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Is there any word in retail more alluring to savvy shoppers than “exclusive?” Conjuring images of velvet ropes and members-only benefits, exclusivity is catnip to consumers seeking originality in their purchases, especially to parents scouting unique duds for their tykes. Whether it’s snapping up the latest European line to land in the States, finding an […]

Is there any word in retail more alluring to savvy shoppers than “exclusive?” Conjuring images of velvet ropes and members-only benefits, exclusivity is catnip to consumers seeking originality in their purchases, especially to parents scouting unique duds for their tykes. Whether it’s snapping up the latest European line to land in the States, finding an undiscovered designer or helping create the perfect personalized tee, parents love knowing their tots are sporting one-of-a-kind creations. Taking advantage of the trend, many children’s retailers are realizing that in a shaky marketplace brimming with competition from big-box discounters and online shops, exclusive collections can be the perfect temptation to keep customers coming back for more.

“The advantage of carrying exclusive merchandise is that the customer can obtain the particular goods from one retailer only, creating the illusion of exclusivity, which may enhance the image of the retailer while increasing customer traffic,” explains Nancy Kaplan Ostroff, an associate professor in the fashion merchandising management program at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. In fact, exclusivity was the secret to success for Lynne Gonsior, who owned her Minneapolis-based shop, Uber Baby, for seven years, before deciding to take her house line wholesale for Spring ’12. “I was always 90 percent exclusive,” Gonsior says, noting that exclusivity was always far more important to her upscale customers than an organic label. “I think you go through a lot of stores, and down the street they are carrying the same things as the store five miles away. I really wanted to differentiate ourselves from everyone because I thought that would be the recipe for our success. We had this reputation that people could come and find things they couldn’t find anywhere else.”

“Exclusivity is fantastic because it’s new blood,” says Cristina Villegas, owner of New York-based children’s shop Yoya, which carries its own line of knits and accessories designed by Villegas herself. “It keeps the store fresh and it keeps people interested,” she adds. Not to mention, unique designs may help convince customers that it’s worth paying a boutique price tag. “The price point is high so you want to be different,” Villegas explains. Ostroff at FIT notes exclusive collections may also allow retailers to set price points at higher markups than on more competitive non-exclusive fashion items—ultimately increasing profitability.

Not to mention, just having the product in stock is the perfect bait for curious consumers who simply want to check it out—and they probably won’t leave empty handed, Ostroff notes. “When visits are increased, customers may also buy other items outside of the exclusive collection,” she points out. That’s exactly what happens at Chicago-based tween and teen shop Frankie’s on the Park, where owner Rae Lisenby works with local designer Amy Zoller to create a custom-designed special occasion line, 4th Charm, for girls’ sizes 10 to 16. “Even the girls that aren’t in the market will come in and try them on,” Lisenby says. “There are only so many special occasion childrenswear collections out there, so if you have something that’s unique, even if it’s not something that suits their needs, they’re in your store—and they’ll buy back to school gear or apparel,” she adds. “It draws the clients we are looking for.”

But before retailers dive into the world of specialty manufacturing or designer collaborations, many experts and fellow merchants suggest scoping out the marketplace and making sure there’s a genuine consumer desire for any specific items. Based on her experience, Gonsior advises stopping by all of the nearby children’s retailers, as well as researching any potential new lines exhaustively online. “I didn’t want to be telling my customers it was exclusive and it was in another store five blocks away,” she recalls.

Pumpkinheads owner Jamara Ghalayini started her own Daily Threads line when she had trouble finding well-fitting, high-quality basics for her Los Angeles-based children’s boutique. “I really needed a basics line that fit with the higher-end brands and looked like it was of equal quality,” she explains. “It was really hamstringing me because the ones on the market just weren’t quite what I needed, at a moderate price point.” Now Daily Threads is the boutique’s bestseller, and Ghalayini plans to sell it wholesale beginning Spring ’12. Not to mention, the brand’s basics are seasonless items, meaning Ghalayini is still selling the line at full price in June and July, when most of her merchandise moves to the sales rack.

The best way to pinpoint potential exclusives is to tune in to your customers, retailers say. Anna Beth Goodman launched her own brand last year after receiving feedback from customers at her 8,000-square-foot New Orleans-based children’s boutique, Pippen Lane Emporium. “One of the things I took into consideration is that so many lines that I was buying were so dark, and I had customers complaining that everything was so drab,” she explains. So Goodman launched Pippen Lane Collection, a bright and sweet children’s line perfect for her Southern clientele. “Our layettes are outperforming all of my other layette lines,” Goodman reports. “They are my top sellers—we sold about 150 pieces in about 45 days.”

