why the customer is king Tony Phillips relates an experience from his days in fabric retailing, which illustrates the importance of understanding your customer

20 April, 2007
Page 14 
Reading my paper the other day, the headline read "Third of over-50s having an affair". That's an awful lot of people and, as usual, I am not one of the in-group. This made me think of so many products that I read about and, when I try them, do not sell very well.
Lines such as croissants and all those fancy breads have absolutely no volume with us. Could it be mainly in London and the home counties that they sell a lot? Or is the media just making a lot of noise trying to be trendy?Years ago, I started a dress fabric shop and ended up with a chain. We were making quite good money and I was in a trade which I knew very little about, but was keen to learn. As we became quite a reasonable size in the trade, we got to know more people who we presumed were very knowledgeable.Some of the buyers for the large London department stores used to hire a small plane to fly to Germany for a major show and they asked me to join them. Well, I listened to all their talk about what was in and what was out for the coming season and I felt that I was a real country hick. So I supposed they must be right and I should take their advice.This I did, but the only trouble was that while my shops were stocked with the very latest fashion fabrics, my profits and sales were not doing very well. This naturally gave me great concern, as I had become very attached to my standard of living, and the children kept wanting food.My ego was getting well massaged by mixing with these important people, and posh ladies would come into my shops and tell me how wonderful it was to see such up-to-date fabrics in their town. Then it dawned on me that these people were talking a lot, but not spending a lot. In those far-off days, the majority of people made dresses to save money and they were the ones that spent money on fabric. The fashion-conscious women were very few and far between and you didn't make money out of them. So you could say this was a perfect example of not knowing our market. This also applies to our bakery shops, which make what our customers want and buy - not simply what we like to make.Reverting back to the fabric days, some time later I was telling this story to the then managing director of Debenhams. He laughed and said: "Never take any notice of my London buyers; they only have to buy a design in every colour and they are bound to sell it with the volume of foot traffic we have. They would never make it in a small shop; many of them try and most fail."This might be the case with all these bakery products we cannot sell; maybe it is only in London that they sell and London is not truly representative of our country. So we shall carry on asking advice from Waterfields and all the other successful bakers who are so generous in passing on their knowledge. Now that my MD, Neville, has the privilege of being a member of the British Confectioners' Association, it is like opening Pandora's box - there is so much information generously given. n



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