A very bumpy ride…….

Yet again, just when we think we’re making great strides forward, catastrophe strikes! This time in the form of a key supplier who has suddenly decided that they are not going to make garments any more (it’s too complicated and simply weaving the fabric and selling it on to other manufacturers is considerably easier to manage!) and we have several large orders due out of this particular factory over the next few weeks. Cue a great deal of heated debate about what they will and won’t do to fulfill these orders, which has eventually left us with significantly less stock than we should have had coming in! The unpredictability of life in a buying department, and the possibility of euphoria one day, followed by disaster the next is no longer shocking, simply, at times, very frustrating. To survive in this business we really have had to develop considerable resilience, and an ability to think very creatively to come up with solutions to manage such situations – it is not an environment for the faint hearted!

However, this downside was, as is usual, closely followed by an upside – a buying trip to Turkey. This turned out to be a very creative week, visiting existing suppliers to negotiate prices and continue product development, but also seeking out and introducing ourselves to potential new sources. We are constantly striving, in the ever more difficult economic and retail climate, to come up with better product, at more competitive prices, on shorter lead times in order to stay in touch with our high street competition, and this means constantly reassessing our sources of supply. We made some major inroads into our negotiations for programs of product across a variety of departments, to gain economies of scale, and a price advantage. In true buyer style, we also made time in the evenings, to enjoy a more relaxed discussion with some of our suppliers over dinner – critical to the development of our key supplier partnerships, but also an enjoyable way to see a little of the city, and enjoy the nightlife!

Back in the office for Monday trade meetings, and then a crack of dawn start on tuesday for a two day visit to Antwerp in search of more inspiration for AW13. Now I am generally pretty calm when flying, but climbing up the four steps to the door of a very small aeroplane at London City Airport (12 rows of seats, and propellors whirring!), I was not feeling my most confident! After a relatively uneventful hour in the air, things took a fairly dramatic turn as, coming in to land, when just a few metres from the ground, we suddenly began climbing very steeply upwards again. It was only as we were coming in for a second attempt at landing that the pilot advised us that the first attempt had been aborted due to a flock of seagulls having taken up residence on the runway! As I said, not a job for the faint hearted!

Having arrived, we hit the shops for two days, covering every inch of the city, searching for new ideas, building on colour palettes for the season and being inspired by the quirkiness of some of the city’s retailers. It was not without its moments of amusement – from the window full of Barbie dolls, to the “lost in translation” girls underwear, taxidermists nightmare in a children’s boutique window, and the very inappropriate gnomes – Antwerp has again proven itself to be quite unique! I was exhausted and my feet were numb, but I haven’t laughed that much in a long time!

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Shopping and celebrations…..it’s not a bad life!

So, it’s my favourite time in the buying calendar, the beginning of a new seasons’ development, and our designers are busy being super creative, pulling together colour palettes and story boards for AW13, whilst the buying teams are frantically pulling together samples and negotiating prices on the final phase of SS13, in preparation for sign off presentations. We’ve been out shopping for inspiration all over London this week, from the boutiques and markets of Portobello, to the high street and top end stores and brands, and trawling through the fashion magazines and trend websites, to kick start the creative design process for the season. It’s the “purest”, most creative phase in the buying process, before it all gets polluted with the price negotiation, quality and delivery issues involved in getting each product from concept to store! Everyone is full of excitement and optimism about the new season, looking at ways to grow sales and develop potential.

A good time then, to celebrate the summer with a party, which is exactly what we did this week, on a river boat on the Thames. The weather was amazing, the sunset spectacular, and we had a very privileged view of some of the most amazing sights in London as we made our way along the river. With all the excitement of the Olympics and Paralympics surrounding the city, London is buzzing, and the atmosphere was great as we drank and danced our way into the night. Everyone was decked out in “Grease” paraphernalia, with numerous pink ladies jackets, fifties circle skirts, silly wigs and glasses, t-birds leather jackets and some very tight trousers. Cue a great deal of very bad singing and dodgy dance moves, made all the more interesting by the rocky boat and slippery dance floor!

Back to the office on Friday,and a number of people were complaining of motion sickness (I suspect it might have had more to do with the alcohol consumption!). Having worked our way through a few supplier meetings, it was on to a very successful sign off on our teen girls range – having put so much effort into an overhaul of this department and the product, I am very proud of what the team have achieved so far, and I am really excited about the potential to dramatically improve the sales and profit on this area.

This week I’ll be in Turkey with the girls and teens teams, looking at new fabric developments and products, filling the last remaining gaps in our AW12 and transitional ranges. I’m really looking forward to spending a little quality time with the buyers, designers and suppliers! With a little luck we might also fit in one or two lively nights out in Istanbul – it’s a city I always look forward to visiting, an amazing blend of cultures and glamour!

