At the end of last month, an article in the Wall Street Journal — by my former colleague Teri Agins — caught my eye. It was about the awesome tops she found at fast-fashion stores for under $30. Lately, I’m desperate for separates that aren’t black t-shirts, so I was inspired to venture into Forever 21 and Zara the very next day. I quickly realized that I needed someone with Teri’s flair to join me on this shopping trip because I couldn’t find a thing on my own. Oh well!
Despite my lack of shopping success, the article has stayed in my mind because of this quote from Norma Kamali about the quantity of product made to be sold at this pricepoint. Bold emphasis is mine:
“‘The number of units they produce are the key factor, hundreds of thousands, and that is why these manufacturers have to be really good,’ says Norma Kamali, a veteran womenswear designer who created a sportswear line for Wal-Mart for three years, ending this spring.”
Information like this has jumped out at me ever since I wrote my Get Smart posts about manufacturing and quantity. Those posts explained economy of scale — the way making more of an item brings down costs — and how challenging it is for a small business to make enough product in order to get the price breaks that quantity brings. The most I’ve ever made of one style is 100 units. I’ve made a few styles by the dozen, but most pieces are made one at a time. Until I get mass distribution, it doesn’t make sense to make more. For example, I recently pondered making a popular ring style in brass because I wanted to make it accessible to more people. Let’s say I could make it for $5 and sell it for $10. The minimum order was 250 units but I’d actually have to sell a thousand units to equal the profit I’d make from the sale of one gold piece. If a store were willing to buy a thousand units, it might be worth doing, though 10,000 units would make more sense. But imagine trying to sell a thousand units on my own, from my website, one at a time. That’s a thousand jewelry boxes, a thousand trips to the post office. The potential earnings wouldn’t justify that much effort. So for now, when you buy something from me, you’re getting something incredibly rare. Yes, it’s more expensive than mass-produced jewelry, but at least you can feel very special wearing it. Just something to think about while you browse my website!
And yesterday, I wrote about Stacy Lomman, a fashion designer who is trying to put on her third runway show without the help of a giant company’s overseas manufacturing muscle. Want to make a fabulous fashion statement? Skip buying one $20 top from Forever 21 and contribute to Stacy’s Kickstarter instead. After all, F21 won’t personally thank you for buying one of its thousands of units, but Stacy will appreciate you forever.
CLICK HERE TO BE THE ISABELLA BLOW TO STACY’S ALEXANDER MCQUEEN.
I love when you write these types of articles, because it puts things in perspective for your customers. I wish more designers, especially smaller ones would explain the process so more people could understand the price-points.
I think once most people understand the process for smaller designers they appreciate the purchase more. Good on you being one of the few who is always willing to “go there”.
I’m glad you find it helpful. That makes me feel better because I always feel like I’m going to be kicked out of some secret business society — one that I didn’t even realize I’d joined — for revealing too much information!
Haha! I feel the same way sometimes, but it’s a necessity in the design world.
I’d also like to nudge you towards some kind of book; perhaps even a small e-book. I’d buy it. I know it would help a lot of small biz designers, and be informative for customers. With your background it wouldn’t be hard to sell. But, that’s me doing some wishful thinking 😉
Already working on it 🙂
Your acumen, expertise and creativity pay dividends in your own personal economy of scale, WendyB. Truly.
Aw, I’m blushing!
It really is one of a kind…I havent really indulged in fast fashion recently. It hit me when I saw a really old lady on the bus wearing the same scarf I had on from H&m. If you have it, THOUSANDS of others do too!
I prefer not to see myself “coming and going,” as my late business partner used to say. That’s not to say people don’t make H&M and F21 stuff look awesome. But even I am awed by the quantities produced.
Laura Preshong says
I had a similar experience at Forever 21 with my daughter on a recent shopping trip. Nothing. I mimic your views on small business and quality, as a small fine jewelry manufacturer myself. It seems the only thing we can do is continue to walk the walk and buy from independent labels when possible. Thank you for the post!
Awesome @ already working on it. So very glad to hear that — calling 1st dibs 😉
Hmmm, should I say “blow me?”
Megan Mae says
First I agree about buying things from independent sellers. I adore unique stuff and finding treasures that no one else has from vintage or thrifting trips, but sometimes you want something new and unique.
