By  on October 16, 2008

A growing number of Dallas sales representatives are wielding the Web to attract new accounts, service retailers between markets and cut back or eliminate road sales as the cost of travel skyrockets.

“It’s the way of the future,” observed Pam Kramer of the Ferrell & Kramer showroom, which represents bridge and misses’ contemporary resources at FashionCenterDallas. “It’s changed the way we work after markets and between markets. We use it instead of going on the road or mailing pictures and packets.”

While Web sites aren’t intended to replace personal contact, reps agreed that they are perfect for prospecting and promotion, reorders and supplying line sheets to buyers who may have skipped a market or a line.

“It’s been awesome and has increased our business a lot — like twofold,” said Marty Leon, who built a Web site in January for his father’s contemporary and denim showroom, Eddie Leon & Associates. “A lot of people are coming up to me and asking advice on how to do it.”

It took only a weekend to create using templates he found online, Leon said, and he updates it himself. “I didn’t need anything fancy. The main thing is that they can see what I have.”

Other wholesalers, such as Launch, hired a local Web developer, Visual Internet Solutions, started two years ago by two former sales reps. The average Web site costs $1,500 to $2,500, and the rate to update the site is $65 an hour, said Francisco Ramirez, owner.

“It’s a great sales tool, and well worth the expense for us,” said Allyson Lee Cooke, owner of Launch contemporary showrooms at FCD and Fashion Industry Gallery. became critical this spring when the steep jump in gas prices ended trips to Kansas and Missouri in the company’s diesel mobile showroom.

“It costs $800 a week in gas, so we won’t travel that far,” Cooke explained. “They can all buy through the Web site.”

Cooke, who spent about $750 a month to update her site until learning how to do it herself, would like to see the Web replace most of her road work. But, she added, “some lines use so many different fabrics that a customer needs to see it.” Her RV is still on the road most weeks between markets.

The Web works best for showing tops and bottoms, jeans and lines that use the same fabric consistently, such as Scanty’s cotton jersey sleepwear or Anac’s polyester mesh tops and dresses, reps said. Collections are harder to sell online because the buyer needs to discuss merchandising with the rep, if not see it in person. Ferrell & Kramer doesn’t even put Michael Kors on its site because it usually sells out at market.

In many cases, sales reps still review orders on the phone personally with buyers who have reviewed the styles online.

“The Web site is a place for them to go and get more information, so we’re not sending them a convoluted e-mail,” pointed out Pam Martin, whose namesake showroom is at FIG. “People can look at it at night when they’re not trying to work with customers. They would rather do that than have you come to their stores — not to mention, it’s a lot cheaper.”

Most showrooms require passwords to enter their Web sites to foil copycat competitors and enable reps to evaluate buyers.

“For us, it is all about making sure the right people see it — we screen our accounts very carefully,” said Rick Drysdale, who was one of the first independent reps to exploit the Web four years ago when he hired his son’s college roommate to build a site for his FCD showroom, Rick & Kathy Drysdale/D2. “It’s great for opening new accounts and reorders. We have some people who buy all the time online, but in my mind, it will never replace what you can do in person. After all, we’re salespeople.”

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