Top strategies for importing goods into the UK

Caprice Bourret and four other owner-managers explain their strategies for importing goods into the UK.

Lingerie entrepreneur Caprice Bourret and four other owner-managers explain their strategies for importing goods into the UK.

Caprice Bourret, managing director of lingerie company By Caprice, has taken direct control when sourcing her materials

I attend two shows in Paris every year to find the latest designs, embroidery and mesh materials in order to get an idea about what’s out there. If some of these items are too expensive, I go to Hong Kong to show my suppliers the sort of materials I want. They then source the same items, but at a much cheaper price than if I was buying in Europe.

To avoid delays, I have to push everyone in the supply chain to ensure the materials arrive on time. In the worst-case scenario the goods get flown directly in, but that’s the most expensive option. If it’s their mistake, they pay for it, but if it’s mine, I do. So I constantly have to make sure I’m on the case.

Since I first started the business, a lot has changed. Before the recession, I had a middleman who sourced all the materials on my behalf. Now I do everything myself, which has not only saved me a lot of money but has made the process more efficient.

I’ve had to learn a lot – the biggest thing has been how currency exchange rates work. I now look at rates every day to see how our costs will be affected. To be honest, they are all over the place at the moment because our government doesn’t seem to know its arse from its elbow. Hopefully, after the election there will be more stability.

Related: Caprice – ‘I knew I had to think of Plan B after modelling. Boom: lingerie’

Zak Edwards, owner of gift site, says research is key when shipping products for Christmas

When I started the company around ten years ago, I had to traipse around a lot of trade fairs specific to our sector to source suppliers. Back then, it was a case of using anyone who would deal with us. We look closely at competitors’ websites to see what lines we should be importing, and now that we’re more established it’s easier to find products as a lot of suppliers approach us.

We do 60 per cent of our business at Christmas so we need all our stock in by September, or very latest October. Obviously, when you rely on a lot of your goods coming from abroad there can be problems. Crates can go missing or stock may arrive late; once, a ship containing our goods caught fire and sank. It can be a lottery, and it’s expected that a certain amount of materials will be late. The only way that we can try to minimise those things happening is to deal with reliable suppliers. If someone lets us down through a preventable mistake, we don’t use them again.

The other problem is that there often isn’t a sale-or-return policy with imports, so you are left with whatever you can’t sell. That’s why we have to get our forecasts just right on how much we’re expecting to sell, so our buying team has to do a lot of research.

William Opie, managing director of food manufacturer Bennett Opie, says a weak pound has made importing a less attractive option

A lot of the ingredients we use aren’t available in this country, such as stem ginger and green peppercorns. Some of the packaging, like the jars and the caps, is difficult to get hold of and we have no choice but to purchase those from Germany and Italy.

To be honest, no-one really wants the hassle of dealing with exchange rates, so where we can buy at home, we do. Since the pound became much weaker against the euro, our buying team has been exploring more sources in the UK. We used to get our pickled onions from Poland and Holland but now it’s cheaper to buy them here.

I personally visit all the factories to make sure the standards are suitable. If a product is exceptionally cheap, that usually sets off alarm bells that working conditions could be poor. We’re always diligent about checking standards.

The internet has made it easier to identify suppliers, but we also use food trade shows a lot. Our company has a long history, so we have suppliers in Italy that we have been using for more than 50 years.

Guru Jagat, founder of herbal tea company Hari Tea, uses third parties to identify ingredients

We work with different partners all over the world to source the ingredients for our teas. They find the suppliers and take care of the importing.

In the past, I was involved in sourcing suppliers and setting up projects for growing organic products in various countries. Back in the 1990s it was hard to find organic products, but there is a lot more awareness of them now, so we don’t have to take such a hands-on approach. Our focus tends to be more on the brand development these days.

Because we’ve been in the industry for a long time, I know a lot of people that we can trust. We’ve developed close relationships with partners who are conscious about what we do and look for people who are concerned about quality, are consistent and can give us a good price.

Jimmy Metta, MD of Vanquish Wines, says supplier relationships are key in a market with limited supply

Because we are in the fine wines industry, there is a limited availability of our products for sale. The most we can usually buy in one go is a crate of 12 bottles. It’s very different from the mass distribution of wine – I’d love to be able to get my hands on those sorts of quantities. We have around 20 suppliers of champagne and spirits and 50 wine suppliers based all over the world.

As it’s becoming a crowded market and there’s only limited supply, it’s so important to build up good relationships. Our suppliers need to feel comfortable dealing with us and know that we will pay them on time.

I started the company about five years ago, after a relative passed on a contact for a seller of Cristal champagne. From there, I quickly made a name for myself and it was a natural progression to move into other products. I bought efficiently and in bulk and paid the suppliers straight away with no credit, so they were happy to do a lot of business with me. I soon found that I was able to fulfil demand better than our competitors.

One of the biggest problems for us is counterfeit goods, something I’ve been burnt by in the past as some of the replicas look very similar to the real thing. I would always think twice now about simply being approached by a supplier offering to sell us products cheaply.

Once we have identified a new supplier, we do due diligence on them. We then ask for a photo of the product before getting the case shipped across to London and examined. We go through a rigorous process of examining the labels and levels of wine, and the bottles have to be in their original wooden cases. If everything checks out, we’ll then pay the supplier.

Nick Britton

Nick Britton

Nick was the Managing Editor for when it was owned by Vitesse Media, before moving on to become Head of Investment Group and Editor at What Investment and thence to Head of Intermediary...

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