As part of our Expedition Series, I recently had the privilege of talking to Sarah Castle, Brand Manager at Mindful Supply Co. and former Wholesale Director at Home State Apparel, both North Carolina-based brands.
I met Sarah at Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show in Denver and she eagerly agreed to talk with me (totally grateful). We started our chat with her previous experience with Home State Apparel before moving to her (brand) new role with Mindful.
“I managed the wholesale department at Home State Apparel,” Sarah said. “I started as just an assistant there, and kind of worked my way up with the company. We were pretty small, 25 people, including a manufacturing facility.”
Let’s start with Home State Apparel. Tell me a little of how it got started.
Sarah: The thing about Home State, is they grew overnight. All of a sudden, they were trying to put in infrastructure in the wholesale department that they weren't prepared for, they just got really lucky, and sold a whole ton of shirts. A lot of what I did at Home State was kind of come in and say "Okay, let's build a SKU catalog. Okay, let's add a number to everything, and categorize things."
What were some of the main things you accomplished to help improve the B2B infrastructure at Home State Apparel?
Sarah: We built a wholesale website in the time that I was there to improve ordering. We also tried to kind of look at the marketing aspects of wholesale, because we realized very quickly that marketing for wholesalers versus for marketing for retail, like direct to consumers, is very different. The wholesaler doesn't really care about the same things that a consumer does. They want profitability, and they want reliability in the supply chain. They want to know that the sell-through is going to be there — things like that. As an example, they may not care as much if something is ethically sourced.
Let’s turn to the “now”. You're the Brand Manager at Mindful Supply Co. What does this new role involve?
Sarah: Mindful is owned by a group of designers. They started their T-shirt company about seven years ago. Over the past couple of years, it's really taken off and they needed someone to come in and help them establish a more of a clear brand identify and then they also kind of, wanted to expand their wholesale options and that's kind of where my background is. My primary background is wholesale.
So, my whole job here is to essentially look at their supply chain and their margins and all of that and say "Can we do wholesale with this?" and kind of move the company towards a wholesale focus. But, right now they are primarily direct to consumer. We're at events like MerleFest and bluegrass festivals and reaching a 35-50 year old consumer — part of my job is also going to be lowering that age group range to bring in the 28-35 year olds. I'm looking to expand our options a little bit.
Is this something that you're drawn to ... the company that's in transition, that’s looking for process and infrastructure?
Sarah: Yes, I really enjoy the logistical aspects of business. And I'm really fascinated by business ethics — the way that people do business and why they do business. Something that really drew me to Mindful was one of their slogans for many, many years was "Passion Over Profit", and of course, I am here now to focus a little bit more on the profit than just the passion.
But, I thought, that's really what I want to do is something that I feel good about doing every day. So, I like going in and saying "How can we do this ethically? How can we do this with standards?" and at the same time have that sell-through. It's a little bit of a game or a challenge ... putting the puzzle pieces together.
So, you touched on some of the differences between say, buyers and what their interest and needs are versus the consumer. Can you talk a little bit more about that and your experience with small and mid sized companies?
Sarah: We had about 1,500 boutiques at Home State Apparel that we were present in and we played with different ways for effective marketing. The question was often, “how can we make them pay attention?” because they (store owners) had between 200 and 1,000 vendors in their shop at a given moment.
So, the whole nine times things in front of the consumer — It almost feels like you have to do it more for wholesale. You have to be doing your social. You have to be doing your email marketing. But, you also have to be doing additional stuff. When you do your order, putting flyers in there reminding them of additional products that they could have, touching base with them through phone calls, etc.
Constant contact is important because otherwise if your product doesn't get in there quickly enough, they'll forget about you. They've just got way too much going on and then you have the potential to lose your square footage in their shop. It's constant.
What are some of the biggest struggles that you face implementing wholesale infrastructure while working with a smaller, growing brand? Are there ways that you prioritize? How do choose? What are the biggest headaches?
