Time out!

What I really needed was some time out to recharge my very lacklustre batteries, so a few days off in the run up to Easter was a very welcome antidote to the trials of the last few weeks! Why is it that just when you think you’ve got it all worked out, a series of thunderbolts come along that turn everything upside down?

Anyway, enough of my complaining – I am usually pretty resilient, so no doubt we will make it through to the other side. In the meantime I have distracted myself with a little pilates, shopping and lunch with the girls, and an unexpected afternoon in the pub with old friends, followed by a mini road trip with my daughter, first to visit my brother and his family in Suffolk, and then on to stay with friends in Lincolnshire (during which I was subjected to my first, albeit minor, earthquake), all of which has been washed down with large quantities of Prosecco and red wine! I have also spent time improving my golf skills and in the process have discovered that whacking a hundred or so golf balls off the driving range is a great tension reliever – hopefully it will enable me to return to work tomorrow without verbally “whacking” any actual individuals!

Back to reality and we are well under way preparing for our next trip to the far east – some off to Hong Kong, but the majority of us this time concentrating on visiting suppliers and factories on the Indian sub continent. We are all firmly committed to maintaining the highest product quality standards and ethical practices, but we are also heavily focussed on developing new and interesting product, on ever shorter lead times, and at very competitive prices – it is always a challenge, even for the most experienced of us!

On this trip, however, we will have three “first timers” amongst our number – none of whom have been subjected to a visit of this nature before. You might think that this would make the whole procedure more complicated, and in many ways it does, but with good planning and the organisation of an effective itinerary, it should be manageable! Hopefully the experience of my many previous trips will minimise any mishaps, although there are, inevitably, always one or two unexpected events! Turning up in India with an invalid visa would be one not to be repeated; being involved in a minor car crash (always wear a seat belt!); turning up at a hotel to find that they do not have our booking; a slightly frightening unplanned visit to the dentist; the sometimes inevitable bad reaction to something you’ve eaten (always best to stick to the local cuisine!)……the list goes on! I always leave home in the mindset that however well you think you have planned it, it is best to be prepared for absolutely anything to happen!

I simply love to travel with these youngsters, first time or junior buyers, and on rare occasions, assistant buyers – they are the future of our business, and to see the impact that a trip of this nature has on their level of knowledge and capability. I love to watch their faces as they first set eyes on the cows wandering down the streets in India, or experience the raging and ridiculous traffic, the amazing food, the torturous heat (it will be up there around 35C!), but I also love to see how they develop a real understanding of the people we are dealing with, what makes them tick and the culture that they live and work in. For me, it is the development of these supplier relationships that are, not only one of the most enjoyable parts of the job, but also the key to becoming an effective and confident buyer.

I still manage to learn something new every time I head off on a buying trip, but for these guys it will be a truly inspirational experience – it fascinates me the way I can literally “see the penny drop” as their tour around a factory immediately makes everything clearer, the sudden understanding of seeing a production line in action, the reality of their decision making and the “critical path”; the actual vision of what 15,000 garments looks like and why phasing them back a few weeks might in fact be highly problematic! In the course of a 10 day trip, what they learn will enable them to be so much more effective in their current roles and set them up with the knowledge they really need to grow into successful careers.

I am, as always, really looking forward to it!

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A difficult summer………..

It’s been a while since my last post (this sounds like I am about to confess my sins, which I am not!), and a great deal has happened over the last few months, not all of it easy to write about. My year to date has been overshadowed by the illness of my father, who subsequently passed away in July, leaving me feeling bereft and unable to put pen to paper until now. The death of a parent, for those who have not yet experienced it, can have a profound effect on your outlook on life, and has once again reminded me that a human life is shorter than you think, and you only get one opportunity to live it. Having been through this twice now, with both of my parents suffering from the same life destroying disease, I am fully resolved to be open minded to every opportunity that comes my way, to not let the pressures of work get me down, spend as much time as I can with those who are important to me, and to get my act together and finish the book that I started writing some time ago.

Following such a traumatic and upsetting time, however, it felt good to let loose, and take some time for myself and my family, first setting off to rural Italy for an intense week of pilates, fabulous vegetarian food (surprising, as those who know me well will know that I am a committed carnivore!) and sun worship, followed by a family holiday in Portugal. I am learning to play golf, and, come September, I was also walking all over London in preparation for the Shine London Marathon Walk in aid of cancer research, an attempt to do something positive in memory of my parents, and to prove to myself that I was capable of walking in excess of 26 miles! It was with a real sense of achievement and pride, that I stepped over the finish line at around 6am, after 9 hours on the move, despite the agony in my legs, and the blisters on my feet. The atmosphere and camaraderie was amazing, with thousands pounding the streets of the city overnight, and our M&Co team all finished – I think we should be very proud of our achievement, in raising well over £4000 for Cancer Research UK.

