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Back from the Far East

I have been a buyer in the clothing retail industry for over 15 years, and have never seen conditions as difficult as they are now. I returned on thursday from a visit to Bangladesh and Hong Kong – all sounds very glamorous, but in reality, was a real rollercoaster of a trip! Cotton prices all over the world have gone through the roof due to poor harvests in China and flooding in Pakistan, and, coupled with increasing labour, fuel and other raw material costs, make current conditions very tough. In Bangladesh it was difficult to convince any supplier to take an order, because the cotton price is still rising, and yarn/fabric suppliers are holding out for even higher prices.

In China, suppliers are more ready to discuss, but will only hold prices for a few days at best. In short, it made for very difficult negotiations. It is widely predicted that cotton prices will continue to rise until after the next harvest (April in China), and with Chinese New Year falling early in February, conditions for buyers are set to get worse! It was not all doom and gloom, however, and some of my suppliers had produced some great new sample developments for next autumn. The schedule was exhausting – having left the UK monday lunchtime, and flying overnight, with a stop off in Dubai, I was in my first Bangladeshi factory by lunchtime on Tuesday, reviewing denim samples and discussing the current situation, prices and production capacity.

Arriving late back from the factory, I joined my colleagues for dinner, before heading to the very dodgy looking bar for a few drinks. Dhaka was full to bursting with buyers so we had ended up in a less than desirable hotel – dirty carpet and bathroom, and very noisy, with constant traffic passing and horns blaring all night, so had to resort to a sleeping pill in order to get some rest. Day 2 found me up and out to a huge jerseywear factory, again reviewing samples, and, having been joined by our new buying director, touring the “vertical” factory set up to see knitting, dyeing, finishing, printing, embroidery – I find the whole process fascinating. After a lunch consisting of pizza, fried rice and KFC (yes, really!), headed back to the office for a meeting with a new knitwear supplier. Left the office about 7pm to contend with the constant stationary traffic, straight to dinner at another hotel, where our head of buying caused great hilarity by pressing the wrong button on the toilet (not the flush, but the bottom washing button!) and ending up drenched!

Day 3 and a quick recap with the office team, before leaving my colleagues and heading to the airport for a flight to Hong Kong, with a brief stopover in Bangkok. And, what a difference a day makes, with a car waiting to whisk me from the airport to the Mira – what an amazing new hotel, and what luxury in comparison to our dismal accommodation in Dhaka!

Day 4 and up early to meet with my first Chinese supplier of t-shirts for a round of reviewing samples and tough price negotiation, stopping for a Dim Sum lunch with the team there. 3.30pm and on to my second appointment, with a knitwear supplier, before finishing up for the day and heading to a local Hong Kong spa with a friend, for a massage, manicure and pedicure. First decent night’s sleep since leaving home! Day 5 and up early again for meetings with our agent in HK, and a major jerseywear supplier. Then an interesting evening, as its’ Halloween weekend and it seems that everyone in HK is dressed up and ready to party! I love HK – it is a little bit bonkers, the people are fantastic and I always look forward to a visit here. Finally crawl into bed at 11pm, only to be woken at 12 midnight by a phone call to say my colleagues have arrived from Bangladesh, and are waiting for me in the bar! Finally crawl back into bed at 3am – good job Sunday is a day off, a very rare luxury!

Sunday morning, and we all meet for a late breakfast, before heading for the hotel pool and sauna, followed by a late lunch and a look around the shops.

Day 7 and off to our agents’ office for a day of negotiations with a variety of factories from across the Far East, who have all flown in to meet with us. Each buyer sees each factory in turn to review samples, discuss prices and production plans, which turns into a very long process. Eventually leave the office at 9pm and head straight to the hotel for a very late dinner and a few well earned glasses of wine, and discussion with the rest of the team about our progress so far.

Day 8 – further negotiations, this time with denim suppliers, and then on to a Chinese banquet hosted by one of our key sources. They have obviously gone to great lengths, at vast expense to plan a wonderful menu (I think it was 12 courses!), but I have to steel myself to deal with one or two of the delicacies on offer – Sea urchin! Sharks fin soup! Hairy crab with birds’ nest garnish! I think its’ probably best to know as little as possible about the ingredients!

Day 9 -our final day of negotiations, and the highlight is a jacket potato for lunch. I am craving normal, simple food! We do a final round of suppliers who we need to see for a second time, finally leaving our last appointment at 8.30pm, back to the hotel for a quick change, before heading to the airport in a fleet of cars. Flight departs Hong Kong at 00.35 on day 10, bound for Dubai, and I am asleep before we have even left the runway! Having stopped for a couple of hours, we are then on the final leg of our journey back to London,  where a car is waiting to take me home, to my children and a long weekend to recover.

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