseas factories, you will have to contend with both the time difference and the language barrier, which can create many opportunities for misunderstandings and delays.
  • Body language, such as a hand gesture, a shrug of the shoulders, a smile or a scowl, can often convey so much more than a voice on the phone, and a game of email “ping pong” will rarely result in the outcome you are hoping for when negotiations get tough!

What events should be on the critical path?

  • —Firstly, detailed information about the garment – description, colour, style number, order number, supplier, COO, cost price and selling price.—
  • Alongside this, should be the dated sequence of events leading up to the successful, on time delivery of the product. The supplier will provide this information, based on their knowledge of the production of a garment, and it is then up to the buying team and the supplier to work together to ensure that all of these steps and approvals happen on the dates specified.
  • Events which should be included: approval of lab dips/strike offs/trims/base and bulk test reports.—
  • Fit approvals: first fit/pre-production or sealing sample/bulk production sample.
  • —Cut date and FOB date, plus into warehouse date.
  • There are a number of stages within the critical path, and within each stage, a number of actions which need to take place within a certain timescale.

Stage 1  – Initial Approvals

Lab dip approval

  • —Lab dips are small swatches of fabric, dyed to match either a swatch or a Pantone reference.—
  • Usually, a number of swatches (or yarns if knitwear) will be produced, each using a slightly different dye recipe.—
  • The buyer/AB will then select the closest match, by comparing the swatches to the original. The dye recipe for that swatch will then be used to dye the bulk fabric.—
  • This colour matching takes place in a light box, which replicates both natural daylight and store lighting – it is never a good idea to approve a lab dip without looking at it in the light box.
  • A slight difference in shade, or a fabric which is metameric (changes tone in different lighting) can mean the difference between a bestseller and a disaster! Shades of neutrals are often the most tricky – I have witnessed stone coloured chino’s which turn a nasty shade of pink, a khaki jacket which turned brown in store lighting, and numerous other mishaps for which the buying team will be held responsible!
  • —Colour matching can also be done using a machine called a spectrophotometer, which calculates the accuracy of the match using “spectral data”. However, this equipment is very expensive, and many buyers prefer to select by eye.
  • In the case of a yarn dyed stripe or woven garment, the buyer may approve the yarns themselves, or request “hand loom” or “knit down” pieces on different colourways/designs before making a decision.

Base test approval

  • —The selected fabric undergoes a series of physical tests at this stage, to assess its suitability and performance.
  • —It will be tested for seam slippage, tensile strength, pilling, snagging, bursting strength, stability to washing.
  • —The supplier is usually responsible for sending the fabric to a nominated testing house (eg. SGS, ITS, HTS).
  • —The test report will then be submitted to the technologist/buyer for approval.
  • —If the fabric fails the tests, the buyer/tech may ask to see the tested pieces for further assessment, or the fabric may have to be rejected.

Initial Sample

  • —The initial sample will be assessed aesthetically, to ensure that all details/trims are correct.
  • —It will be fitted (1st fit sample), either on a model or a stand/mannequin, if possible, with the supplier present.—
  • Any amendments will be communicated to the supplier, as these could impact on price, fabric consumption and delivery.
  • —The size spec will be approved and all comments documented, so that they can be referred to when the next sample comes in.
  • —If there are few alterations, the supplier may go straight to pre-production, however, if major changes are made, the buyer/designer/tech is likely to request a 2nd fit sample.

Stage 2 – Pre-production

Trim Cards

  • —Once a lab dip has been approved, the supplier will need to get all components such zips, threads, buttons, snaps etc dyed to match, or send in a selection of possibles for the buyer to select from.—
  • All of the components above, plus linings, labels, interlining, beads, sequins, badges, should all be submitted to the buying team for approval, ideally all on one trim card.— Frequently, however, these may all come in at separate times, creating a great deal of work for the team to collate and combine with all the other elements incorporated into a particular style.
  • Usually the buyer will want to review these, but in some teams the AB is responsible for this, dependant upon their level of experience/knowledge.

Strike Offs

  • —At this point in time, if there is a print on the garment, the supplier should submit a “strike off”. This is a first attempt at transferring the artwork from paper to fabric, and at this stage amendments can still be made.
  • Once a strike off has been approved, the printer will cut bulk screens, after which it is very difficult (and expensive!) to make changes.
  • —If the garment is embroidered, the embroidery should also be approved at this stage.
  • —In the case of a yarn dyed garment (knitwear or jersey) a knit down (test piece) of the end result should be approved.

Stage 3 – Bulk Approvals

Bulk Fabric and Test Report

  • —A piece of the bulk fabric should be submitted to the buyer/technologist for approval, along with a bulk test report.—
  • At this stage the bulk fabric is tested for colourfastness to light, washing and water. Dry rub tests will also be carried out to test colour transfer eg. Indigo denim jeans – colour transfer is likely to be high.
  • Failures will be assessed by the technologist, and discussed with the buyer, in order to decide whether to reject the fabric or make a commercial acceptance.—
  • Again, the buyer/technologist might ask to see tested pieces to assess by eye, if the fabric has failed.

Pre-production Sample

  • —This is the last sample submitted before the supplier starts production, and must incorporate all of the amendments requested on previous samples.
  • —The pre-production (or sealing) sample should ideally be in the bulk fabric with all bulk trims, so that the buyer can review what the actual production will look like, however, this is frequently not possible. In this instance it is generally acceptable to seal garments in the correct quality and with correct quality trims, although the colours/prints may be substitute.—
  • At this stage a buyer/technologist will often review several samples of different sizes, to approve the graded set.
  • Sample is signed off by buyer/tech/designer and “sealed”, sometimes called a gold seal or green seal sample, although the description will vary from one retailer to another.

Stage 4 – Production

Cut Date

  • —This is one of the most important dates on the critical path – up until this point it is still possible to make changes. Once the knife has gone into the fabric there is very little you can do if you change your mind!
  • —Also, it is very important to meet this date – fabrics go through the cutting room very quickly, and onto the production line. Miss the cut date and you are also likely to miss your production slot.
  • The supplier cannot afford to have empty production lines, or workers sitting idle…….—Production is planned to fill every hour, often with orders from a variety of different retailers, so if the slot gets missed, it may significantly delay delivery.
  • —The supplier cannot afford to wait for you to approve fabrics/sealing samples/trims etc – if you do not get the answers to them in a timely manner, and in order to meet critical path dates, someone else’s production will go on the line first, and your delivery will slip correspondingly.