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Meanwhile, despite all the reports we are hearing on the news, that the economy has turned a corner, and things are improving, there is little evidence of this on the British high street. There have been small peaks in performance, when the weather and an upturn in consumer optimism have coincided, but on the whole trade remains exceptionally tough, and largely driven by discounts and promotions, as retailers attempt to trade their way through a very tricky start to the autumn season. Yet again, the weather has caught us out – a very cold spring, a heatwave just as the high street had gone into summer sale, and a very warm start to autumn, have all conspired to make it another very tricky year. What we need is a proper cold snap to kick start our winter and Christmas sales! The majority of retailers make a vast proportion of their profit over the next few weeks – none of us can afford to see a continuation of the current warm weather and very average sales performance! As I have said before, however, the retail industry needs to change its’ approach in light of our more unpredictable seasons, but who will be brave enough to lead the way? We need to change the pattern with which we launch new seasons, reduce our reliance on promotions and sales, and ensure that a good proportion of product in store is “trans-seasonal”, enabling retailers to cope more effectively when our weather fails to live up to expectations. This is particularly true in menswear and childrenswear – women will always buy for themselves and their homes, driven by trends, friends, desire, and the odd glass of wine (inebriated shopping is so much more fun!), but will often wait to buy for their husbands and children until there is a “need” for that product, eg coats and knitwear when it gets cold, shorts and t-shirts when it gets warm. Men themselves buy clothing much less frequently, and children generally hate shopping, so their purchasing is frequently driven by the women in their lives – girlfriends, wives, mothers and grandmothers. As a multi departmental retailer, encouraging greater spending, driving up the amount of money spent during each visit, and the regularity of spend, by our female customers, will be the key to our success!

Against this difficult backdrop, a number of other challenges have presented themselves this year, not least in the sourcing and delivery of product to our stores. Labour costs are rising world wide, as is inflation in many of the regions we are buying from; the situation in some countries is volatile, and protests/strikes frequent, with the impact of the very distressing Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh earlier this year, which killed more than 1100 garment workers and left thousands of children without parents, sending out ripples around the industry, demanding much needed change, and placing greater importance on the health and safety of garment industry workers worldwide. This is something I feel very strongly about – it should be a given, surely, that wherever you work in the civilian world, it ought to be possible to go to work, knowing that you will come home safely to your family at the end of the day? We take this for granted in the western world, but in the developing countries we are sourcing from, such a straightforward human right is far from the norm. As retailers, we have a certain level of responsibility to the workforce employed in our supply chain, to ensure that they are well treated, and can work in a safe environment, without fear of the building going up in flames, or disintegrating around them, and be paid a fair wage to be there.

It was with all of this in mind that we set off on our latest trip to visit suppliers, my buying team scattering far and wide across the Indian sub continent, Hong Kong and China. As a team of primarily menswear and childrenswear buyers, all are purchasing for multi product departments, and this necessitates sourcing across many different regions, with numerous different suppliers, many of whom need to be specialists eg. knitwear, baby layette, outerwear etc. It takes a talented buyer to juggle so many different and diverse product types, and makes for a very challenging itinerary.

I left home on a sunday evening, knowing that over the next 11 days, I would be embarking on 9 flights, staying in 5 different cities, and seeing at least 12 either existing key sources, or potential new suppliers, all whilst trying to touch base with each buying team at least once, somewhere. It was a daunting prospect, the thought of it exhausting, before I had even started!

First stop Dhaka, Bangladesh with the boys and menswear team; when I say “team” I actually mean one very busy buyer, and a design manager, trying to cover off all our mens and boys business in this location. We knew this was going to be a challenging visit – there are upcoming elections due, and this often leads to large and violent protests, with thousands taking to the streets. Additionally, a decision was due from the current government, on an increase in the minimum wage – the workforce were demanding that the minimum should more than double. In percentage terms it is a huge increase, but put in perspective, the current minimum is 3000 taka ($39USD) per month, and the new minimum, if agreed, would be 8000 taka ($102USD) per month. Obviously, there are huge differences in the cost of living to that in the west, but just imagine trying to house, clothe and feed a family on such a small sum of money! Since our return, the increase has been agreed at 76%, taking the minimum wage to around 5500 taka.

The immediate impact on our visit was the reluctance, by some suppliers/factories, to negotiate or agree prices until the minimum wage has been confirmed. It is very unclear what is actually likely to be agreed, and therefore the effect garment prices is very difficult to predict. We spent the first morning with a key supplier, discussing their performance review, the current situation and going through product development for the forthcoming season (AW14 is under way!), before travelling with them to one of our key factories on the outskirts of the city. Seeing some of our spring production going down the line was one of the highlights of the afternoon, before getting back in the car for the 90 minute journey back to the hotel for a late dinner, and the first of many Indian meals to come. As the wine was extortionately expensive, we resorted to ordering cocktails with our dinner, only to find we had to advise the bar staff how to make a Mohito – they seemed to think it necessary to blitz the whole thing in a blender – turning it the colour and consistency of pond water!

Leaving my colleagues behind for a further couple of days in Dhaka, I was up and out of the hotel by 7am, heading for a long day of travelling to my next destination. I first flew from Dhaka to Delhi, where I collected my luggage for transfer to the domestic terminal, checking in for a second time, and a three hour wait before boarding a flight to Chennai, in the south of India. I amused myself by checking out the shops in Delhi airport – suddenly, there is not only an M&S, but Accessorize, Body Shop, Smiths and KFC – I could have been anywhere! It was good to see some familiar faces waiting for me as I came through arrivals in Chennai, and we spent the evening catching up over drinks and dinner.

Day 3 and an 8.30am pick up for a trip to a shirt supplier I had not visited before, although the business has been buying from them for many years. It was a small but well organised set up, making very cleanly finished production, and with scope for other woven product types. After a very quick pit stop to see their showroom, meet and greet the team and a discussion with the MD, I was off to my next appointment, with a supplier I have dealt with previously, although not visited in a long time. It was really good to see the team there, and there is great scope for development on men’s, women’s and kids product. I was inspired by the variety and choice, and I am very excited about the potential here! It was one of the most exciting appointments of my entire trip and I left feeling very optimistic. Having left the showroom, we moved on to a beautiful restaurant for a very relaxing dinner and a few glasses of wine, before I had to pack up again for the next leg of my tour!

