The Interview: Aron Sharpe, Managing Director, Options Fashion Distribution
Aron Sharpe has been in the fashion distribution business since the early 1980’s and has seen many ups, many downs and plenty of uncertain times throughout that period, though none quite as uncertain as the current coronavirus threat poses. Having adapted his company’s business model in the past year, he’s remaining positive and better prepared for the times ahead, though he knows full well that right now we can only take one day at a time.
What’s different at Options?
We changed the whole business about six months ago, so we’ve been a bit fortunate in a way. I dropped importing all the brands we had from Italy last season, such as Colmar, Antony Morato and a made in Italy denim collection from French swimwear brand Vilebrequin. I moved away from that area of the market because I felt there was going to be a significant drop in business. The historical market of independents who we grew up with have gradually faded away – or become part of JD Sports or Sports Direct. That’s not where we felt our market was moving forward. We work on small margins as it is, and they want unworkable discounts. The reality is, that’s not a business for me, because it’s all for the benefit of the retailer. So, we re-focused our business in a different way - going further afield to the US and Japan for more niche brands but, as well as distributing them, we run the ecommerce sites for them as well. It’s interesting because it’s a totally different business. We’re therefore not as exposed as much as we would have expected to be previously.
What brands are you working with now and what distribution deals do you have?
The brands we’re concentrating on working with now as European distributors are Pendleton, Tanner Goods, Quoddy, Reyn Spooner, Peck and Snyder, Ebbets Field Flannels, Poten, and Dubbleware. We’ve also have licenses – with US Rubber Company and Colchester Rubber Co. vulcanised sneakers, and we’ve just taken on a great Korean brand called Uniform Bridge. We will only work as full European distributors because our business is geared to selective distribution and positioning. We’re not here just to write numbers, it’s a long-term game plan. We’re trying to only work with the best independent businesses, not with chain store groups and PLC’s. In terms of the UK, we’re supplying brands for the top tier retailers that are left, such as Mr Porter, End, Matchesfashion, The Bureau and Kafka, as well as other quality independents that are still dotted around the UK.
What’s your take on how independents are generally doing?
Everybody is suffering, but I think the retailers who repositioned themselves over the last few years – so they are not competing with the high street and retailers selling the same brands – are faring a lot better than the ones who are still trying to compete. A lot of independents have moaned about distribution policies, but they are the ones that haven’t moved their product offer on to make them stand out and be different to what’s on the high street. They are the ones that we see are now having the real problems. Some are even being dictated to by companies regarding their brand adjacencies, and told that if they don’t comply with them then they will pull their supply of products.
What’s your take on how coronavirus is hitting the business?
At this point in time we really don’t know how it’s going to play out. It’s changing on a daily basis. I would hope that by the end of April this will have subsided and we will be some way back to normality. If that’s the case, then I don’t see it over impinging the season. But, theoretically it could go on for months, and we could end up seeing a bloodbath in the retail sector, which would be scary. In terms of the Chancellor’s announcement last week about Government help for struggling businesses, I think at the moment he’s focused on particular industries that are going to be really heavily hit. I’m not sure how you tap in to it, because I’ve searched the internet to see what exactly it means to our sector, and it’s not clear for me that it will actually help any clothing businesses.
Are you currently having trouble getting paid for what’s already been delivered for SS20?
There are a few clients who immediately used coronavirus as an excuse before the real issues started regarding payments due, but it’s the your usual slow payers who are straight on the phone to you. Then there’s the other genuine guys that you talk to who work with you. We are going to have to look at helping out as much as we can, giving payment extensions if we are able because of the way things are.
Have your deliveries been affected?
No, because we’re fortunately not working out of China or Italy. America had threatened to put the duty up at one point, but thankfully they didn’t do anything with it. There was a lot of bluster about it. We’ve delivered everything from the US, Japan and Canada. In fact, we delivered the lot before the coronavirus crisis started, which was more fortune than strategy, if I’m honest. Dealing with a lot of smaller companies meant we were able to deliver early. Going forward, I don’t think the deliveries are generally going to be a problem, the problem will be whether the client can accept them all, which we understand, but it’s a problem for everybody because the goods are contracted and somebody gets hurt. So, it’s going to be about finding a resolution with everybody somehow.
What do you think the future holds?
It’s an unquantifiable position right at this point, and things are changing so quickly. No-one knows how long this is going to go on for. In terms of everything we’re importing, I just don’t know, it’s too early to tell. Never the less, business has been really poor here in general, so it’s just another layer of problems for the retailers to overcome. They’ve been paying very high rents and rates, so this is another real smack in the mouth for them. And it’s going to be hard for everyone all round. What we’re saying now is, if it’s a new client that we’re dealing with, then we’ll expect a deposit from them until the lockdown lifts, as it’s easy for them to say they’ll take the goods in, but they’ve got no commitment to financial exposure, where as we have. So, we’re being very careful from this point on. Quite simply, if they’re not prepared to pay a deposit, then we’re not prepared to bring the goods in during these unquantifiable times.