Retailer Tips January 2000

The hard side of softgoods.

There is no real science or secret formula to buying softgoods for a retail skateboard store, but to be a successful apparel retailer you need to do a little homework and learn your customers’ buying habits. The higher profit margins associated with shoes and softgoods help compensate for the slimmer margins on hardgoods, and the healthy balance between these categories allows a store to operate with favorable overall profits. Here are some tips to help you choose the sizes and styles your customers want.

The first step in becoming a skilled softgoods buyer is to know your shop’s customers and the styles they’re likely to want as the seasons change. As obvious as it may seem, many shops overlook the fact that lighter colors sell better in the summer months and darker color do better in the winter. By ordering right you’ll reduce the risk of sitting on a slew of dark shirts and pants when the warm summer months are in full swing.

Understanding your clientele will allow you determine what range of sizes to carry. A typical basic size ratio for an order of a particular T-shirt might be: one small, two medium, two large, and one extra-large; or one small, two medium, three large, and one extra-large. This ratio can be doubled or even halved depending on the strength or weakness of a particular graphic or style. Using the size scale that best corresponds to your customers will help you to stock the sizes you sell the most, and keep you from over-buying the sizes that move the slowest.

Identifying the correct size scale for your shop is crucial, but you will also need to factor in the peculiarities of a brand’s target market. Some brands cater to the younger and smaller-sized skateboarder, while others find their following to be the older and bigger-sized kids. With shops in Los Angeles and San Diego, Utility Boardshops President Jeff Sanchez has identified the different buying habits of each of his stores’ clientele. “Our San Diego store sells more large and extra-large T-shirts than our Covina store,” he says. “But there are particular brands, such as World Industries and Birdhouse, in which we never order any of the larger sizes because it is only the smaller and younger kids who buy those particular brands.”

A shop’s employees are one of the best resources for information on trends and styles. They are in close contact with customers both in and out of the shop. It’s also a good idea to keep a list near the front counter to record any customer requests for particular brands, styles, and sizes that you don’t have in stock. For his four Eastern Boarder stores in New England, Owner Tabor Coates says he relies heavily on employee input to buy right. “Feedback from our employees on what they like and what they think will sell has a lot of bearing on what styles and brands we will stock in the stores. This feedback helps each store carry the right product for its individual customer demand.”

Prebooking softgoods and taking advantage of any prebook discounts is another important way to help ensure your store has success with its clothing sales. By prebooking you will be able to buy the most popular styles and sizes, and often receive them earlier than stores that try to buy at once and are often left with a poor selection of styles, sizes, and colors. Prebook discounts can add significant profit to your bottom line.

Prebooking clothing can cause problems with overbuying if you don’t have a system to manage your orders. Avoid this pitfall by developing a method that will work best for your shop. Having a calendar to record your orders and the projected date of delivery can be a good start. This will help you determine if you should make a fill-in order to keep the shop constantly stocked. In addition, designating one person to place orders can help avoid duplication and overstock problems.

Another important consideration when managing inventory is the need to compensate for employee puurchases. How many times has a hot new item come in and never made it to the floor because shop employees bought it? On one hand, employees wearing the product will help increase the demand, but what good is that if you don’t have the item in your customers’ sizes on your rack? Consider as well that employee purchases are discounted, and it becomes clear how this can affect your bottom line. “Employee purchases can keep you from really knowing if sales are good with a particular brand or style of clothing,” says Brian Harper, co-owner of the AZP stores in Flagstaff and Tempe, Arizona. “If you are sold out of the most popular sizes before your customers have had a chance to buy, it can appear that sales are good when they are not, or even slow the sales of something that would normally do well.”

Harper says that the best way he’s found to deal with this problem is to have employees select the items they want to buy before the orders are placed, or have a two-week holding period for employee purchases when new products arrive in the stores.

How you choose to organize your store can also help you more efficiently track inventory. Organize your T-shirts by color, from lightest to darkest. This will allow you to know at a glance if your stock is getting too heavy or too thin in a particular color, and help you to order more efficiently so that inventory is consistently balanced and appealing. A separate clothing display dedicated to children’s sizes, for example, can help your customers more quickly find what they need, as well as allow you to keep visual tabs on stock.

Lastly, analyze your inventory and do a spot check of popular items on a daily basis. If your shop is equipped with a computer system that will enable you to run inventory reports, take the time to interpret and use this information in your buying decisions. If you don’t have this type of system, you’ll need to rely on your employees to inform you of product that’s selling quickly or close to selling out. By paying close attention to your inventory, you’ll be able to discern what exactly is selling in your store, and what you need to order. Employees at Faction in Seattle, Washington write notes listing what is selling, and prioritize items that are close to being sold out. “Once we get a note about some brand of jeans that needs to be reordered, we do a physical inventory of not only that particular brand of jean, but other brands as well,” says Faction Owner and Buyer Stephanie Pogue. “This way we are not reordering prematurely when we still have a large inventory of jeans in other brands that we still need to move.”

You and your employees will need to study your customers in and out of the shop to know what styles or items they are likely to want. You’ll need to analyze your inventory and learn how to use the information to buy intelligently. Doing the necessary homework can help you be a skilled buyer, and can maximize your store’s sales of higher-margin items like apparel and shoes.