Sales Force

Whether you’re a buyer or a brand, your sales reps are an essential piece of the retail puzzle, so make the most of their wealth of industry insights.

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InPlayDallas1_colorAli Moroze wears many hats. She’s a rep, sure—her New York City showroom, Ali’s Market, is a wonderland of high-end kids’ brands like Bóboli, Piccolo Bambino and Rowen Christian Couture—but she’s also a merchandising expert, a trend forecaster and a digital marketer. She’s helped new stores design their sales flow, come up with display ideas, sort out their billing system and manage e-mails. She’ll even write entire orders for her valued retail clients on occasion.

It turns out her approach isn’t uncommon in the industry. In fact, the best sales reps do a lot more than just sell apparel to retailers. In addition to knowing their lines inside and out, they also leverage their knowledge of fashion trends, local markets, industry best practices and the needs of the end customer to become invaluable resources to both the brands they represent and the retailers to which they sell. “An every day, average order-taker does not make a great sales rep…Retailers need more than that,” says Terra Fazzio of Thread Showroom in New York City, which reps brands like Mayoral and Rachel Riley. Whitney Douglas of Whitney Douglas Showroom in Chicago (where you’ll find Jacadi, 7 for All Mankind Kids and Go Gently Baby) describes the best reps as “problem solvers, trend finders, brand advisors and market advisors.”

Still, the retail landscape is evolving, with more manufacturers turning to corporate reps, selling direct to consumer and using online showrooms to connect with retailers. “If I opened a store tomorrow, I’d visit trade shows, take notes galore, visit the local showroom if I lived near it, then go home and work online,” says Francois Vachon of Canadian brand Coccoli, adding that wholesale e-commerce platforms like BrandBoom are easy and convenient to use. While that may mean fewer independent reps and brick-and-mortar showrooms, there’s still plenty of value in maintaining those relationships, whether you’re a childrenswear brand looking to break into more retail doors or a boutique trying to shake up your assortment. Read on for advice about choosing a rep that will steer you in the right direction.

The best reps… KNOW THEIR BRANDS

Simply put, “you can’t represent a company you don’t know,” says Laura Tenison of U.K.-based baby and kids brand JoJo Maman Bébé. To support the opening of the brand’s new U.S. distribution center, the company appointed a team of sales reps across the country, fully immersing them in the company culture from the get-go. Tenison explains that the new reps spent a week traveling around London, visiting various stores as well as the company’s headquarters in Wales. “They came to know and understand the business, our ethos, our design and garment technology and attention to detail,” she says, adding, “We need them to be ambassadors for the brand.”

Obviously, informed reps reflect positively on the brands they work with, but it’s also to the benefit of retailers, particularly in the case of a line that’s new to a particular store or market. “The more they understand my business and the product, the less wasted time and money there is,” says Dawn Price of  Dawn Price Baby in Washington, D.C. Understanding a brand’s collection goes beyond knowing whether it’s a good fit for a store. “It’s not just about selling the brand, it’s about selling the brand properly,” Moroze attests. That means helping ensure buyers
purchase the right size ranges and number of items for their store. Randee Arneson of Randee’s Showroom in Los Angeles, which reps lines like Baby Lulu and Petit Lem, explains that most new shops shouldn’t place huge orders before they know how a particular brand is going to sell, but that in some cases, reps will take advantage of inexperienced buyers and push them into ordering large minimums.  A knowledgeable rep coaches buyers into making the best possible decisions,  discouraging them from ordering just a few pieces from large lines (which can get lost on the rack) and reminding them of certain brands and styles that didn’t sell well in the past, for instance.

…KNOW WHAT’S HOT

If you work in fashion, staying on top of the latest trends is a given. But sales reps are in a unique middleman position between retailers and manufacturers, notes Julie Smith of Julie Smith Kids in Los Angeles (which reps Rosé Pistol and Zutano). “After showing a line a half a dozen times, you quickly see the clearest winners or best pairings of tops and bottoms,” says Arneson. “What works best in the showroom is typically what will sell best in the store.”

In addition to tipping off brands to seasonal trends, reps can also help brands stay on top of their game by sharing feedback from retailers, Smith says. Barbara Bartman of Auntie Barbara’s Kids, a children’s boutique in Beverly Hills, CA, says she communicates with vendors through her reps. Sometimes, for example, she’ll tell a rep that an otherwise great product has fit issues, and the rep will relay that to the manufacturer, who will heed Bartman’s advice and make adjustments. “We’re all in this together,” she states. Yessenia Tseng of kids’ brand Vierra Rose notes that she often collaborates with their seasoned sales reps on product development.

