Monday, August 8, 2011

Getting Your Ducks in a Row: The Buying Trip

This post was first published to Power Retail.
This is part 2 of a 6 part series by Mark Capps on his experiences of leaving Google to start up a new online retail company. Part 1 here.

I recently returned from a trip to China, the purpose of which was to buy a range of glasses frames, and find suppliers for cases, cloths and technical equipment for Sneaking Duck. My co-founders (Michael, Mike and Jodie) had built relationships on a previous trip, so we weren’t starting from scratch. Four of us set out on a two-day buying trip, but only two of us spoke Mandarin, which at times was challenging in-itself. We didn’t get everything done, so I ended up making a second trip with my colleagues, Ken and Jophie.

We met with suppliers, negotiated and placed orders. It was a successful trip, but I can’t help thinking we could have done it better. Below, I’ve shared what we learnt and things we’ll be sure to do next time:

  • Have a clear plan upfront – you can never be ‘too organised’. You need to think through every detail of what you want to do, and how these parts inter-relate. For example, you can’t choose cases until you know the exact size of every frame. This then makes a running order for the day. Surprises will come up and you’ll have to adapt, but at least you will have a clear view of what you need up front.
  • Communicate clearly with everyone – give people roles and autonomy. Having multiple people can lead to lots more being achieved. On the second trip, we split up in a really effective manner. I would go to talk to suppliers and make specific decisions with Jophie as translator, then Ken would follow up afterwards for price and volume negotiations.
  • Time will run out before doing everything you want to do, so make sure you prioritise and complete the most important tasks. On our second trip our key objective as to ensure orders were confirmed – however, we nearly didn’t achieve this as I become distracted by finding exciting new things to buy.
  • Technology can be an awesome help for cross-border communication. Although my co-founders weren’t with me, I was able get their input and make rapid decisions on a couple of surprises. I just took photos and emailed them back to our Chinese and Australian offices.
  • However, paper proved to be the greatest tool by far! The most useful tool was a well laid out list of what we needed to do, by location and with appropriate photos carefully arranged. It’s easy to see and discuss what’s done and what’s still to do. And its batteries don’t run out!
  • Buy lots of samples – make your decisions later. We tried to make too many decisions on the fly with suppliers looking on. We were trying to save money by not buying samples that we didn’t need. It’s best to buy a lot of samples (which are normally refundable), then make your final decision in the peace of your hotel room.
  • Suppliers don’t take you seriously until you place an order. Negotiating, especially in foreign countries and languages, could fill an entire blog – but I’d like to highlight one thing I learned: our suppliers became more accommodating after we placed an order. Stock appeared, prices changed, customisation became easy. In the future, we’ll make orders on dead-cert purchases straight away, instead of waiting to make every decision final.
  • Watch out for ‘fakes’. We don’t want to sell the fakes for which China is notorious, however with the bewildering array of choices it’s not easy to know if something is ‘fake’. Generally, the wholesalers knew and priced ‘fakes’ higher, however I don’t feel this is a fool-proof approach to this issue.
  • Have fun! A successful day buying can be an enormously satisfying experience and fun! :-)
Does anyone have suggestions or experiences on how to be more effective on a buying trip?


  1. I think having a clear plan and sticking to the plan is absolutely key when buying as a retailer. Once in appointments, and meeting with suppliers, it is very easy to fall into the trap of buying emotionally or making quick but poor decisions under pressure - so I think that a checklist is key. I have put together a rigid checklist for the coming winter buying season that I expect will assist enormously with selecting profitable styles that suit my terms and conditions, and business model.

  2. Hey there Sarah - thank you for the comments. Great point about buying emotionally. I also love the idea of getting the list ready well ahead of time.