Admin note: Maybe I’ll figure out later what to call this entry. I intended to post yesterday but had a crisis. Nothing life threatening but a hassle that put me behind schedule. You’ll get two entries tomorrow. Speaking of, I’ll be out of the office on Friday. Email will be the best way to contact me.
What follows are notes from a conversation I had today with someone I’ll call Andrea. I can’t be more specific than that. She suggested I write this up for you and approved the content before it was published.
Andrea has been in the apparel industry for about ten years. Over the past few years, she’s branched into manufacturing, initially with the plan to become a direct to consumer manufacturer. Recently she’s expanded to produce a line with the intention to sell it to other retailers. She is very focused, business savvy and comfortable with new media and technology. That’s the background.
In the process of developing the wholesale line, she’s learned a few things about sales reps and trends that affect them (and the industry generally) that she wanted me to tell you about. In no particular order:
Older reps are losing ground
Andrea says that some established firms are letting their older reps go in favor of younger ones with business experience. This is good and bad. It’s bad because it represents a loss of institutional knowledge and experience that we need. It’s good in that younger people are more attuned to today’s marketing and using technology effectively to manage it. Older industry people have failed to keep pace with technological change; nearly none of them have websites to showcase lines they represent and they scarcely do email if at all. They prefer the phone which isn’t optimal for more and more of their clients and stores.
While it’s true younger people lack experience and must weather generational discord, they’re more prepared to manage relationships the current climate demands. More educated than their predecessors, they’re also more business focused. They understand margins and costs. They know what a retailer needs to sell in today’s economy. While they are personable, they have more business training so they’re more inclined to sell based on the bottom line than a relationship. I don’t intend to slight the education of older reps -or anyone in the trade. Most of us old-schoolers fell into this and learned via hard knocks but the barre has been raised and the educational expectations for students now are truly gut wrenching. By way of comparison, for a design student to graduate today, they need to produce a small collection. All I had to produce were some sketches.
Because a business savvy rep is more attuned to marketing costs, their advice is more highly targeted. They’ll produce a plan to market the line with identifiable expectations. For example, they’ll ask you to order a set number of direct mail pieces for promotion with an intended purpose. A less savvy rep is softer on these requirements and their advice may vary depending on who they talked to that day (relationships based) and a hunch of who they can pitch it to so they may ask for one thing but then want another. This is not a criticism but an observation. When people are confronted with a changing landscape and the old rules aren’t working so well anymore, it’s hard to know what to do. I’m not certain how younger reps pitch their targets but “old-school” ones rely on things like mailing lists which anyone can buy now and do the mailing themselves. Previously, only reps had this information so it mattered more. These days, a store receiving a postcard doesn’t know or care who mailed it.
Editing a line
This section isn’t about young vs older sales reps but about sales reps generally. Editing a line means you may decide to implement suggestions a sales rep makes about your product line. For example, they may say you need to make slight modifications to a style. While it’s important to listen to feedback from your sales people, it can be difficult to know where to draw the line. Andrea says she is in a better position to understand what Zoe had to say in Do sales reps do anything? Here’s a quote from that entry:
Question: do all sales reps think they should design? All the sales guys I’ve ever worked with are constantly telling us to design this and do this color and what not. This is not to be confused with letting us know the pieces that are garnering the most attention and dollars. If I hear one of my sales guys harping on doing red leather jackets one more time, I’m gonna lose it. He keeps telling me that he sees it everywhere, but I don’t. I try to be polite, saying the labels he’s citing is not in line with our customer base and brand. He apparently doesn’t want to hear it.
In my own (perhaps naive) mind, the sales guys do the selling and customer service. They set up meetings, collect orders, explain to them the terms of sale, do the necessary follow-up. The apparel manufacturer creates and supplies the necessary tools to sell-samples, lookbooks, linesheets, order forms, organization of tradeshows. We get copies of the orders, we fulfill them. Next round. Right? No?
Andrea says she’s been frustrated with her rep’s constant efforts to edit her line. She says a three shade difference in Pantone color isn’t going to make or break the sale because today’s retailers are more interested in deliverables and terms of sale. It’s a mismatch of expectations. By the way, Zoe’s entry spawned a whole series amongst three of us blogging at the time (pt.2, pt.3 and pt.4). It’s incredibly useful and interesting information that I strongly encourage you to read. Don’t miss the comments!
Anyway, Andrea says she feels her rep is not as aware of the costs involved with making changes that won’t reap benefits affecting the saleability of the line. She feels the rep puts too much weight on input from preferred buyers, rather than being more business like by aggregating comments from the majority.
Your relationship with a rep
Based on her own experience and an informal survey of DEs she knows, Andrea had some concerns about how DEs manage their relationships with a sales rep. She says that she thinks that DEs who come from a liberal arts background may not be as hard nosed as they should be. She says that DEs who come from a sciences background are better able to sort the talk into the hard decisions to say no. This is a very difficult line to walk. If you’re new, how do you know which advice to follow when you’re seeking guidance? On the other hand, some designers are so set on their vision or plan that they can’t listen to what they need to hear most.
Andrea recommends hiring an older rep who has young blood on staff. This way you get the best of both worlds. You’re hiring experience and established relationships but you also get people who are more knowledgeable about new media marketing.