The first thing I did coming into Mindful was build their SKU catalog. I also made a list of everything that they offer and then had the team go through and have answer questions like, What is it that you like about this? Do you not want to keep this? We have group meetings where I ask, Where is the brand going? What do you feel good about? What don't you feel good about?
It allows me to identify where we currently are, what we currently present to the consumer, and what things we need to change in order to get where we want to be.
By making sure the brand’s foundation is there, then we know we have something to build on. If you don't have standards then you can't really build on anything. You just throw things into the dark and hope they work.
Based on your experience, what is the most helpful information for buyers to have about a wholesale products they're trying to purchase?
Sarah: Most often buyers ask about turnarounds, MSRP, and what you're selling it for versus what they can sell it for. Typically they want to know how it's made or what it's made out of and what the best sellers are. They're just playing a game. They're in there to see their best options and know that it will sell through because it's their job to make sure that sales are happening in the store.
Something that I've noticed a real positive response to are minimum orders. Knowing your minimums or what your minimum opening orders are is important, because a lot of people or stores don’t have the cash flow to start with a really high opening order.
Someone told me recently that North Face has a really high opening order (in the $10,000 range). Smaller boutiques can't do that. So, they'll often come in and say "We know you guys are well known now. What's your opening order?"
If budget and time weren't constraints, what would your dream projects be? Do you have fun, creative ideas you’re interested in exploring?
Sarah: At Mindful, what I'd like to do is make it more of a destination for people to go to. A website where you can find resources on being mindful in your day-to-day life, where you find gifts and goods that you could buy that are ethically sourced or ethically made, and to create a movement of mindfulness — how to be a cultural or lifestyle brand as opposed to just being a product-based business.
Product base is great, but it doesn't speak to many younger generations. We're all like "Great. Yay capitalism." But, we would like additional reasons to spend our money.
We want to feel good about where we spend our money. I feel like it's important for any business that's trying to grow in this political environment and cultural shift that's happening ... that you have something to say. Look at Patagonia. They're saying something else with what they do. They are like, this is our supply chain – we're completely transparent about it. Everything is on the table.
I think about young professionals, like me, who have some disposable income to spend. When we spend our money, we want to know where it’s going, and that it's not feeding something we don't like.
So, that's really what I want to do — build this company based on those ideas and values.
You're using Shopify right now. Is that your consumer facing site?
Sarah: Yes. I'd like to try and see if I can make it the wholesale site, too. But, we'll see — we're talking. The wholesale business should be out by Fall. But the thing is, there has to be a product that has a margin that can sustain wholesale pricing. That's currently what we're working on developing for Fall.
Ideally, I'd like to have the wholesale website launch around the same time. It will all depend on our resources and things like that, though.
Does your Shopify site integrate with your inventory and ordering systems?
Sarah: Yes. Shopify has a great inventory backend. They track all of that for you so if you are out of a product, it will tell the consumer (on the frontend) that it's not currently available, which is very useful. We want to make sure the wholesale site is equally transparent and communicative.
The thing about me is that I’m really honest. A lot of sales people just want to say yes. But, that can build distrust and if you're trying to present an ethical company based on mindfulness, I don't feel like that's really the way to do it.
So, I like the idea of being mindful in the way that we present our wholesale, which is to be transparent with our inventory and transparent with how we conduct business.
I thanked Sarah for the time and shared how valuable these conversations are for someone like me, who has a background in marketing, business development, and communication ... but who hasn't worked retail since college. "I'm hoping to build out this interview series so it can be a true resource for people," I said.
Sarah: I think it's really important. I don't remember always ... when I was initially starting in wholesale I wasn't familiar with it so I would go looking for resources on these the whys and hows of wholesale and there wasn't always much to find. For those of us who didn't go to business school, we're just learning the game as we go along. So, I liked when you said you were writing about it — I think it's really important.