Special delivery: the pros and cons of buying more stock on short order

Atikh Bana on Unsplash

Just as the pandemic changed how consumers shop, it has also altered the way some boutiques buy their stock. Short ordering is fast becoming a more widely sought-after method of buying. Not only does it allow retailers to pay for stock as they go along, but it also means buyers can react to emerging trends that may not have been apparent six months previously.

“There are certainly pros to short ordering,” says Wizz Selvey, founder of retail consultancy Wizz and Co and former head of buying at Selfridges. “Now only does it allow buyers to be more flexible with their budget and adapt to trends, it also means small businesses can build stock inventory more gradually.”

Supply and demand

Historically, quality in-season womenswear has been in short supply in the UK. However, that is also shifting. Danish label by basics, for example, is shaking up the sector with its continuously rolling range of sustainable staples, which are made to order and then delivered in around six weeks. Likewise, German label Smith & Soul offers all-year-round short order and stock collections with a focus on fair prices and commercial trends. The label launched in the UK in November 2020 and has been well received by boutiques.

Tim Ryan, managing director for Smith & Soul’s UK agent Genus Fashion Limited, says: “By buying little and often rather than once or twice a season, retailers can react quicker to market trends, inject newness and keep tighter control of their budgets. Smith & Soul presents eight collections a year with 11 monthly delivery drops. Within each month’s theme, there are multiple options in which to freely coordinate colours and trends. We do not set minimums and also offer a B2B service, which enables customers to place repeat orders.”

ATP Atelier

North England based indie retail group The Edit now buys around 90 per cent of its stock in-season. Owner Penny Rawson she began the process of switching to short order before the pandemic started, which fortunately meant she had no buying commitments while her shops were forced to close. “Buying in this way helps us keep much better control of our stock,” she explains. “We are able to spot best sellers and back them in volume, ordering over and over again throughout the season. For example, our best-selling dress sold 1,100 units last year and we wouldn’t have had the confidence to forward order that quantity.”

She adds: “I feel that buying in traditional seasonal patterns also drives discounting. Stores may discount to match other sellers of the same brands or to move stock as they are committed to the new season. Not only does this reduce the margin on that product, but it takes up weeks of the selling year that could be used for more profitable sales.”

Potential pitfalls

So, are there are any drawbacks to saving more budget for short order buying? “You could potentially miss out on some best-selling brands and pieces by not buying into enough forward order brands,” warns Wizz. “Suppliers are feeling the pressure post-covid and might not be making such large production runs, meaning retailers might miss out if they don’t order ahead of time.”

Penny adds: “A big drawback is that the branding of short order stock sometimes isn’t very strong. You really do need to work under your own brand rather than relying on customer confidence in others. Another challenge is that the quality varies vastly and is often not as good as forward order brands. You have to buy from trusted suppliers and really work hard to only pick the very best.”

For those indies that would like the best of both worlds, what percentage is a sensible amount to reserve for in-season buying?  “I think the split of short order vs forward order completely depends on the size of the business and what suits your cash flow,” says Wizz. “I think it’s really key to ensure there’s enough cash flow in the business to be able to buy into new trends and inventory. That split is really dependent on how quickly your stock is turning and that will naturally vary.”

ATP Atelier

Supporting suppliers

Given that not all brands are able to offer in-season stock, retailers will need to weigh up what’s right for their individual business. For some indies, that means using budgets to forward order best-selling brands while saving a small percentage for short order. “I think retailers need to be realistic about buying in-season stock,” says Sarah Simonds, owner of Swaffham-based womenswear independent Artichoke. “Whatever we’ve been through as a business during covid brands have been through ten-fold. I think it would be unreasonable to expect all brands to carry the level of stock that would be needed to offer year-round short order until they have recovered their businesses.”

So, what’s a solution that would benefit both retailers and suppliers? “I’d already been talking to brands pre-covid about the idea of offering short order monthly edits,” Sarah says. “Suppliers could release regular small capsule ranges on short order, perhaps offering six monthly edits a year. I think this would help retailers react quickly to emerging selling trends while keeping costs low for brands.”

Clearly, having access to best-selling pieces all-year round is of benefit to both retailer and supplier. And although short order isn’t always feasible for brands, there’s an expectation emerging for suppliers to be more forthcoming when it comes to in-season stock.