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Jewellery and the Spring Fair in Birmingham – 2014

Last week we took a trip to the Spring Fair in Birmingham, something we hadn’t done since we were retailers over ten years ago. We were curious to see what our competitors were selling, and we were curious to see what had changed. We’d never exhibited at the Spring Fair — a choice we made after weighing up the pros and cons. In years past, the week of the Fair and the week after had proven to be one of our busiest periods outside the Christmas season.

I’ll be honest, we got a bit of a shock by how things had changed. The last time we’d been to the Spring Fair there were halls full of jewellery wholesalers, distributors and importers. It took us a full day to get through them all: filtering the good from the bad, deciding what to order and from whom.

This year, we flew over from Dublin in the morning, and caught an early flight home in the afternoon. Four hours was more than enough time to walk around, see what was on offer, and place a few sample orders to test the competition — more on that later.

If our experience that day is anything to go by, the weak economy in the UK has taken its toll on jewellery and accessory wholesalers. In terms of sheer volume, their numbers seem to have been slashed to a quarter of what they were only ten years ago.

The Spring Fair is not a complete representation of the state of wholesalers in the UK. We don’t promote there ourselves — a decision made out of choice, not financial circumstances — nor do many other new wholesalers. But it is a good indicator of the health of the market. Those with the cash to spend on the Spring Fair are usually willing to spend it, especially those traditional wholesalers who have yet to embrace the Internet and still rely on outdated methods of selling and marketing.

These wholesalers were in short supply last week.

It wasn’t just curiosity that brought us to the Spring Fair this year. We’ve been climbing the Google rankings steadily over the past few years, strengthening our product and increasing our share of the independent jewellery market in the UK. We have a good idea of who our competitors are and of what sort of volume they’re selling. We know who’s doing well and who is not — a cursory glance at an online catalogue is sufficient to provide this information. We went to the Spring Fair because we wanted to test them: to examine their stock, to place some sample orders, to see what arrived at our doorstep and when, and to see how we compared.

How did we measure up on a national scale?

We examined them from four different areas: Quality and Originality, Price, Shipping Costs, and Minimum Quantities. A fifth metric, how the jewellery measured up when we received it, will have to wait, as it hasn’t all arrived yet. Expect a further blog post in a week or so on the subject — yes, it really is taking that long!

So let’s get down to it.

Quality and Originality

One of our big selling-points is that we deliver fresh and new styles on a regular basis. When we were retailers, we understood the need to introduce new designs every few weeks. If you want repeat business, if you want customers to come back to you and buy every few weeks, then you can’t be carrying the same old lines month after month.

In terms of originality and freshness, a number of the suppliers were not bad. They were carrying a lot of heart shaped necklaces and bracelets — styles that are very IN right now. But in terms of quality they fell short, almost to a man. The samples we looked at had a well worn appearance, as if they had been sold, worn to a boozy dinner part, and returned — many times over.

The poor quality of the samples made it impossible to truly gauge the quality of the end product, and for that we’ll have to wait until they all arrive, but it left a bad taste in our mouths. If the sample quality were so poor, it didn’t bode well for the actual quality. Samples are usually superior to the final product, not the other way around.

At Nirvana, our sample photos are always a true representation of the product the customer will receive. When we take delivery of 500 styles of one necklace, we photograph one of those 500, not an extra, better made sample.

So, while our impression of the styles on offer in Birmingham was positive to neutral, our impression of the quality was very poor indeed.

Price

Here, we were surprised. We’ve always felt that our pricing was on a par with UK wholesalers, but it turned out that the suppliers at the Spring Fair were charging between 20 and 40 per cent more than us. That’s quite a difference, especially at times like these when retailers are going out of business left, right and centre.

The reason for this may lie in the fact that most UK wholesalers do not buy from manufacturers. They buy from importers and distributors, which means they are already paying far more for their stock than we are, and they in turn pass that extra cost on to their retail customers.

We’ve never sold or marketed ourselves on price, but after what we experienced in Birmingham last week, we may decide to make that a more prominent selling point in our catalogue.

Shipping Costs

The costs of shipping are pretty much set in stone. As long as you’re shipping enough packages each week to met a certain quota, you should be able to send a small to mid-sized package for under £10, plus VAT. That’s what we charge, and we ship from a warehouse in the Irish countryside to addresses all across the UK, using both DHL and Fastway. Our shipping costs cover the actual cost of shipping: delivery, packaging materials, etc. We don’t make a profit on our shipping, and we don’t make a loss — we pass the actual cost directly to the customer. In the case of sales within Ireland, we are able to lower those costs to only £5.95.

What we found with the suppliers in Birmingham was that shipping costs were averaging £15, a huge difference to what we regarded as the actual costs. Now, it may be that many of these retailers haven’t negotiated volume deals with their delivery companies, or it may be that they are simply not shipping enough packages each week to avail of reduced price shipping, but for whatever reason, the customer ends up paying 50% more than they should for shipping — a not inconsiderable amount on small, sub-£100 orders.

Minimum Quantities

This surprised us. When you buy wholesale, a minimum order size is to be expected, if only to deter retail buyers and filter out small businesses that many wholesalers do not want to deal with. What we found in Birmingham, again and again, was a minimum order requirement of two or three of each item. This sort of thing is quite common when you are purchasing from manufacturers, who often are unwilling to do a manufacturing run for a particular style unless you order 30 or 50 dozen of that style. But there really is no reason to enforce a minimum, per-item, amount on retailers — not when they are already placing a large enough order that it is above the wholesalers minimum spend requirements.

We swallowed our annoyance and ordered the two or three of each item that the rules dictated. But if we had been a genuine retail buyer, one for whom the quality of the jewellery was still suspect, this would have proven a major bone of contention.

Conclusion

The purpose of our trip to the Spring Fair in Birmingham was to see what jewellery was on offer across the UK in 2014, and to compare our own business to our competitors by testing their stock, pricing, delivery and general suitability as suppliers — all against ourselves.

To a man, they came up short. Of course, we’re biased. But we tried to approach these suppliers as we would have ten years ago, when we were retailers just like yourselves.

We found them to be over-priced, both in their stock and shipping. We found that the quality of the sample items fell worryingly short of what was expected. And we found their order requirements to be an active deterrent to new customers.

All in all, it was a worthwhile trip — one that we would recommend to all retailers. But with a caveat. See what’s on offer, by all means, but then go looking for it elsewhere. Find a supplier with the same or similar styles online, at a more affordable price, and without any of the order limitations that we found in Birmingham.

Update, 5th March:
The Verdict.

12 Feb 2014

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