Part of the reason I follow and admire both you and Audi (of Audra Jean leather accessories and hats on etsy) is because you offer high quality, uncompromised goods with a special flair. I can’t necessarily afford your gold/statement pieces, but hope to someday own a Wendy Brandes piece of jewelry. Would I be able buy it if you made a cheaper product? Yes, probably. But like you said, it takes away from the “special” feeling. It just wouldn’t be the same, I guess.
Going into the psychology of marketing and consumerism, a customer pays more for the ideals that become built around “high quality products”. It’s the reason we as consumers can recognize the corporate culture of a company and know what to expect. Forever 21, you’d expect fastfashion pieces that are on trend, but will fall apart about a month later. Frye boots/Chanel suits on the other hand? Expected to last for years and are always classic.
I know that when I do finally get to order another harness belt from Audi or that WendyB stake necklace, it’ll be special because I know it will be unique, built to last and come from a real craftsman. I’m really trying to come around to supporting individuals when I can. I’ll probably never stop thrifting because it’s in my blood, but I do really hope to pull away from the fast fashion craze.
[sorry for the novel!]
Thanks for this comment! I bet it could be a post for your own blog. Something in it got me thinking (again) about an issue that’s been on my mind. There’s a lot of pressure to find a way to make inexpensive pieces…but I’m not even sure that’s the right thing for me. In the industry, some of the best sales now are in the ultra-high-end range. Like $50K and up. I’m often wondering if I should concentrate on the special and one-of-a-kind. I could do better at a higher pricepoint rather than lower. Who knows!
Mo Thompson says
I stopped buying in the high street some time ago but recently had to shop for a job. The sheer volume of garments being pushed out to make way for yet more makes me feel a little sick. So much waste and over indulgence.
Your posts about your business are always fascinating. My fella has a small business and has a workshop in a complex with many other craft based small businesses. One of the common themes there is undercharging as they are all worried about overpricing. I don’t know how many of them make a living, it is such a hard thing to do. Please keep up the posts. x
OMG! I am sooooooooooo guilty of undercharging. It’s a perpetual struggle — which I guess would surprise the people who can’t afford the pieces that I’m actually undercharging for. I just downloaded an ebook on pricing jewelry to try to get myself under control.
Thank you for your comment on my blog, lovely to hear from you again 🙂 Love your post btw xx
I don’t shop at Forever 21 or H&M, but I am definitely guilty of buying things in the moment without much consideration because they are on sale or cheap or a color I don’t have. Like lots of people these days, I am trying to edit and shape my wardrobe into something meaningful, and thinking about the production aspect lends itself nicely to this sort of exercise. If I can buy something meaningful to me that I will use and also feel like the creator will get some direct benefit from that, I am all for it.
I don’t have a problem with people buying cheap product — my problem is that they then think ALL product should be cheap, as if everything is mass-produced out of the lowest-end materials. WalMart has gotten into people’s heads and given them unrealistic expectations of pricing. Even if I was able to make a thousand units of one style, I’m not coming close to getting the price break I’d get when WalMart makes 100,000.
It’s tough- my mother had a boutique when I was younger and competition between larger stores that carried the same brands but for cheaper prices (since they brought in larger quantities and could afford it) was really tough on her business. Most people don’t get it too, boutique prices vs. department store, they think you’re trying to rip them off
p.s my anti-spam is “vampbill” love the truebloodness of this blog!
It’s like when the economy crashed in 2008 and Saks panicked and put everything on sale for 75% off before the holidays…boutiques went out of business because they couldn’t match those prices. And Saks made the product look worthless — if it was going for pennies at Saks, why would it be worth more elsewhere? And they didn’t even make any money off their panic sale. It was a disaster.
Funny. I actually own that H&M top! Problem is, it’s not quite long enough. Think it shrunk in the wash. Oops!
It’s very cute…I didn’t see anything I liked but there was so much stuff…I lose patience in that situation. I need a stylist!
Susan Tiner says
I adore your jewelry and totally understand why the prices are what they are, but it’s still difficult to afford! For example, there are two more pieces I really, really want but I cannot justify splurging on them because it will require stealing from our precious vacation savings fund — the jewelry splurge I have in mind would put 20% dent in that fund! I almost did it anyway, then bonked some sense back into my head :-).
