Finding the Right Source: Buying strategies to help you find what customers want

July 31, 2008
Written by Michelle Brisebois
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Strategic buying begins with researched sourcing and ends with invoice entering and inventory management
Henry Ford is famous for saying of his Model T, “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.” His purchasing department must have had lots of time for gin rummy games. Apparently, black dried faster on the assembly line and Ford figured controlling his costs was more important that giving consumers choice. That strategy worked when Ford had a monopoly on the automotive sector but even Henry had to eventually introduce more choice to stay competitive. Chances are you’re starting to think ahead to next season already. Maybe you’re wondering what the new trends are and you’re planning to attend some of the upcoming trade shows. It’s certainly exciting to plan for an new season but there’s a nagging voice in your ear as well that’s cautioning against too much product diversity coming from too many different suppliers. There are some solid buying strategies that will help your business to innovate while staying efficient. It’s time to think like a professional buyer.

The profession of “buying” covers a very wide spectrum of talents. It begins with strategic sourcing and ends with invoice entering and inventory management. This function requires a broad skill set, and not all people are competent at all facets. Look for team members who are great listeners and relationship managers to do the sourcing.  Deciding what new products to carry and from whom to purchase them from begins with listening to your market. It’s a skill that Tony Post, sales/purchaser of Broadway Gardens in St. Catharines, Ont., has leveraged for years. “Customers often approach me in the shop and ask for new plants that they’ve become aware of through their own research. With many of them actively reading blogs or visiting Internet sites they’ll become aware of innovative plants and start asking me about them. Once I hear a few requests for the same types of plants I put them on my mental list to find a supply,” says Post. It’s imperative that any effective sourcing strategy begin with a customer-centric approach. While input from valued suppliers regarding new trends will provide perspective from inside of the industry, it should generally be used to verify and fine tune any feedback you’ve received from your market. Late summer is probably the best time to be creating a wish list of new products to source. If you jot them down in a journal as you get requests, that wish list should be quite robust by the end of the season. Fall and winter are the perfect times to research and search out suppliers for your wish list items. “It’s those quiet times in the season that I really enjoy,” confirms Post. “I’m able to get on the blogs and chat rooms and to focus on networking with industry contacts to narrow down the best suppliers to approach for the next season.” As far as locating new suppliers goes, Post deals with as many local sources as possible. “We’re so lucky here in Niagara to have a wonderful array of suppliers to work with,” he says. “I’m able to walk through their operations and buy on site.” This illustrates another strong trend in product sourcing – going local.

As consumers watch their planet heat up, gas prices increase and their neighbours lose their jobs, sourcing product created right in their own municipality and province becomes very appealing. Local product comes with a smaller carbon footprint and provides employment for one’s own community. It’s a win/win situation. A June 2008 report by TD Friends of the Environment Foundation entitled “How Green Are You?” revealed that 43 per cent of Canadians go out of their way to buy local product.  Hillebrand Winery Restaurant in the Niagara Region employs a “forager” to source local suppliers for unique food items and herbs. Why not create a similar position for your business? Look for smaller neighbouring businesses that specialize in native plants. Read the local paper and business publications regularly as they often feature these small niche suppliers. Your Chamber of Commerce or business club may be able to help as well. As always, Google is your friend. Type in “native plants (insert name of your town)” to see what comes up. Attend local craft shows or tap into regional guild associations such as the potter’s, metal worker’s or wood carver’s guilds to find one-of-a-kind pieces by local artisans that you could feature alongside a your beautiful plants. Take a page from the produce section of the grocery store and proudly announce “grown or created locally” on your signage. Your customers will no doubt feel good about buying these items.

Trade shows can also be the perfect opportunity to network, attend seminars and see the new product trends. You can talk with other garden centres employees and owners about what products are popular with their customers and chat with vendors about new introductions and innovations. The seminars can also help predict what the upcoming trends will be in the industry or outline the different ways in which your customers are buying.

There are several events taking place in the next few months that would help develop your buying strategy. The International Garden Centre Congress comes to Vancouver from Sept. 7-12 and this event offers up the chance to visit some of B.C.’s best garden centres. Shortly after, the CanWest Hort Show also hits the Vancouver to showcase the best in nursery, floriculture and landscaping products and supplies.

In Ontario, Toronto’s Garden & Florist Expo is scheduled for Oct. 21-22 and attendees can visit the show’s website to check out interactive tools to help them plant their show experience. “The new product showcase is populated by products that were selected by a committee based on well-defined criteria,” says Paul Day, show manager of Landscape Ontario. “About 25 per cent of our exhibitors offer a discount or some promotional offer for those orders placed at the show,” explains Day. This illustrates another benefit of effective buying – he or she who is organized can save money. It may be tempting to wait as long as possible but if you are clear about what you want to add to your product portfolio and when you will need it then why not take advantage of show specials? However, if buyers going to any trade show are using it as the first opportunity to think about new product introductions then they may not be as confident in making a commitment to an order at the show. Some businesses will decide to see what overstocks are available later on in the season to take advantage of discounted product. The challenge with that strategy is that you may be getting what everyone else already has. If something’s in overstock, that suggests right there that it wasn’t in high demand and you may run the risk of adding a dog to your product offering.

Smart sourcing isn’t about simply playing follow the leader and scooping up everyone else’s leftovers. It’s about putting your ear to the ground, deciding what’s a fit for your business and then finding the best quality and most cost-effective supply. By letting the market drive your buying you’ll be able to offer your customers every colour of the rainbow – even black.

EXTRA RESOURCES
Here’s a few online sites to help you search out and source unique products that you’re customers won’t be able to get anywhere else.

www.craft-search.ca
This website compiles a list of craft guilds across Canada along with contact information and links to association websites.

www.festivalnet.com
A guide to art and craft shows, music festivals, craft fairs, home and garden shows and street festivals taking place across Canada and the U.S.

www.byhand.ca
By Hand, a Canadian artisan gift show, takes place across Canada and showcases the work of artisans, artists and designers. Each By Hand show is unique to the geographic location of the show to present an array of regional handmade goods as well as a selection from across the country.

www.oneofakindshow.com
The One of a Kind show takes place in Toronto and Vancouver in the spring and fall and it features more than 200 creators, artists and artisans with one of a kind creations.

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