After a small panic in the middle of the night (at this point I am surviving on about 4hrs sleep a night as I cannot settle in my constantly changing environment!), when I realised that I had misread the early morning flight time. Fortunately, it was a very quick journey to the airport and I arrived in plenty of time for my 50 minute hop to Bangalore. On arrival I was met by a driver from the company I was due to visit, climbing into the car for a very long journey to the office. Getting into a car, with a man I have never met before, who speaks minimal English, always makes me nervous; it is always a bit like wacky races (with me featuring as Penelope Pitstop and inwardly screaming heee…elp, hee…elp!) and there is frequently some kind of incident – driver gets lost, the car hits something (usually another vehicle, occasionally a chicken or a rickshaw, but on one occasion, a cow) etc. This journey proved no different, but in this case we were pulled over by the police, whereupon I was left in the car, at the side of a very busy road, with traffic streaming past, whilst the driver disappeared. It transpired that he had been stopped because the car had tinted windows, now illegal in India since a series of high profile rape and kidnap cases. As the driver had no cash with him, he returned to the car to ask, in very broken English, if I could pay the 100 rupee (approx. £10) fine. Now how on earth do I get that through expenses? I couldn’t very well ask for a receipt and although he assured me that he would return the money, I think he was too embarrassed to admit his mistake to his boss.

Arriving at the office, I was very pleased to see the babywear team in residence, and, after an introduction to the supplier team here, and a tour of the set up, we headed out for a quick, but delicious, Indian lunch. In a whirlwind of a day, we then returned to the office to go through new product development, before jumping back in the car to visit one of their factory showrooms. A very quick 20 minute visit to the buying teams hotel, for a wash and change of clothing, before I am dragging my luggage back out to the car. I think this has to qualify as my shortest hotel stay ever! We enjoy dinner in an absolutely stunning hotel before I leave the team and make my way back to the airport, for a 2.40am flight to Hong Kong. I have to queue for a seat in the lounge, whereupon I struggle to stay awake, and my flight is delayed, eventually departing at 3.45am. I had been in Bangalore for less than 16 hours! Anyone under the illusion that life as a buyer is glamorous, or luxurious, think again! At this point in my travels I am absolutely knackered, and I dare not look in the mirror, I fear what I might see looking back!

I manage to snatch a few uncomfortable hours of sleep on this short flight, by which time I am arriving at mid-day in HK, and heading for The Mira, one of my favourite hotels. Fortunately, my room is ready early as requested, and I have time for a quick shower and change, before making my way to the first of two Saturday afternoon appointments. I am reunited with the boys and mens team for this first meeting, a potential new outerwear supplier that I have worked with before, and then have a catch up with a knitwear supplier who has flown up from Indonesia to meet with us. They have had appointments with the boys and girls teams, so I am following up on their progress, and discussing possibilities for babywear.

Finally, I have an hour to myself, a chance to unpack – most of my clothing has not yet left my suitcase since leaving home, but with a 3 night stay comes an opportunity to get myself re-organised! So, it’s Saturday night in HK, and there are six of us here, so we decide to get ourselves over to the island, for dinner at a very “English” restaurant, The Pawn, in Wan Chai, a very welcome change after 5 days subsisting on mostly curry! Despite exhaustion taking over, I seem to rally after a few glasses of good red wine, and we have a very enjoyable meal – the prospect of not having to get up for a meeting or a flight the following morning is enough to recharge my batteries long enough to last the evening.

Sunday morning dawns sunny and warm, and after my first full 8 hours sleep, I make it out of bed for a very late breakfast, before hitting the Hong Kong shops to kick start my Christmas shopping. It is a truly beautiful day, and I spend a few happy hours wandering the streets and malls in search of interesting gifts for friends and family. Dropping my shopping off at the hotel, I head to my favourite local Chinese spa to meet an old friend I haven’t seen for a while and we catch up on the gossip, over a bite to eat and a foot massage. After 2 hours on a Chinese massage table, and some relief from the tension in my back, neck and shoulders, I feel ready to face the last few days of our trip, but before that there is time for dinner in Lan Kwai Fong – at a highly recommended steak restaurant. Arriving 10 minutes early, they send us upstairs to their “Peruvian” sister restaurant for cocktails whilst we wait. What, you might ask, goes into a Peruvian cocktail? Pisco, is the answer, in every available drink! I am slightly worried that one “pisco” and I might remember nothing, so we enquire what is in it, to discover that it is a potent local Peruvian rum. Just the one for me then, I think red wine with dinner might be the safer option!

I seem to be talking about alcohol a lot, but in truth it is just one of a number of necessities required to get through a trip of this magnitude – secondly, sleeping tablets to counteract the jetlag and ensure that you do sleep when the opportunity arises; caffeine, in large quantities, essential for staying awake when your body has other ideas; Aspirin to ward off DVT; Resolve or Dioralyte for the occasional inevitable hangovers, but also when dehydration from all the flying sets in; Jelly Babies, for when your blood sugar takes a sudden nose dive at around 3pm; Berocca, in the absence of your 5 a day, and Immodium, for the obvious! I never leave home on a trip without all of the above, and a number of other emergency remedies!

Monday morning dawns, and we are all out and scattering to various appointments with babywear suppliers, outerwear suppliers, denim, knitwear, jersey, and so on. I manage to work my way through several appointments before heading back to the hotel, a quick change and out for our last dinner in Hong Kong, Teppanyaki, a Japanese meal with one of our longest standing suppliers. It is a great fun evening, although the food is a little challenging for our vegetarian colleague, and the Sake we wash it all down with is definitely an acquired taste!