Yes, it IS difficult to afford and not everyone can afford it…that’s a fact. I’m in the luxury market, not the low-end. I don’t deny that. If I could aim at the low-end, maybe I would, but it takes a lot of investment to make inexpensive goods, and *I* can’t afford *that.*
Susan Tiner says
Style Eyes says
I definitely prefer quality over quantity and rare or unique stuff over mass produced. I just need to remember to save instead of spend so that I can aford it!
I feel like an undergrad in Econ 101 again, albeit in a good way. 🙂
I have recently started reading your blog and ogling (yes, I admit it, I ogle) your beautiful jewelry. I love your philosophy on wearing what you love, working with what you have, and all sorts of other cool stuff you say. Plus the fact that you swear as much, if not more than I do…
An old friend and mentor of mine lived this way. She lived by the philosophy of buy less, but buy the best. I’ve tried to incorporate that into my small little world. While I can only achieve what I am able to at this point in my life, I remember those words daily.
Always delighted to meet someone who cusses a lot 🙂
Really excellent article on the economies of scale.
I also want to know what you are going to get to replace your black t-shirts? I need a stylist too.
I’m like your former partner; if I pay a lot of money for something, I don’t want to see it on six other people at a party. That really goes for jewelry. There is a lot of very expensive designer jewelry (I mean you, David Yurman) that seems to be a requirement for living in LI. I’d much rather have your pieces!
Ha ha! You know, Yurman started out quite edgy. People were shocked by his use of diamonds with silver. Then he became so accepted that the style is now completely mainstream. Strange how that happens!
Susu Paris Chic says
Rare but affordable for “normal folks”… Well, it is a bit about priorities too. To buy in quality or quantity? I wish I did more of the first. If you become a fashion victim… hmph. It gets complicated. Maybe re-centering my fashion behavior could be good.
first of all, i think the ‘tight jeans + going-out top + heels’ look is disgusting. it’s hen party chic, which is to say, not chic at all.
i’d say the black t-shirt is far more promising.
second, i recoil from buying things that are made in China. yes, this is probably ignorant and reactionary behavior, but i can’t help feeling that if i buy something that’s made in China, i am supporting child labor, environmental pollution, sweat shops, anti-google laws, and general despotism.
funnily enough though, if something is made in China and costs $3, i think it’s more ethical than something that’s made in China that costs $300 (most of Acne and Alexander Wang is made in China, though you could never tell from the price point, which is bullshit).
final point: i really like the 3 for $10 boy shorts from F21.
Topaz Horizon says
Now that I’ve started my own handmade leather bags business, I so understand and appreciate this more. I’m actually about to write something similar so that my customers understand why I price my bags like so and how incredibly lucky they are. But after reading this, well, you just said everything I wanted to say! I’ll just copy and paste and credit =P
Agreed Wendy! It’s always frustrating getting requests through the Etsy shop to do things cheaper — if you want cheap, it’s not like there aren’t a million places to find it! I’d actually rather lose the sale, because I figure that people who can’t understand why a custom, made-to-fit item costs more than a mass produced one probably won’t appreciate the difference in quality or uniqueness either.
My anti-spam word is “Carrie,” and I was imagining a blood-soaked prom queen until I realized it probably refers to SATC…
I too have found that it is better to lose the sale than to lose money ON the sale!
The Styley says
A very stylish friend of mine once advocated buying basics from the cheaper stores, stuff without prints, and then making them special with original, one-of-a-kind items. And my mom has always emphasized the importance of investing in unique stuff. I just love how clever you are as a designer. It’s rare to see humor and sophistication in one place.
Love your article, and you really show the complicated issue that all small businesses face when they start up. How do you get from small volume-small sales to the next step, where you can produce more in better prices?
I started a fashion print business a year ago, and it has been so difficult to get the minimum volume issue resolved with my manufacturers! I guess in the beginning you need to invest more…
However, as an independent designer, you shouldn’t aim to compete with F21, you will never make it! You need to find your market and your target audience. And you need to show in your branding material that your stuff is special, the thought process, the work that goes behind it, so your buyer is concious of the product’s value.
Also, it seems to me you need to be wholesaling as well as retailing to be able to reach a wider audience. There are specialist shops that have the clients you look for, and they can help in diffusing your brand.
To me, places like Etsy can be a downgrade for your product as people go on there looking for crafty products in affordable prices. Concentrating on getting an sales agent makes more sense!
Ok i went a bit corporate there, but well, there you have it!
Keep creating everyone!