Business > Merchant Voice

9 tips for working with suppliers

I launched my third ecommerce venture, My Wedding Decor, in April. Since then, I have been working with over 40 wedding-product suppliers. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

1. Maintain your positioning

It’s easier to pitch to potential suppliers if you keep focused on your unique product positioning. For example, I sell personalized, unique, and unusual wedding decor products in 11 themes. By maintaining this positioning, it makes it easier to pursue, or reject, possible products. While not every piece has to be a conversation starter on my website, many products that are commonly sold all over the Internet become generic, which means you can compete only on price. So I don’t sell those types of products.

2. Your first interaction gives you clues

Part of building a new online store requires cold contacting a wide array of potential suppliers. You’ll get a sense of what they’re like to work with from your initial interactions.

There are many that are only too delighted to work with you, which bodes well for cooperation. Watch out, however, if they’re slow to provide prompt responses, images, product details, or shipping rates. It could mean they don’t treat your business with sufficient respect, they’re understaffed, or they’re disorganized.

I tend to avoid businesses that do not list their owners’ names in the About Us section. What have they got to hide?

3. Keep communicating

How do you communicate with your suppliers, and how frequently? Do you have a separate monthly newsletter set up to contact them? It’s worth sending suppliers a regular update of their products on your site, in addition to hearing about new items they’ve introduced. If they don’t hear from you via a newsletter — or until your order arrives — they could forget you exist. They may also discontinue their product range without telling you. I learned this the hard way.

Within six weeks of adding a supplier’s wedding product, and receiving an order for it yesterday, I was upset to discover that the owner (a) had hurt his shoulder and (b) was able to fulfill my order only after emailing him, thus disappointing my customer.

4. Follow them on social media

If you don’t disclose your suppliers, you may prefer to follow and like them with your personal social media accounts rather than your business’s. Facebook is a good way to discover your suppliers’ new product launches and how their customers react to them. It can also give you ideas about future projects together.

5. Seek multiple suppliers

As I have learned, it’s not wise to have all of one product type come from one supplier. A supplier can close down, suffer ill health, fail to receive its own supplies in time, service limited areas, or fail to ship timely during peak periods. Bad weather can also affect reliable shipping turnarounds.

6. Consider currency rates

It can be difficult to arrive at comparable price comparisons due to currency fluctuations. For my U.K. suppliers, I double what they charge me in British pounds to arrive at Australian dollars. For American suppliers, I divide American dollars by three-quarters. For European suppliers, I divide figures in Euros by two-thirds to arrive at Australian dollars. All of this is before markup and delivery. There are some foreign wedding products I would love to sell, but with even with a discount, the exchange rate, markup, and shipping fees make them out of range for most of my customers.

Wherever possible, I source locally in Australia. That said, however, if your currency rate changes in your favor for a limited time, you can buy in bulk from other countries, turn a larger profit, or offer your customers a special deal. In September 2014 during the Scottish referendum, for example, the exchange rate changed from GBP 0.51 to GBP 0.58 against the Aussie dollar.

7. Keep flexible with order fulfillment

Many suppliers will not ship outside their country. I sell to Australian couples. Yet I try not to be so ironclad about my delivery policy that I lose overseas sales. I fulfill certain orders depending where the customers — and suppliers — reside. For example, I sold wedding centerpieces to a Kentucky-based customer because the supplier is based in the U.S.

8. Monitor shipping prices

In many cases, shipping will cost more than the item itself. Some of my suppliers offer free shipping, others charge a flat rate, and yet others in the U.S. charge so much to deliver to Australia it is cheaper to get them to send it to my shipping forwarder in Oregon. Shipping from England to Australia is comparatively cheaper. While it is impossible to do so for personalized products, for the more popular non-personalized items I will buy them in bigger quantities to bring the shipping prices down.

9. Make your own products

If you like providing unusual products, consider designing your own. There are many do-it-yourself videos on YouTube and step-by-step processes on Pinterest for interesting items. You may be blessed with retired parents who are good at crafts, a neighbor with a workbench, or perhaps a friend with spare time willing to help you create some items, even just as samples. This lets you test the market, without outlaying great sums on ready-made products.

Elizabeth Hollingsworth
Elizabeth Hollingsworth
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