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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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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