In fact, knowing what works in your region—and even your neighborhood—can give retailers a better grip on picking the perfect collaboration. “Markets across the U.S. are so different,” Ghalayini points out. “What works for me in L.A. and what works for New York City is so opposite.” Ghalayini even works with designers to tailor accessories, like Bari Lynn barrettes and Pamela Jo necklaces, to appeal to parents whose girls attend local private schools. “It works like a charm because my clients don’t like too much bling,” says Ghalayini, who worked with
Pamela Jo to craft an exclusive necklace for her shop. “She toned it down and now it’s selling like crazy. My customer is a little more conservative and demure than the Hollywood customer.”

In Ghalayini’s experience, knowing her customers has been a much better method of identifying potential exclusives than going with her gut. “Ask me about when I did teal for Daily Threads,” she jokes. “There’s been a couple of times when I have missed, and there’s definitely been a couple of times when the items have gone straight to discount,” she adds. Gonsior agrees that exclusives carry a risk of missing the mark—and leaving merchants stuck with a stack of unsellable items. “Minneapolis is a very fickle city, and we wanted to go edgier and edgier,” she recalls. “Sometimes I would find something that was a perfect fit for the store and I would promote it, but my customers didn’t get it. It was definitely challenging.”

Often, the formula for avoiding a flop is teaming up with the right designer. “The designer selected to do an exclusive collection for a retailer must be someone who is consistent with the image of the retailer in the eyes of the target customer, and the designer must be a credible fashion source in terms of both garment design and quality,” Ostroff explains. “For example, Stella McCartney was an appropriate choice to do a seasonal collection for the Gap, as she was someone who is recognizable and has established credibility with the Gap customer.” Also important, experts say, is making sure your vision for the collection is consistent with your designer’s aesthetic. “The personal relationship with your designer is important, as is having the same sensibility,” advises Villegas, who has worked with several brands, like Lucky Fish, on exclusive collections. “You don’t want to change the design, you just want to add a little twist to it, a little excitement. You need to have the same sensibility and know you can’t change it completely.”

Sarah Shaoul learned that lesson the hard way when she worked with a popular character-based children’s brand (before the company launched into licensing) to create a line of custom tees for Black Wagon, her kids’ boutique in Portland. Shaoul ran a T-shirt design contest based upon the character, but so much time lapsed between choosing the winning design and production of the tees that many of the people she had begun working with had left the company. The new team asked Shaoul to order more units than originally agreed upon and revised the winning design. “Artistically, they altered the final design so it would match up with their own brand vision,” Shaoul recalls. “There was a bit of compromise going on, and we were definitely trying to work with them, but the strong original design got watered down. I think if they had left it with the original design we could have sold a lot more units,” she says. From that experience, Shaoul advises retailers to hash out the terms of any agreement in writing. “If you are going to partner with somebody, make sure you’re not giving up all of your creative control,” she notes. “They may only be able to do it if it fits certain guidelines of their own, but that may not necessarily work for you.”

Shaoul recalls how her shop was left with some leftover product—a big concern for many retailers when it comes to snagging exclusives. “If a vendor agrees to do an exclusive with you, you need to be prepared to sell a lot of units,” she cautions. “You really have to be well-positioned to make it happen. Don’t fool yourself about what that might mean. If you’re not in a position to push out a lot of units, it might not be the best route for you.” For retailers that might be concerned about moving large amounts of merchandise, Shaoul says another possibility is partnering with designers for a short-term exclusive, and Gonsior agrees. “Don’t be afraid to negotiate and say, ‘I want a season first for myself. I’ll promote you on social media. If it doesn’t work feel free to go on,'” Gonsior suggests. “I had vendors who stayed with me the whole entire time.”

The final tip for cashing in on exclusives, experts say, is effective promotion. Lisenby has hosted fashion shows for local children’s hospitals, launch parties at Frankie’s on the Park (where locals could come meet the 4th Charm designer) and last year, she took the collection on the road to the New York children’s shows and threw a house party. Gonsior often hosted “Botox and Babies” parties at Uber Baby, where her customers were pampered with gratis beauty treatments and 30 percent discounts on the shop’s merchandise. In addition to learning about new lines, her clients would often share helpful insights for future collections. “It was really interesting to socialize with them when they were very comfortable and at ease,” she says. “I found in a different atmosphere they would be very open about what they were looking for. And once I really established relationships, I would have customers suggest new lines to me.”

But the best part about exclusives, many retailers say, is that the unique nature of the product usually speaks for itself. “It’s great because it starts a really big word of mouth referral amongst those who have made a purchase,” says Shaoul, who has carried several other exclusive collections at Black Wagon over the years. “Today’s retail environment is so incredibly challenging and there are so many forces working against conventional small independent retailers, with everybody moving towards using technology to do their shopping,” she points out. “What the independent retailers need to do is provide something in their stores that nobody else has.” Ghalayini agrees: “That kind of stuff pays your rent,” she points out. “When every dollar counts like it does right now, being able to sell something for $20 instead of $10 makes all the difference in the world. Daily Threads has literally saved us through this economy.” —Audrey Goodson

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