biz ladiesLife & Business

biz ladies 2009: (whole) saling through tough times

by Grace Bonney

[today’s post is courtesy of karen of clothes-pin and the clothes-pin shop]

“If you want them to see you, you have to let them know you’re there”. It’s a simple mantra that can be applied to many areas of business and most certainly to wholesale. When times are tough and business may be dwindling it’s easy to sit back woefully, but remember the chain of command: customers buy from shops what they love- shops buy from you what they love- you make what they love. How easy was that? From my experience as a sales rep I’ve been with small and large brands as they surf the tough times. Here are the tricks I’ve seen in action and apply to my own business.

  • Break out your Bible

All sales reps have a contact list with stores, buyer names, email, etc. Some even list how often they buy and how much. Reps go through entire careers with one steadily growing list and as a rep for your own brand you should have one. It’s not merely a list of people that you want to contact, eventually it will allow you to see where your brand belongs, where it gets the strongest feedback, and familiarize you with the buyers that you want to know. If you don’t have one start one.

  • Reach out and touch someone

If you had a shop(s) contact you months ago and they never wrote an order, don’t assume it’s because they’ve changed their mind. Shop owners are often one woman shows like us and forget. Reach out and say hello, send a catalog, or announce a new product.

  • Retailers need love too

It’s important to support the retailers who support you; this helps to form a good relationship and build your brand (This can apply to new shops or existing retailers of your goods). Here are some ideas to put some wind in your sales.

* Offer free shipping or 10% off their order- who says discounts are only for consumers?
* Use your resources. For example, if you have a blog with a local following and a local retailer, arrange a trunk show. Do small gift bags to giveaway, sell a brand new product in advance, or offer a % off your products for that day. Show that you stand behind and believe in your own product.
* Offer a GWP (gift with purchase) if you’re not nearby. Ex: with the purchase of any of your ceramic bowls over $50, the customer receives a free ceramic bird. Do something small and within your means of course.

  • Brand spankin’ new

Back to your link in the chain. Don’t use this time as an excuse not to make new products. At the height of the economic downturn there were $1400 leather leggings selling out of shops. Use the opportunity to make something that draws people in, whether brand new or variations of your best selling items. Being small has an advantage here when you can quickly add a new color, size, etc to your collection. That “must have” product gets a retailer excited and an excited retailer gets their customers excited.

  • To the beat of your own…letterpress

Make your own schedule for releasing new products. If your industry trade show happens only once a year introduce new product in between (see above). It gives you a reason to get out there, keep in touch, and keep it fresh. You’ve probably seen designers with collections called “resort” or “holiday”. Aside from implying “too bad you can’t afford to vacay in St.Barts”, there is actually some genius behind it. Having four collections a year as opposed to two, gives the brand a continuous presence and newness in stores. These are often more special than the everyday items but don’t be afraid to apply something similar to your brand.

  • Color outside the lines

Cross merchandise your collection. Many shops carry a variety of products and quite a few hotels, spas, salons are opening shop areas. If you make scented sachets contact some lingerie shops, if you make mini soaps and candles contact spas and boutique hotel shops. Think about the ways and places your product can be used and get in touch. These type of shops may write smaller orders and less frequently but there is also less clamor for shelf space.

  • Best foot forward

Take the time to make sure your photos, catalogs, line sheets, etc are in check. When tradeshow attendance is not an option the web and a catalog is your first impression. Make sure they’re easy to understand and easy on the eyes isn’t a bad idea.

  • Do the limbo

This is the time to be flexible. If your order minimum is usually high consider lowering it. A shop may not want to buy deep into a product line but could be open to trying fewer items. If your order minimum can be lowered (reasonably of course) then give it a try; you may get 2-3 orders in place of one.

  • The good, the bad, and the ugly

Take a tip from the runways and offer a well edited collection, pull colors and styles that are so-so and replace them with new or variations of the best. Showing your strongest products and a cohesive collection increases the chances that a buyer will purchase more and most important will give your brand a better presence in the store.

  • Three layer cake

These days if you like a particular designer’s style but can’t afford the price, you can likely find said designer at a low tier department store. Even the biggest have had to be realistic about price and what consumers are looking for. A friend and I chatted last week about making her gorgeous and pricey gold and diamond collection in a gorgeous and less pricey brass and copper option. Call it black label, call it contemporary, call it taking the opportunity to sell more and reach retailers who may not be able to afford the price point otherwise. This is not “selling out” on your brand, but a dose of reality is sometimes necessary when times are tough and honestly you can sell charcoal in tin foil if it’s marketed well.

