Since I arrived I've been repeatedly told that I'm blessed and I guess I am pretty lucky at times; I'm in Vancouver and it's NOT RAINING. In fact when I land its surprisingly warm and dry, and I sit on a wall in the sunshine outside the airport waiting to be picked up by Greg, the new JoJo Maman Bébé rep for the Canadian Western Provinces. This is a vast territory geographically but there are relatively few retail options outside the city. If we sold fur and beaver skin jackets our range might spread a little further afield. But as it happens the collection is not too useful for the extreme weather of some parts of Canada ... yet. Design team - feel inspired to dress the Inuit? Could be cute?
Greg has offered to take me hiking (remember this is a city of outdoorsy types), but sadly there is really no time to waste. I'm here to work and whilst I'd love to head up a mountain (and they are stunning, rising sharply from the coast) I've got a job to do and only 36 hours to do it in. It's cool being shown around but I'm not on holiday and I'm sacrificing time with my kids and investing heavily in the travel, so I need to be 'on the job' at all times. I won't find too many babies up mountains. As in my other locations I want to try to understand the local parents and which of the many JoJo product lines we should concentrate on promoting - it would be madness to try to offer the same range to all territories. I want to visit mother and baby retailers - both new stockists and potential competition and I want to talk to and educate our representatives - giving them as much information as possible to help them work effectively as our Ambassadors. Greg is a professional salesman and his partner Gordana is knowledgeable on the lines, having worked in the industry for years. Theirs is a new business so there is much to do.
Brand building effectively in a new territory needs to be achieved in a considered and patient manner. We don't want to sell to just anyone. We need to be discerning about who and how we represent the product. So when Best Buy (the vast and hugely successful electronics e-tailer) showed an interest in the collection we were sceptical about the collaboration. The discussion went to board level back home, but I was convinced that their new concept, up market website offered an e-commerce solution blatantly missing in Canada. Whilst the country has one of the highest web usage levels in the world, especially amongst our target market (women aged 25 to 45) they have a very low level of online sales. Approximately 5% of all Canadian retail spend is made online in comparison to approximately 25% in the UK. There is a huge gap in the market, ripe for the taking.
It was fun going to visit the 'Merchandise Manager Baby & Juvenile Products Expanded Assortments', her assistant and Director. Wow - what titles! So grand! Teresa, of exotic title AKA the Buyer, has a massive job of sourcing for this stunning website from scratch. Thankfully they are able to pull on the resources of the parent company, giving them large numbers of copy writers, content managers and professionals to ensure search engine optimisation. It was refreshing that they championed the validity of social media, analytics and merchandising to achieve the results they required to make this venture succeed. Eric, the Director, was gorgeous and charming, happily married I'm sure, but with a smile to melt even the weariest of jet-lagged, cool-blooded British CEOs. It's tragic that regular meetings will be impractical from London, so I must think of an excuse for a return trip...
Er-hem... back to the point of this blog; sensible business advice on how to launch a brand in the Americas, in case you were wondering. I was delighted by the fact they are vertical, relying on in-house resources for marketing and distribution for most of their products, ensuring a great customer experience. (Apologies for the short lapse of attention, we are all human after all).
The meeting allayed any fears about their being the right partner to represent JoJo online in Canada and I'm really excited about our launch in the next few weeks. Keep a Twitter eye open for @VIVABestBuy and @JoJoMamanBebe for more news. Ignorance could have resulted in our turning down this opportunity. A face-to-face meeting has cemented the relationship. Never underestimate the value of personal contact in business. With such fantastic e-com growth potential in the Canadian market (which has embraced our company style and ethos with gusto), it would have been short sighted to walk away.
Next stop was to a little fishing village just outside the city and as Greg predicted, I totally loved the location, street and store. Steveston is like a Blackheath-on-sea, teaming with mums and babies pottering around, taking their toddlers to the little park and sitting in coffee shops. The store we popped into offered a great selection of maternity, baby and gift. Fun, eclectic products in a pretty clap-board white painted store. A new business run by young parents Beth and Ben; Steveston Village Maternity was a triumph of great independent retailing, looking well merchandised with intelligent buying.
Intelligent buying is not a given. To survive as an Independent Retailer your skills needs to encompass creativity, customer service, trend prediction and more than anything, a good head for figures. Merchandising is essential to make the most of your spend. Analysing the sales per square foot, product range sell through, in-take margins and profit plus recording loss sales are all invaluable. How many independents are on top of this? Since launching on a B2B level we are sometimes frustrated by the lack of careful consideration from buyers making their selections. This concern covers both large and small company buyers. Far too often our clients insist on buying across the sizes in a flat manner. For example, they buy the same quantity of each size regardless of the age group the outfit is likely to sell to. When, as the designer or vendor, you know the style is best suited to a newborn or maybe a 2-3 year old, this is frustrating. Sizing breakdown should be made in a pattern to reflect the suitability and likely popularity of the item. For instance a romper (modelled and displayed online by a 12 month old baby) should be purchased in the following size ratio:
3-6 months x 1
6-12 months x 2
12-18 months x 3
18-24 months x 2
2-3 months x 1
To buy flat is madness. The middle sizes will sell out first with no spare stock and the tiny and larger sizes are unlikely to sell. This means the retailers (who will rarely be recording lost sales) will analyse the sell through rate at the end of the season and be reluctant to order again next time.
It's not rocket science, but as the supplier we need to be tactful and suggest rather than dictate. We are always happy to assist the novices to make a sensible selection in line with their budgets. Our experience and brand knowledge will almost certainly achieve a higher sell through rate - although we bow to local knowledge and there are a great many experienced retailers who DO get things right season after season.
We Brits appear to have quite a bit in common with Vancouver, possibly more than I felt we had in Montreal or Toronto. Good taste, lovely local shopping streets and of course our obsession with the weather. I'm definitely blessed - two days in Vancouver and not a single drop on my head. I like it here and may just have to find an excuse for a repeat meeting with Best Buy...
Canada is all over and I'm on my flight south to LA with the US government in meltdown. I'm dying to get the local low-down on all the razzmatazz.
Au revoir Canada, à bientôt mes amis.