15 ways to fine-tune your fashion buying strategy

Paolo Chiabrando on Unsplash

After a challenging AW23, some indie retailers are stepping tentatively into the new buying season. Last year saw a decline in fashion sales overall amid the cost of living crisis and unseasonable weather conditions. And without a crystal ball, there’s no way of knowing what else might impact sales. So, from planning a strategy to honing your brand list, we speak to leading industry experts to help you buy with confidence…

1. Have a plan

Working out what went right (or wrong) previously is a great starting point for your new season plan. But there’s certainly more to consider than just bestsellers or weak performers. “If you’ve had a difficult AW23 season, there are lot of things to review before buying for the next season,” says former Selfridge’s buyer Wizz Selvey who now runs retail strategy consultancy Wizz and Co. “What’s the mix of new brands vs brands you buy every season – is it time to change the mix? Do a price point analysis and consider introducing lower priced items or perhaps more statement investment pieces to your line-up. Also think about your category mix: what worked well and what didn’t? Do you need to add more accessories or perhaps increase gift options? Answering these questions will help you create a plan before you make any key decisions for AW24.”

Scoop

2. Figure out your budget

Taking an analytical approach to buying using data from previous seasons is crucial to plan budgets. EPoS and stock management systems make it easier for retailers to review past sales results, with some even ranking top performers by brand, colour, size or category: “Top to Toe aids buyers by delivering precise and meaningful data in an easy-to-understand format,” says director Michael Bloom. “To create a new season budget, retailers can easily view previous sales figures in any combination of brand, category or style presented in a matrix table. Using these numbers and knowledge of new trends, buyers can create a forward-looking budget.” Crucially, this information isn’t limited to previous seasons and can be used at any time: “Having this understanding enables retailers to uncover trends within their own marketplace so they merchandise better, price better and also buy better,” Michael adds.

3. Seek advice

If you’re worried about buying for next season, make the most of the support offered by suppliers. Agents often have a wealth of information to share to help retailers create the best edit: “Before the season starts, we have a strategy meeting to discuss each of our collections,” says Sally Dawes, founder of her eponymous agency. “Each piece is tried on and critiqued by the team, which helps us tailor our advice to individual customers’ needs. We listen and then guide retailers to what’s best suited for their business.” She adds: “Each customer is different, and we will discuss each particular worry and requirement personally. If customers need to rebalance their buying, we will guide them towards core pieces that allow them to cherry pick the best edit for them. Agents, brands and customers are a team, and as such we need to work together in a harmonious way to achieve joint success.”

4. Build trustworthy relationships

Just as your customers trust you and your individual offer, it’s vital that buyers work with agents and suppliers they have faith in. “We are intrinsically linked to the success of our independents and it’s in our interest to help in any way we can,” reiterates Lucy Walsh, founder of The Brand Ambassadors. “I know there has been some discussion on social media about how agents are only there to forcefully sell their collections and that there is no aftercare, but of all the agents I know that is certainly not the case. We only get paid our commission once the boutique pays the brand and I don’t think a lot of buyers know that – we’re at the bottom of the food chain. Their success is our success, and we want all our retailers to have a thriving business!”

Texworld Paris

5. Order in-season

When the market is uncertain, some retailers reduce their spend on forward order so they can react to trends nearer to the season. For Sunday Best founder Jan Shutt, who has 53 years’ buying experience, this will be key in 2024: “I’m feeling positive about the AW24 season,” she says. “I’ve just returned from Who’s Next in Paris as well as several other showroom appointments in London and the collections are looking really strong. However, while I don’t necessarily plan to buy more cautiously, I will buy closer to season where possible from certain brands to help control budgets. But when it comes to styling, you must be brave – customers want to be inspired.”

6. Consider the weather

Unseasonable weather can be catastrophic for fashion indies, so it’s completely understandable that some are reassessing what they buy. Some are pulling back on cold winter clothing in favour of more trans-seasonal styles that shoppers can wear all year round. “Transitional pieces are more important than ever, and most brands are working with this in mind,” says Sally Dawes. However, finding the right balance is vital: “Across the industry hardly anyone bought dresses for SS24,” says Lucy Walsh. “What’s the betting that we have a heatwave, everyone is desperate for them, and there won’t be any in stock.”

Moda

7. Consult your customers

Speaking to your loyal shoppers about what they want to buy and what they’re prepared to spend can be a great way to improve your overall buying strategy: “If you’re worried about AW24 sales, speak to your customers,” says Wizz. “Create focus groups or host VIP previews of collections to get their feedback on your buying strategy. As an indie retailer, you’re so close to your customers, so see how you can involve them in the buying process. It will make them feel special and help you improve your buy.”  

