Help Desk: How to Scout New Brands

With retailers working harder than ever to excite the customer, many are seeking new brands to create a point of difference. But where can they go to find fresh resources?

In this economy, footwear retailers everywhere are scrambling to gain an edge on the competition. Many are turning to new designers and brands to bring excitement to their shelves. But it isn’t always easy to find them.

To track down new talent, store owners say they are looking beyond the trade show circuit and getting creative. Chuckies New York, for instance, has an open-door policy. “We do allow new designers to come to the shop and show us what they have,” said the store’s owner, Richard Erani. “We usually never turn down an [appointment with an] aspiring new designer.”

Bloomingdale’s began holding designer open calls in February. Some of these will be among the 17 new shoe brands the department store is adding to its roster for fall ’09.

The Internet also has become an increasingly important tool for hunting for up-and-coming designers and brands. “Things have changed from 10 years ago because we have access to so much more information,” said Julie Gilhart, SVP and fashion director at Barneys New York, who receives hundreds of e-mails and links to blogs and Websites touting new labels. “If you’re paying attention, it’s easy to see new things, but it’s much harder to find product that is of good quality and that has a future. We have to be super-selective.”

Tom Mendes, founder of the Plaza Too boutiques in New York and Connecticut, said he regularly trolls the Web in search of new product and inspiration. “I am an Internet junkie,” said Mendes, whose addiction recently helped him expand his clog business. After posting a message on the store’s Facebook page asking people to respond with their favorite clog brands, Mendes scored a good tip on a new line, although he declined to reveal what it is. “I can’t tell you how often I do little surveys like that,” he said.

Other retailers are turning to current contacts for leads on new ones. John Harris, owner of designer boutique Gregory’s in Dallas, taps his factory connections to find up-and-comers. “When you’ve been going to Italy for a long time, you have people who are your friends and they help you. Most factories are making shoes for different brands, so if you’re doing direct business and someone else manufactures there, [it’s a good entrée to that brand],” he said.

Exclusives are another way Plaza Too is striving to set itself apart in a tough climate. “You have to look at your existing partnerships and see what you can do that could be different,” Mendes said. “It may not be a new brand, but simply [a style] that is new and exclusive to your store.”

Gilhart noted that Barneys’ recent exclusive line of eco-friendly Keds designed by Loomstate “was a way to bring newness and innovation to the store at a time when people are really looking at prices.”

If exclusivity is not an option, there are other ways to work with rising designers, retailers said. “I wouldn’t ask a designer to do exclusives for me because I don’t have [multiple] stores,” said Patti Silver, co-owner of Fred Segal Feet in Los Angeles. “But if a new designer’s shoes are exciting, I might make a deal with them.” For example, if certain styles don’t sell through, the designer agrees to swap them out for something else.

Mendes negotiated a consignment agreement when he took on the new H. Williams collection for fall ’09. “It’s a partnership,” he explained. “We are paying for everything we sell, and we’ll see what we can do with the rest.” Mendes said he is open to swapping out unsold pairs for new product. “We are looking to go forward with [the line] — not to say [later that] we sold two pairs and now it’s over.”

Having a strong relationship with designers can also help open doors to new resources when a designer moves on to a new role. “We actually went to see Bally because we knew Brian Atwood is now designing there,” said Chuckies’ Erani.

But Erani noted that despite all the different scouting strategies, uncovering new talent is still hit or miss. “There is really no magic technique for finding creative new designers,” he said.

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