Production Sample

  • —It is best practice for a production sample to be approved prior to the garments leaving the factory.—
  • At this stage some further physical garment tests may also take place, such as an appearance after wash test to determine any physical/aesthetic changes during the washing process.
  • In the case of childrenswear, safety is of paramount importance, and certain elements of a garment may be pull tested (eg buttons and poppers) to ensure that they are secure, and could not detach and be ingested by a small child. Some garments, such as nightwear and fancy dress costumes must also be tested for flammability. All of these elements have to meet British safety standards, and as a retailer, we have to ensure that we have adhered to the law and shown due diligence in the production and testing process of every garment.
  • It is much easier/cheaper to deal with any mistakes, quality issues etc if the garments are still in the factory – once they are packed in a container/on a boat there is no possibility of dealing with any problems until arrival in the UK, at which point it may become extremely costly and time consuming to rectify any issues.
  • —The production sample should be approved in writing or on a computer generated tracking system – most retailers have a system of issuing approval codes (or “MDA’s), before shipment can occur.

Ex Factory Date/DC Date

  • —If everything to this point happens on time, the goods should leave the factory on time – known as the “ex factory” date.
  • —At this point they are sent, by road, in a container, for delivery to the forwarder at the port for loading on to a ship. The date the boat leaves port is known as the “fob date”.
  • —It is always best practice to agree the fob date with the supplier, to ensure that they take responsibility for the goods arriving at the port on time.
  • The merchandising and/or shipping teams will be able to track the vessel on the shipping company systems, in order to predict when the goods will arrive at the retailers warehouse – “DC date”.

Summary

  • —As you can see there are multiple reasons why things can and will go wrong!
  • —Every stage must be monitored and approvals chased by the buying team to ensure all events happen on time.
  • —Inevitably, this will not run smoothly every time, and the buying team will have to work creatively with their suppliers, in order to catch up any lost time/rectify any problems.
  • —Whatever the issue, there is usually a way to solve the problem or improve the situation, but it will require creative, inventive thinking!
  • —It is critical that you understand the implications of your decisions on the critical path, and ultimately the delivery of a garment. It is not simply a case of rejecting something that is incorrect, but being able to assess and act to minimise any disruption to the order.
  • —Being pro-active and coming up with solutions is a key element of the buying and technical teams role. Never, ever, bring a problem to the table until you have thought about what possible action you might be able to take to solve it and reduce the impact on delivery.

And all of that was the “potted” version……in reality there are frequently many more components, processes, negotiations, and possibilities for disaster than I have detailed above. It takes a very committed and dedicated type of person to live this life, for it is a lifestyle choice, not a “job”, as such! It is a complete rollercoaster of an existence, but, as I have said on a number of occasions before, I absolutely love it……..most of the time!

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Eat, sleep, work, repeat……..

Arriving in the murky, wet greyness of a hot and steamy Sunday evening in Dhaka, my senses are as usual, assaulted by the sights, sounds and smells of a very different culture from the London I left behind. Having negotiated our way through immigration, and collected our luggage in a surprisingly organised and speedy fashion, we step out into the cacophony of sound that is thousands of people, traffic and constantly beeping horns. The sheer volume of people everywhere I look is overwhelming; we are in the most densely populated capital on earth, and it is a relief to spot a familiar, smiling face in the crowd, fighting his way through to greet us. Having located our colleagues, the four of us on this initial leg of the trip, make our way out to the cars which will whisk us to the relative calm of the nearby hotel, our home for the next 4 nights.
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I have barely stepped into the lobby before I am bumping into numerous former colleagues, acquaintances and suppliers – it would seem that a very large proportion of the British retail industry have descended on Dhaka this week, and as there are only really two suitable hotels to choose from, we are all in the same place at the same time (when I say “suitable”, I mean the sort of hotel that doesn’t ask guests to leave their guns and ammunition in a basket whilst they pass through security, as I have experienced on one particularly jaw dropping occasion). It started in Dubai airport, coming across a friend I haven’t seen for many years, who was also making her way to Dhaka, and the same hotel we were. By the time we have eaten dinner and moved on to the “cigar bar”…..not nearly as glamorous as it sounds…..I have come across several more that I do know and recognised a few high profile ones that I don’t. Bangladesh is clearly getting back on its’ feet after the tragedy of the Rana Plaza, investment is growing, as the worldwide retail industry has woken up to the fact that they have an important role to play in rebuilding the manufacturing industry here and maintaining a safe working environment for all those involved in clothing production for the West.

Despite all this, there is always a surprise just around the corner, something that no amount of investment can prepare for….I have learned to expect the unexpected! As we sit, eating our breakfast in the early morning sunshine the next day, the light begins to fade before our eyes, until it is almost as dark as night again, the wind whips up the swaying palm trees into a frenzy and torrential rain lashes the windows; wild forked lightening flashes across the horizon and thunder crashes all around us….it would seem that we have caught the tail end of a typhoon as it headed towards the Phillippines. Consequently, as we climb into the car at 8am to make our way to our first factory, the car park we have to make our way through has turned into a lake, and the rush hour traffic is even worse than usual! And so begins the first of many unpredictable and torturous car journeys through the teeming backstreets of Dhaka and out into the factory districts beyond! There is always, however, something to look at and I find it fascinating just to sit and watch the goings on around me as we pass through the narrow roads; women in brightly coloured saris, picking their way through the potholes and puddles, the delicately painted rickshaws, splattered with mud, lining the sides of the road, the abundant fruit and vegetable markets, randomly roaming pigs, goats, ducks and chickens, and a man in traditional dress of a sarong, wearing no shoes, but talking on a mobile phone. Technology has reached the masses here it seems, despite the obvious poverty! At one point we also pass another new phenomenon…..what appear to be boiling, muddy puddles, apparently caused by the natural gases escaping from beneath the earths surface in one or two places.

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By lunchtime we have seen a knitwear factory, a wash house, a dyeing and finishing plant, a print works and three sewing units, stopping only briefly in one location to feed small round loaves of bread to the swarming fish in the pond outside the factory building. This seems to be something of a ritual, as some of our other colleagues go through the same process later in the day, and the factory staff all seem to find it highly amusing to watch us “frisbee” the bread out into the middle of the water. Having drawn a small crowd who stop to watch, I cannot for the life of me understand why they think this is  so interesting or funny…….perhaps its just one of those things they like to share in the interests of developing a closer working relationship, or maybe they just like to laugh at the crazy blonde white women; I guess I’ll never know!

After a brief lunch we are back out to see another factory, who happen to be making mens t-shirts for a British fashion retailer, which seems to have a keen interest in displaying semi naked, tattooed women in their printed graphics. Now normally this would not interest or bother me, but it seems at odds with the very traditional dress of the women working in the factory. Here, they all keep their shoulders, their legs and often their heads covered, and it prompts me to ask our host, the factory owner, how the women feel about having to work with garments that, to them, must seem pornographic. It is clearly a question he has never been asked, or considered before, and he ponders for a while, before replying that none of the women has ever expressed any distress or problem with it, although one or two of the male workers have voiced complaints. I have to wonder whether it is their natural shyness, or reservedness, or simply a subservience driven out by the culture that they live in which is responsible for these beautiful, serene women remaining tight lipped, for surely they must find it offensive?

