How to Launch a Premium Leather Accessories Brand: By Helen Berg

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Helen Berg

In manufacturing, you ‘get what you specify’. Even though ‘Made in China’ is generally not synonymous with the same quality as ‘Made in Italy’ or ‘Made in Japan, the country has an exceptional manufacturing base that, when utilized in the right way, can deliver consistently high quality products.

Helen Berg,  the founder Charleston Belt, explains how they manage everything from finding the right manufacturer – to getting the product specifications right.

In addition, Helen explains how they leverage multiple sales channels, including Amazon, Google Shopping and B2B sales, to get their product on the market.

Helen, please tell us a bit about yourself and what you did before starting your current business

Before starting Charleston Belt I was an executive in a company that provided data analytics services for healthcare claims. Over my career in “Corporate America” the majority of my former employers were large, multi-national corporations where I did extensive international travel and managed employees and contractors across Europe and Asia.

These experiences gave me exposure to global commerce, and the impact that the Internet-fueled digital transformation has had on global commerce. Some of the biggest impacts that I experienced were opportunities for small, entrepreneurial firms to participate in global commerce and the emergence of “micro-multinational” companies.

What made you choose importing leather accessories?

First, a bit about our product – our mission is to design and produce high quality accessories that capture the essence of outdoor living and the richness of our diverse cultural heritage. We are relentless in ensuring we produce quality, timeless styles that coordinate well with casual and dress fashions for men of all ages.

In addition to our own unique designs, we also produce custom products for specialty shops, country clubs, boating clubs etc.

We use a contract-manufacturing model for our product. Our design team does the creation internally, then we outsource the production.

We are based in the U.S., and actually looked extensively at U.S.-based firms in addition to companies outside the U.S. before making the decision to contract the majority of the work outside the U.S. The primary reasons were their ability to handle the entire process and the production cost.

To explain further, many of our products are hand-made. In particular, our needlepoint belts fall into this category. The firms we work with have hundreds of artisans and can produce the quantities we need in a relatively short time frame.

But a bigger advantage to us is their ability to vertically integrate the process, by doing all of the leather work as well.

The firms we evaluated in the U.S. could each do part of the process, but then we would need to ship the goods between the firms to complete the process. That would have extended the production time and the cost by a large margin.

So we developed a rigid supplier qualification process to find firms outside the U.S. that could perform the work to our high quality standards and also at a time frame and cost that met our needs.

Was leather belts your first choice or did you ever try to import and sell other products?

We’ve expanded our product line beyond hand-made belts and found a similar situation. We have some products that are machine-embroidered, and we found this capability to be almost non-existent in the U.S. in the way that we need.

To explain, there are many firms domestically that can embroider a single logo, patch, or applique, but our requirements typically require 12+ motifs on a single belt, and it takes quite a bit of manual attention and effort to align the embroidery hoops properly to ensure the centerline of the designs are maintained, complicated by use of a very small motif on a very coarse fabric.

We have used domestic firms to produce samples for this product, but the ability to do the work at our scale and at a commercially viable price we have not found domestically.

We are always extensively and vigilantly looking for additional products that meet the requirements of our brand, but so far we have not expanded beyond belts.

Did you decide to go for a custom designed or a private label belt?

We have only done custom designed products at this time. The head of our creative team has been formally trained at the prestigious Central St. Martins in London and at Parsons School of Design in Paris, and also brings the perspective of having lived in Charleston and understands at a personal level the hallmarks of our brand.

Even though our product innovation process is very time consuming and expensive, we feel more comfortable that we own the designs and that they uniquely represent our brand.

We do occasionally outsource certain aspects of the design. Our creative team may come up with concepts, or frequently the concepts come from our customers, but then the concept needs to be specified at a much more detailed level before it can be produced.

Occasionally we ask our suppliers to do the detailed design, which is a collaborative process with our creative team. After the design is approved, then it can be produced, usually by the same supplier involved in the design process.

This method helps us move more quickly and usually the supplier will refund the design fee when an order is subsequently placed.

On the other side of the coin we have been approached by several companies about doing a private label product for them, so we see that as part of our growth.

How did you find your first belt manufacturer?

We went the Alibaba route. We used an image of a product that a competitor was producing, since at the time we had no finished products of our own. We posted the image and asked suppliers if they were capable of making it, and at what quantity and cost point.

From the suppliers that were down selected to the next stage, we put together a detailed spreadsheet of all our requirements and suppliers’ responses, then chose 3 to produce samples.

Even doing the detailed analysis between the suppliers on paper beforehand, it was crazy the difference in quality between the suppliers’ samples.

We asked one supplier to make the sample 3 times, which surprisingly they did at no cost to us, and in the end we disqualified them. The supplier we chose to use for our first order got the sample right the first time.

They also suggested colors that they thought enhanced our designs, and made other suggestions about the production that we found helpful.

Since that time we have worked to quality other suppliers, and we have found a few that meet our quality needs, but sometimes they have higher minimum order quantities than we are able to meet.

We have used suppliers in China to produce other aspects of our product, for instance we usually have the hang tags printed in China and mailed directly to our belt manufacturer. The belt supplier then attaches the hang tags before shipping the product.

We’ve also had belt hangers made in China, and shipped to us here in the U.S., which we provide to our retail shops for display.

Our strategy for using Chinese suppliers is mainly centered on being very detailed and specific about what product we are trying to produce and what our quality standards are.

Even though we are in an arm’s-length transaction with our suppliers, we view them as an extension of our product team, and we discuss new product ideas — both theirs and ours — on a frequent basis.

We have not done a trade show but we are interested in doing one. The Alibaba process can be cumbersome and time-consuming, and since you never see anyone face-to-face, it can be harder to make a personal connection which is helpful to have when problems arise.

