Interview With A Buyer
I met the delightful owner of Magnolia, Juan Carlos Gaona at the one-year anniversary of his womenswear boutique in November where we instantly connected. He is a true gentleman, a wonderful and caring friend, and a proud supporter of Canadian talent. I recently asked him to share a few thoughts with me on the process he takes when he is selecting lines to carry in his store. He gave me a wealth of knowledge and information, including some very honest advice for young labels on approaching buyers.
The elegantly stylish boutique opened in November 2008 at 333 Eglinton Avenue West in Toronto. “It’s a great neighbourhood and the community is really nice, stylish and open,” says Juan Carlos when it came to deciding on where to open his store, “The area is also far away enough from the crowds for our clients to shop in an intimate atmosphere, but at the same time is very accessible for people that want to come from other places in the city.” Naming the store came easy to Juan Carlos who says, “Magnolias, aside from being one of my favourite flowers, embody what I wanted for the boutique itself and what I see in our customers: a strong, elegant beauty that is unique in many ways.”
A strong supporter of local talent, Magnolia’s Spring 2010 racks include Lucian Matis, Carrie Hayes, Paris Li, Izzy Camilleri (made-to-order and small leather accessories). The international labels include Designers Remix, Hoss Intropia, Tara Jarmon, By Malene Birger, Pringle 1815, Drykorn, American Retro, Love Moschino, and handbags from Badgley Mischka. Prices range from $30 for accessories to $1,000 and up for custom-made pieces.
On Selecting Lines To Carry:
“There are lines that I admire and personally love, so I contact them directly. There are lines that I’ve seen in showrooms and have caught my attention. There are lines that have been recommended by people I trust (sales reps, friends, stylists, photographers). There is just one case where the designer came to me directly with a look-book and I agreed to carry the line. The only thing that all of these decisions have in common is the line has to have an appeal to me and what the store stands for. As I heard a couple of days ago, ‘it is the emotional connection that makes the sale’, and that’s what our customers want. They are tired of mass-market fast-food clothing; they want garments that mean something, in quality, inspiration, beauty, uniqueness!”
- Introduction: Someone tells me about a line
- Research: I go to their websites. Browse through their present and past collections, looking for what they stand for, and what is their overall style, price points and aesthetic. (If a designer contacts me directly and I am interested, I ask for previous look-books and line-sheets)
- Collection preview: I go and see the collection they intend me to buy, and see how it works – both in the store and with the other labels we carry. Also, I do a quality check (I am immediately attracted to lines that pay as much attention to the inside as the outside). If they put on a fashion show, I try to attend to see what they are about as a whole and also I try to get guests’ feedback.
- Collection edits: I put together a mock-order with what I feel are their stronger pieces, or what defines the brand. Here is where the main decision comes. If I can get their “stronger looks” from other designers I already have, I don’t pick them. Same goes if their pieces don’t look good with the other collections in-store.
- Final order and first season: If I decide to add the label to our inventory, I place an order and see how they do, not only in terms of sales, but I look for their real values: quality (sampling and production can be very different), delivery timing, hanger appeal, sizing, fit, and real customer feedback. This defines entirely if they will be carried further ahead. I can personally love one label, but if customers have issues (pricing, quality, originality, fit, etc.) then it will only collect dust on our racks.
On Approaching Retailers:
“When sending a request to a retailer (especially a boutique-type) try to make it as personal as possible, do some research, ask for the name/contact for the buyer/manager. There is nothing that makes me laugh more than emails (directed to firstname.lastname@example.org) with the greeting ‘Dear info.’ True story, and sadly, very common.”
On Sales Reps
“I love talking to and getting to know the designers, learning about their inspirations and goals, so we can better transmit the whole soul of the label to our customers. However, I find sales reps (independent showroom or in-house) the better way to go. Sales reps strongly believe in the collections and designers; and most of the times they have a more business-oriented mind, which means they can take feedback and criticism better. Put it this way, you hire models for a shoot or a runway because they are the pros. Why not doing the same for your sales force?”
On The Importance of Sales Reps:
“I was at an appointment and the sales rep asked me if I was interested in carrying another line, I declined to even look at it, since I was about to go over budget. I had an appointment with them next week, so I came back. The mannequins at the entrance of the showroom were styled impeccably. I asked what they were wearing; obviously it was the line they had offered before, I loved it so much, I decided to risk it and went a little over budget with it. It has become one of my best-sellers. Moral: Sales reps know the tricks, they have a better relationship with the retail world and they know by heart what their clients (and their clients’ clients) want.”
On Building A Brand:
“I am a SMALL retailer, and I get almost 100 look-books per season to consider. As a designer, you have to be special in some way, and develop a strong style, something that makes you stand out in a good way, otherwise you will get lost in the crowd. Before developing a collection for retail, you have to assess your strengths and weaknesses and work with them. You cannot do it all, and that’s okay, especially if you are a small designer. You cannot do knits and dresses and outerwear and underwear and shoes and scented candles (!) if you have not developed first a strong style that people can’t resist and identify you with. I find that a lot of new designers want to cover so much; they end up having a safe, indefinable, mediocre collection. They want to do it all and please everyone; usually forgetting the first years is all about the core.”
Common Mistakes Designers When Approaching Stores:
- No Market Research: One of the biggest and most common mistakes. Thoroughly investigate your retailer, their vision, customers, prices, sizing, labels, etc. before offering your line. I’ve had people sending me lingerie, bathing suits, sleepwear and shoes look-books; needless to say, I don’t carry any of that.
- Less-than-spectacular-look-books: Designers need to realize 90% of your chances (especially on a higher-end market) are based on first impressions; you need your look-book to be your strongest selling point. That is what will make me curious or excited about your label as a whole and your particular collection that season.
- Too Many Adjectives: When introducing a line, the use of too many adjectives is also a big mistake to me. Let the clothes speak for themselves; let the customers hear what your line has to say, before you try to put words in their minds.
- Cocky attitudes: Some designers have contacted me to tell me they are “what my store needs to make it big” or that “it’s a mistake not to have them”. Some have treated me with very poor manners until they realize I am the buyer. That speaks tons of you, both professionally and personally.
- Unannounced visits: People have come through the door with their collection in a suitcase. Nothing wrong with that, you do what you can. BUT coming in unannounced during a time where you have customers it’s very disrespectful.
- Double dipping: If you already sell across the street, you should not approach another retailer in the area. It is one of the unspoken rules of retail, and sometimes it’s actually illegal to do that (another reason to have a sales rep that can help you with distribution areas and this little inside things).
- Bad Quality Samples: If your samples are not finished the right way, it makes buyers anxious. At an appointment there’s only so many times you can hear “this (color, sizing, length, closure, lining, zipper, etc.) will not be like this in production” without wondering if the dress you’re looking at will still look like a dress when it’s delivered.
On Designer Follow-Up:
“Take into consideration that buyers and retailers get harassed every season by tons of people. Be persistent. *BUT* learn the difference between being persistent and being pushy (No means no, not maybe). Buyers are very busy during showroom season, so it’s very common if they take a day or two to return your call or email. Don’t call the next day every hour to see if they’ve read it or what they think. I find this one of the most recurrent problems my buyer friends have.”
“If you can’t take the good AND the bad don’t ask for feedback at all. Life lessons are not free. The knowledge of a buyer has usually cost them one way or another. Be sure you have some sort of a relationship to ask for someone’s expertise.”
“Don’t compromise. A designer does not have to please everyone. Neither does a retailer. If you are not a match for a particular store, that’s fine, you’ll be a match for someone else (If not a single store is interested, though, it might be time to go over your designs/pricing).”