Having moved on to the office, putting development samples into work and negotiating prices, we then clamber back into the car for what turns into a 3 hr journey, to visit Children’s Hope….a charity we help sustain, which funds education, healthcare and financial support for children from the slums and their families. By the time we arrive, delayed by the appalling traffic, I am already feeling very guilty about keeping everyone waiting. We hurry through the bustling backstreets of Dhaka, in the deepening dusk, eventually coming to a school where the students and their parents have gathered to meet us. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, and was somewhat unprepared for the formality of the situation…..we were ushered into a classroom, and seated at the front, opposite a room full of expectant faces. Our hosts gave a brief overview, and then moved on to introduce us, speaking in Bengali, before asking me to say a few words!!! Now that, I was not prepared for, and it took me a few minutes to get into my stride, but this is a cause I am absolutely passionate about supporting, and I only hope that my genuine desire to help was apparent in my words, which are translated into Bengali as I speak! One by one, each of the students, from early high school right through to university, then got up to speak, in English, telling us a little about their lives, what brought them to Children’s Hope, and what they hope to do post education. There are many who want to be bankers, accountants and chartered surveyors. I am almost moved to tears by one young woman’s story, as she explains about the death of her mother, and how this would have also ended her education if Children’s Hope had not stepped in. It strikes me that there are many more girls in the room, than there are boys, and I am moved to ask why? Essentially, many families can only afford to pay for one child’s education, and will generally prioritise their sons, who will traditionally one day have families of their own to support. The girls are often expected to leave education by the time they are 10 or 11, in order to help in the home, and many consequently remain illiterate.

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It is heart warming to see the enthusiasm and dedication with which these young women are breaking down the barriers of tradition, becoming both confident and eloquent, with every intention of building a career and a better life for themselves and their families. Finally, one of the parents rises to speak, a tall, but undernourished looking man, who clearly has a cataract problem in one eye, talking in Bengali, to explain how grateful he is to Children’s Hope for helping his family. It is humbling to see how much they appreciate our support, particularly as I do not feel that I have done a great deal, personally. As the presentation draws to a close, having posed for a few photographs with the students, we leave, in pitch black darkness, making our way back through the narrow streets to the car, by the light of a small torch. As we walk, I chat to Rachida, one of the younger students, who tells me how she is studying hard because she wants to be a doctor, so that she too, can help other people in her community. The whole experience has been both overwhelming and inspiring, leaving me with a determination to see what more we can do to help, once we are back in the office. We make our way back to the hotel, both physically and emotionally drained….and this is only day 1!

Tuesday dawns and we are up and out early again; today I am visiting a large denim factory with the boyswear team. I am fascinated by denim production, it always amazes me how one very simple garment can be transformed into so many different variations through washing techniques (it is possible to wash with enzymes, softeners, rubber balls….to achieve different levels of fade/appearance) and applications of chemicals and processes (dry brushing, chemical sprays, baking, rip and repair) to create the current fashion “look” of the moment. The factory is vast, well organised, and at this point in time, churning out thousands and thousands of jeans for a Spanish retailer.

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This is also another opportunity to see the whole process from beginning to end, starting with the cutting process, which also always amazes me; much of the fabric cutting is done on automated machinery, but some requires cutting by hand. The speed and the accuracy with which the guys operating the band knives are working is spellbinding…..this is a really skilled role!

Leaving my colleagues behind, I get back into the car and head across town to meet our menswear buyer at a new factory, heading past what we have come to know as “hairy pig corner”…..essentially the local rubbish tip at the side of the road where the pigs congregate to forage for anything edible! By this point I am ravenously hungry, but lunch is to be delayed by another event we cannot plan for. Just as I am arriving, everything starts to shake and sway, and everyone starts pouring out of the building into the vast forecourt , the fear and concern etched on their faces…..what we are feeling is the second of the recent earthquakes in Nepal, to the north of Bangladesh. It is a few hundred miles away, and not strong enough here to cause any serious damage, but nonetheless pretty scary, and not something that I had ever expected to encounter! Ground stability resumed, everyone returns to work as if nothing has happened. We have a brief lunch with the factory management along with one of our colleagues from the office here – it is often the case that the people we are dealing with are clearly uncertain what to feed us, so we end up with a peculiar mash up of dishes including pizza, pasta and local Bangladeshi, always lukewarm by the time it has reached us. I appreciate their efforts in trying to make sure that we are well fed, but I am never quite sure what the after effects of these lunches, or anything else I consume on these trips, are going to be, so I pick my way through the safest looking options and hope for the best!

We head off on a tour of the factory here, and then follow up with a brief, exploratory meeting to discuss potential to work with them. The product is beautiful, with the children’s wear here particularly impressive, great fabrics, interesting styles and fantastic attention to detail…..the only issue is likely to be our relatively small quantities. It is often, if not always the case, that the smaller the garments get, the more the supplier has to make to get to the minimum fabric order, and deliver the production efficiency to make it worth their while.

Loaded up with new information we return to the stifling heat of an afternoon car journey back into the city, to meet with another menswear supplier, whereupon I am reminded of how difficult and time consuming it can be to achieve what is required here. English is not their first language, there is often minimal understanding or experience of the UK market and everything seems to end up more complicated than it ought to be……the process cannot be rushed if you actually want to get back samples, prices and delivery dates that you can work with and that the supplier is fully committed to. Everything has to be repeated several times, backwards and forwards across the table, nailing down every single detail, using samples or drawing diagrams to try and get the message across……it is frustrating and exhausting, and until all the samples come through when we are back in the UK, it is difficult to tell whether the requirements have actually sunk in. Everyone is very willing and desperately wants to get it right, but there is so much opportunity for misinterpretation of language,  a gulf of cultural differences, and the fact that these instructions then have to be passed on again to the factory itself, from the management, to the pattern cutters and so on……it is like Chinese whispers, and there are multiple opportunities for things to go wrong unless you dot every “i” and cross every “t”!

Yet again the traffic is diabolical, and by the time we are back at the hotel we have to abort the planned dinner with our colleagues at a local French restaurant, and try to get a table in the very full hotel. This proves to be something of a problem, and while the hotel staff try to find us a table, they insist that we join the hotel managers weekly cocktail reception, generally the sort of event to be avoided! There follows an extremely uncomfortable conversation over a drink with the very sweet, and very earnest, German hotel manager, whilst my colleagues seem to be doing their best to edge away and leave me to it, and I try to keep everyone involved…..I am not carrying this one on my own guys……awkward doesn’t even come close! It is a relief to make it downstairs to the Indian restaurant in the basement, where our “chilli allergic” buyer has an immediate reaction to something in her food, which we were promised was chilli free – yet again, an example of how easily things get misinterpreted here. Every meeting or meal is either a challenge or a minefield but it certainly keeps life interesting, one of the many reasons why I love these trips so much, no two days are ever the same, and there is an unexpected surprise around every corner!