We’ve had a few issues come up with suppliers that had numerous round-robin emails trying
to nail down a solution agreeable to both parties — in the end we found that the personal connections got us to a solution quicker without emotional escalations.

Some of our suppliers have called us on the phone, or we them, but overall we find the communication works better written down (email) than over the phone.

What kind of challenges did you face when dealing with Chinese suppliers?

Communication definitely works better for us when it is written. When writing, we are careful not to use colloquialisms. For example, we’ve learned not to say we are giving them a “heads up” about a new order or issue. That phrase is not understood.

We try to be very specific about what we want them to, and by when.

When we were writing the product specs and the product acceptance criteria, we found it very helpful to emphasize pictures over words.

For instance, for a specific acceptance criteria we show an image of an acceptable product, and several images of unacceptable defects.

We try to do this for every criteria on our acceptance list. Even then, when we annotate images we are careful to explain very plainly with as few words as possible.

The defect rate of our imported products has been satisfactory — our defect rate is approximately 5%. Therefore, on a bulk order we order a higher quantity than we forecast, to allow for defects.

We have not been successful in getting refunds for defective products. The process we use is to have the supplier re-make the product at a small discount — this covers their costs and helps us get the products we need.

We ask they include the re-made products on the next bulk shipment to save shipping costs. Over time, our suppliers have better learned what we think a defect is, and we’ve gotten better at specifying what we find acceptable or not.

We’ve run into instances where our products will have text in a script font or another special font, and we’ve found that the Chinese don’t always catch defects in these products because they don’t recognize the English letters when they are not typed.

We have not had a lot of delays, although there have been some, particularly when the BRICS meeting was in China and the Chinese government enforced a mandatory shut down of factories in the area.

They also restricted the areas where trucks could go which affected inbound and outbound shipments. This shutdown was well advertised, but somehow we missed it in our planning.

How long did it take before you could launch your first collection?

We took about 3 months to move from first contact with suppliers to start the sample process. From there it was roughly 4 months before making our first order. So, in total it was approximately 7 months to make the first order.

Another 2 months to complete the order and have it shipped via express, so 9 months before having a product.

Even with all the prep work and sampling process, we learned a lot after the first 2-3 orders, in how to work efficiently with the suppliers, what products our customers wanted, and how to take our products to market.

Of course, we are still learning how to do these things more efficiently and effectively.

Did you start by selling on Amazon or through your own online store?

We started initially selling on our own website, then quickly moved to Amazon as a second channel. We also also list our products on Google Shopping.

We use a direct salesforce to work with our wholesale customers.

In summary, we use a combination of online direct-to-consumer channels and a wholesale distribution method with brick and mortar stores.

Did you struggle to get your products selling initially?

This question opens up a very deep subject, one where we have advanced a great deal but still have much to learn.

In short, we’ve worked hard to define our brand, and to make sure whatever channels and marketing tools we use reinforce the consistent message of our brand.

We use AdWords a great deal and find the information available through Google Analytics is tremendous. We’ve done a lot of code customization on our website to enable advanced analytics through Google.

We have a Facebook presence but we’ve not emphasized it much, due to other priorities. We plan to expand it more in 2018. We’ve done some FB ads, which has helped exposure. Once we expand our Facebook presence we will likely do more advertising there.

As mentioned earlier we use Google Shopping and it has worked favorably for us.

We’ve also found favorable response in providing a link to our Amazon store from our own website. In our experience, shoppers that are Amazon Prime members particularly like to shop on Amazon.

We’re fine with that! We also did 2 Amazon giveaways, and found that generated positive buzz on social media.

We’ve also been in Instagram, and that exposure has helped as well.

The world of digital advertising is cosmic — we’ve been experimenting in a lot of areas, analyzing the data as best we can, and morphing our strategies as we go along. I think we’re better now with targeting our advertisements and at pinpointing what is effective for us, but every day there is a new feature or capability available so we are chasing the train all the time.

What does the future hold for your ecommerce business?

We want to expand to new domestic markets primarily. To do this we need continue to refine our digital advertising strategy, and to expand our product line to products that other markets would be interested in.

We also need to develop additional suppliers in different geographies to lessen our dependence on a select few.

So many of the online platforms have expanded to international markets, especially Western Europe.

We are also in the early stages of investigating using these platforms internationally.

As every business owner can probably attest, growing requires a decision about how hard to press on the gas pedal.

We try not to be reactive or impatient so we can form assumptions, try things, and learn whether our assumptions are correct or not, before making investments into new areas. It’s hard to hold back because we get very excited about doing new things, or just bigger things, but we feel if we follow our process we will get the best results.

Thank you so much for sharing all this. Where can our readers find out more about your products?

Charleston Belt is family owned and operated here in Charleston, S.C. We formed our business because we wanted to share our love of the Charleston lifestyle with the rest of the world — a lifestyle that embraces the spirit of outdoor living and the richness of our diverse cultural heritage.

To help non-natives better understand, Charleston is the nation’s No. 1 city, and No. 2 in the world, according to the readers of Travel + Leisure magazine.

This (2017) is the fifth consecutive year the magazine’s readers have named Charleston the nation’s top city. At Charleston Belt we work hard to embrace the unique culture and heritage of Charleston in all of our products.

Our goal is to provide the best quality product at the best price. We offer a variety of styles to suit every occasion. From leather, hand-stitched designs to more casual, cotton web designs.

We use only the highest quality materials and put our signature attention to detail on every product.

We hope you’ll visit our website and learn more about us. We also love to co-create products with our customers, and we promise we are fun to work with!

You can find us at charlestonbelt.com.

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