Chapter 12 - How to Find Jewellery Suppliers

A retail business lives or dies on the back of its suppliers. Without good suppliers providing quality, sought after items at affordable prices, you don't have a prayer of getting your business off the ground. When you find a good supplier, they will become your most closely guarded secret.

So where are these suppliers? How do you go about finding them?

The Internet has changed the face of retailing, and it's in the process of doing the same for wholesaling. The traditional route to sourcing suppliers is fast being replaced by new methods. This is good news for start-up jewellery businesses. The Internet levels the playing field, allowing a small retailer in the Shetlands easy access to wholesalers at the other end of the country, something that twenty years ago would have been impossible. At the same time, the Internet has given rise to a raft of new wholesalers - wholesalers who operate online only, and come with few of the problems and difficulties that accompany the more traditional and established wholesalers.

Let's start by looking at the traditional wholesalers. But you'd better hurry, because these sorts of companies will probably not be around for much longer.

1. Wholesale showrooms and sales reps

There are two traditional methods of sourcing jewellery from wholesalers. The first method, most widely used by small, independent retailers, is to visit a showroom of one of the many established wholesalers in person. The second method, more common amongst larger shops, is to have a rep from these same wholesale companies pay you a visit with a collection of catalogues and samples. The problem with both of these methods is you're very limited in the number of wholesalers you can see, and in the new lines of jewellery you can find.

Where does this jewellery come from, and is any of it worth buying?

An important point to note about your average jewellery wholesaler and importer is that they are unlikely to ever have visited the manufacturer of the products they sell. They usually order from a catalogue that hasn't changed in years, content in the knowledge that all of their competitors are doing the same.

Years ago, when I worked retail, we'd get a visit a few times a year from the sales rep of a big jewellery importer, showing us their new stock catalogue. The new stock was little more than the old stock in different colours, a fact that failed to generate even a hint of embarrassment when it was pointed out to him.

Do not expect any unique or particularly interesting designs from these sorts of wholesalers. They rarely change their stock, preferring to continue selling what was popular in years gone by. A walk down the aisles of any of these large wholesale warehouses can be a depressing experience. If you ever wondered where the 101 jewellery sellers at every market you visit buy their jewellery, this is the place. If you choose to buy in these places, you will become just another in the long line of small time, barely scraping by, jewellery sellers who dot the markets and car boot sales.

If you come across a wholesaler who sells jewellery that looks completely different to everyone else's, then hold onto this supplier as if your life depended on it. Chances are they are one of the very rare few who actually deal direct with manufacturers on a regular basis. This means that they could easily be the only supplier in the country with those particular styles.

2. Trading Magazines

Twenty years ago, The Trader was the magazine to buy if you were looking for suppliers in the UK and Ireland. Every wholesaler was in it, and it could take you all day to get through. Those days are long past. Today, The Trader is a shadow of its former self, boasting only a fraction of the page count from years gone by. The wholesalers who continue to advertise in magazines like this are the same traditional wholesalers mentioned above. New wholesalers are bypassing these magazines and advertising directly on the Internet.

Avoid trading magazines.

3. Trade Shows

Trade shows are one of the few traditional methods of finding suppliers that has not suffered through Internet competition. Shows such as the Harrogate Home and Gift Show and the Spring Fair in Birmingham are frequented by all of the big, established wholesalers, and a large number of the newer online suppliers.

Is it worth a trip?

Yes, it is. It's worth going to these shows simply to see what is available. What are suppliers pushing forward as this year's fashions, and does it look exciting or old hat? And how do they compare with each other on price?

Don't place any orders at these shows, no matter how hard the sales men push you. Use it as an opportunity to see what's out there. And don't expect every wholesaler to be there. We rarely attend trade shows. Indeed, some of our busiest weeks occurred just after a big trade show has ended, as customers failed to find anything new at the shows, and returned to place orders online.