Tuesday morning, 5am, and we are up, packed and soon on our way to the airport for the last leg – Shanghai. Having dozed through most of the flight, we arrive and head straight to a major supplier for lengthy discussions and negotiation on next seasons outerwear ranges. We work our way through boyswear, girlswear, babywear and menswear, finally departing the office at around 6.30pm. Having checked into our hotel, we meet up with another contact that I have not seen for years, and there follows a fairly surreal evening at a beautiful and well known restaurant, whereby our host spends most of the evening on the phone whilst we dine! It is wonderful, however, and the food is sublime, a real treat for our last night of the trip.

The final day arrives, and with it a visit to a factory I have used in the past – everything starts well, they have made some lovely samples, we seem to be making great progress on the negotiations, and the day passes in a busy blur, whilst we all get bitten to death by god knows what in the showroom. I cannot stop itching – it is really making my skin crawl. Not only that, but we are seated in the centre of an enormous room, on a very odd raised platform that looks a little bit like the dance floor from Saturday Night Fever – I almost expect it to start flashing different colours! One by one, as the tiredness kicks in, we all manage to either fall off it, or trip up on it – we are lucky to make it this far without serious injury.

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Late in the afternoon we set off to take a look at the production lines, and all my optimism is shattered – the factory is a shadow of its former self. It is a few years since I have visited and it is unrecognisable. It is very difficult, without digging much deeper, and spending much time, effort and money, to see how we can get this place into a fit state for any production. We leave, exhausted and deflated, to head back to the hotel, collect our luggage, and depart for the journey home. It has been a trip with more ups than downs, however, and as always, a significant learning curve – I never fail to return without a head full of new and potentially useful information.

Within days I am back into the whirlwind of trading, strategy meetings, supplier appointments and a quick trip to Glasgow, to present our spring 2014 childrenswear ranges to our area managers and directors. Back on the ever turning wheel that is the life of a head of buying!

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Feeling hot, hot, hot………….

Arriving in Delhi in the early hours of Wednesday morning, we bunch of weary travellers were greeted by the stifling heat and a missing bag! Cue lots of arm waving and pigeon English as we tried to locate said bag – it had exploded out of its zip in transit and been transformed in a disguise of Emirates plastic wrapping. Bag located, we made our way out to the waiting cars to be transported to………….paradise! Never, in all my years of buying trips, have I stayed in a hotel quite like this one – the Oberoi in Gurgaon was a truly memorable experience.

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We were greeted on arrival by a team of hosts, all decked out in stunning sari’s, and each of us escorted personally across an open courtyard overlooking a giant water feature and the glass cube containing the Gucci store. There followed an endless walk, along a seemingly endless corridor, to my room, which was right at the end, at which point the key card failed to work! “Don’t worry” says my host, “I’ll fetch help”! I could see her running down the corridor, sari swishing in the silence, for at least 5 minutes before she finally disappeared. The next thing I know, someone is shaking me gently by the shoulder, “mam, mam, hello mam” – it would seem that I have sat down in the corridor and fallen asleep amongst my luggage – in a 7 star hotel! Well, it was 4.30am and I had been up for over 24hrs!

Having crawled into bed to catch up on a few hours sleep, we were up in time for brunch followed by a trip to the fabric market. Amazingly the traffic is relatively free flowing, although people, cows, pigs, tuk tuks and the occasional motorbike transporting an entire family, mill about between the cars. It is impossible not to be disturbed by some of the craziness here – we pass by one such motorbike, the male driver wearing a hard hat (the type you might see on a building site), his wife and two children precariously balanced and wearing no protective headgear at all. It makes me shudder!

On reaching the fabric market with one of our suppliers, we all spill out of the cars, into the dust, chaos and 43 degree heat – I can actually feel the sun searing the skin on my arms as I stand at the side of the road. We make a quick dash for the first, air conditioned, fabric store and begin our trawl through rolls and rolls of prints, stripes, checks, broderie anglaise, lace, cambric, dobby and voile in search of the ideal sample lengths which will form the basis of our product development over the next few days. The six of us are like a finely tuned team of vultures picking over a carcass – pulling out roll after roll. Having built up a pile of fabrics, we go on to edit our selection, before moving on to the next store and repeating the process, six or seven times, before piling back into the car and on to the

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accessories and trimmings shop – an Aladdins’ cave of beads, buttons, decorative cords and tapes, corsages, bows, frills, ruffles, lace trims, brocades, and all manner of other crochet flowers, butterflies, gemstones and accessories. This time, we are more like hyperactive children in a sweet shop, and we leave with numerous bags full of goodies!

I knew it couldn’t last – it takes us 2 hours to drive back through the now chaotic early evening rush hour traffic to the calm and tranquillity of the hotel. We are now into the swing of the “curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner diet” and head into the impossibly glamorous piano bar for a very civilised drink before a late dinner, and bed at around midnight. Despite the jet lag, and the late night, I cannot resist the lure of the amazing hotel pool (all 55m of it!) and am up in time for a solitary 7am swim. I must look even more worse for wear than I thought, because the pool attendant insists on walking alongside me as I swim up and down, chatting to me about my technique and stamina!?!?!? Is he worried I might drown? Odd, as it is only 4ft 6in deep! 550m later, he gives up and I get out, heading off to meet my colleagues for breakfast.

We are then off to the outskirts of Gurgaon to visit a supplier making both knitwear and wovens for us across a number of departments. We spend the day discussing their performance, critical path and product developments, putting a number of new ideas into work – the designers are busy sketching/CAD drawing garments for sampling, whilst the buyers start briefing styles and going through any samples already produced, and negotiating prices. After a long and busy day we head back to the hotel for a quick turnaround, before heading into Delhi with a supplier for dinner at one of my favourite restaurants, Bhukara, a traditional, and very famous, tandoori restaurant, reputedly frequented by both Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin! There are no world leaders or celebrities in tonight, however, and we take the opportunity to tuck into the giant naan, one or two of the team venturing into the kitchen to try their hand at making it! Some of the team also try the betel leaf desert, a strange and acquired (or not!) taste.

