Making Your Business Future-Proof with a Little Detective Work

I love nothing better than a procedural television show. Whether it’s a real-life murder mystery on Dateline or a fictional CSI case, I like trying to solve a whodunit. In everyday life, I also enjoy making connections between things I hear and see through conversations and observations — putting together the pieces of the puzzle to get a full picture.

So it’s no wonder that one bit of wisdom I heard recently jumped out at me. During a speech, an apparel executive said, “Whether you’re a retailer or a wholesaler, your job is to find the balance between listening to and leading your customer.” By this he meant you want to deliver what customers want today while moving them toward what they will want tomorrow. At first, this might sound like something only a clairvoyant could pull off. But thankfully, you actually don’t need to channel Nostradamus to accomplish this feat. You just need to be willing to tap into your inner Sherlock Holmes.

With your detective hat firmly in place, you’ll suddenly have the ability to see around corners. By predicting where we’ll all be as a culture in two months or two years, you’ll be better equipped to direct your business. And it all starts with keeping your ear to the ground and learning what your customers, suppliers and peers are saying, experiencing and demanding. The real trick is knowing how to ferret out this precious intel.

Become a Super Sleuth

The obvious place to start is with your immediate sphere. Even if you already think you know what your customers want, find an opportunity to pry a bit deeper. While you certainly don’t want to interrogate them, you do want to ensure there’s an ongoing dialogue. That may even mean taking a step back if you find they’re more comfortable spilling their secrets to someone else on your team. For instance, in some cases buyers will only reveal their true feelings about a collection to the sales rep for fear of offending the designer, while in others they’ll only share this classified info with the company owner.

No matter who handles these semi-covert operations, the most important thing is to look for evidence that your customers’ tastes or needs are shifting. Trends — those related to fashion, business and consumer behavior — are always changing. And it’s the companies that can adapt quickly that’ll be in the strongest position in the long run. So the earlier you can piece together the clues that there’s a shake up on the horizon, the better off you’ll be.

Build Your Intelligence Community

As valuable as it is to really know your customer, the reality is, sniffing around your own backyard will only uncover part of the story. The most important undercover operatives your business has are your friends and peers in the industry. This network of reps, retailers and designers are your eyes and ears. You need them to provide a broader picture of what’s going on in other tiers, categories and regions because those same forces might impact you in the future.

A great example are the unofficial alliances many independent reps have with one another through which they share the scoop on brands, stores and consumer attitudes. This helps them sniff out both fashion and industry trends that much faster. It also allows them to divide and conquer trade shows, stealthily covering more ground than either could alone.

If you don’t have key assets like this to help you infiltrate the market, it’s time you start doing some recruiting. For instance, if you know it typically takes trends six months to travel from urban areas to the small town where you’ve set up shop, you need to bond with shop owners in large cities. Start with your next trade show. In addition to your buying objectives, go with reconnaissance in mind. Between line reviews, snoop around for new industry friends. Chat up everyone you encounter from the lunch tables to the line for the restroom. Not everyone is going to be receptive, but you just need a few key people to start a network of free-flowing information.

Throw a Wider Net

With your intelligence community on the case, you can set your sights on the bigger picture. To really be in a position to lead, your surveillance has to extend beyond our market to the apparel industry as a whole and retail in general.

This is why I try to go out of my way to attend events where business leaders are sharing insight, whether it’s social media scoop from Aliza Licht (aka DKNY PR Girl) or retail wisdom from Terry Lundgren, chairman, CEO and president of Macy’s. Settings like that give me a great fly-on-the-wall feeling of eavesdropping on sensitive information. While the content is obviously not top secret, I can always glean valuable intelligence. If nothing else, it’s important to hear about other facets of retail and apparel.

Whether or not you have access to great speakers like this — and thanks to YouTube you probably do — you can certainly focus your investigative skills on the wealth of business writing that’s published on a daily basis by the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and the New York Times to name a few of my faves. And thanks to aggregator sites like The Business of Fashion, it’s easy to find the top fashion business stories of the day from sources far and wide.

Taken together, your friends, colleagues and news sources can provide a wealth of information. And soon enough, if you stick with your fact-finding mission, you’ll be ahead of the pack — which is just were a leader should be.


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Join Caletha Crawford on Tuesday, March 6th at 9 p.m. EST for an industry chat on Twitter where all can share their favorite business resources. Follow Caletha Crawford @caletha_style or search for #kidsbiz.

About Caletha Crawford
Caletha Crawford is a children’s apparel consultant who has spent more than eight years covering the industry, most recently as editor in chief of Earnshaw’s magazine. Caletha has a unique perspective on the concepts, designs and companies that resonate with retailers and consumers. Her services include public relations, marketing, branding and social networking. In an effort to usher in the next generation of design talent, she also teaches and produces special events at Parsons The New School for Design.

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