One further day of meetings in Bangladesh, and then I am on a morning flight to Delhi, again meeting one or two familiar faces along the way. There is the usual immigration chaos on arrival…..they seem to open and close queues at will here, just to amuse themselves; delight etched on their faces when they see all the arrivals reacting with fury as they leave and wander off down the hall! Once out into the arrivals hall, I am quickly met by a representative from the hotel who ushers me to the waiting car, and a driver wearing a white uniform, cap and white gloves (very “officer and a gentleman”, were I not in Delhi!!!), who offers me a cold towel and a bottle of water, before setting off for the hotel, and a slice of calm sophistication, in the infernal heat and chaos. Our babywear and girlswear teams are already here, having had morning meetings with a supplier, and we sit down to catch up on progress so far over lunch, before heading off to the fabric market. It is hot, hot, hot here and we are all fading in the overwhelming, stifling heat, as we make our way from store to store, pulling out roll after roll of fabric, to take swatches or sample lengths, with which to make up samples, which will form part of our SS16 range. There follows another interminable 2hr car journey back to the hotel through the Delhi rush hour traffic, leaving us 5 minutes to freshen up before dinner with a key knitwear supplier. Now this dinner is a new experience! We head to a restaurant called “Wine and Company” (right up our street then!) in the newly built Cyber City, for a lovely meal, in great company, whilst we re-acquaint ourselves with what the business has been up to and swap stories and updates with our colleagues there. This is a company that I have been dealing with for a very long time; I have the utmost respect for them and their business, and I really enjoy working with such a knowledgeable and creative team…..over time they have become true friends as well as colleagues.

The following morning and I am really feeling the burn, I am exhausted and suffering from dehydration……must remember to drink more water (gallons are required in this heat!), which I do, coupled with coke and coffee for a sugar and caffeine hit, until later in the morning I begin to feel completely waterlogged, and a little bit light headed! We head off to meet with our knitwear colleagues, passing “cow corner” en route……cows are regarded as sacred here, and seem to wander freely amongst the cars, snoozing in the middle lane of a highway, sleeping on the central reservation, or stopping for no apparent reason in the middle of a major traffic light junction (not that anyone seems to take any notice of lane restrictions, or traffic lights, anyway!)…. everyone just takes a small diversion around them!

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Having arrived at the suppliers’ new offices, and with our multi tasking hats on, we work through the knitwear we require for our babywear department: our designer gets her head down and starts sketching, whilst the buyer and I discuss production plans, prices, colours, delivery dates and so on, looking at some boys and girls styles as well, and then photographing a number of styles which might have potential for our women’s wear division, which we will follow up with the team in the UK. They have, as usual, laid on a delicious Indian lunch and we continue our discussion over our meal with the whole team here. We continue on into the afternoon, returning to the hotel just in time for the heavens to open in a torrential thunderstorm, whilst we sit in the bar catching up on emails and correspondence from the office back home. The rain has the very welcome effect of causing the temperature to drop by a few degrees, but puts paid to our al fresco dining plans, so we join the wacky races again, our two cars playing tag and trying to find an alternative venue, whereupon, yet again, I find myself in a car that seems to be heading the wrong way into three or four lines of oncoming traffic! Why do they do that here???? They seem to think nothing of crossing a three lane motorway, drifting out into the moving traffic, hoping that someone will give way! Dinner with one of our Delhi suppliers, in a very nice Italian restaurant, follows, before we all collapse into bed.

Saturday morning dawns and we head off out with a supplier to another local fabric shop, one we haven’t been to before, and it soon becomes apparent why! It is like entering an Aladdin’s cave of fabric, down in a basement, and we soon find ourselves clambering over small mountains of bagged fabric to get to the rolls we want. It is unbearably hot, claustrophobic and filthy, but we come away happy with a wide selection of additional fabric samples to utilise later in the day! Straight from here we head to the suppliers office and factory, in one of the manufacturing districts in Delhi, thankfully not too far away. At this point we all get stuck in to working our way through all of the fabric swatches and samples to come up with new design ideas….the three of us getting a little production line going to produce sketches with all the relevant trims, fabrics and instructions attached. We work on through the day and into the evening, only just making it back in time for our 8pm dinner with the rest of our colleagues, before the girlswear buyer and head of design head to the airport for an overnight flight home.

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A week after leaving home we are firmly established on the buying trip treadmill…..eat, sleep, work, repeat, eat, sleep, work, repeat……interspersed with many hours spent sitting in traffic, and by Sunday morning it is becoming apparent that the relentless pace is beginning to take its toll. The temperature has reached 42 degrees, and one by one, those of us who are left, succumb to the inevitable consequences of eating curry a couple of times a day for a week. There is no time to worry about this, however, as Sunday afternoon finds the menswear buyer departing for Chennai, and myself and the babywear team heading back to the airport for the 2.5hr flight to Bangalore; all three of us are unable to stay awake on the flight, exhausted by the heat and constant stomach cramps….. It is a relief to arrive at our hotel for the next couple of nights, and I see no alternative but to take a sleeping tablet, curl up in the biggest bed, with the most amazing pillows, and hope for the best when I wake up!

By the next morning I am feeling much better, certainly well enough to cope with breakfast in the beautifully tropical garden; the climate is much cooler here and very pleasant. Everything is very lush and green, and I am yet again fascinated by the goings on around me as we are picked up by our driver, Balu, for the journey to the office. We pass a tented “breakfast stop”, where the locals seem to be stopping en route to work for something to eat. It also strikes me that even the animals, mainly the cows, seem to be much healthier looking than those in the arid, drier heat of Delhi. We work our way through the day, though the supplier we are working with has a “fever”……not entirely sure what that means, but he looks as if he is about to keel over, and one of our team is still as white as a sheet and clearly suffering too!

On our second day in Bangalore, and I am all packed up, ready to leave. Our familiar driver, Shankar, who we have met a number of times before, loads my luggage and ushers us into the car, which is filled with the beautiful, clean fragrance of the fresh jasmine hanging from the rear view mirror. It is not long before Shankar, clearly excited to tell us his news, shows us a picture on his phone of his bride, having got married just 3 months before. He is clearly very happy and proud, but also goes on to tell us that, whilst he is working in Bangalore, she is 450 kilometres away, so he is not actually able to see her often……. Taking a short cut through the incredible early morning fruit and vegetable market, there are cows everywhere, and it soon becomes apparent why they look so healthy here, they are eating all the waste vegetables, mountains of them! It is Mango season in India, and they are everywhere, but there are also coconuts, limes, tomatoes, huge bundles of asparagus, watermelons and many other things I do not recognise. We also pass beautiful women, wearing elaborate saris, riding motorbikes, none of them wearing helmets! Now, I am used to seeing a whole family balanced precariously on a motorbike here, usually with only the driver wearing a helmet, but even I have to laugh when I see one couple trying to get from A to B with an enormous dog fidgeting between them! Moving on from the market, we stop at traffic lights to find ourselves surrounded by what, on first appearance, seem to be very glamorous traditionally dressed women, weaving in and out of the cars and tapping on the windows, begging. On closer inspection, however, it soon becomes obvious that these are men, in full drag and make up; never before have I seen this in India, and Shankar explains that it is because they cannot get work, or only very low paid work, and it is more lucrative to beg in this way!

