Yesterday I was chatting with Leah Wiley, the sales rep I interviewed when I went to Magic. She said she’d finally gotten around to putting together a top ten list of mistakes she sees designers making with respect to selling clothes to stores and boutiques. Without further ado, here’s the recitation I transcribed:
1. Trying to do too much, bringing in way too many styles which means anything over fifty. When I asked her (incredulously) about this, she said some DEs have archives of stuff after doing it two or three years and they want to push all of it.
2.Doing far too few, less than five pieces. A store is trying to figure out how to make sense of it but it’s not enough to make it brand recognizable. A new brand is not going to garnish a lot of real estate in a boutique anyway but three pieces isn’t enough to put a story together.
3. Not figuring the costs of representation. DEs have no idea what a reps costs are, what their rent is, what the commission structure is, and how a rep has to roll all of that into the cost of doing business. In business, you have to know the costs your vendors have, not just your own. She says designers are often shocked by the costs and this stops them from getting great representation.
4. DEs assume they’ve got final say on price points, Leah says “they’re tripping”. Not only do you not have final say on your price points, you don’t know the determining factors of the final word on your price points. You have to be flexible on your wholesale. The buyers have final word. Leah said
Buyers tell me what they’ll pay. Buyers ask me why a designer thinks a piece is worth $250 (a bustier) at wholesale. They’ll say, I’ve never heard her name. I’ll explain that all the laces are imported from France, it’s got a five band hook and closure (over a three band) and the buyer will concede a little for that but we’re still at $198 (up from the $150 they usually pay). My store has already told you; the highest she’s ever retailed a high end corset is $350 so she’s going to walk away. You’re going to have to figure out where you’re going to make up the difference but it’s not off the back of your stores.
5. Spending on branding, marketing, shows, samples and line sheets. They all cost, but designers have to be clear on what takes spending priority. Line sheets and samples are first (please note she didn’t mention a single word about four color catalogs and we both wish you’d stop blowing your money on those!). She mentioned one designer who spent $170,000. on shows and marketing with sales reps dictating what the collection should look like and she ended up with nothing after the first year and a half. But because of what she sank into it, she’s barely treading water and can’t afford to talk to anybody. Leah says to find one really good rep and let them decide how many shows or what are the great shows to be a part of instead of sinking money into booth after booth, eight grand per booth. A rep will know before you will whether its a good market for you. Another mistake she mentions is designers who rep their own booths; this is the wrong way to save money. One designer lost $13,000 taking bad paper. If a rep does your booth, a rep knows who to sell to, who pays their bills and who bounces boxes. She says that while a rep likes big orders just as much as you do, a rep knows better than to put too much space into a new store. She’ll talk them into a smaller order, offering reorders if it sells. She says you don’t go back to the drawing board based on a rep’s input of what the line should look like, reps don’t get to make those choices (verbal croquis agrees). Now, if after six months to a year and it doesn’t work, then maybe a rep can help you sort out what the next line is going to look like.
6. Priorities. Most designers don’t know what takes precedence. It’s very simple. After samples and a rep, you’ve got to ship what you say you’re going to ship. You can’t not do that. These are the bare essentials. Nothing else is a priority until you can do these three things.
7. Focus. What is it with everyone wanting to be a “lifestyle brand”. Do you know what that means? You can strive to become like Vera Wang, Donna Karan, Armani and Ralph Lauren, but this is not a term you get to use when you start out. It confuses the marketplace. A buyer is going to ask where’s your sheets, shoes, handbags, sunglasses, perfumes and you’re just doing one group. That’s not a lifestyle brand. Speaking of terms, if you say you’re hip or edgy, you are neither. Edgy means we’ve put you in Ross and TJ Maxx. Hip means we’ve put your stuff in Sam’s Club and Costco. That’s where hip is. Just throw those out, it’s bad, beyond over. Use terms like “contemporary”, it sounds boring but this means something; this is appropriate terminology! I beg you people, watch those triggers, like “looks good with denim”. What doesn’t? Speaking of, your names are not cute. I hate to have to call you to get your UPS shipping number to return the stuff if it comes plastered with tacky names like eurotrash or anything slutty. It’s not cute. Many of my customers find it offensive.
8. Get to know and trust your sales rep. Ask the right questions from the beginning. Leah says to read the section in my book on sales and interviewing a sales rep, that you shouldn’t hire anyone without asking all of those questions. She says she hates to be a sales pitch but that “I can appreciate it if they don’t want to spend the bucks to read it, really I do, but this is business and they’re holding up the line”.
9. Leah says “Your rep is not a magician! The stores still have final say. We may have the reputation, we may push but the buyer’s the one who has to come back and say yes to this. If they don’t, it doesn’t mean you jump off a cliff or get a second job, or maybe it is. I don’t know but we’re not the final answer. Everybody plays their mutual part”.
Hmm. I lost one, this list is only nine. I’ll bet number seven was supposed to be two points.
I hope you appreciate Leah’s honesty. By now a pattern should emerge. Anyone who has something valuable to say, something you really need to hear, is going to pinch you a little or be abrupt. Be wary of anyone makes nice or paints a pretty picture. As I always say, have you ever met a rude used car salesman? That said, Leah is really nice one on one but like me, she’s frustrated when people blow their chances. It’s such a waste of time, talent and money; we resent it.