Sourcing Wholesalers Online

The number of wholesalers, both new and established, that have an online presence is growing every month. And retailers who look online can often find new and exciting lines of jewellery that can be difficult, if not impossible to source elsewhere.

Online businesses are more than simply arms of already established businesses. In many cases, the best online companies do not have an offline presence at all. Companies such as Amazon and Dell started online, and continue to sell only online. The wholesale jewellery business is no different. While it is true that many of the wholesale companies with large showrooms and sales teams do have websites, they are rarely numbered amongst the best online jewellery suppliers.

Running an online business is not the same as selling from a showroom, or having an experienced sales rep sit in front of a customer for two hours pushing the merits of their necklaces or bracelets. Online, the quality of the jewellery needs to be good enough to sell itself. The customer is in control at all times, and can leave at any moment. They are competing with 1001 other online wholesalers, many of them selling similar lines at similar prices. Established, bricks and mortar wholesalers have no advantage in the online world, where everyone operates at the same level.

Only a small percentage of jewellery retailers have yet embraced online purchasing, and it is these very retailers who are finding the best of the new suppliers, and the most original and unique lines of new stock.

It's a well known fact that large, long established businesses are loathe to change. This is as true of jewellery wholesalers as it is of any other business. What this means for retailers, is that if they continue to source their jewellery the old fashioned way, they are in real danger of being left behind. But with so many internet wholesalers to choose from, how do you find the good suppliers?

1. Search Engines - Google

The most common method of finding new jewellery wholesalers online is to use traditional search engines such as Google, Yahoo, or MSN. If you know what you're doing, and how to interpret the search engine results, then this can be a very effective method. But in order to get the most from these results, you need to understand a little about how Google chooses which sites appear on the first page.

Google does not care about the quality of jewellery on offer on a particular website. It does not care about how cheap or expensive that jewellery might be. And it does not care about how extensive or limited the company's online catalogue is. When you enter a search query such as wholesale fashion jewellery or wholesale jewellery into Google, it returns websites that it feels meet the requirements of your search phrase, and it does this without understanding the words you typed in.

One other factor that plays into a website's Google ranking is the age of the website. A wholesale company whose website went live 10 years ago will probably rank better than the websites of new wholesalers, even though the older company may be selling out of date lines of jewellery, or may not even have an online shop at all.

What this means is that a wholesale jewellery company can climb the Google rankings and appear at or near the top of the first page of results for important search phrases, while at the same time having a limited range of stock, of poor or unimpressive quality, and at prices that are far from competitive. The company may even have ceased trading months ago, but so long as the website still exists, so too will its high ranking with Google.

What does this mean for retailers trying to find wholesalers online?

It means that you cannot assume that the first page of results returned by search engines is any indicator of the quality, size, or professionalism of the wholesaler. The websites listed may have paid a lot of money to optimising companies to help them reach the top, or they may have simply struck lucky through their use of keywords on their web pages.

Now, this is not true in all cases. Occasionally a good wholesaler with excellent stock will reach the front page of Google. But you cannot rely on this. You should never stop at the first page of results. In many cases, continuing on to pages two, three, and four will yield far better results. Most people do not do this, which means that most retailers fail to discover the jewellery wholesalers lurking on page two or three of Google, and make their buying decisions based on those often inaccurate first page results.

Google and other search engines also allow companies to run paid for ads that appear after you perform a search. These ads are located at the very top of the page and to the right of the search results, and are often a good way of finding new suppliers that have to yet to rank well, and established online wholesalers who want to be found. The advantage of clicking on these ads is that you know straight away that the company is still in business (they get charged each time an ad is clicked on), and they are confident enough of their stock that they are not afraid to pay you to come to their website - not to be underestimated.

2. Online Directories

There are two types of online directories listing wholesalers: free and fee based. The fee based directories charge you, the retailer, for access to their list of suppliers. The free directories charge the supplier for his listing, and give you free access to those suppliers.