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The following morning, another swim and we’re off to visit one of our key suppliers here – a smaller factory that we deal with direct, who are particularly adept at interpreting our own designs and coping with our relatively small quantities. We spend most of the day here, working with fabrics we selected at the market, before I head off across the city to join one of our other buying teams at a potential new source for us. It is an exciting meeting, and it appears that they have the capability to offer us new and exciting product, with a different slant on the seasons trends and great variety in styling.

After an eventful journey, during which we almost ended up in the wrong Oberoi, on the other side of Delhi, we had 20 minutes to dump sample bags and change, before heading to the outskirts of the city, and the home of a supplier. It takes us an age to get there, as we get stuck in a monster traffic jam outside a huge wedding – we almost lose one wayward member of our team who wants to go in and investigate. I persuade her to stay in the car – I am not entirely sure of the protocol surrounding gatecrashing a very elaborate Indian wedding! Having finally arrived, we always appreciate the generosity of our hosts in laying on a beautiful evening, and wonderful food, in a setting that is idyllic; it is an evening when we can really let our hair down and relax on an otherwise frantic trip. The food is exquisite, although possibly not quite as delicious for one or two of our party, for whom “Delhi belly” has now set in! I think that practice on so many of these visits has given me something of an iron constitution (famous last words?), with my main rule being to stick to the local food whenever possible. Western food in India, outside of the best hotels, is fairly dangerous territory, and anything raw is an absolute no no. We despatch the poorly ones back to the hotel early, and the rest of us crawl in at 1.30am. Needless to say, I fail to get up for my morning swim!

Saturday morning and we are, however, up at 7.30am, packing up all our baggage to check out before heading off on a factory visit. I learned a great deal on this visit, about the transient nature of the factory workforce in and around Delhi. The factory was very quiet, so the general manager explained that most of the workers are hired on a contract basis, through an agency, and are only therefore employed when there is enough work. Production of lightweight wovens such as blouses and dresses is prevalent here, but has peaks and troughs based around seasonality. The factory use the same agency all the time, so some of their workers are regulars, but it does go some way to explaining why consistency of production and quality is more difficult to maintain here than in many other sourcing regions.

Back to the office for one final meeting, before dinner at the hotel and a middle of the night flight on to Hong Kong. We endure a chaotic airport experience; first they will not let one of the team into the terminal because she does not have the e-ticket printout, security is a nightmare, bags, bodies and boarding passes being checked over and over and we just make it through as they send out a final call for our flight. Ordinarily, I quite like a night flight; it is an opportunity to catch up on some rest, but we are only in the air for four and a half hours, by which time it is 9am at our destination, and we appear to have misplaced another whole nights’ sleep!

Arriving at our hotel, we check in and try to snatch a few hours in bed, before a quick  lunch and then hit the shops for a little clothing research and one or two items of gift shopping to keep the family happy. We are joined for dinner by a couple more colleagues who have arrived straight from the UK, before a very welcome early night!

There follow four days of dashing around Hong Kong from one supplier meeting to the next as I try to carry out supplier appraisals, get involved in new product development with each team, meet one or two new potential suppliers, and sort out a number of quality/delivery issues with one particularly difficult source. This is interspersed with a number of very late nights, dinner with a variety of suppliers, and one particularly enjoyable evening with a former colleague who now lives in the city.

Having tied up the last few loose ends and had time for a very quick dinner on Thursday evening, we congregate in the lobby with our vast quantity of luggage, only to find that Emirates have sent a fleet of 10 limo’s to pick us up!!!! One for each of us, and they are queued up outside the doors, causing traffic chaos!! A little excessive, I think, explaining that this is not necessary, sending 5 cars away and opting to travel to the airport in pairs! As is always the case, I am asleep almost immediately I am sat in my aeroplane seat for the long journey home.

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Standing out from the crowd……….

As is always the case in a modern buying environment, it has been a very busy few weeks, and our ever changing business has presented numerous seemingly unsolvable problems. Every problem usually has a solution, but it does not always immediately present itself, and often requires plenty of discussion to find the best possible answer, which will drive out the greatest sales and profit. We are just building up to the start of a new seasons development, designers are frantically preparing designs and colour palettes for suppliers, and the buying teams are busy having preparatory meetings with those suppliers, in the build up to our next buying trip to the Far East.

Our main focus, however, at this moment in time, is our strategy for the business going forward, and what we are going to do to stand out from the crowd. This requires us all to think differently and brainstorm effectively, to drive out some really exciting ideas and opportunities. Apparently, these days, the word “brainstorm” is very un pc, I am not really sure why, and should be replaced by the term “thought shower”. How ridiculous! A “thought shower” sounds somewhat like a daydream, whereas a brainstorming session should be dynamic, creative, and every now and then, just a little bit bonkers, if it is going to drive out the best ideas! I shall, in this particular instance, be sticking to the old phrase regardless.