Manufacturers can also use information gleaned from sales reps to develop programs that support business growth in particular territories, like Miles Faust did at children’s accessory brand Wee Ones. In the past, he’s worked with reps to offer color combinations that coordinate with local schools and colleges in particular markets, for instance. The brand also teamed up with Thread Showroom in New York City to target local summer camps. As Fazzio of Thread Showroom says, “We can all get a little buried in our offices. Spending time with your representatives encourages open dialogue where creative concepts, fresh approaches and new ideas can be formed.”

…KNOW THE END CONSUMER

It’s not all about buying into the latest trends. Stores must consider their actual shoppers first and foremost, and the basic retail tenet ‘know thy customer’ rings true for sales reps as well. “Buying for a store is not a one-size-fits-all solution,” says Arneson. “It takes knowing and keeping good records on what type of customer base they have and emphasizing the products that may work best.” A big part of that is geographic—meaning a showroom rep in New York should be sensitive to the nuances and shopping habits in other cities across the country. Moroze pays attention to where different fashion trends are falling and employs her experience in wholesaling and retail, explaining that it’s her job to understand every territory in which she sells. The result? “I know what the final consumer is going to say before they say it.”

Since manufacturers are generally a few degrees removed from their customer, their sales reps provide an essential link. “Good sales reps know their markets better than any manufacturer can,” says Faust. “They understand trends and preferences and they provide feedback on what’s selling, what’s not and what they think will help our brand be more successful in their market.”

Moroze is in the privileged position of liking most of what she reps, but she admits sometimes there are trends she doesn’t necessarily get—yet she can still identify whether they’re going to hit. “A good salesperson can sell anything whether they like it or not. It’s not a matter of if I like it, it’s a matter of if I understand the customer that’s going to like it.”

…KNOW THE INDUSTRY

While being experts in a particular brand or market is a big part of a rep’s job, so is being able to see the big picture. Knowledge of the apparel industry overall is crucial. “I don’t believe in tunnel vision,” Moroze states. After all, retailers stock a wide variety of brands on their shelves. Reps have to understand how the brands in their showroom will merchandise with labels from other showrooms, too. She adds that retailers are often surprised to discover her knowledge of lines she doesn’t represent—a perk of working with an independent rep.

Another plus to partnering with an independent rep? Paying the showroom a visit lets buyers get a good look at what’s out there. Bartman notes that even though she knows what she wants, she likes the touch-and-feel experience of checking out lines in person. Smith adds that retailers can get merchandising inspiration and see how clothing fits. “Sometimes I feel a bit Vanna White-ish,  moving tops and bottoms and layering for possible new ways to put outfits together,” describes Arneson. “We often take on new lines and although we try and get all the information out there, sometimes it doesn’t register until you see it in person,” she goes on. Not to mention, it’s equally important to get to know the people you’ll be doing business with as it is to see lines in person, Vachon adds.

Plus, by visiting a showroom, you just might discover that special item you never knew you always needed. Moroze says that most of the time, when a client comes to her showroom for one of her mainstay brands like Kickee Pants, they’re turned on to several new brands they’d never heard of. “There’s a whole vast world out there,” she states.

…KNOW TECH TRENDS

It’s no secret that social media is a hotbed of marketing opportunity, and the best sales reps take advantage of that. Duo Showroom in New York City spreads the word about its featured collections via Instagram, making sure to tag brands and use custom hashtags like #dopekids. InPlay Showroom, with locations in New York, Dallas and Los Angeles, often calls out its retailer accounts in its Instagram posts, encouraging their own social media efforts. “Today, we place more focus than ever before on how effectively a rep can market our line to their customer base,” says Faust. “Their e-mail marketing and social media efforts can be effective tools to help us grow our business together.”

Brands also value reps who are hip to emerging technologies, especially today’s crop of B2B e-commerce sites, such as BrandBoom and NuOrder, as well as virtual showrooms like Playologie. Tenison says more of her retail buyers these days want to place orders online, and that she needs her reps to teach them how to do it right off the bat. “It’s a win-win situation for all of us since the reps still get their commission, the customers get live stock information and can make informed decisions on outfit building and we get the orders in a timely manner without the risk of human error,” she explains. She notes that in today’s fast-paced business world, there’s no time for fax machines and back-and-forth phone calls. “I’m afraid that some of the old school reps who fail to get a grip on modern technology get left behind.”

With broad industry knowledge and a unique position within the industry, sales and showroom reps can be tremendous assets. If you’re a brand executive, they’re your link to what stores want to see, according to Arneson. And if you’re a retailer, they’re the ones who show you your choices, says Moroze. Plus, they can give you a competitive edge. Bartman notes that after almost 50 years in business, she’s established a good rapport with a number of reps who she can rely on to call her first when they get a great new line. “I want to be the first one to buy it,” she states. Vachon says that just like brick-and-mortar stores give e-commerce brands credibility, so do physical showrooms, declaring, “As long as independent shops exist, reps will always be pertinent.” •

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