It’s been a while since my last post (this sounds like I am about to confess my sins, which I am not!), and a great deal has happened over the last few months, not all of it easy to write about. My year to date has been overshadowed by the illness of my father, who subsequently passed away in July, leaving me feeling bereft and unable to put pen to paper until now. The death of a parent, for those who have not yet experienced it, can have a profound effect on your outlook on life, and has once again reminded me that a human life is shorter than you think, and you only get one opportunity to live it. Having been through this twice now, with both of my parents suffering from the same life destroying disease, I am fully resolved to be open minded to every opportunity that comes my way, to not let the pressures of work get me down, spend as much time as I can with those who are important to me, and to get my act together and finish the book that I started writing some time ago.
Following such a traumatic and upsetting time, however, it felt good to let loose, and take some time for myself and my family, first setting off to rural Italy for an intense week of pilates, fabulous vegetarian food (surprising, as those who know me well will know that I am a committed carnivore!) and sun worship, followed by a family holiday in Portugal. I am learning to play golf, and, come September, I was also walking all over London in preparation for the Shine London Marathon Walk in aid of cancer research, an attempt to do something positive in memory of my parents, and to prove to myself that I was capable of walking in excess of 26 miles! It was with a real sense of achievement and pride, that I stepped over the finish line at around 6am, after 9 hours on the move, despite the agony in my legs, and the blisters on my feet. The atmosphere and camaraderie was amazing, with thousands pounding the streets of the city overnight, and our M&Co team all finished – I think we should be very proud of our achievement, in raising well over £4000 for Cancer Research UK.
Meanwhile, despite all the reports we are hearing on the news, that the economy has turned a corner, and things are improving, there is little evidence of this on the British high street. There have been small peaks in performance, when the weather and an upturn in consumer optimism have coincided, but on the whole trade remains exceptionally tough, and largely driven by discounts and promotions, as retailers attempt to trade their way through a very tricky start to the autumn season. Yet again, the weather has caught us out – a very cold spring, a heatwave just as the high street had gone into summer sale, and a very warm start to autumn, have all conspired to make it another very tricky year. What we need is a proper cold snap to kick start our winter and Christmas sales! The majority of retailers make a vast proportion of their profit over the next few weeks – none of us can afford to see a continuation of the current warm weather and very average sales performance! As I have said before, however, the retail industry needs to change its’ approach in light of our more unpredictable seasons, but who will be brave enough to lead the way? We need to change the pattern with which we launch new seasons, reduce our reliance on promotions and sales, and ensure that a good proportion of product in store is “trans-seasonal”, enabling retailers to cope more effectively when our weather fails to live up to expectations. This is particularly true in menswear and childrenswear – women will always buy for themselves and their homes, driven by trends, friends, desire, and the odd glass of wine (inebriated shopping is so much more fun!), but will often wait to buy for their husbands and children until there is a “need” for that product, eg coats and knitwear when it gets cold, shorts and t-shirts when it gets warm. Men themselves buy clothing much less frequently, and children generally hate shopping, so their purchasing is frequently driven by the women in their lives – girlfriends, wives, mothers and grandmothers. As a multi departmental retailer, encouraging greater spending, driving up the amount of money spent during each visit, and the regularity of spend, by our female customers, will be the key to our success!
Against this difficult backdrop, a number of other challenges have presented themselves this year, not least in the sourcing and delivery of product to our stores. Labour costs are rising world wide, as is inflation in many of the regions we are buying from; the situation in some countries is volatile, and protests/strikes frequent, with the impact of the very distressing Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh earlier this year, which killed more than 1100 garment workers and left thousands of children without parents, sending out ripples around the industry, demanding much needed change, and placing greater importance on the health and safety of garment industry workers worldwide. This is something I feel very strongly about – it should be a given, surely, that wherever you work in the civilian world, it ought to be possible to go to work, knowing that you will come home safely to your family at the end of the day? We take this for granted in the western world, but in the developing countries we are sourcing from, such a straightforward human right is far from the norm. As retailers, we have a certain level of responsibility to the workforce employed in our supply chain, to ensure that they are well treated, and can work in a safe environment, without fear of the building going up in flames, or disintegrating around them, and be paid a fair wage to be there.
It was with all of this in mind that we set off on our latest trip to visit suppliers, my buying team scattering far and wide across the Indian sub continent, Hong Kong and China. As a team of primarily menswear and childrenswear buyers, all are purchasing for multi product departments, and this necessitates sourcing across many different regions, with numerous different suppliers, many of whom need to be specialists eg. knitwear, baby layette, outerwear etc. It takes a talented buyer to juggle so many different and diverse product types, and makes for a very challenging itinerary.
I left home on a sunday evening, knowing that over the next 11 days, I would be embarking on 9 flights, staying in 5 different cities, and seeing at least 12 either existing key sources, or potential new suppliers, all whilst trying to touch base with each buying team at least once, somewhere. It was a daunting prospect, the thought of it exhausting, before I had even started!
