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What Makes a Good Retailer?

June 3, 2008

As promised, this blog will point the bright light of discovery on retailers to try to figure out what a manufacturer and rep think makes a good retailer. I won’t be discussing what makes a retailer successful in this blog. Lord knows that is a complete blog, maybe two, in itself. No, I just want retailers to see themselves from the manufacturing side of the fence.

It should go without saying, if you aren’t paying your bills on time, you won’t be considered a valuable account. But some mighty fine retailers take a few extra days to pay bills for reasons having nothing to do with their ability to pay. If the invoice says 2/10 net 30, don’t pay in 20 days and still take the 2% discount. Of course, this is getting harder and harder to do with the proliferation of factors. But still, paying late and still taking the on-time discount can get you cut off from future deliveries.

An axiom to this is: if you can’t pay, talk to your vendor and factor. Working out a payment plan this year will make it easier for you to buy next year. Unless, of course, you are planning a bankruptcy and don’t plan to be around next year.

Before you call your rep to handle a problem, ask yourself, “Is this something I could do with a single phone call to the factory?” If so, call the factory yourself. With one less person to go through, this will probably go faster. Reps always say they are happy to handle ANY problem you have with the lines they represent. I think they appreciate it when retailers are somewhat sefl-sufficient. However, if this is a systemic problem such as continuing quality problems or lots of missed ship dates, you owe it to your rep to bring him into the loop. At best, the rep might be able to get the vendor to address the problem at its root cause. At worst, the rep can forewarn other retailers of the problem.

With the cost of gas going up daily, I expect we will see reps much less often. It is a shame, but again, does your rep really need to be there while you spend hours picking color ways, styles and quantities for an early buy. We all need our reps to explain early buy programs, talk about new products, last year’s losers, and show us colorways. After that, they can use their time more efficiently by calling on other customers while you use your own time to go over all of the details necessary to create an early buy.

Do you write up your early buys in their final form or do you have the rep do that? There are lines I know well enough to be able to write up the final order by myself. Of course, there are times we are so busy especially around early buy that we don’t have time to put an order in its final form. It would not be unreasonable to ask a rep to do the final work at a time like that. A rep’s time is valuable and as a good partner, I don’t want the rep to think I am taking advantage of his/her time; so, I write up lots of orders even though I would prefer not to.

I have seen merchandise leave a factory with scratches and dents but that is unusual. Most merchandise is packed in pristine condition. If it arrives damaged, that is usually the fault of the carrier. If it is obviously the carrier’s fault, don’t make the factory liable for the problem UNLESS they have packed it so badly no one could have delivered it undamaged. I know how difficult it can be to get a carrier to admit fault and pay a freight claim, but we take some responsibility to wade through the process when we become retailers. By the way, taking an automatic 10% discount for possible damage is something the big boxes do. Unless you are a big box or the vendor has a history of shipping shoddy merchandise, this is not a way to get loved!

We all think we deserve exclusivity for any product on our floor. However, that luxury comes with the responsibility of fulfilling a line’s potential in our trade area. Talk to your rep and the factory to find out what numbers they expect from you. If their numbers aren’t reasonable, let them know and negotiate something more practical. In my trade area, New Orleans, I can’t sell contemporary for the life of me. So; when I am working with a line that is mostly contemporary, I have to make it clear that my sales can’t be based on population numbers; instead, they have to be based on design aesthetics. If your argument has legs, your rep will be able to use it with the factory to get you the protection you need and want.

When George Bush won his second term, he told the press he had earned political capital, which he would spend it in the next four years. Retailer’s earn capital with manufacturers, too. Do a bang up job with a line. Cut a vendor slack when they can’t produce or their quality has temporarily gone down. Take the vendor’s side when a “warranty” problem is really consumer misuse. Do any of these things and a vendor will help you out when you need it. But if you have spent (or overspent) your capital with a vendor, don’t expect them to bend over backwards to accommodate you.

Manufacturers adore retailers who are long time customers. There are lines on our floor that we have been doing business with since they entered the market. We are loyal to them and they, in turn, are loyal to us. When we  have occasional disagreements (like many a long time married couple) we talk and work those problems out instead of threatening divorce. Try to remember, an ethical manufacturer is doing everything they can to put out problem-free sellable products. If they sometimes fail, talking to them can solve a problem quicker than threatening a “divorce.”

The point I am trying to make is that a good retailer sets up partnerships with their manufacturers. A good partner will make concessions to help out the other even when it means taking a hit. After all, we expect our partner to help us out when the shoe is on the other foot. My dad told me something as a youngster, “When you play poker with anyone, always leave a little money on the table. They will be eager to come back and play with you in the future” Do you leave money on the table when you work with manufacturers and reps?

Yours in confused retailing, Bruce