[Written by Karen of Clothes-pin. Click here to visit Karen’s beautiful blog, and here to visit the Clothes-Pin shop, an online sample sale for indie designers]

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  • We have found many of these tips to be true for Mod Green Pod. Excellent advice, Karen.

    Retailers are definitely struggling now, and it always pays off to really do your homework on each and every customer. What is their sales model? How are they doing? Where are they struggling, and how can we help in a mutually beneficial way? We are finding that some tailoring of our terms is helping us. This is good advice for boom times but critical in downturns.

    Something I like to do every day is simply pick up the phone and call a customer, just to check in. It provides me a B-12 shot of energy and helps us maintain strong relationships. This sounds really obvious, I’m sure, but it takes discipline to not let this fall between the cracks on crazy days. And which days are NOT crazy?

  • thanks for the great advice for designers. as a small retail shop, I can second your advice about working with retailers–we are overwhelmed too. but we are always on the look out for exciting merchandise, innovative products and creative solutions to marketing(especially now!)

  • Awesome article! I have been tinkering with the idea of starting a line of creations, and this advice is perfect and just in time!

  • This is great advice! As a jewelry designer with over 95 wholesale accounts, I can say that the advice on discounts for wholesale worked well for me before holiday. I also suggest for those just starting out, to not be afraid to consider consignment with picky or scared buyers (in small quantities) to get your product more exposure- without increasing risk on the buyer’s side. That said, if you have more than 6 stores buying your products wholesale, you can probably pass on the consignment option.

    Another thing I have noticed within the last six months is that stores seem pretty shaken up, but retail consumers have more of an appetite for shopping directly from designers. So get out there, start blogging, and work those email blasts! And hey, why not tailor an email blast for wholesale accounts as well with merchandising suggestions and additional event themes based on your products?


  • The toughest part of being in business, sometimes, is believing there really is a road up ahead when you are in the daily “weeds”. Karen’s ideas are ways to get a fresh perspective, a quick glimpse, and keep on going. I will pass this on!

  • Karen (& Grace),

    Thank you thank you. I am not sure what category I fall into but so many of these suggestions hold true; very hard for me to be as visible as I need to be. Can you say have had design studio (paying rent that is, remodel took 8 months) for almost a year and still no front signage; do you think i might be a bit scared to be seen.

    I really will refer back to this and so appreciate the straightforward nature of the post.

    in appreciation,


  • thanks so much for this article. i was recently laid-off but i know it’s actually an opportunity of a life time to finally pursue something of my own. at the same time i’ve been feeling cynical & overwhelmed by the economic situation. but the article gives me tremendous hope & encouragement. i know i got extra extra work to do starting out, but these are great tips to remember.

    thanks again,

  • When I read the line “Bring Out Your Bible” I was cheering inside, happy to see someone step up and recognize their need for God, His word & prayer in tough economic times. I was sadly mistaken when I read the following paragraph and saw you were using the Bible, the very breathe of God, an example for a list of sales contacts. I was disappointed to see the very word of God cheapened to a list of names. Perhaps you should have used the term “Little Black Book” as the name for your list of contacts.

  • karen, this is brilliant! what a fantastic and so very accurate post.

    i’ve started something new in the past few months and, so far, it seems to be working! when i ship to a wholesale customer, i mark the date down in an excel sheet. then, about 2-3 months later i call and have a conversation about how the pieces are selling, if they need to re-order, what the customers are saying. if the shop owner has time to talk, it’s a great resource – like a free focus group! and, if they don’t have time, at least you’ve reminded them about the product and hopefully they’ll see that they need to re-order!

    thanks again for the great article, karen!!!

  • Thanks for the tips, Karen. These are great and can be applied in various design-related businesses.

    I completely agree that keeping in touch with current and potential clients is key. Even if they cannot make a purchase now, they appreciate your efforts and service and you’ll hopefully be top of mind when they do buy!

  • such priceless information, could not have come at a better time! thank you for this posting and for introducing me to karen, cant wait to check out her blog…

  • Thank you so much for that post! It’s really great information- especially for a beginner like me. I so appreciate your advice!

  • Thank you Karen and Grace! Great reminders, inspiration and just what I was looking for and needing – SOOOO looking forward to Tuesdays now – This is great! – Thank you for all your time, advice and encouragement.

  • Thank you Karen and Grace for these super tips. Rosie Goa is brand new. We have a great product, fabulous customer appreciation…..but oh what a learning curve as far as getting the message and the collection out the door and onto all those cute kiddies! We appreciate every tip we can get. Thank you!

  • Thank you so much for this information. As a relatively new entrepreneur (I started 7 months ago) this kind of practical advice is so so helpful.

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