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At last……..

Another pretty busy week – with a whirlwind 24hr trip to Glasgow. Having spent tuesday morning in sign off meetings, we headed for Heathrow, taking a late afternoon flight north. Following a fabulous night out in Glasgow, we set off for our store in Kirkintilloch the next morning, to look at the planned layout for the next few weeks. It’s an important day, as it is the first of these with new AW12 season stock, and I have to say, seeing all the new product, laid out as we had planned it, made me very proud – it looked really strong! Both the buying teams and the VM teams have done a fantastic job to get us to this point and I sincerely hope that all their hard work is translated into great sales!!!

Back in the office on wednesday and more sign off meetings – back down to earth with a bump! Its never easy being stuck in the basement for meetings which last hours, particularly as temperatures hit the 30’s, and everyone was clearly tired, overheated and grumpy! It did not go well! Why is it that just when I think I’ve got one or two product areas nailed, another couple fall off their perch? This job is really turning into the ultimate multi-tasking challenge! I think maybe we all need to be a little more honest with each other about what products we really love and believe in, and learn to leave the “nice”, the “average” or the “ordinary” behind!

After a big M&Co night out on thursday, which involved consuming plenty of Pimms whilst outside the pub in the beautiful evening sunshine, getting waterbombed several times by the kids off the housing estate next door (yes, really!), Friday dawned very blurry, and rather more successful. Great meeting with the stylist for our up coming Christmas photoshoot, followed by another sign off, this time lingerie, which was infinitely more straightforward and successful.

So now I am disappearing for a couple of weeks to recharge my very depleted batteries, hopefully on my return I’ll be fully of energy and bright ideas!

 

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Never a dull moment…..

Trade is tough out there, but there is definitely a growing feeling of optimism – the weather finally appears to be improving, which will help us clear the remainder of our spring stock, and we are seeing some very exciting results on new AW12 lines.

Personally, I am exhausted, and I imagine the rest of my team feel the same! It has been a very long and difficult spring season, with a few key team members missing, and trading through it has meant we have all been very busy, working very long hours and trying to fight our way into the best possible position to drive sales and generate profit. However, with a well deserved holiday in sight, and a full team of great people in place, I feel ready to take on the approaching AW season with enthusiasm.

This week has been another busy one – I feel as if I am perpetual motion! I even seem to eat my lunch on the move, whilst simultaneously having supplier or sign off meetings, reading and responding to emails, or often whilst running up and down the stairs! There is regularly a queue outside my office these days, and my brain is on information overload – but I love, love, love it!

Having waded through monday morning trade for eight departments, looking at new best seller reactions, deciding on repeats and reviewing stock levels and forthcoming deliveries, I just had time to meet a potential new supplier before heading out for dinner with friends over from Istanbul. After a late night return home, Tuesday brought visits to three suppliers, dashing around London trying to spend as much time as possible with each. One of these is a major source, manufacturing primarily in China, India, Turkey and the UK. The second a denim source, producing predominantly in China, and finally a soft wovens supplier, manufacturing in Romania. It was a really interesting day, and spending time with these suppliers, and those from our previous visits to Leicester, is already paying dividends, as the samples and prices have already started flooding in! Wednesday was pre-selection day for the footwear and girlswear teams – going through their plans for SS13, and reviewing the products we want to take to final sign off with our directors. Thursday, I think, was the most random day I have had yet in this new role – starting off in a fairly normal manner, meeting with a representative from our key source in Bangladesh, then a sign off meeting for a small proportion of our SS13 Homeware range. Following that I joined up with one of our marketing team to run a model casting for a forthcoming swimwear and lingerie shoot. Now, I am used to selecting models for kidswear shoots – this generally has more to do with finding nice looking children who can behave in front of a camera (as opposed to running around, screaming, crying, pulling faces, throwing things, and fighting with the other kids….all of which I have been faced with in the past), but swimwear models are new to me, and to the few straight men in the building, judging by their reactions as each girl was brought through to the marketing office! Seventeen stunning models later, having looked through all their portfolio’s, and seen all of them in both bikini’s and lingerie, we have booked a great girl for the shoot….. and I have a complex about ever being seen in a bikini again!

Friday and out at an off site management meeting in the morning, grabbing a late lunch on the way back to the office, before a strategy meeting with one of our teams in the afternoon. With a few new team members, and boundless enthusiasm, it was a really great meeting – loads of new ideas and plenty of fantastic product, giving me renewed confidence that we are definitely on the right track!

