Collaborations with designers will become more important, says Pongees MD
Four years ago, silk fabric specialists Pongees moved its London warehouse and offices to larger premises in Dartford Kent, while still retaining a showroom in the capital’s East End. Managing director Nick Moore explains why the move has proven even more fortuitous since Coronavirus struck.
The enlarged warehouse space meant that Pongees is able to retain a high level of stock of all our quality silks, which we import from Europe, China and India as well as purchase from UK suppliers. Stocks were high as we had just come to the end of the spring selling season and were in a good place to fulfil the orders that followed our attendance at UK and international exhibitions.
We were also building our online sales month on month and wanted to maintain the momentum.
At the beginning of lockdown we immediately arranged for our office staff to work from home. We also introduced a rota system for personnel in our warehouse and sample room so that we met the regulations around staff safety but continued business as usual.
Once orders declined, it was only sensible to take advantage of the furlough scheme for some of our staff without compromising fulfilling orders.
We have been lucky in that our business has not been reliant on supplying the big high street retailers and brands, although we have been caught with unpaid orders from a couple of the businesses that have closed. This has made an immediate dent in our profits, not untypical of what has happened to similar companies.
We had a record year in 2019 and were looking forward to beating these figures again this year but it is highly unlikely that this will be achieved. Now we are viewing these current uncertain times as an opportunity to fine tune the business, ramp up our marketing and look at new customer segments.
Pongees has been in business more than 80 years and we want to be around for another 80 at least!
Our business has been used to dealing with designers and brands who order little but often and that is where we see the business continuing. We are proactively reaching out to new prospects directly and through social media.
While we have concentrated on sales to the fashion, bridal, lingerie, and special occasion wear and interiors sectors, we are now looking to sell more into fabric shops to tap into the increase of home sewers.
We think that a legacy of the lockdown will be that consumers will remain home sewers making more of their clothing as well as items for the home, such as bedding and curtains.
Many of the UK fabric companies are merchants, not mills, so we are reliant on our suppliers and our sourcing skills. This gives us the flexibility to test new fabrics and keep the collection fresh. Our partnership with Portuguese supplier SanMartin is something that we will look to replicate with similar businesses going forward. As buyers and suppliers reduce their travelling time they will need representation in their export markets so that customers have an opportunity to see the range in person as locally as possible.
Most of the UK silk suppliers offer the same basic fabrics, distinguishing ourselves through depth of colour and variety, quality, price and service. While we are competitive, the current crisis has seen co-operation between businesses, with each other helping out a competitor who has not had the fabric to meet their customer orders due to disruption to deliveries of fabric from overseas mills. It is all our interest to ensure that designers get the fabric they need and keep them ticking over.
We are currently working with our web developers to upgrade our transactional website, continuing to invest in SEO activity, linking to our social media posts, so that we rank as high as possible when buyers are looking for silk or London showrooms … we are one of the few fabric wholesalers with a presence in the capital and we will promote that advantage further promote once lockdown restrictions are less strict. The showroom is also ideally placed for fashion students studying at colleges close by.
We are also using time to research customers and review our in-house systems so that we are as slick as possible in all areas of our operation.
While nothing beats the actual opportunity to feel a fabric, to look at how it drapes, to easily compare one weight with anther, we are looking to be well placed to present the collection as best we can using technology with videos. Virtual meetings are most certainly going to be of major importance over the coming months and probably de rigueur for much longer.
Collaborations with designers will become even more important, and we will be continuing to support students.
We have been doing the right things but have to increase the intensity and remain positive.
We are continuing to invest in the future, but with the flexibility to adapt the business to meet what will be a changing world of how fabrics are sourced by ourselves and our customers.
While scary at times, we are determined to be one of the survivors so we’re currently testing new ideas about how we can improve the way we service our customers.
UKFT is in constant dialogue with the government and is outlining the latest support available for businesses on our website. We will update the details as and when the situation changes.