March 13, 2017
By Laura Murphy
For about 25 years, I have been buying merchandise for the Newport Mansions stores. But when Cynthia O’Malley, our Director of Retail, brought me to Ambiente in Frankfurt eight years ago, my buying experience was changed forever. Suddenly, I could buy direct from manufactures, design our own product and negotiate terms. Each time we travel abroad, it is a learning experience. Let me share what we have learned through the years, as seen through our most recent buying trip to Germany.
It is February, and Cynthia and I are off to Ambiente in Frankfurt.
Ambiente is a massive gift show that consists of 10 buildings and products ranging from housewares to gifts to jewelry. Manufacturers and companies wholesaling at this show are from all over Europe, as well as China, the Philippines, Cambodia, Egypt, Peru, Turkey and many more. It is truly an international experience (though everyone does understand the English language, thank goodness!).
On our most recent trip, we worked with our Massachusetts-based agent. In search of new products for the stores, we walked the aisles with him and Nitin, his partner from India. Nitin knows everyone! He smiled and shook everyone’s hand, which made me feel relaxed and confident that we would have a successful trip.
And we did. We found a booth with great and interesting product, so we stopped and sat down. They brought the product to us to review, and we suggested changes to make it unique for us. (These design changes came at no cost to us.) Everyone took notes and agreed on the final designs. We were treated well and made to feel very special. Ultimately, we ended up sourcing from at least five Indian vendors.
Now, one of my favorite items to buy is scarves. Walking the floor, our eyes were drawn to a booth filled with uniquely designed scarves—with reasonable minimums. We spent a lot of time in the booth as they pulled out one beautiful scarf after another. All were so tempting, but we narrowed our selection. We even suggested a few detail changes to colors and designs. We all took notes, shook hands, did the European kiss and went on our way.
The next day, we discovered a booth from a family operation with beautiful reverse-painted mirrors, boxes and trays from Peru. Again, we sat down and they brought the product to us. (I even got espresso and a wonderful cookie. They know the way to my heart!) We wrote up an order. When I mentioned the mosaics in The Breakers loggia and showed them photos, they said they could easily design mirrors and boxes reflecting these patterns. They would send .jpegs of the artwork—again, at no cost to us. Not only did we buy beautiful, well priced merchandise, but I felt that we were supporting a well run family operation.
Cynthia and I shopped for a few more days, careful not to miss anything. We were exhausted, but elated with our new finds.
When we arrive back home is when the real work begins. We email back and forth with the manufacturers, making final decisions on products, prices and quantities. (I have no idea how buyers dealt with the time differences before email!) This part is a challenge, but as we develop relationships with the manufacturers, it gets easier—they come to understand our buying needs and I come to understand their manufacturing processes.
When the product will be delivered is another part of the challenge. Since our selling season is from May to October, merchandise must arrive as soon as possible, so manufacturing, shipping and deliveries must be well timed.
So when I return from the show in February, I have to work fast and furious. My goal is to get the orders done and wire transfers sent by the middle of March. That gives manufacturers a window of three months to get the product to us.
Another aspect I must keep in mind when I purchase product at these shows is my warehouse space. We are very lucky to have a warehouse, but we do share it with other departments.
There are tremendous positive takeaways from these travel opportunities. Due to the great pricing, we are able to commit to larger quantities, enabling us to wholesale the product. It is also great for the website, NewportStyle.net, as it will have merchandise that no one else carries.
The great pricing has impacted my gross margin, putting more money to the bottom line. And as we all know that is a real plus with supplies, utilities and payroll increasing!
Due to our successes, we also have expanded our buying trips to Hong Kong and the Canton Fair. I feel like such a world traveler! I love meeting new people, having new experiences and being challenged to find new exciting gifts for our stores. Now I want to go to India and Vietnam! Time to start Googling the fairs in those countries.
If anyone ever has any questions about buying overseas, do not hesitate to contact me!
Laura Murphy is the Retail Sales Operation Manager/Buyer for The Preservation Society of Newport County in Newport, Rhode Island.