In every other aspect of my working life however, I am, and will continue to embrace change. That is one of the reasons I became a buyer in the first place; the industry is in a continual cycle of change and that is what makes it such an exciting place to be! Twenty four years after I started my journey up the buying ladder, it still gives me a buzz, and I still look forward to coming in on a Monday morning. I cannot think of anything I’d rather be doing! Stepping out of your comfort zone is obviously going to be a little uncomfortable, and will always be a challenge, but even more difficult, it seems, is motivating others to do the same. With a new merchandise director on board, bringing new ideas and challenges to the table, it is quickly becoming apparent that some are more ready to follow than others. If we have just one major difference to make to the business now, it is to let go of the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” mental attitude. I am not even sure where this comes from in many instances, as we have so many new, creative and enthusiastic members on our team, but I guess, if you keep putting up barriers, eventually, the enthusiasm fades. Our greatest challenge, as a business, is to break down those barriers and give our teams the freedom to be truly creative. It appears to me that whilst we are all agreed that change is good and we should all embrace it, there is a tendency to default to the old way of doing something, when restricted by history, process and system limitations, or when the new/innovative way presents a problem. Tenacity in driving forward through all these difficulties is going to be the only way to get results.

We also need to maintain our level of confidence! I doubt there is a buyer on the high street who can say they have not had a difficult season, and this can play havoc with a buying teams confidence. Two of the key skills of a talented buyer are firstly, knowing when to take an educated risk, and secondly, having the confidence, on occasion, to go with a gut feeling. It is not always possible to analyse what has worked previously, and come up with an answer about what to do next – things have changed, trends and seasons have moved on, and sometimes, you just have to take the plunge and do what feels right.

Making major changes is frightening, and there are often no guarantees that the new way will drive better results, but with the level of experience and knowledge from around the industry that we have in our business, we really do have the potential to succeed, even in the current, very difficult retail climate.

The will is there…….we just need to find the way!

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Wacky races, camels and kebabs……….

Leaving home on Sunday afternoon, I had a very odd feeling that this was going to be an eventful trip; if only I’d known just how eventful! It was destined to be a very busy few days!

Having made it through security at Heathrow in record time, the five of us from the kids wear team met for a sandwich and a little therapeutic shopping, before boarding our flight to Istanbul. The flight itself was busy but uneventful, but I have to ask, why are British Airways stewardesses always so miserable? “Grumpy” doesn’t even come close to describing this crew! On arrival in Ataturk Airport, one of the buying team put her formidable negotiation tactics to the test, haggling for a great deal on an airport transfer to the hotel. In the past we might have simply jumped in a taxi or two, but the current economic climate determines an alternative approach and in the spirit of saving costs on our “business diet”, a negotiated transfer was the best option. Having checked in, we retired to the bar for a midnight snack and a drink, amazed that it was still open, and even more surprised when a complimentary B52 arrived! Just the one, though, so we had to fight for it, and this was just the beginning……

The hotel was called the “Titanic”, ominous, you may think, but, having stayed in a number of other hotels in the area in the past, this one was by far the nicest, despite the fact that the movie channel played the Titanic on a loop all day, every day!

Up and checked out again by 9am, we split into our two teams, three of us off to visit a regular supplier at a new showroom, and were very impressed with what we saw; some very innovative and creative designs, interesting fabrics and print techniques. They seemed to have really upped their game and I came away very optimistic, mind you I often get very buoyed up during these creative meetings, only to feel let down when the samples either fail to come through at all, or look nothing like we expected, despite our very specific instructions! Let’s hope this time will be as fruitful as it first appeared. Mid day and we’re heading to see a potential new supplier, who already supply many of the major UK high street retailers, and have particular expertise in kids wear. Once again, their showroom was very impressive, and I was surprised to find that they too, are prepared to do relatively small trial quantities! This was to become a recurring theme throughout the week – usually, persuading any factory to do small runs of 300 units is a challenge, but they all seemed hungry for the business, and willing to co-operate, despite the rumblings about cotton prices being on the rise again.

Meeting over and we’re back in the car, fighting our way through the diabolical traffic, heading out to the airport once more, for a domestic flight to Denizli, further south. We were due to meet a supplier for the flight down, but they were cutting it fine, and finally boarded just 5 minutes before we were due to depart! There was a car waiting to meet us at the airport, and after a pretty hair-raising 100mph journey, we had just enough time to check in and offload our bags before heading out for a late dinner. The food was  traditionally Turkish, and delicious, and the company good fun, having been joined by our supplier and one or two other local characters!

IMG_0730Day 2 (it already feels like a lot longer than that!) and we’re up and out early again to visit our supplier here and tour their factory. Just time for a quick stop en route to see the famous local landmark, Pamukkale, which is a series of geothermal pools cascading down the side of the mountain, caused by calcium deposits from the hot springs. It is also the site of an ancient Roman city, with the ruins and remains scattered over the hillside. Things take a slightly comical turn when one of our designers, wanting her picture taken with a camel, suddenly finds herself lifted up onto said camel and disappearing up the road, to my cries of “bring her back, we have work to do!”

Having retrieved the wayward designer, we travel on to our first stop, the dyeing, printing and finishing plant, which is owned by this particular supplier, who also knit their own fabric, as well as making the garments themselves, making them a completely “vertical” source. This gives them much greater control over their fabric supply, and offers us a quick and flexible service. The dyeing plant is huge, with some of the machinery able to take single dye lots of up to 1-1.5 tonnes of fabric, in what is actually the equivalent of a giant washing machine.

IMG_0742This equates to around 10,000 to 15,000       t-shirts in a single dye batch, which is great for achieving colour continuity if you are buying large quantities, and is also the cheapest option. We, however, are more commonly buying between 1000 and 3000 pieces, and therefore requiring much smaller dye lots. The dyeing process is exactly the same, taking the same amount of time and effort, but takes place in a much smaller machine, and consequently adds to the cost. It is the first visit to a dyeing plant for both of the colleagues that I am travelling with and I can almost visibly see the penny dropping as the implications of our requirements start to sink in! The plant is carrying out all of the other processes required in order to turn out fully finished fabric, with both all over roller printing and placement printing on rotary machines which can handle up to 12 colours in a single design, and fixing the stability of the fabric, and the print itself through a series of heat and steam application techniques. IMG_0747One of my team is taking copious notes and photographs, in order to be able to deliver a training session on the various processes on our return, which I think is a great idea for helping to develop the knowledge level of our more junior team members.

