Small Catalogs Forum: Cultivating Vendor Relationships

Vendors may reward loyal clients with discounts or lower order minimums

Mailers doing less than $10 million in sales don’t have the clout with vendors that multimillion-dollar catalogs such as Lands’ End do. But that doesn’t mean small catalogers can’t develop solid relationships with product suppliers that can be mutually beneficial.

All the small catalogers contacted by Catalog Age agree that loyalty is key in developing good vendor relationships. A vendor that relies on your regular business – even if the quantities aren’t large – will be more inclined to work with you by offering discounts, lowering minimum-order requirements, and expediting shipments. When Wendy Lazar, owner of Northvale, NJ-based Glendale, a cataloger of parade equipment and uniform accessories, bought out her silent partners, her loyalty to her vendors paid off: Suppliers were willing to accept payment on a net-30 basis – allowing her 30 days from the time she received the goods.

Van Nuys, CA-based Carushka, a cataloger of activewear for sports and yoga, is another small business that has benefited from cultivating strong relationships with vendors. Kim Speth, assistant designer for the 22-year-old catalog, recalls that its longtime vendors have at times been willing to expedite shipments to relieve a back-order situation.

Beyond simply sticking with tried-and-true suppliers, it also helps to let them in on your business plans, suggests Craig Rief, owner of 1-800-Faceoff.com. “I do this to create an informal partnership with my vendors,” explains Rief, whose Rollinsford, NH-based company sells hockey gear. “After all, vendors can help you with purchasing decisions if they understand your mission – and it benefits them because they will be able to sell you more.”

It’s logical that suppliers want customers to grow their businesses. “If you share your goals with vendors and they’re smart,” Rief says, “they will turn it into an opportunity for both your company and theirs to thrive.”

Wanted: a few good vendors Before you can develop longstanding relationships with smart, reliable vendors, though, you have to find them. “Vendors are your business,” says Angela Grieco, owner of Lakewood Ranch, FL-based gift baskets catalog Sundara. “You need to work with companies you can trust because ultimately you are relying on them to ensure that customers’ orders are fulfilled.”

Grieco, who launched Sundara in October 1999, started by scouring the Internet to find merchandise suppliers. She conducted keyword searches for the items she wanted to include in her catalog. This method can be time-consuming, but she says it yielded vendors with distinctive product lines.

For staple items, Grieco took an easier route – she looked through trade magazine Gift Basket Review. Still, the most effective tool for seeking good vendors is through referrals by other vendors, she says. “Networking became my best resource and started a chain reaction that led me to some really great vendors.

Of course, it can be unnerving to test unfamiliar vendors and be subject to the uncertainty of delivery times and product quality. Another obstacle when constantly working with new vendors is that you are less likely to qualify for extended payment terms. Grieco’s way around this is to charge purchases with new suppliers on her credit card so that she still has 30 days to pay the charge bill while she builds credit with the vendor.

In short, just because you lack the buying power of a Walmart doesn’t mean you need to be at suppliers’ mercy. The key is to make your business as valuable to the suppliers as their business is to you.

Short Sizes: Small Catalog, Big Challenges In the early 1970s, Bob Stern had a thought: Stores and catalogs had started selling apparel specifically for tall and large men, but were any companies selling clothing for short men? And so his business, Short Sizes, was born.

Cleveland-based Short Sizes began in 1972 as a store. Only 12 years later, Stern admits, did he feel confident enough about his knowledge of retail to launch a print catalog, though he had planned to sell by catalog from the start. Now, more than 16 years later, Stern has built up a house file of about 27,500 men 5′ 8″ and shorter by renting and exchanging lists and participating in co-op databases.

But Stern says there are many more short men that his company, which has annual sales of less than $2 million, has yet to reach. About 75% of his mailings are to prospects, though finding the right names is no easy feat. For example, he used to be able to rent a select of buyers of smaller men’s apparel from a major cataloger/retailer.

But that list is no longer available. And with what Stern estimates to be only a half-dozen other small-men’s apparel stores in the country, there aren’t many other companies with which to even try to negotiate name exchanges or rentals.

Another challenge that Stern did not anticipate was that, unlike big and tall men, shorter men have alternatives to buying specially sized apparel. They can alter hems and sleeves or even purchase boys’ sizes. So Short Sizes touts how its specifically tailored clothing fits shorter men better than clothing in regular sizes that has been altered.

Stern works mostly with Canadian vendors because, he says, they have more experience tailoring apparel for shorter men. Fulfillment is handled inhouse, and the warehouse is in the basement of the store.

Short Sizes Based in: Cleveland Year catalog established: 1984 Annual sales: less than $2 million (including sales from the retail division) Annual circulation: 110,000 Number of times published a year: three Number of pages: 16 Trim size: 8-1/4″ x 6″ Target audience: men under 5′ 8″ URL: shortsizes.com

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