Here are some additional hints to turn you into a buying wizard. Some of them come from John Schulte, chairman of the National Mail Order Association in Minneapolis.
1. Study the competition. Only by knowing what's selling well will you be able to zero in on hits and avoid misses.
2. Join trade associations and subscribe to their journals. Many trade magazines offer yearly trend predictions, based on extensive research.
3. If you have only one great product, consider what will happen when the market becomes saturated. Always widen your perspective to consider piggyback products that will continue to generate income after the best-seller begins to fizzle.
4. Take a look at products outside your industry that match your niche--or could be adapted to benefit your customers. Most florists only sell flowers, for example, but they could easily market floral books, stationery or even flower-themed jewelry to their existing customers.
5. Give products a trial run if you can afford it. Find out if the supplier will take the products back if they don't sell.
6. Study the biggest companies in your field. Look for niche products you can sell to their customers.
7. Pick your best-selling product and brainstorm ways to change and improve it.
8. Hook up with local designers and craftspeople. Ask them to create something new and exclusive that you could feature in your store or catalog.
9. Cut out pictures of five products you're thinking of selling. Paste them on a sheet of paper and ask potential customers to rank the items in terms of appeal. Purchase only the top one or two.
10. Don't take vendors' words for product quality; ask for samples and test them yourself.
11. Talk to "people who have everything." What was the best gift they received in the last year? How about the worst?
12. Avoid products that are too complex or those for which the buyer needs to be educated. When computers first came out, for example, they only sold well in stores with knowledgeable salespeople who taught consumers how to use them.
13. If you have employees, don't designate only one or two as buyers. Encourage your entire staff to come up with ideas and reward those who pick winners.
14. If you are online, develop a suggestion database for customers.
15. Watch your costs. If you are selling a fragile vase by mail, you may have to pay through the nose to see that it arrives intact. Forget such additional costs and you can end up losing money on a hot product.
Lillian Vernon Corp., (914) 637-5625, fax: (914) 637-5800