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A New Selling Approach Makes Fashion Sense

As Brenda French has discovered, selling to retail stores may not he the most effective way for small manufacturers to get their products to consumers. After 12 years of selling her designer knitwear to retail outlets, French, owner of French Rags, in Los Angeles, had become disillusioned with what she saw as retailers' failure to meet customers' needs. Then, at a trade show in New York City about six years ago, an alternative arose: A customer offered to show French's fashions in her own apartment and rounded up 80 acquaintances to attend.

The positive results convinced French that a work-from-home sales force was the perfect way to market to her customers—executives' wives and executive-level working women who would appreciate the convenience of quickly assembling an entire wardrobe at the home of a sales consultant. French abruptly shifted from selling to stores to selling through one sales consultant and a retail shop at the Los Angeles factory. Word of her new approach spread, and French Rags now has 75 consultants nationwide and annual revenues of about million.

For French, selecting consultants has been a careful and personal process. Because contacts with potential customers are what make the system work, French looks for women who have lived in an area for at least 20 years, who are very active in the community, or who have worked there. Most of her consultants had no sales experience.

French talks with prospects by phone for about an hour to gauge their ability to communicate and their enthusiasm in talking with people. Consultants then receive three days of training at the factory, at their own expense. They learn the basics of the knitting process and how to set up a fashion collection. They are paid on commission.

Communicating with consultants has been a challenge for the growing company French has a full-time coordinator, wrho relies heavily on phones and faxes to take orders and send merchandise. French has found that this marketing system gives her what she lacked in the traditional retail environment: a direct line to customers' views and needs. This allows her to respond quickly with new styles and designs—and that, she says, has been the key to her success.

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