8. Cut your losses

It’s never easy giving up on a brand that you believe in, but if it isn’t selling that’s something that needs to be addressed: “If a brand doesn’t sell, then I’m afraid it’s time to be ruthless,” says Wizz. “In my experience, as soon as you start seeing a decline, it’s time to react. Meet with the brand and find out if it’s just your store or a wider trend. Find out in-season if there is anything that can be done to increase sales based on other retailers who are having success. Try to understand if it’s your customer that is no longer resonating with the brand or if it’s a market trend.”  

9. Negotiate payments  

If cashflow allows, retailers can often save money if they can settle invoices early. It’s always worth asking brands and agent directly if they offer discounts based on payments: “Some can offer a higher discount for payment before delivery, too,’ says Sally Dawes. “It’s always worth asking the question. Likewise with stock swaps. As an agency we try to be as reactive as possible and are on hand to help and support our customers throughout the year.” If you’re struggling to pay on time, Lucy Walsh says more brands than ever are offering payment plans to help with cashflow. She adds: “Another good tip is that brands often have discounts on styles from previous seasons. This is a great way to add new styles throughout the season and sell at full price and gain a bigger margin.” 

Spring Fair

10. Create a versatile edit

With shoppers increasingly looking for fashion that adds value to their wardrobes, versatility is key to creating a winning product edit. Likewise, statement buys that will instantly grab your customers’ attention are more important than ever: “Building an edit around core pieces, like a dress or a skirt, will take a customer from event, to holiday to casual,” says Sally Dawes. “Statement pieces are also crucial as these add excitement and interest to each edit. We are finding our customers are looking for a point of difference in every collection and these types of pieces can really elevate an edit.”

11. Invest in elevated basics

Trends may come and go, but quality pieces that never date are always a sound investment. “This season we are selling so many separates – lots of beautiful blouses, jeans and an increase in tailored trousers,” says Lucy Walsh. “Buyers are definitely a bit more price conscious but are willing to pay for quality. Understated elegance and quiet luxury remain a key trend. One phrase I keep hearing is ‘easy everyday dressing,’ which means styles that consumers can reach for over and over again.”

12. Try something new

It goes without saying that just because a brand has sold well one season doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll perform as well the next. There are myriad factors at play, so adding in fresh collections that will excite and temp shoppers is also paramount – especially if customers are being more selective about what they spend on new clothes: “It’s tempting to play it safe and spend less on similar brands as previous seasons, but this can have a detrimental effect if you have regular customers,” says Wizz. “Decide how much of your budget you want to spend on newness then use it to ensure the customer stays engaged.”  

13. Plan your buying calendar wisely

As well as visiting brand showrooms, attending a selection of trade shows each season is essential for keeping up with trends and finding new inspiration. “Attending trade shows offers lots of benefits for indie retailers,” says Wendy Adams, co-founder of Harrogate Fashion Week. “Buyers can feel part of the industry, meet suppliers and discover new products, brands and trends to keep their shops fresh and relevant.” But with so many to choose from, how do retailers decide which shows are worth attending? “Buyers should do their homework,” she adds. “Check the event’s website, look at the brands showing and see which collections match your target customers. This hopefully means you won’t have to attend all the shows to keep expenses to a minimum.” Juls Dawson, creative director at JATC, agrees, adding: “I would always suggest mixing it up each season and trying a new show in your itinerary as you many never know what you might find that could make a difference to your business.”

Spring Fair

14. Make the most of your trip

Once you’ve decided which shows to attend, some forward planning will help maximise your visit. “Most shows provide information online that can help you research in advance,” says Juls. “For example, Pure London X JATC has the e-zone, which lists exhibitors by category and includes stand numbers, URL addresses and contact details. Pick the brands you want to visit, mark them on a floorplan then think about how long you can spend on each stand. Always turn up prepared with business cards or even a very short document with some information about your business. Pre-book meetings with brands if you can and why not also arrange lunch with a fellow buyer?”

15. Stay positive

When times are tough, staying positive is crucial to navigate your way through the challenges. “I understand that some retailers had a difficult AW23 season, but I would shut up shop if I ever went into sale pre-Christmas,” says Jan Shutt. “This would undervalue the product and Sunday Best as a brand. After 53 years of retailing, I have been on this fashion rollercoaster a long time and have seen so many changes to the industry. However, the lockdowns were a first. Whatever your politics, the furlough scheme was such a help and in addition the current reduction in business rates have all been a bonus.”