The day flies by in a flurry of meetings, and a factory tour, at an exceptionally well run babywear factory; I always marvel at the spotlessness and efficiency of this place, and I always manage to learn something new whilst here. Yet, again, I am truly inspired! But it is a long way to the airport, and by 4pm I am leaving my babywear colleagues and getting back in the car, beginning the long journey home…..a 2.5hr car journey, 4hr flight to Dubai, where I have a 3hr layover, before boarding a 3am, 7 hour flight to London.

Home sweet home……..beans on toast and a proper cup of tea!

 

 

 

 

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Creating awareness………

The past few weeks have seen a great many changes, and some real ups and downs, from the excitement of appearing in the Sunday Times Top 100 Companies, to significant changes in senior management and a rollercoaster of emotion, a trip to Turkey to see some existing suppliers and some potential new ones, a few days in New York looking for SS16 inspiration, whilst my team scattered far and wide, scouring London, Copenhagen, Paris, and Antwerp for the latest ideas which we can incorporate into our product development for the new season. We have followed up with a trip to Scotland this week, to present High Summer ranges to our area managers, receiving positive responses all round, so hopefully this will herald the beginning of a very successful spring and summer season.

One thing that has become very apparent over the last few weeks, is how little awareness there is around the business of what the buying, merchandising and design teams actually do, and how professional they are in their approach. Being part of a buying team for a high street retailer demands 100% commitment; we work exceptionally long hours, regularly spend long periods of time away from our families, often working over weekends, sleeping on planes, spending time in factories in temperatures of 40 degrees plus, in some of the most deprived countries in the world. It is exhausting, carries with it a great deal of responsibility, not just for the delivery of product to our stores, but also for the sales and profit when it arrives, along with the welfare of all those involved in its production; not so much a job, as such, but more a “calling” – from which we rarely switch off; in order to do this job effectively, you have to have an absolute passion for it and be prepared to fully immerse yourself in the ups and downs that come with it.

A few years back, whilst I was teaching at the Retail Academy, I found myself in a similar situation with many of my students – they all had a keen interest in fashion, and loved the idea of working in a buying department, but had very little understanding of what the day to day would involve. I was asked many, many times about what it was really like to be a buyer, which inspired me to start writing a book about the subject. It has become a labour of love, and several years later, is still far from finished, which is testament to the fact that my job absorbs a great deal of my time, however, it did occur to me that I should share some excerpts from it in the spirit of helping to dispel some of the myths and give greater understanding to the rest of the business of what we actually do! So, with this post I am sharing a piece about the buying life cycle – this is a potted version of a complex process, within which there are multiple opportunities for things to go wrong!

I hope you enjoy it and that it gives you a greater understanding of a small part of the buying process!

The Buying Cycle

Buying follows a cyclical pattern, with the planning and budgets based on seasonal sales history and forward projections of business growth, but the process begins with finding the inspiration for a new season’s range.

It is likely that you will be in different stages of this cycle, for a number of different seasons, at any one point in time, for example reviewing sales and trading SS2015, whilst working on production for AW2015, and doing inspirational shopping and planning for SS2016. Being a buyer really is the ultimate multi tasking challenge!

1. Inspiration for a new season’s range will come from many sources, the high street, reviewing the catwalks, trade fairs, magazines, trend forecasting agencies, and, frequently, the people around you and the places you visit. There are other, external influences, such as the environment (pushing the trend for eco inspired ranges, organic and Fair Trade products, neutrals and a natural colour palette), films and TV (the series Mad Men has spawned a huge trend for 50’s silhouettes, a new Disney film such as Frozen has the potential to create millions in retail sales if managed well!), and music/celebrity icons. The process usually begins with visits to fabric fairs, such as Premiere Vision in Paris, and, for knitwear, the yarn show, Pitti Filati in Florence, Italy, as well as seminars with the major trend forecasters, eg. WGSN, Mudpie (MPD Click), Donegar.
The trade fairs consist of halls filled with stands where fabric suppliers will show their new season’s ranges to prospective buyers. The majority of high street retailers will order swatches, or fabric hangers, of the designs and fabrications they like, which are then sent on to their offices, to be incorporated into planning and development. Additionally, there will usually be areas within the fair which exhibit colour trends, fabric trends, and print design, as well as seminars by many of the major trend forecasters. Some retailers might actually place orders for fabric, or buy specific print designs at these shows, in order to gain exclusivity on particular fabrics, ensuring that no-one else on the high street can have the same print design.
At this point in the cycle, buyers and designers will also be shopping the high street, both at home and abroad, for ideas – visiting everywhere relevant from high end designer, to independent boutiques, department stores, brands and mainstream retailers, as well as trawling the internet.
Having accumulated all of this information, the design team will begin to create their themes/looks and colour palettes for the season – frequently this process will have started prior to any shopping trips, so that buyer and designer can shop for samples/ideas which fall in to the categories/looks that are being planned. These themes and colour palettes will then form the basis of the product design – displayed on boards, through key images and colours, which demonstrate the look and feel of the product range. Creation of these design boards is one of the most critical parts of the product development process – giving the whole team a vision of how the finished range could potentially look, incorporating the appropriate trends, and ensuring that everyone is working towards the same end. The finished trend boards will then be used to begin working with the buying and merchandising teams, who will start to allocate options and a part of the budget to each trend, look or product phase. The boards might also be used in briefing suppliers, who can then use this information to start sourcing fabrics and, in many cases, creating designs and ideas of their own to show the buyer. If a supplier has their own design team, they will also be completing this process in tandem with the retailers, so that they too can create trend boards, designs and suggestions for discussion with the buying team. The key to making these trend boards productive is customer understanding – ensuring that they direct the teams in the right way to allow them to interpret the trends, colours and styling in a way that is appropriate for a particular retailer and their customers. Some retailers employ an external agency to provide this service, or to support their own designers, but in most cases a retailers own design team are the best placed to develop this early direction, giving their individual spin on the trends which the rest of the high street will also be picking up on. This is the best way to keep own brand ranges unique and ensure the best chance of a good customer reaction.