Finally, having left the office at 6pm, by 7.30pm I was taking part in a “pilates-a-thon”, in aid of Cancer Research UK. After the week I have had, the last thing I felt like doing was the plank, the cat and the oyster, but it’s a cause very close to my heart, and I felt much better after I’d finished it! Saturday morning, more Pilates, before heading to Bluewater for some therapeutic holiday shopping, followed by a trip to Cotswold, to stock up on equipment for my sons rapidly approaching World Challenge trip to Ecuador. Today….. off to fight my way through the crowds to see the Olympic Torch come through Bexley.

Is it any wonder I need a holiday?!?!?!?!

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Buying British

We’ve been in Leicester this week, visiting some of our UK suppliers, and, having spent much of my career buying in Turkey, Eastern Europe and the Far East, it has been a real eye opener! Within the space of a few square miles around this small city is a thriving garment manufacturing industry, largely supplied by local fabric suppliers and converters. I had no idea that we were actually still knitting, dyeing, finishing and printing so much fabric here in the UK.

We met with a variety of our existing manufacturer’s, who supply jersey tops and leggings, knitwear, dresses and other soft wovens. Many of these have been supplying for years, but are seeing growth in their businesses as buyers across the British retail industry strive to reduce risk by buying smaller quantities, closer to the season, trading back into best sellers, enabling them to drive up sales, in what is currently a very tough retail climate. There are pro’s and cons to this approach – it obviously has an impact on the intake margin percentage, as manufacturing here in the UK will never be the cheapest option, but the cash profit that can be generated in this way, can be greater, and the markdown required at the end of the season reduced.

Rising prices across the world are also contributing to the increase in local manufacturing here in the UK – rising labour costs in China and Bangladesh, tighter rules and regulations in both India and China surrounding the treatment of waste water (leading to cost increases as suppliers have to build or use facilities with water treatment plants so as not to discharge dirty water into  the environment), rising fuel costs leading to increases in the cost of freight.

It is becoming more and more difficult to negotiate low enough cost prices to justify buying on such long lead times, and as a result, the gap between the prices that can be achieved here and those overseas, is shrinking. For any fashion business, which relies on having the most wanted product as quickly as possible, the UK is a very attractive prospect, and the profit that can be generated is better than you  might expect.

There are obviously limitations to the types of product that can be bought here – items with a large number of manual processes involved in production, such as denim, or those which have a lot of Far Eastern components/trims, such as outerwear, are always going to be very expensive to make in the UK. There is definitely a need for a multi product, high street fashion business, to have a balanced supply base incorporating both local and overseas sources, in order to manage profit and speed to market.

Having made this visit, we will definitely be going back on a more regular basis, to make the most of the 3-6 week lead times! I have been impressed with the standards of the manufacturing facilities I have seen and the quality of the product produced. It’s great to know that there is so much creative product development going on here in the UK, and suppliers are investing in new machinery and taking on additional staff, in particular, designers, to improve their level of service and production capacity.

I think we have only just started scratching the surface, but I am very excited about the possibilities for clothing production here in the UK. With a little help from the government, and the support of the British retail industry, it feels like the right time for a revival of clothing “made in the UK”!

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An exciting week!

Its’ been a while since I gave you an update on a buyers’ life and it’s been all go, go, go! My role has changed to head of buying and I am now responsible for managing a team of buyers and designers in the ultimate multi-tasking challenge of creating the best possible ranges we can, from a multitude of worldwide sources.

Since my last post we’ve completed another trip to the Far East to visit suppliers, this time taking in India, Sri Lanka and once again, Hong Kong. We’ve also spent a few days in Istanbul, seeing suppliers there who can provide a quicker service, getting new ideas to market more quickly.

The retail market continues to be very challenging and as a result we are constantly revising our sourcing strategy and updating our product and plans, in an effort to stay one step ahead of the competition. This week will see us spending time in Leicester to visit our growing stable of UK suppliers. Having a few key sources here is becoming an ever more important part of our plans, as the emphasis moves to minimising stock levels and risk, constantly trialling and trading back into best sellers.

This week will also be a landmark in terms of my teams development, with a number of buyers moving departments and a former colleague of mine joining as a senior buyer – finally I will have a complete team, of very talented people, to help us drive business forward! We are also taking on an unprecedented number of new starters at more junior levels over the next few weeks, to bolster the team. It makes me very proud to be able to take on a group of promising youngsters, giving them a start in the very competitive world that is fashion buying!

 

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What a day!

A whirlwind of a day began with a shock to the system! Range presentation to board of directors brought forward from wednesday to today!!!! No time for breakfast. Straight in to discussion with head of buying to ensure we are ready and well prepared (I think it’s the girl guide in me!), then off to get set up. Presentation went really well, just a few tweaks here and there and we were out in under 90 minutes – got to be a record! So, that’s just about the end of AW2011, and roll on SS2012. Following shopping trips to Antwerp, Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, LA and New York, our designers are hard at work developing new ranges, whilst us buyers are working with the merchandisers to put a framework for the season in place. It’s a very exciting time of year!

