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What Makes a Good Manufacturer?

May 20, 2008

In my last blog, I told you what I thought made a good rep. In this blog, I would like to touch on what makes a good vendor. Be assured I know by doing this, I am obligated to take the vendor’s perspective and define good retailers. I will do that in my next blog. I am an equal opportunity curmudgeon, after all.

Delivery, design, customer service, and pricing all are important, but my best vendors are those that establish a partnership with me and do everything they can to maintain it. A good vendor partner recognizes the importance of clean distribution channels. They don’t sell to more retailers than a territory can support. They have come to terms with being manufacturers and don’t try to be retailers, too. They understand the importance of their brick and mortar dealers and have created written Internet policies that protect those stores from etailers whose only claim to fame is predatory price cutting practices.

A valuable manufacturer understands that design and comfort sell before price in the specialty retailer’s store. If you aren’t eagerly anticipating seeing a vendor’s new introductions at the next market, that vendor doesn’t add value to your floor. Consumers come to specialty retailers for something different from the big boxes and warehouse stores. No matter how high the quality of my products, no consumer wants to spend big bucks on their outdoor room only to see a similar design in their neighbor’s yard that came from X Mart. Does this mean a good manufacturer has a designer or designers on staff. Most likely. At least it means, they hire a consulting designer every year to help them with their introductions.

Hand-in-hand with design comes comfort. This year, I brought in a chaise lounge designed to look like a high heel shoe. Sounds pretty cool, right: except there was no way to get comfortable on it and I haven’t sold a one. Here’s the point, comfort sells; “uncomfortable” doesn’t sell at any price point no matter how pretty. A good vendor knows this and adjusts the pitch of their backs, the depth of their seats, the throw of their swivel rockers, and every other parameter to be assured theirs is the most comfortable line on my floor.

What can I say about customer service that hasn’t been said a thousand times? Specialty retailers know customer service is what sells vendors’ products from our floors. Therefore, it is in the manufacturers’ best interests for us to give great customer service. Is it too much to ask for them to reciprocate and give us the same kind of service they expect us to give the end consumer? A good vendor is one that has a live person answer a customer service call in less than 60 seconds. A good vendor has a computer system that gives their CSR’s up-to-date and accurate information. A good vendor spends lots of time and money training their customer service personnel.

When I talk about pricing, I don’t mean cheap prices; I mean perceived value. My clients aren’t particularly price conscious, but they don’t want to pay top dollar for a product that looks cheap, feels cheap, or looks like something they saw at a warehouse club. As they say in films, I want the budget to show up on the screen. A good vendor doesn’t have dollar-eating infrastructures that reduce the value of the end product. Oh, and mid-season price increases are straws that can break a camel’s back!!

A good vendor offers training for my staff and me. In the hearth side of our business, we deal with a vendor who sends out a new training video on CD every season. It takes my sales staff several hours to go through the self-paced program. The CD includes a video walk through of the factory, segments explaining all of the products and colorways, and a thorough discussion of what information the sales assistant must include on an order. There is not an outdoor specialty furniture manufacturer who does anything comparable to this. Even their reps couldn’t train as completely as this CD. Did it cost a bunch? Probably. Will it increase sales of their product in my store? Positively.

A good vendor provides up to date marketing material before or at market. I understand temporary price lists at premarket. But I don’t understand vendors who can’t provide complete catalogs, price lists, and swatch books at the September market. Retailers in the South sell a lot of product during our mild winters. Hard to do when you don’t have pictures of new products or samples of new materials.

Finally, a good vendor makes use of the Internet. I would cut my calls to vendors in half if I could get accurate order status and inventory status on the Internet. If a vendor can provide this to their CSR’s on their desktop computers, they can provide it to their retailers over the Internet. Every vendor has or should have a web site by now. But few offer extensive training on their sites. Imagine being able to go a vendor’s web site to find a video of the factory or a training class about their products. It’s easy to do if you commit to it.

Have I left out anything you look for in a good vendor? If so, please take a moment to respond so we can all read it. Don’t forget, in the next blog I turn the mirror on myself when I discuss what makes a good retailer.

Yours in confused selling, Bruce