Great and under rated wholesale shows (pt.3)

Continuing with the trip report (links to previous entries at close), to recap I went to two shows. One was OASIS and the other was a “room” show. The OASIS show you can discover for yourself; the room show is private, owned by an individual who runs it. There are some critical things about the private show I can’t say publicly but you can read more about it in the forum. Even though some private shows are successful and great places to buy and show at (only reps can exhibit), they’re very hard to discover often because the owner is technology adverse. I heard a lot of complaints about that.

But back to OASIS, there was one rep that was doing something very interesting. Interesting in that other sales reps thought it was a good model to the extent they wondered how they might put something like that together for themselves. It also could affect you in how you might decide to align yourself with another manufacturer who produces items that are complimentary to yours and so, create more opportunities for yourselves jointly than you’d have singly. I’ll explain.

In his booth were all kinds of products, mostly home furnishing and gift related but everything was coordinated to an unusual degree. There were place mats, tablecloths, totes, bedding, blankets, gifts, candles etc and everything was coordinated in different style stories across all these diverse product types. It was a complete look. So someone like us would look at all that and think wow, he’s representing a huge manufacturer who is putting out all these different product types that mix and match. But no, what he did was find the manufacturers of the various products that were amenable to coordinating a unified look (and were dependable obviously) and packaged them together. As it turned out, he was representing five different product lines but the designs between them all coordinated with the others, all complementary. It was pretty neat.

The other reps said he was very successful at getting manufacturers to work together and it was a win for his buyers who love the continuity because it encouraged their customers to become collectivists. I’m wondering if there is a name for this kind of arrangement but maybe not since it’s fairly new. He’s not the only one doing it though, the Amish do it too. Our local Amish store (The Amish Connection) coordinates furniture styles among various makers to produce coordinated looks. We ordered three matching pieces of furniture last January but the items are produced by three different businesses. I think this is an interesting business model. It is something for each of you to consider. For example, if you make diaper bags, you could partner up with a diaper maker and make complimentary coordinating products.

I also briefly interviewed another rep (Bob) at the show, he’d been selling for 35 years and was getting close to retirement (past it really). He had an interesting story about getting into road repping. He said that he used to be in retail and owned a store. I didn’t ask how it was that he got out of retail but he did and thought he’d do wholesale. So he called up some manufacturers to see if they’d be interested in hiring him for commission sales but nobody would take him on because he had no inside sales experience. Of course now that sounds crazy but 35 years ago, manufacturers didn’t have to work as hard as they do today. They each did their one or two collections a year, had stable buyers and called it good. I can’t imagine how much luckier someone could get than to get a road rep who’d owned a retail store. I don’t think there is anyone better suited to pitching to buyers than someone who has run their own store. But anyway, he finally got someone to take him on and he’s been at it ever since.

There’s a real crisis in the business just now, there’s not a lot of fresh blood coming in to take on these lines. For example Bob used to do 12 shows a year but he’s tapering off to only 5 or 6; he pared back his lines to something manageable. All the older reps I spoke to mentioned this was a problem, that young people weren’t getting into it and didn’t have anyone to take over their businesses. [You can be sure I told them we had the same problem, that too few young people were getting into cut and sew too. Who is going to do all the work? Designers we have in spades but too few are getting into support positions.] The reps wanted to know where all the salespeople were going to come from. I told them that all the young ones were sitting in showrooms, focusing on PR and doing social media. I don’t think they believed me, they said buyers don’t have time or money to travel to shows anymore so they’re buying from road reps more than ever and that you can’t pick product from an email blast unless they already know the line.

Note: If you were interested in becoming a road rep (and aren’t a member of my forum to get the names and numbers of these people) I suggest approaching independently owned local stores and ask them about road reps that service their account to see if you might contact them. In spite of the inter-connectivity of the computer age, the fragmentation in the apparel industry means that face time and relationships will always take precedence.

But back to Bob or rather, Bob’s wife (his partner, married couple road reps are most common, many travel in RVs). She said the OASIS show was good for them even though they were only representing one line there (they rep for six manufacturers). I mentioned that a few people said it wasn’t a good show and she snorted. She said anybody who had it together would have done well at the show. She glanced over at the booth across from them (exactly the one I was thinking of) which was selling goods from X country in South America; they told me the show was terrible. Personally I thought their stuff was nice and would even have bought something cash and carry but they weren’t very personable. I mean, they acted like I was bothering them. Their products were also rather expensive. I don’t know how a buyer could have carried those items at keystone. I’m wondering if those vendors didn’t understand that the show was wholesale due to language differences.

I also interviewed Valerie Szarek, a US designer-manufacturer of leather bags under the label of Breezy Mountain Leather. She’s looking for representation and had a sign in her booth to that effect. She’s been working for herself for 40 years (she’s been self employed since she was 19). She started back in 1972 by opening a storefront with a friend in Detroit. She says she didn’t really even know how to sew leather only that she liked it. Their business was to make anything a customer wanted out of leather for $5 an hour plus the cost of materials. She says their work was guaranteed, you got your money back if you didn’t like it. She says they made a lot of mistakes and didn’t really have a plan but this one worked for a number of years.

She also said that she is surprised that she finds herself short no matter where she is growth-wise. That in 1972 she was short $50, ten years later it was $500, then $5,000. She seems surprised by it but I think it is often true. The good thing is that she is self financing which can dramatically limit one’s misfortunes should they come to pass. Anyway, it has only been 3 and a half years since she’s gone into wholesale after friends nagged her to do it for years. She said she didn’t think she’d like it but says this is much better.

Previous entries:
Amazing (and underrated) wholesale tradeshow opportunities
Great and under rated wholesale shows (pt.2)
Companion Forum Entry (all the details I can’t print in public)

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