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Back from the Far East

I have been a buyer in the clothing retail industry for over 15 years, and have never seen conditions as difficult as they are now. I returned on thursday from a visit to Bangladesh and Hong Kong – all sounds very glamorous, but in reality, was a real rollercoaster of a trip! Cotton prices all over the world have gone through the roof due to poor harvests in China and flooding in Pakistan, and, coupled with increasing labour, fuel and other raw material costs, make current conditions very tough. In Bangladesh it was difficult to convince any supplier to take an order, because the cotton price is still rising, and yarn/fabric suppliers are holding out for even higher prices.

In China, suppliers are more ready to discuss, but will only hold prices for a few days at best. In short, it made for very difficult negotiations. It is widely predicted that cotton prices will continue to rise until after the next harvest (April in China), and with Chinese New Year falling early in February, conditions for buyers are set to get worse! It was not all doom and gloom, however, and some of my suppliers had produced some great new sample developments for next autumn.
The schedule was exhausting – having left the UK monday lunchtime, and flying overnight, with a stop off in Dubai, I was in my first Bangladeshi factory by lunchtime on Tuesday, reviewing denim samples and discussing the current situation, prices and production capacity.

Arriving late back from the factory, I joined my colleagues for dinner, before heading to the very dodgy looking bar for a few drinks. Dhaka was full to bursting with buyers so we had ended up in a less than desirable hotel – dirty carpet and bathroom, and very noisy, with constant traffic passing and horns blaring all night, so had to resort to a sleeping pill in order to get some rest. Day 2 found me up and out to a huge jerseywear factory, again reviewing samples, and, having been joined by our new buying director, touring the “vertical” factory set up to see knitting, dyeing, finishing, printing, embroidery – I find the whole process fascinating. After a lunch consisting of pizza, fried rice and KFC (yes, really!), headed back to the office for a meeting with a new knitwear supplier. Left the office about 7pm to contend with the constant stationary traffic, straight to dinner at another hotel, where our head of buying caused great hilarity by pressing the wrong button on the toilet (not the flush, but the bottom washing button!) and ending up drenched!

Day 3 and a quick recap with the office team, before leaving my colleagues and heading to the airport for a flight to Hong Kong, with a brief stopover in Bangkok. And, what a difference a day makes, with a car waiting to whisk me from the airport to the Mira – what an amazing new hotel, and what luxury in comparison to our dismal accommodation in Dhaka!

Day 4 and up early to meet with my first Chinese supplier of t-shirts for a round of reviewing samples and tough price negotiation, stopping for a Dim Sum lunch with the team there. 3.30pm and on to my second appointment, with a knitwear supplier, before finishing up for the day and heading to a local Hong Kong spa with a friend, for a massage, manicure and pedicure. First decent night’s sleep since leaving home! Day 5 and up early again for meetings with our agent in HK, and a major jerseywear supplier. Then an interesting evening, as its’ Halloween weekend and it seems that everyone in HK is dressed up and ready to party! I love HK – it is a little bit bonkers, the people are fantastic and I always look forward to a visit here. Finally crawl into bed at 11pm, only to be woken at 12 midnight by a phone call to say my colleagues have arrived from Bangladesh, and are waiting for me in the bar! Finally crawl back into bed at 3am – good job Sunday is a day off, a very rare luxury!

Sunday morning, and we all meet for a late breakfast, before heading for the hotel pool and sauna, followed by a late lunch and a look around the shops.

Day 7 and off to our agents’ office for a day of negotiations with a variety of factories from across the Far East, who have all flown in to meet with us. Each buyer sees each factory in turn to review samples, discuss prices and production plans, which turns into a very long process. Eventually leave the office at 9pm and head straight to the hotel for a very late dinner and a few well earned glasses of wine, and discussion with the rest of the team about our progress so far.

Day 8 – further negotiations, this time with denim suppliers, and then on to a Chinese banquet hosted by one of our key sources. They have obviously gone to great lengths, at vast expense to plan a wonderful menu (I think it was 12 courses!), but I have to steel myself to deal with one or two of the delicacies on offer – Sea urchin! Sharks fin soup! Hairy crab with birds’ nest garnish! I think its’ probably best to know as little as possible about the ingredients!

Day 9 -our final day of negotiations, and the highlight is a jacket potato for lunch. I am craving normal, simple food! We do a final round of suppliers who we need to see for a second time, finally leaving our last appointment at 8.30pm, back to the hotel for a quick change, before heading to the airport in a fleet of cars. Flight departs Hong Kong at 00.35 on day 10, bound for Dubai, and I am asleep before we have even left the runway! Having stopped for a couple of hours, we are then on the final leg of our journey back to London,  where a car is waiting to take me home, to my children and a long weekend to recover.

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