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!
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.
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!
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!
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…….