Chapter 6: Distribution and More

We’ve come a long way from wondering where to start and how to develop a good concept for a clothing line. Let’s take a moment to congratulate ourselves on having accomplished so much and overcome some of the most difficult challenges involved in starting your own clothing line.

Having made some sales, you should start thinking about putting a system of distribution and inventory management in place. This will help insure that your operation is streamlined to guarantee reliability of services and keep administrative costs to a minimum. There are many ways of going about this and many different tools to use; in this chapter we will discuss some of those tools, but the emphasize will be on the importance of having a system of some sort in place to regularize and organize routine functions like distribution, inventory, invoicing, and customer services..

Please contact us with your own experience and how you were able to overcome logistical issues associated with distribution and inventory management.


Why is Distribution Important?

This role in the proper functioning of an apparel line is often overlooked at first because it’s not something you have to worry about in the beginning before you started selling your product. This is understandable because some to the largest challenges to successfully launching the apparel line have to be overcome prior to dealing with distribution. For most people it seems like a minor administrative role that will pretty much take care of itself when the time comes.

Even though this role is minor, it is no less important than the others we have discussed and deserves some thoughtful planning. A good distribution strategy will make it so the roles performed by others will be coordinated and work in harmony. Costly mistakes are made when the activities of people in the same organization are not connected and working in sync with each other.

Another reason why I like to emphasize the importance of distribution and associated administrative tasks is that the proper functioning of your apparel line is going to depend on having a system in place. What I mean by this is that you can have the best creative concepts and sell a lot of apparel, but if you don’t take care to think about how the product is going to make it from the printer to the customer, or how you are going to keep accurate records and coordinate activities, you are not going to be able to provide customers with the positive experience that makes them either come back or recommend you to others. Being consistently reliable with quick deliveries and error-free order filling is simple thing to accomplish and doesn’t require much time or expertise. This is why it frustrates me when I see people trying to grow an apparel line with no regard for the customer experience and how it can be enhanced.

To obviate any confusion that may result in the following discussion, I should clarify what it is I am referring to when I talk about the distribution role. For me, distribution is a role that encompasses several administrative functions simultaneously. Not only is it about the methods used to get the product from the printer to the customer, it is also about getting keeping track of inventory, keeping accurate billing records, making sure orders are properly filled, and providing customer support when necessary. All of these things should come to mind when we refer to the distribution role.

Hopefully that definition also gives you a greater appreciation for all the things that need to be done in order to properly fulfill the role of distribution. The scope of this role is larger than you may have initially thought.

The good news is that this role – unlike the ones we have discussed in previous chapters – is easy to fill because it doesn’t require any expertise or extensive training. When we were talking about the artistic role, it was simply assumed that this is not a task of the sort that you can train someone. Of course it does require a significant level of formal training and certification, but in the end there is no amount of classroom training that is going to give them that something (often referred to as the X factor) which makes them capable of being a talented artist. Distribution is a role that is unlike the artistic role, in that you can easily train someone to do it and it doesn’t require a rare and innate talent.

Even though it doesn’t require innate talent, the distribution role does require someone that will be detail oriented and motivated. I see some apparel line start-ups where the laziest person in the group is delegated the responsibilities of distribution because it is the easiest thing to train someone for. This is a mistake. First of all, there shouldn’t be the lazy and unmotivated one in the group to begin with. That issue should be dealt with right away by either getting rid of the free rider or agreeing on an arrangement where he/she is sanctioned to do their fair share. Putting an unmotivated and careless person in charge of a function that is vital to the proper operation of the entire organization is one of the more horrible things that I’ve seen happen to any new apparel line. The person or people in charge of distribution should not take their responsibilities lightly just because it is less exciting and glamorous than other positions.

One final thought on the importance of the distribution role before we move on. There are those who may not see why distribution is an important consideration if they are just opening a brick and mortar retail location where customers come to them instead of having to deliver orders.

There are two reasons this is a poor way to think about distribution and customer service. First of all, even if you have a retail location, there are still a lot of logistics involved in getting the product to the customer and keeping records and inventory properly updated. Second, in the 21st century it is an anachronism to be relying solely on sales you can make from a retail location. Apparel is a highly competitive market and you simply can’t afford to the one that doesn’t have an online presence where customers can purchase your products and have them shipped. Even if you don’t have a professional website with all the bells and whistles, you need to at least have a facebook page so people can call or email you to place an order.

No matter what your sales or marketing approach, the distribution role should always be considered a critical function that requires consistency, accuracy, and organizational skills.

Using the Right Tools

The distribution role touches on the activities of several other departments in an apparel line. Not only is distribution responsible for making shipping and customer service decisions, they are also the critical link between production and the people that make strategic calculations about how to spend money.

When you are first starting out, you may have these functions all provided by the same person, but if you get a consistent order volume, you will want to delegate some tasks and departmentalize functions so you don’t get overwhelmed and there is no ambiguity over who is responsible for what.

Since distribution is the hub of multiple activities, there are some online tools you will want to use to centrally organize the distribution activities so they properly coordinate with the other departments. There are several options I know are available, and I’d love to hear from readers about others they have come across in their experience. The online resource I personally prefer is one like Volusion. This is a powerful store management tool that seamlessly integrates all functions of an online retail operation. A tool like this facilitates shipping, allows for live inventory updates, and manages customer accounts and records, all while providing access to a lot of internal reports that can be used to make sales and inventory projections.

If you are just starting out and don’t want to make the investment of time and energy to implement a full business management software like Volusion, there are still other online resources you can utilize which will allow you to properly manage all aspects of distribution. The one I prefer is the spreadsheet functionality in Google docs. This is a simple yet powerful tool that will allow you to keep live inventory and purchasing records while connecting all parties involved and providing convenient access and updating capacities. The best thing about using Google docs is that it is free and simple to use as long as you know how to set up a spreadsheet.

Whatever online resource you opt to use, just remember that it needs to fulfill two basic criteria in order for it to properly function as a distribution tool. The two criteria are 1) that it provide a platform where multiple people can access it in divergent geographical locations, and 2) it needs to allow for those people to make updates which are immediately available to others with access. This is why I stress the importance of using a solution that is online instead of relying on hard paper records which can’t fulfill either of those criteria.

The records kept by the distribution manager with the online tool are going to be used by every other department to properly perform their jobs, so accuracy, access, and timing are of key importance. The production role is going to use the records to determine how much and what to order; the art department will use them to make critical decisions about artwork production; and they will eventually be consulted for marketing purposes to determine the general direction of the apparel line and make sure that everyone involved shares a similar vision.

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