Moving on, we arrive at the main garment producing unit and showroom to start a development meeting and there follows lots of discussion and negotiation over styles we are booking, as well as developing new ideas and putting some smaller trials into work. In the current, very tough economic climate we are developing a more aggressive “trial and trade” mentality, in order to give us the best possible chance of success and minimise risk. Turkey, being close to the UK and very progressive in terms of fabric development, is one of our best options for getting new styles to market quickly, and is growing in importance to the fashion driven areas of our business.

All the while this is going on I am in multi tasking mode, following the progress of the meeting whilst trying to fend off a constant stream of emails from the UK about window graphics, in store graphics and various other supplier quality and delivery problems, as well as questions and discussion regarding a major strategy presentation to the board next week. My head feels like it is going to explode!

Meeting over, we just have time for a quick factory tour of the sewing floors, with numerous styles going through the production lines, a quick lesson for my team on the use of the metal detector (a requirement for all factories with children’s wear production), and a look at the multi headed embroidery machines, before yet another quick dash to the airport, and a flight back to Istanbul, where our presence is required at a dinner/birthday party for one of our women’s wear colleagues.

We dump our baggage back at the Titanic, now drowning in torrential rain, and jump back in another taxi, at which point it all starts to head downhill. The taxi driver, having initially said he knew exactly where he was going, clearly had no idea, and there followed a chaotic race round Istanbul to try to find our colleagues, who had also ended up in the wrong restaurant, courtesy of their, also errant, taxi driver. Having eventually all managed to get to the right place, on the banks of the Bosphorus, we finally began our meal at 10.30pm – it was becoming clear that by the end of the week I was going to be suffering from a severe lack of sleep! Following dinner, we moved on to the bar next door to continue the celebrations, which was clearly unwise, and there were some very bleary looking faces at breakfast the next morning.

However, we were back on the road by 9am, with another supplier, heading for a large factory on the outskirts of the city, where this time we were able to see the knitting machinery in action. This particular factory was even spinning its’ own yarn, something which I have never seen before at a supplier. A further tour of their sewing floors, and a look at the finishing and packing processes, before more costing negotiation on styles we want to place. Following this, we were heading for a late lunch nearby, but not before we had been shown the on site factory farm!! Chickens scattered and we picked our way through the sheep shit whilst the sheep themselves viewed us with suspicion from a distance. All very odd indeed – this trip was turning into something of an animal extravaganza.

Lunch followed, whereupon, a wide variety of lamb dishes, including kebabs and liver, appeared on the table, and all I could think of were their little faces looking at me. I also became uncomfortably aware that I was attracting some unwanted attention – some Turkish men clearly have no shame, and there followed a very surreal conversation which I would really rather not have been having. Awkward does not even come close!!!!! Good job I have a sense of humour as it caused great amusement amongst my colleagues.

Escaping after lunch, we were dropped off at the hotel and just had time to have a quick tour of the large shopping centre next door and catch up on some emails, before indulging in some well deserved early evening relaxation at the spa – this appears to be my trademark, and I think in my old age I would like to become a spa critic, if such a thing exists! Massage over and we were heading out in yet another wayward, and soon lost, taxi, whose final misdemeanour was to crash the car with me still in it! Let that be a lesson, and always wear a seatbelt when travelling by car in a foreign country! Fortunately I was unharmed (although my lovely relaxed post massage state had been replaced by severely frazzled nerves), but the taxi and the car it had reversed into were not in great shape! We left the driver to sort out the mess, while we joined our party at my favourite Istanbul restaurant, Bysteak. It is not glamorous, does not have a fabulous view, and is certainly not one of the fashionable places to dine, but it has immense charm, a wonderful host who really looks after us, fantastic wine, a really great atmosphere and the food is without doubt the best I have eaten in this city – we love it and were able to introduce many friends and colleagues this time, as fifteen of us sat down to eat. We were an eclectic bunch, made up of English, Australian, German, Turkish, a Russian and a couple of Italians – a truly international table.

Our final day passed without major incident, as we met with a couple more suppliers, before joining the long traffic jam to the airport. Whilst on our way, my suspicions about Turkish driving were confirmed as we witnessed a man driving a lorry, having a conversation holding one phone to his ear, whilst he texted on another phone in his hand, and steered with his elbows! We arrived at the airport unscathed, only to find our flight delayed by an hour. This is dangerous – left to my own devices with too much time in an airport I am programmed to shop, and this time was no exception!

I finally arrived home late that evening, knowing that I needed to be up again at 6am to put in a full day at the office and catch up on all that we had missed!

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Full speed ahead………

Well, the Christmas and New Year Holiday feels a very long time ago and the first few weeks of the year have been non stop; a continuous round of sign offs and planning meetings, supplier visits, ongoing product development for next A/W13 and, latterly, beginning to look at initial thoughts for SS14.