First stop Dhaka, Bangladesh with the boys and menswear team; when I say “team” I actually mean one very busy buyer, and a design manager, trying to cover off all our mens and boys business in this location. We knew this was going to be a challenging visit – there are upcoming elections due, and this often leads to large and violent protests, with thousands taking to the streets. Additionally, a decision was due from the current government, on an increase in the minimum wage – the workforce were demanding that the minimum should more than double. In percentage terms it is a huge increase, but put in perspective, the current minimum is 3000 taka ($39USD) per month, and the new minimum, if agreed, would be 8000 taka ($102USD) per month. Obviously, there are huge differences in the cost of living to that in the west, but just imagine trying to house, clothe and feed a family on such a small sum of money! Since our return, the increase has been agreed at 76%, taking the minimum wage to around 5500 taka.
The immediate impact on our visit was the reluctance, by some suppliers/factories, to negotiate or agree prices until the minimum wage has been confirmed. It is very unclear what is actually likely to be agreed, and therefore the effect garment prices is very difficult to predict. We spent the first morning with a key supplier, discussing their performance review, the current situation and going through product development for the forthcoming season (AW14 is under way!), before travelling with them to one of our key factories on the outskirts of the city. Seeing some of our spring production going down the line was one of the highlights of the afternoon, before getting back in the car for the 90 minute journey back to the hotel for a late dinner, and the first of many Indian meals to come. As the wine was extortionately expensive, we resorted to ordering cocktails with our dinner, only to find we had to advise the bar staff how to make a Mohito – they seemed to think it necessary to blitz the whole thing in a blender – turning it the colour and consistency of pond water!
Leaving my colleagues behind for a further couple of days in Dhaka, I was up and out of the hotel by 7am, heading for a long day of travelling to my next destination. I first flew from Dhaka to Delhi, where I collected my luggage for transfer to the domestic terminal, checking in for a second time, and a three hour wait before boarding a flight to Chennai, in the south of India. I amused myself by checking out the shops in Delhi airport – suddenly, there is not only an M&S, but Accessorize, Body Shop, Smiths and KFC – I could have been anywhere! It was good to see some familiar faces waiting for me as I came through arrivals in Chennai, and we spent the evening catching up over drinks and dinner.
Day 3 and an 8.30am pick up for a trip to a shirt supplier I had not visited before, although the business has been buying from them for many years. It was a small but well organised set up, making very cleanly finished production, and with scope for other woven product types. After a very quick pit stop to see their showroom, meet and greet the team and a discussion with the MD, I was off to my next appointment, with a supplier I have dealt with previously, although not visited in a long time. It was really good to see the team there, and there is great scope for development on men’s, women’s and kids product. I was inspired by the variety and choice, and I am very excited about the potential here! It was one of the most exciting appointments of my entire trip and I left feeling very optimistic. Having left the showroom, we moved on to a beautiful restaurant for a very relaxing dinner and a few glasses of wine, before I had to pack up again for the next leg of my tour!
After a small panic in the middle of the night (at this point I am surviving on about 4hrs sleep a night as I cannot settle in my constantly changing environment!), when I realised that I had misread the early morning flight time. Fortunately, it was a very quick journey to the airport and I arrived in plenty of time for my 50 minute hop to Bangalore. On arrival I was met by a driver from the company I was due to visit, climbing into the car for a very long journey to the office. Getting into a car, with a man I have never met before, who speaks minimal English, always makes me nervous; it is always a bit like wacky races (with me featuring as Penelope Pitstop and inwardly screaming heee…elp, hee…elp!) and there is frequently some kind of incident – driver gets lost, the car hits something (usually another vehicle, occasionally a chicken or a rickshaw, but on one occasion, a cow) etc. This journey proved no different, but in this case we were pulled over by the police, whereupon I was left in the car, at the side of a very busy road, with traffic streaming past, whilst the driver disappeared. It transpired that he had been stopped because the car had tinted windows, now illegal in India since a series of high profile rape and kidnap cases. As the driver had no cash with him, he returned to the car to ask, in very broken English, if I could pay the 100 rupee (approx. £10) fine. Now how on earth do I get that through expenses? I couldn’t very well ask for a receipt and although he assured me that he would return the money, I think he was too embarrassed to admit his mistake to his boss.
Arriving at the office, I was very pleased to see the babywear team in residence, and, after an introduction to the supplier team here, and a tour of the set up, we headed out for a quick, but delicious, Indian lunch. In a whirlwind of a day, we then returned to the office to go through new product development, before jumping back in the car to visit one of their factory showrooms. A very quick 20 minute visit to the buying teams hotel, for a wash and change of clothing, before I am dragging my luggage back out to the car. I think this has to qualify as my shortest hotel stay ever! We enjoy dinner in an absolutely stunning hotel before I leave the team and make my way back to the airport, for a 2.40am flight to Hong Kong. I have to queue for a seat in the lounge, whereupon I struggle to stay awake, and my flight is delayed, eventually departing at 3.45am. I had been in Bangalore for less than 16 hours! Anyone under the illusion that life as a buyer is glamorous, or luxurious, think again! At this point in my travels I am absolutely knackered, and I dare not look in the mirror, I fear what I might see looking back!
