As a 26 year-old young men’s buyer for the Bon Marche Department Store in Seattle (now Macy’s) during the late 1970’s, my primary departmental purchases were the disco styles that were popular at the time. I didn’t exactly like the styles; in fact I thought we were going through one of the worst fashion periods in history. But when these styles sold well, I thought they were fabulous. Although I personally didn’t like or wear the product I purchased, I certainly appreciated what my customer’s sought out.
After working at The Bon, I decided I wanted to go from the buy side to the sell side. I worked for a young men’s fashion wholesaler in Seattle as their VP of Merchandising. We primarily sold young men’s woven shirts to retailers and, just like at The Bon, I wasn’t a big fan of our product. But what I liked didn’t matter. What was important was that I understood what the stores we sold to wanted.
My next adventure was co-founding Ex Officio, adventure travel apparel. After recognizing a need in the fly fishing and outdoor industries, my business partner and I began making what turned out to be some of the most innovative fly fishing apparel and, outdoor and adventure travel apparel at that time. The catch: I had never fly-fished a day in my life! And my biz partner had only gone fly fishing a few times. How could we make such innovative product? I think it was because we had learned that the product we made wasn’t about what we liked, but what our customers were missing from their wardrobe. Ex Officio was one of the first companies to extensively use technical synthetic fabrics to make shirts and full fashioned pants. Personally, I liked and still like 100% cotton products. But, for the purpose that our customers were going to use our product for in outdoor and adventure travel settings, 100% cotton didn’t make sense.
Again, all those years of buying and selling “disco” fashions that I couldn’t stand, taught me a valuable lesson. Anyone can figure out what they personally like but the best companies figure out what their customers unfulfilled needs are before their customers recognize it themselves!