2. Planning begins with buyer and merchandiser reviewing the previous season, looking at sales performance at every level, starting with the top line department figures, and then drilling down to sales by product category, and then each individual item, looking at the best and worst sellers and assessing which styles can be updated and “moved on”, where there needs to be “newness” and which core lines need to be maintained. The team will look at each category, deciding where they believe there is growth potential, which might be as a result of previous sales, or because a product type is particularly on trend for the coming season. The merchandiser will pull all the figures together looking at sales potential this year versus last year, and working with the head of merchandising to agree the budget/sales plan, margin targets (how much profit needs to be made), markdown budget (how much stock we might have left and how much it will cost to mark down for the mid or end of season sale). This process will continue throughout the range development process, to create a framework for the number of options (styles) the department needs for the season, as well as working together to decide on selling prices, and volumes (how much of each style to buy).
Meanwhile, the buyer will also continue to work with the design team to assimilate and pull together all of the information/samples, and using the design boards created during the inspiration process, to begin working up each individual style within the range. This will be a combination of totally new style ideas, complemented with adaptations of previous bestsellers, updates on core styles and key commodity or flow lines which the retailer will endeavour to keep in stock at all times – outside of these commodity lines it is rarely a good idea to run exactly the same style two seasons running, regardless of whether it is men’s, women’s or children’s wear. The customer will get bored with seeing the same products, and eventually sales will start to fall; a good buying team will strive to constantly update and move things on to ensure that sales figures are either maintained or growing.

3. Sampling – at this point the designer will develop a design or “tech” pack for each style, incorporating all of the details required to turn their sketch/idea, into an actual garment. This too, is a critical part of the development process – the more detail that goes into this pack, the more likely it is that the sample will actually look how you envisaged it. The pack will consist of an annotated sketch (usually created on a CAD system, using one of a number of design software programs, but might also be hand drawn), detailing style, trims, buttons, zips, lining, any specific measurements (such as pocket dimensions etc). Additionally, designs for any prints or graphics will be included, specifying detail on type of print, or, if embroidery or appliqué designs, the fabrics and thread types to be used. Also included will be a size spec, created by the technologist, usually working in conjunction with the designer to ensure that garment proportions meet the expectations of the buying team. In some cases, the pack may also include swatches of fabric for quality and texture, or a bought sample to demonstrate a particular styling detail. It is also important, at this stage, to include colour swatches or Pantone colour references – Pantone colours are an industry standard that the majority of retailers and suppliers use for consistency of colour.
The whole pack, for each individual style is sent to the relevant supplier for sample development. The buyer will decide which supplier or suppliers will be suitable manufacturers for each garment and packs will be sent out accordingly. The reason for sending to more than one supplier is to ascertain which source will make the best interpretation of the design pack to give the buyer the product they want, but also to get a comparison of the cost from a number of suppliers, a process called “cross costing”.
Time taken to make the samples varies depending on the complexity of the product, and where it is being made, and how busy the suppliers sample room might be, but is usually around 3-4 weeks for overseas suppliers, and may be less if the sample is being developed in the UK. It is worth noting, however, that the majority of retailers are all developing product for a particular time period in store, at roughly the same time, so sample rooms tend to have peaks and troughs in sample development, and sampling can often, therefore, take longer than planned. A skilled buyer will work very closely with the design team to ensure that packs go out in good time to get samples back for the relevant meetings. Just how quickly those samples come back can frequently depend on the buyers’ relationship with the supplier, their powers of persuasion and encouragement, along with how much the supplier values that particular buyer, or retailers’ business.
The buyers assistant will usually be responsible for chasing up suppliers to ensure that their samples come back in a timely manner, in order for the team to then work with the finished samples in the next stage of the process.

4. Range building – once the samples start coming back from suppliers, the buyer, designer and merchandiser will work as a team and start to range build, comparing samples and prices from the various different sources, and working out which tops go with which bottoms, and what then layers on top, to create a coherent range of outfits.
There are a number of critical factors to think about when range building as follows:

Colour palette – how do all the colours go together, now that you have all of the samples back. You will not always necessarily get sampling all in the correct colours, so this might entail using a considerable amount of imagination, to visualise the overall look!

Samples – what looks good and what does not! It is often the case that a design which looked great on paper, does not look nearly so fabulous in reality. A good buyer will know when to walk away, but can also see where there is potential to further develop a style, and may want to re-sample to try and make improvements.

Customer – is each product appropriate for your target customer? Buying is not about your personal likes and dislikes, but whether, as a buyer, you have the skill to interpret your customers’ needs, and develop product which that customer will want to purchase. If you are buying women’s wear, you may well be buying product for women similar to you in age and style, but you also need to factor in their lifestyles, income and consequently their spending power, as well as their needs in terms of quality, fashionability and practicality. If, for example, you are buying children’s wear, you need to get inside the head of both mum (with younger children), but also, the children themselves, as they get older – what are their likes and dislikes?

Outfit build – which tops relate to which trousers and skirts, and are there enough of each? As a general rule, you would want 2 or 3 tops to go with every bottom, but the buyer would also need to consider how other items also worked into the outfits, eg. Knitwear, dresses, jackets and coats etc. This is complicated enough on a multi product department, where one buying team is responsible for buying the entire product range, however, in many retail businesses, clothing is bought by product type, meaning that the buyers and designers have to be expert communicators, and very effective at working as a team, to ensure that the total product range works well together.

Price architecture – what retail selling prices are you going to propose for each item and do the prices relate consistently to one another? Is your price structure in line with previous ranges, or other product that is already in store? Additionally, most retailers look to their buyers to propose a good/better/best structure within the range, ensuring that they are covering core basics(good), through to fashion must have’s(better), and key, top of the range, press worthy pieces of the season(best). As the market place becomes ever more competitive, it is also crucial that each piece demonstrates value for money versus the competition.

Store display and ranging – how will the range be displayed in store, which products go to all stores, and which are restricted to mid ranging stores, or to the best/top stores only. Again, this is a careful balancing act, with the top performing stores generally being larger and in better locations, these can cope with all product lines, from core basics to high end fashion. The skill in product ranging, is to ensure that the smaller, less successful stores still have exciting and fashionable enough product to entice the customer in, whilst minimising risk of product failure, and keeping stock levels tight, so as to also minimise spending on markdown.

Options and space – how many lines can each grade of store fit out on the sales floor? Some retailers prefer to plan to space, others are more relaxed about fitting out extra items, but essentially this is driven by the budget each team has to spend, and the volume of stock needed to service each store. The merchandiser will work with the allocations team to ensure that each store has the optimum number of options, and the right quantity of each of these options in order to maximise full price sales.

Ranking – many retailers employ a process called ranking, which basically ensures that the team rank a range of products they are planning to buy, from what they believe will be best to worst, and then de-selecting the ones that have been ranked as worst. This has two main outcomes – it frees up stock and space for OTB (open to buy), leaving money in the pot to buy additional items closer to the season, and, in theory, reducing markdown by only buying into products which will hopefully be best sellers. Of course, buying teams don’t get it right every time – there can be many factors affecting whether a product is a best or worst seller, but with all the time, effort and research which has gone into every style, the best sellers will hopefully outnumber the worst by some margin. Just be prepared to accept some abuse over the worst sellers – there will always be numerous other people who have an opinion on the product you are buying, and plenty who will think they could have done it better!

