Business and finance expert Sarah Thelwall has chatted to hundreds of designers about how they find and nurture new markets for their work — here she shares some advice on how to grow your emerging brand globally…

by Sarah Thelwall
So designers, you are finally selling your product? Congratulations! Your next challenge is one of growing beyond your first market and in doing so, learning how markets vary around the world. How can you do this without racking up lots of travel costs or assuming that new markets are just like existing markets only further afield? How will you find this growth and will your current cash flow cover more trade fairs and larger order volumes?

Learning About New Markets
Lets take a concrete example…we’ll assume that you are currently based in Europe and trying to work out whether you should be looking East to the Gulf or West to North America as your source of new retailers to work with. As with most things in life the best information comes from the locals. So whilst you should definitely do some homework on both potential new markets there are methods other than travel guides and web research that you can employ before you hop on a plane.

Step 1: Good Desk Research
Start with a combination of checking out the latest shopping and travel guides in your nearest bookshop. Invest in copies of the best and subscribing to a handful of Twitter, RSS and similar feeds from key writers and bloggers based in your potential new market.

Personally, I love a dose of Daily Candy!

From this selection identify key retailers and hot designers and start looking for trends in who stocks what as well as sartorial styles.

Step 2: Make New Friends
One of the advantages of being part of a network such as NOT JUST A LABEL is that you are part of a global network of emerging designers. So rather than rely on the published word, why not connect to your peers and ask them for the inside track on their local independent retailers? Also, enquire after their buying preferences of the regional outlets of global department stores such as Harvey Nichols. Of course you should expect to give as well as take, so offer to give them an update on what’s happening in your local market. If you’re lucky you’ll exchange introductions to buyers and writers.

Step 3: Ask Your International Clients
If you are selling through NJAL you’ll probably have sold to some international clients already. As you will have kept their contact details (this is important) and pampered them with your nice packaging and hand written notes (this is equally as important) they will be more than happy to have a conversation with you about their local market, trends and retailers. Most people love being considered to be an expert so solicit their opinions as they are likely to be more expert than you on this point.

Step 4: Plan to Visit a Trade Fair or Fashion Week…
…particularly outside of the global fashion cities of London, New York, Milan and Paris. Fashion sector activities may well be less visible to outsiders, combined with other creative showcases or organised outside of the two key fashion weeks in the year. Nonetheless it is vital to visit these before incurring the costs of runway shows in multiple cities! One sure fire way to blow a lot of cash is to book stands at fashion events you have only learnt about from the folks trying to sell you the space.

If you are hopping on a plane to do some research in person, not only is it worth meeting up with your peers but it is worth taking a few samples with you so that when you visit independent retailers you can show them more than just look books if they demonstrate real interest.

If you can book meetings in advance with retailers rather than just show up and ask for a meeting, so much the better. It comes across as more professional and they know you have not just made the investment in the travel but in preparation for it too.

The value of your samples, particularly if you are manufacturing in low volume in your atelier, will demonstrate the quality of your work — something many experienced buyers will look for when consulting with emerging designers. They need to know that your sizing and finish is consistent and in line with the rest of the designers they stock.

A few things to look for beyond the aesthetic style differences globally:

Pricing…
Do look at the price tag! You can do this not just in a boutique but also online. Again, why not use NJAL site to see how prices for a dress, skirt, trousers vary depending on where a designer comes from? For example, you will find the average prices for pieces from Beirut designers are noticeably higher than those of their European counterparts.

Payment Terms – When Will You Get Paid?
If you are shipping wholesale orders you need to be paid at least 50% up front and more if they are a new customer. It wouldn’t be fair to cast aspersions on individual countries here but let’s just say that not all countries pay their bills on time or at all!

Do check which law you are operating under and if necessary use a local agent or lawyer to handle the deal if it is financially substantial.

Consignment – When Is It Worth It?
Sometimes it is worth being able to say that you are stocked internationally. This is particularly true in geographies where saying you are stocked in London (for example) increases your cache with your local client base. In the long term however it is bad for cashflow and doesn’t do enough to encourage retailers to invest time in developing the customers for your work.

What does the NJAL sales data say about where the best markets are around the globe?
As I have partnered with NJAL on this series of sporadic articles on the business challenges of the fashion sector, we have the privilege of being able to review and analyse some of the headline data generated by the sales on the site, so here’s a few tidbits:

– the USA, UK and Europe are the big three markets for NJAL sales but whilst they sell roughly equal amounts in terms of numbers of items sold, the USA is worth 50% more than either the UK or Europe in terms of the monetary value of goods sold. This is because although the number of orders is smaller from the US, the customers order higher value goods.

With all this talk of international expansion don’t forget that Pareto’s Law (more eloquently known as The Vital Few) says that 80% of your turnover will come from 20% of your customers. So don’t forget to look after your existing customers!

Sarah Thelwall is founder of MyCake, an online finance and benchmarking toolkit for creative businesses and the arts & culture sector.