Amy Kohler, MakerSights VP of Strategic Engagement, describes some common challenges and frustrations of a merchant:

Sitting in an endless meeting, hypotheses are circulating. How do you differentiate one idea from another? You are slowly sinking into a pool of opinions, and seniority is often the easy way out. You are emotionally invested in the process — influenced by what the factory can and can’t do, what you saw at Coachella, that table in the front of the store that needs to be filled early August, the menswear trend that you have no confidence in. So you dig into the sales data. There are many reasons why something did/did not sell, but you don’t have the answers. You are as far away as from a decision as you were when the meeting started.

Merchants have a lot of power in most organizations. But early in the design process, they have very limited knowledge. Designers, however, know the trends and have a strong vision for the upcoming season. A huge gap exists. This is the perfect time to add the voice of the customer. A women’s brand tested upcoming sweater dresses prior to the beginning of the season. They were astonished that one style far and away surpassed the others. Customers were asked why they liked it – fit, length, color, neckline, price/value? This favorite style was loved because of the neckline, which lead the brand to not over project sweater dresses, but to add several other styles with the hot neckline, and maximize this trend quickly and profitably.

Digital testing is a great tool early in the product development process. Using CAD (computer aided design), photos can be recolored, sleeve lengths modified, necklines adjusted, and many changes can be made to test a new concept. The image that is created saves the expense of developing sampling fabric, producing a sample, shipping samples overseas, and photography. Technology can be a powerful assistant as brands begin to connect with the customer early in the product development cycle. One brand we work with had a quick decision to make — narrowing down 4 fashion colors to 2 for a mill that needed an answer in 24 hours. By recoloring the item and tapping into the brand’s loyal customer list, the team was able to make a confident decision in time, allocating dollars to focus on the top color, while eliminating the risk of cannibalization and future markdowns by dropping the weakest SKU from the line.

So, turn your long and sometimes painful merchandising meetings into productive decision making successes. Add your customer to the team!

– Joan Maxwell, Senior Advisor, MakerSights

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