Windows and marketing – at this point in the process the buyer might also start to identify key window lines, or press and advertising lines, and will be discussing this with the merchandiser to ensure that enough volume is bought to satisfy customer demand after publication of any magazine or TV ads. This is also the point at which any promotional activity for a product or group of products should be finalised, in order to allow the buyer time to negotiate the best possible price over an increase in volume.

5. Selection and sign off – again, this process will vary from one retailer to the next, but it usually consists of a “pre-selection” or “pre-sign off” meeting which will involve the buyer, merchandiser and designer, presenting their plans to the heads of buying and merchandising for approval. The meeting usually takes the form of a presentation, with the merchandiser going through all of the financials for the phase/season, or time period, dependant upon what actually needs signing off and orders placing. The designer will present colour palettes and storyboards in order to set the scene for the product which has been developed. The buyer will then present the range, going through each item and explaining the garments, any proposed amendments or changes to each style, the outfit builds, the pricing structure, margin and with which supplier/factory they plan to place each order. The key to success in these meetings is belief in the product you are presenting, confidence in your own ability to develop a bestseller, knowledge encompassing every detail about each garment – cost and retail prices and where it will stand against the competition, product design details, which country of origin and supplier is best placed to make it, how many stores it will be sent to and why, how it will look instore against all the other product around it, what marketing material/labelling will be needed to support it, whether it is worthy of appearing in the window and so on. As a buyer presenting in these situations, you really need a confident presenting style and to know your product inside out – knowledge is power, and in order to create a powerful impression, it is essential that you are prepared for any question which might get thrown at you. There is frequently a great deal of discussion and debate around the product range and there is often a lot of work to do after this meeting, implementing any changes made by the heads of department, adjusting the financials, re-sampling and in the case of a particularly bad meeting, a complete re-work of the range. Hopefully, this will not happen too often – during my time as a buyer I found it very beneficial to manage the expectations of my head of buying by “drip feeding” information prior to the meeting, and showing samples as they come in from suppliers, so that I have a pretty good idea of what will be approved, ensuring that I went into the meeting with only the strongest range possible, and, hopefully, minimal amendments to make afterwards. Following on from this the revised and improved range will be presented to the buying and merchandising directors, for final sign off, at which point, anything or everything could, of course, be changed again!

6. Placing orders – having negotiated prices whilst all of the above is going on, and in many cases, travelled to meet key suppliers to negotiate face to face, the buyer is now in a position to confirm orders with suppliers, ensuring that they can meet the required delivery dates. This is usually done by email, and then followed up with the sending of an official “PO” (purchase order). Some retailers have highly automated systems to manage this process, and others are as straightforward as a typed order, with all the product details confirmed in writing. The most important part of the order, from the suppliers’ point of view is the quantity and size ratio for the order, ie how many of each size does the buyer require? This information will enable the supplier to accurately order the right amount of fabric, and quantities of trims, labels, buttons and other accessories. If the costing has proven to be particularly difficult, a supplier might ask for the size ratio prior to confirmation of the cost price, in order to make any price quote as accurate as possible.

7. Managing critical path – this is a major function in the role of the whole buying team, working together with the suppliers to ensure that all garments are correct to the buyers’ specifications and agreed price, and that delivery happens on time. The critical path will be covered in greater detail at a later date.

8. Fitting and sealing – each garment is fitted on the appropriate model, which could be an actual person, or on special mannequins, with standard body measurements. Once a first fit sample is approved, the supplier will make a “size set”, consisting of one of each size to be produced, which will then also be fitted and approved (sealed) before production commences.

9. Production – once the supplier has received approval, production can begin, in itself a complex pattern of processes which will be covered in more depth later.

10. Shipping – once the garments are completed, they are packed and sent to their destination, travelling by road, sea or air, dependant upon their location at source, where they are being despatched to, and how quickly the retailer needs the stock.

11. Delivery – the final stage in the process is delivery of the stock to the retailers’ warehouse or distribution centre, from where it will be despatched to stores.

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New experiences!

Well, that was one hell of a trip! It started with an early morning departure from Heathrow, travelling with three of my colleagues, first destination Bangalore, India, where none of them had ever been before. This was going to be something of a baptism of fire – India is always a bit of a culture shock to the uninitiated, and we needed to hit the ground running! Having spent all day travelling, via a short stop in Dubai, suddenly it was the next morning (courtesy of a five and a half hour time difference), and we had a brief couple of hours in bed before our first pick up.

The boyswear team head off to meet one supplier, whilst I meet up with the babywear team (already on the second leg of their trip, having started out a few days earlier in Delhi, and worked through the bank holiday weekend!) to visit our largest babywear manufacturer, weaving our way through the relentlessly speeding, honking and swerving traffic. We are visiting a new unit, the supplier in question having brought together all their centralised operations under one, purpose built, roof – fabric checking and storage, cutting, printing, embroidery, testing lab, offices and showrooms – it is vast, and extremely impressive. The only part of the garment making process that is now carried out in their original buildings is the sewing itself. We embark on our tour, which takes the best part of the morning, and takes in all of these stages, stopping along the way to visit the company crèche, where we meet the children and hand out pencils and drawing equipment, which the team have brought as gifts. We also give each child a jelly baby, but they all look a little bemused and wary of it, until we show them that they are supposed to eat it!

FABRIC STORAGE (the fabric stored here will generate two weeks worth of garment production)

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FABRIC CHECKING

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CUTTING YARN DYED STRIPES BY HAND (note the chainmail gloves to protect the operators hands from the lethally sharp vertical knife!)

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PANEL PRINTING (as demonstrated by one of the team!)

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Whilst making our way around the factory, we are also honoured to each be asked to plant a tree to celebrate the opening of this new facility, and there follows a very windy interlude where we each put a tree in the ground, with a name plaque to commemorate our support. It makes me very proud, to be associated with a business that holds the welfare of its employees in the same, incredibly high esteem as it does product quality and safety standards. It also feels somewhat weird to know that there is a little tree with my name on it growing in Bangalore!

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We spend the rest of the day working on new developments in the showroom, discussing longer term business plans, production bookings and opportunities/special buys for our international stores, before heading out for dinner at a beautiful courtyard restaurant with our hosts. At this point, however,  some of us have had just a couple of hours sleep in the last 36 hours, and are feeling somewhat jaded. After yet another hair raising wacky races car journey back to the hotel, it is a huge relief to crawl into a giant comfy bed for a full eight hours!

