How To Build Your Brand With Boutiques

By: Janine Samuels 

The thought of entering the retail landscape for designers can be daunting. Approaching large franchises is realistically out of reach for a majority of brands but local boutiques could be a more achievable goal. Single outlet and small chain boutiques are a good place for designers to begin venturing into brick and mortar retail. Before pitching your designs there are a few things to consider.

Manage Your Expectations

Before approaching any retailer to hold your product, you should understand what that outlet can do for you. Small retail SME’s make less than R19-million annual turnover – that’s top line revenue, including VAT and discounts. They don’t move the same number of units as giant corporations. However, small to medium businesses, can give you attention and information that larger, chain stores cannot.

Smaller outlets are able to collect and communicate customer feedback regarding the fashion pieces they stock. Speaking with clients about their impressions of fit, colour, material and pricing is a common feature of how garments are sold. Boutiques are then able to speak with designers about the feedback collected directly from their target market. Think of smaller stores as a way to gather market research. You will be able to collaboratively work on designs and monitor how the products perform in real life. Sometimes the difference between a person buying or leaving a garment behind as simple as changing the colour. A small boutique won’t pay your rent but if you have the right approach, you can develop your products to find what works for you as a brand.

Make A Connection

Asking a small business to hold your product is like applying for a job: you should know the operation you’re trying to enter, know yourself and know what you want to get out of the relationship. Boutiques prefer holding collections from designers who approach them with the intention of building a long-lasting partnership with the store. This allows the designer and boutique to build a close working relationship.

The easiest way to get people to hold your product is to ask about it. Make an appointment with the person who makes the decision of whether to stock your product. There usually will be a ‘gatekeeper’ before you get to a formal sales pitch.

When you ask about the boutique’s policy, make sure you have a samples or photos in hand to show what kind of things you make. The initial impression matters. You don’t have to have your whole pricing list and contract with you but having visuals examples of your designs is necessary. You can show your Instagram page, website or any collection of well-shot photos that showcase your portfolio when you first make contact. This way your ‘gatekeeper’ will have something to tell the person who makes the real decisions before the meeting. If there is a time to chat with your gatekeeper; talk about your designs with them. Make sure to exchange contact details and follow up your conversation with an email or a phone call about the appointment for your pitch.

Be Prepared

When you go into your pitch, you should know your stuff. Be sure to do ample research prior to meeting with retailers. Being unprepared doesn’t just look bad; you could be duped by unscrupulous people if you don’t know your stuff.

Know what products you have to offer and bring samples with you. There should be enough variety to interest an owner or buyer but not too many to be clumsy. If the meeting goes well, you can bring the rest of the stock later. If you have a number of designs, bring the pieces you are most confident in and a catalogue of pictures of the rest.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for designers is pricing. Many designers don’t have an idea of where to begin. 

Small outlets carry either consignment goods -which means they keep it in store and designers are only paid once they are sold- or paid for inventory. Both kinds of stock require a retail mark-up. Consider the time, effort and materials you put into your garments and keep the cost down as much as possible. The designer’s price has to be at a wholesale point. Research on what similar garments sell for in a retail setting; then divide that price by at least three. You can’t sell your garment to a retailer at the same price point as a client at a design market because the retailer also has to add on their mark-up. Be prepared to negotiate somewhat when it comes to price but have a firm basement limit that you cannot go past. 


Once you have your garments in a store: communicate regularly. The benefits to being in a boutique are mainly to do with the information they can give you. They’re a focus group that gives you real-time feedback on product development. Make sure that you check in, ask questions and develop strong business relationships with the staff. Take the suggestions and reactions from customers to improve your designs and build your business.