I manage to snatch a few uncomfortable hours of sleep on this short flight, by which time I am arriving at mid-day in HK, and heading for The Mira, one of my favourite hotels. Fortunately, my room is ready early as requested, and I have time for a quick shower and change, before making my way to the first of two Saturday afternoon appointments. I am reunited with the boys and mens team for this first meeting, a potential new outerwear supplier that I have worked with before, and then have a catch up with a knitwear supplier who has flown up from Indonesia to meet with us. They have had appointments with the boys and girls teams, so I am following up on their progress, and discussing possibilities for babywear.
Finally, I have an hour to myself, a chance to unpack – most of my clothing has not yet left my suitcase since leaving home, but with a 3 night stay comes an opportunity to get myself re-organised! So, it’s Saturday night in HK, and there are six of us here, so we decide to get ourselves over to the island, for dinner at a very “English” restaurant, The Pawn, in Wan Chai, a very welcome change after 5 days subsisting on mostly curry! Despite exhaustion taking over, I seem to rally after a few glasses of good red wine, and we have a very enjoyable meal – the prospect of not having to get up for a meeting or a flight the following morning is enough to recharge my batteries long enough to last the evening.
Sunday morning dawns sunny and warm, and after my first full 8 hours sleep, I make it out of bed for a very late breakfast, before hitting the Hong Kong shops to kick start my Christmas shopping. It is a truly beautiful day, and I spend a few happy hours wandering the streets and malls in search of interesting gifts for friends and family. Dropping my shopping off at the hotel, I head to my favourite local Chinese spa to meet an old friend I haven’t seen for a while and we catch up on the gossip, over a bite to eat and a foot massage. After 2 hours on a Chinese massage table, and some relief from the tension in my back, neck and shoulders, I feel ready to face the last few days of our trip, but before that there is time for dinner in Lan Kwai Fong – at a highly recommended steak restaurant. Arriving 10 minutes early, they send us upstairs to their “Peruvian” sister restaurant for cocktails whilst we wait. What, you might ask, goes into a Peruvian cocktail? Pisco, is the answer, in every available drink! I am slightly worried that one “pisco” and I might remember nothing, so we enquire what is in it, to discover that it is a potent local Peruvian rum. Just the one for me then, I think red wine with dinner might be the safer option!
I seem to be talking about alcohol a lot, but in truth it is just one of a number of necessities required to get through a trip of this magnitude – secondly, sleeping tablets to counteract the jetlag and ensure that you do sleep when the opportunity arises; caffeine, in large quantities, essential for staying awake when your body has other ideas; Aspirin to ward off DVT; Resolve or Dioralyte for the occasional inevitable hangovers, but also when dehydration from all the flying sets in; Jelly Babies, for when your blood sugar takes a sudden nose dive at around 3pm; Berocca, in the absence of your 5 a day, and Immodium, for the obvious! I never leave home on a trip without all of the above, and a number of other emergency remedies!
Monday morning dawns, and we are all out and scattering to various appointments with babywear suppliers, outerwear suppliers, denim, knitwear, jersey, and so on. I manage to work my way through several appointments before heading back to the hotel, a quick change and out for our last dinner in Hong Kong, Teppanyaki, a Japanese meal with one of our longest standing suppliers. It is a great fun evening, although the food is a little challenging for our vegetarian colleague, and the Sake we wash it all down with is definitely an acquired taste!
Tuesday morning, 5am, and we are up, packed and soon on our way to the airport for the last leg – Shanghai. Having dozed through most of the flight, we arrive and head straight to a major supplier for lengthy discussions and negotiation on next seasons outerwear ranges. We work our way through boyswear, girlswear, babywear and menswear, finally departing the office at around 6.30pm. Having checked into our hotel, we meet up with another contact that I have not seen for years, and there follows a fairly surreal evening at a beautiful and well known restaurant, whereby our host spends most of the evening on the phone whilst we dine! It is wonderful, however, and the food is sublime, a real treat for our last night of the trip.
The final day arrives, and with it a visit to a factory I have used in the past – everything starts well, they have made some lovely samples, we seem to be making great progress on the negotiations, and the day passes in a busy blur, whilst we all get bitten to death by god knows what in the showroom. I cannot stop itching – it is really making my skin crawl. Not only that, but we are seated in the centre of an enormous room, on a very odd raised platform that looks a little bit like the dance floor from Saturday Night Fever – I almost expect it to start flashing different colours! One by one, as the tiredness kicks in, we all manage to either fall off it, or trip up on it – we are lucky to make it this far without serious injury.
Late in the afternoon we set off to take a look at the production lines, and all my optimism is shattered – the factory is a shadow of its former self. It is a few years since I have visited and it is unrecognisable. It is very difficult, without digging much deeper, and spending much time, effort and money, to see how we can get this place into a fit state for any production. We leave, exhausted and deflated, to head back to the hotel, collect our luggage, and depart for the journey home. It has been a trip with more ups than downs, however, and as always, a significant learning curve – I never fail to return without a head full of new and potentially useful information.
Within days I am back into the whirlwind of trading, strategy meetings, supplier appointments and a quick trip to Glasgow, to present our spring 2014 childrenswear ranges to our area managers and directors. Back on the ever turning wheel that is the life of a head of buying!