In the midst of all this we have been looking at the potential to drive training and development opportunities for individuals within the business. The question is; should we single out particular candidates who demonstrate the highest levels of self motivation and focus on giving them a greater level of specialist training and coaching, or does everyone deserve the same level of opportunity? Clearly there will be some who are less focussed on career progression, and others who expect it to be handed to them on a plate, but for those who show commitment, dedication, passion and a drive to succeed, shouldn’t they all get the opportunity to shine? It is my firm belief that not all those capable of high levels of achievement are necessarily the most obvious choices in the early stages of their career, and many talented individuals will move onto other businesses before we have realised their potential. I am firmly in the camp that believes all our dedicated, talented, committed and passionate team members deserve the opportunity to progress through the ranks, regardless of whether they appear to be the busiest, or shout the loudest. These are the potential buyers, merchandisers, designers and technologists of the future, and it is imperative that we give them all the training and development they need, not only to maintain a successful business, but to enable them to negotiate their way through the minefield that is a buying and merchandising department for the retail industry.

So….that’s me off my soapbox now!

Talking of soapboxes, I challenged myself to do something new and different this week, joining a panel of speakers at Pure, one of the UK’s largest fashion trade shows. As the day drew closer I found myself feeling pretty nervous, although I think my experience as a lecturer at the Retail Academy helped to put it into perspective; the audience at Pure were far less rowdy and significantly less challenging than most of my students! Once I was up there sitting on a tall stool with a microphone in my hand (not unlike a performance by Westlife, one of my colleagues commented!), it was not nearly as nerve wracking as I had expected, and I found that I began to enjoy it – the audience response was great and I was inundated with questions from interested audience members at the end. It is definitely something I will do again in the future.

This week we are heading into the final round of long lead time AW13 sign offs for the majority of my departments, and its looking like its going to be a long week, so I have taken a long weekend to recharge my batteries before launching myself into boys and menswear on Tuesday, dinner with some of our area managers on Tuesday evening, a day instore with the visual merchandising teams and directors on Wednesday, babywear and girlswear on Thursday, Kylie teen department on Friday, and somewhere along the line we need to try and fit in kids accessories and homeware too! Add to that a couple of supplier meetings and clearly, there are not enough hours in the day, any day!!!

Following all of that, I’ll be heading out to Istanbul on our next buying trip with girlswear and Kylie, after which we’ll all be shopping the world for inspiration for SS14 – the design team are already underway with pulling together trends and colour palettes; roll on next season! In the meantime we’ll be trading our way through SS13, and chasing our way through critical paths to ensure our deliveries come in on time for AW13; I know I’ve said it before, but there really is never a dull moment!

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As 2012 draws to a close…….

2012 has been a year of new experiences, some amazing highs and one or two lows, and a very steep learning curve! I feel as if I have been travelling relentlessly, and am on constant information overload, but I really wouldn’t have it any other way. The rush towards the end of the year has been a whirlwind of meetings, Christmas events and parties, with the occasional leaving do thrown in, and a very special trip to New York with my daughter.

It started with a quick fire round of strategy and sign off meetings, the first in the planning process for AW13. There are never enough hours in the day (I am beginning to think that I say this a lot!) to complete all of these meetings as comprehensively as is really necessary, and it is a tribute to the talent, enthusiasm and commitment of my buying team, and the merchandisers and designers, that what we see in these sign offs, makes it to the shop floor looking so strong, so unique, and as competitive as any other high street fashion retailer. I am very proud of all of them, and what they have achieved in the past year, and I am really looking forward to what 2013 may bring.

Following all of this I headed off to New York, with my teenage daughter for a weekend of shopping and sightseeing, culminating in a visit to Madison Square Garden, to see One Direction in concert – my excuse is that this was for teen clothing research, but if I’m honest, I haven’t had so much fun in ages! The whole city had gone One Direction mad, there was even a 1D store, outside which there was a permanent, and very long, queue to get in! The level of excitement inside the iconic stadium was infectious, and the decibel level was like nothing I have ever experienced before – it was one of the highlights of my year!

There then followed a couple of days out with one of our area managers, on my “Christmas Visits” – now this was an element of the job which was new to me, something which all of the heads of and directors get involved in, and consisted of visiting a number of stores, to thank all of the staff for their hard work over the year, and wish them a Happy Christmas. I am still struggling with the concept that a visit from me is worth looking forward to, in fact I find it very amusing, and slightly alarming, but I guess I didn’t go empty handed, dishing out gift vouchers to all in thanks for all their support. My tour of Essex took in Rayleigh, Canvey Island, Billericay, Brentwood, Wickford, Upminster, and Loughton, amongst others, and it was a real eye-opener. Seeing so many stores in such a concentrated period of time really highlighted some of the challenges that the business is facing, and also reminded me that we should all be out visiting stores more often, in order to better understand our customer, and her needs, wants, likes and dislikes.

If we want to drive sales more effectively in such a tough economic climate, we are going to have to find better ways to connect with our customer and encourage her to part with her cash in our stores, as opposed to our competitors. The whole high street has gone on sale earlier, discounting deeper, opening longer hours, and offering additional enticements to drive sales, but though this will help sell through Autumn/Winter stock, it will not necessarily generate additional profit. The British high street in 2013 is going to see the survival of the fittest!

Despite the economic doom and gloom, for all of us, it would be difficult to deny that it has been an inspirational year, with the London Olympics, Paralympics, and The Golden Jubilee, as well as the announcement of the impending birth of a royal baby – which can only be a good thing for the childrenswear market! More recent events, however, have reminded me that every single day is precious, and that we can never take life, our families, our health or our happiness for granted. If I have one New Years resolution, it is to make the most of every single moment, and to concentrate on getting the best out of life.

This edition of my blog is dedicated to the memory of Chris Jones, a young man who tragically lost his life on Christmas Day. My heartfelt sorrow and deepest sympathies are with his family. To those who knew him, the world will seem a smaller place without him.

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