Next morning and I’m up and out with the boys and menswear teams, dragging all our baggage with us, to meet up with another supplier – we’re in their showroom to put new developments into work, working with fabric swatches, bought samples and design sketches to create some really exciting new styles for SS2015. Although we are doing a considerable amount of business with them on kidswear, it is early days on menswear, and we spend an entire day working through the detail of each style, trying to minimise any possibility for misinterpretation. Hopefully, our instructions are detailed enough, and clear enough, to be carried out effectively, to generate the best possible buying samples – only time will tell!

By the end of the day, we are heading back to the airport, and our evening flight to Chennai. Due to the volume of samples, files, paperwork, laptops and other buying/designing paraphernalia we are all carrying, every single one of us ends up being charged for excess baggage. Having finally sorted out payment for the baggage, we then battle our way through security, and the inevitable stepping into the box for frisking, before going in search of dinner. Now, this in itself is a challenge; we have two vegetarians amongst our number, which is not a problem in India, however, we also have one who is allergic to chilli, which is a significant problem! The majority of us settle for a dosa, a kind of pancake with various dipping sauces – actually quite tasty, despite appearances, whilst our poor chilli allergic colleague had to make do with a chocolate doughnut. Total cost? Around £9.00 for six “meals”! Glamorous this journey is not!

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As we board the flight, it becomes apparent that we have a comedy air steward on the crew – first he tells one of my colleagues she is on the wrong plane (how to cause instant panic!), then he proceeds to get an uncontrollable fit of the giggles during the “safety” demonstration. Somehow, I suddenly do not feel all that safe! Thankfully, it is only a 45 minute flight, and we land in Chennai without further incident.

We eventually manage to find the right cars, and wearily climb in, heading for our next hotel, and a quick nightcap in the very surreal, deserted, “nightclub” style bar. Next morning and we are up and out, scattering again in different directions. I spend a very enjoyable day, first with the menswear team at one of our shirt suppliers, before moving on (another wild car journey, weaving in and out, and occasionally, actually bumping into, other cars!) to join the boyswear team for a very enjoyable afternoon – there is so much exciting development going on here that we are spoilt for choice, and I leave very optimistic that we have the makings of a great spring range under way. We head straight from the office, to the suppliers’ beach house for a truly fabulous evening. I have said it before, and I am sure this won’t be the last time, but the generosity of our hosts on these visits never fails to amaze me – they have laid on a wonderful meal in the garden, but we begin with a few drinks at the garden bar, where the barman seems very keen to practise his cocktail making skills! There are, however, still a couple of people missing, our design manager and menswear assistant buyer! Held hostage, it would appear, by the supplier they had been visiting, who seemed loathe to let them go (so yet again, I seem to be developing a reputation for losing members of my team in strange circumstances, albeit briefly!). Having finally escaped, there followed a complicated scenario (nothing is ever as straightforward as it seems in India!), where the car they were in was supposed to drop them off at a particular location, to then be transported on to meet us for dinner. The first driver got lost (everyone here always says they know exactly where they are going, but experience has taught me that they rarely ever do!), and having driven around the same block three times, stops to get out and ask, disappearing into a nearby building, at which point the other driver appears from nowhere – disaster averted! It is by this time, however, almost 9pm, and whilst politely waiting for our colleagues to arrive, we appear to have eaten our way through a never ending supply of delicious Indian canapes, washed down with a considerable amount of wine, vodka tonic and beer. Finally, I am starting to feel like my body has caught up with the time zone and we can all relax and enjoy the rest of the evening.

Saturday morning dawns, after a very late night, and I have repacked, dragging my baggage out to the next appointment, back at the supplier we visited yesterday, this time spending all day working on mens shirts, trousers, and shorts. It is my last day in Chennai, and I leave my colleagues here, heading off to the airport for a solo flight to Colombo. I have minimal time to spare and, having made it through check in and security, I head straight to the gate to board, at which point the unheard of happens! The plane leaves 30 minutes early! Yes, early! Nothing ever happens early in India! Good job I was on it before they shut the doors! As luck would have it, this means I am in the baggage hall in Colombo waiting for my luggage, when the babywear team arrive from Bangalore – we could not have planned it better if we had tried! We jump in the hotel car for a very smooth ride into town along the brand new highway, which cuts the journey time in half, leaving us just enough time for a very late drink at the pool bar, before heading for bed, shattered!

Sunday means a day off, and we are determined to make the most of it! After a rare couple of hours relaxing by the pool, we head off to explore the refurbished “Old Dutch Hospital” which has been turned into a complex of shops and restaurants, part of the major redevelopment that seems to be going on in and around Colombo – it has changed a great deal since my last visit. We settle on a late lunch at the “Ministry of Crab”, before heading back to the hotel to catch up on correspondence with the office back home.

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Monday morning and we are off to see a key supplier at their “product development centre”, putting in new sample development, discussing production plans, critical paths, business potential, prices, volumes, delivery dates and sign off requirements. I am always reminded during these meetings, of the amount of time, effort and careful planning  required to get a garment from concept to store – it really isn’t as simple as you might think, when we are designing the majority of product from scratch, and selecting all the components, from the fabric quality to every button, trim, embellishment, thread colours, as well as the details of any print, applique, embroidery and wash techniques.

Our second and last day in Colombo finds us heading off to see another potential new factory before making our way back to the product development centre to tie up loose ends and recap to ensure that everyone is clear about what samples we need and when. It is the eve of a major festival in Sri Lanka, celebrating Buddha’s birthday, and by the time we leave, late into the evening, a highly revered local monk is seated on the steps of the centre, giving a speech to all of the staff. We have to leave via a side door, but still stepping over many of those seated cross legged on the ground in front of the centre, in order to make our way out to the waiting car. Despite the team telling us it is not a problem, it stills feels very disrespectful to be departing during what is a highly religious and culturally important celebration for the local people. As we drive back to the hotel, through the even more chaotic traffic than usual, and along streets festooned with celebratory lanterns, the evening takes on a “Christmas Eve” type feeling, everyone coming out of their homes to begin the celebrations, give thanks to Buddha, and enjoy a few days holiday. It is clearly a very special occasion and I feel privileged to have witnessed a little of the culture in a place that I love to visit. Yet again it strikes me how lucky I am to have a job that allows me the opportunity to experience all this – highly demanding it may be, but what a joy!

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Since I started writing this post, after our last long haul trip in May, the time has just run away with me in a frenzy of activity, several weeks of planning and delivering strategy to our buying teams and directors, another very exciting trip to Turkey, and a number of sign offs and meetings, culminating in a conference for some of our key kidswear and menswear suppliers yesterday. It has been a long time in the planning, and took a great deal of effort from all the teams to create an inspiring environment in our basement, utilising all our latest product and graphics to showcase our business strategy and share our plans for the future. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and it makes me very proud to be working with such a fantastic team of visionary, enthusiastic and committed people, both within the business and our supply base.

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