A Chat With May’s Profile, Suzanne Vlietstra, president of Hobby Horse Clothing Co.
CS: What’s your biggest current day challenge in the catalog industry?
SV: Benjamin Franklin once said, apparently, “If we don’t hang together, we will most assuredly hang separately.” And I’m looking high and low and hard to find businesses that we should hang together with. And whether that’s co-mailing or whether that’s somebody that’s smart on the cataloging and operations end of things, that’s what I’m looking for. We’ve survived a very long time as a very small, “nichey” catalog or manufacturer, whichever way you want to look at it. And there’s a lot of challenges out there. I think more so probably, or maybe I’m more aware of them, than any other time in the history of my business. It’s very important for me at this point to seek some alliances, beneficial alliances, that are going to help us to stay competitive.
CS: Could you give examples of what some of these challenges may be (e.g., the rising costs of mailing a catalog, downturn in the economy, etc.)?
SV: We have lots more than just the catalog end, of course, because we’re manufacturing stuff. Challenges for us start at manufacturing. We’re too small to have most of our stuff made overseas. You know we’re not making much in China. So we’re still having to source manufacturing for the garment industry in the United States. Ninety seven percent, I heard a figure, of all apparel is imported in the United States. So we got to find the 3 percent that’s still doing it here and work with those contractors and so forth. And our exchange rates are affecting our raw materials. Like you wouldn’t think the price of zippers, brass zippers, would triple. How much does a zipper and a pair of pants cost? Well, three times more than it did a couple of years ago. It starts to add up.
We’re having more and more trouble sourcing things. Because so much garment manufacturing doesn’t take place in the United States anymore, we can’t afford to buy a complete mill run of fabric. So we have to buy more and more from jobbers. Then that means that we can’t replenish the fabric. And to accommodate that, it’s a weird thing in cataloging, we’ve gone to making what we call “limited editions” on a tremendous amount of our garments. We buy a batch of fabric, cut it, make it and be done with it. That’s presented some huge challenges from a cataloging end of things.
For example, almost half of our “limited editions” planned for the ’08 catalog sold out at our first wholesale trade show in January. So I had my catalog ready to go on press and suddenly realized, “I’d sold out of a huge number of items that were going to be printed in that catalog that’s supposed to last us the year.” That doesn’t happen to people too often. What do you do when your catalog’s just about to go on press and you find out that, let’s say a third of the products are suddenly not available? You can’t just go buy more, you’ve got to invent them.
So there we are, pushed by our own success on these “limited editions” that our dealers bought up like crazy. We can’t replenish them. So we’re almost doing semi-custom work in a broad-base catalog. That’s my biggest challenge right now — how to balance that. We can make more profit on the limited editions, we can definitely sell them for more, but when they’re gone, they’re gone. And you got a black hole in your catalog.