Ask yourself this: why would a supplier wish to restrict the number of retailers who have access to their details? This is what happens when retailers are charged for access to supplier information. The answer, of course, is they would not. Wholesalers want to be found; they want every retailer across the country to choose them as their primary supplier.

You should stay away from fee based directories. Any money spent on them is wasted money, paid for information that can be had for free elsewhere. Every wholesaler who is listed in these directories will also be listed in directories that do not charge retailers for access. Free directories are far more popular amongst retailers and for this reason, are equally popular amongst wholesalers.

In the UK, the primary free directory for wholesalers is the aptly name www.thewholesaler.co.uk. Its jewellery section is comprehensive, and lists most jewellery wholesalers who supply retailers across the UK and Ireland, even those who may not have an offline presence at all. If you are looking to compare the offerings of different wholesalers, this is a good place to start. An evening spent browsing a long list of wholesale websites can be far more profitable than a week spent walking into show rooms in Manchester or London.

3. eBay

Selling on eBay is a mug's game. There is little profit to be made and it will quickly destroy any love you may have had for your business. But buying on eBay can, on occasion, be worthwhile. There are a number of sellers on eBay who sell job lots or wholesale lots of jewellery. Sadly, the quality of these items leaves a lot to be desired, and I would not recommend you use any of them. Where eBay comes into its own is in locating suppliers of those extras that every jewellery business owner will need: packets of clasps to replace ones that break, cheap chains, batches of replacement batteries for watches (always a requirement), and scales to weigh your silver jewellery.

My advice is to use eBay for sourcing these non standard items, and not to use it as a central avenue for sourcing stock.

4. Alibaba and Chinese Suppliers

Visit any business forum anywhere on the internet, and every day someone will ask about Chinese suppliers or buying from suppliers listed on Alibaba. This is prompted by the extremely low prices on offer, and the potential profits that accompany those prices.

First off, there is nothing wrong with jewellery made in China. Chances are, just about every item you sell bar the sterling silver, will have been made by a manufacturer in China. But as a new jewellery retailer, buying direct from China is about five steps up the ladder from where you are now. You shouldn't even be considering this.

I have dealt with Chinese manufacturers and wholesalers for many years. As with any business, some are good, and some are bad, and it takes experience to work out which are which. The first rule for anyone considering buying from China is: You need to go there in person. You need to visit manufacturers and hold their stock in your hand. If you can't do this, if your business has not reached the level where this expense can be justified, then you are nowhere near ready to buy from China.

What are the problems with Chinese suppliers?
  1. Bargain prices come with bulk orders. Forget about ordering two or three of each necklace. Most Chinese manufacturers and wholesalers will not even consider an order of less than two hundred of each item in a single colour.
  2. Quality control is a huge issue. It is not uncommon to lose an entire order due to poor quality. If you can't stomach these sorts of losses, then stay away from China.
  3. Forget about refunds or trading standards. None of this exists or applies to Chinese suppliers. If something goes wrong, you and you alone will pay the price.
  4. Consistency is hard to find. A supplier who delivered quality items two months ago may fail you completely the next time you order.
  5. Websites such as Alibaba are riddled with scammers who will take your money and then disappear. When this happens, you have no come back.

Importers who source stock from Chinese suppliers have years of experience to draw upon. They have people on the ground over there whose job it is to inspect each order before final payment is made. They visit each supplier in person when placing orders. And they have the financial resources and customer base to be able to buy in bulk and to absorb any losses that might occur.

This is what is required if you wish to deal direct with manufacturers in China. Do not get seduced by the fairy tale stories you read on the internet of retailers who made a killing from dealing with Chinese suppliers. Truly successful retailers do not tell the world about their suppliers, especially not the good suppliers.

One in one hundred retailers who attempt to buy from China may strike gold through sheer luck, but the other ninety nine will nurse their wounds in silence, too embarrassed to say anything. Stay away from China.

So you've found a supplier that you feel is selling just the kind of jewellery you're looking for. How do you deal with them? And what should you expect?