Q&A with Nicole Higgins, The Buyer and Retail Coach

Nicole Higgins has had an enviable career in the fashion retail industry, working as a buyer for some of the UK’s biggest fashion retail brands. Now, she runs her own consultancy business in Yorkshire and offers her expertise to both entrepreneurs and established businesses. As part of our series of interviews with Yorkshire business owners, we spoke to Nicole to learn more about her career and to gain some valuable advice for those hoping to make it in the fashion retail world…

Hi Nicole, could you introduce yourself, please?

I’m a business consultant based in Yorkshire with my husband and two children. After spending 18 years working in buying for retailers such as Primark, M&S and Debenhams and sourcing products from all over the world, I wanted to set up my own business. I work with entrepreneurs to help them make their product ideas a reality. I also work with corporate businesses on special projects.

How did your career in the fashion industry begin?

I had my first taste of fashion at the age of 17 when I began working on the shop floor for an Irish clothing retailer. I was hooked and I knew that I wanted to do something in the industry. There weren’t many universities in Ireland at the time offering the type of course that I wanted. I relocated to Huddersfield and started Fashion Design at the university there. From there, I started at Debenhams as a Buyer’s Administrator and then I progressed through other companies and departments to my most recent role as Head of Buying at George.

What would you say are your proudest professional achievements to date?

Being the buying lead that set up the health & beauty department at Primark a few years ago. I had just come back from maternity leave and was tasked with growing the department with a small team. They were long days but it was rewarding to be able to witness it turn into a multi-million-pound business it became over 2 years and I’m proud to have laid the solid foundation for the success that it continues to achieve today.

Sustainability is also very important to me and I was very proud when, as lingerie buying manager at George, we changed several ranges to have sustainable & recycled fabrics for the following seasons at no extra cost to the consumer.

Lastly, setting up my own business, The Buyer and Retail Coach Ltd, I love seeing the progress that my clients make after working with me whether they are an entrepreneur, an existing business or a blue-chip retailer.

Have you faced many challenges during your career? If so, how did you overcome them?

Where do I start! I think anyone who has worked in retail knows that it is a very challenging business as you are dealing with so many external factors.

By being a quick thinker and decision-maker, I am able to identify issues and act fast to find solutions. I also have the ability to see the bigger picture and see past the problem at hand. It’s important to stay calm, positive and resilient and to not let challenges overwhelm you. Asking for help is also vital. This could be internally within your own business or externally. Others may have been in your shoes and experienced the same challenges. You are never too old to learn!

You’ve worked as a buyer for some of the UK’s leading fashion retailers. What advice would you give to a graduate hoping to get that first foot through the door of such companies?

Do as much relevant work experience as you can and whilst working make sure you network. When you are finished what you were asked to do ask for more! Impress them so much they ask you back!
Use Linkedin to follow and engage with the businesses that you want to work for so that when you are ready to apply, you have already developed a rapport or connection. Make sure you do the right prep work and research prior to interviews and show them that you want the job.

We’re seeing more and more high street retailers closing their doors. What would say are the main reasons for this?

The number of empty shops on UK high streets is at its highest in 6 years. The pandemic has acted as a catalyst but that aside, many retailers were struggling before covid. Rising rates and rents are forcing businesses from the high street and customer footfall is now lower with people shopping online or at retail parks.

Also, some businesses have lost sight of what the customer wants or who they are aiming for and they have overstretched themselves from a financial point of view. They either don’t have the cash flow to continue or they need to look at reducing their overheads.

You now use your experience and entrepreneurial skills to coach startups. What are the key things to consider when pitching a new product to a major retailer?

I have a free download on my website www.thebuyerandretailcoach.com that goes into detail in this but I would say my top 10 would be as follows.

  • Before you pitch make sure your pricing is right and that you will make enough profit if they proceed to buy from you.
  • Is your product aligned to their customer? Does it fit their customer demographic?
  • Tailor your pitch. All retailers are not the same so do your own research and try to understand what their pain points are and how you can help alleviate them.
  • Be able to verbalise/demonstrate what makes your product different and how it stands apart from the competition.
  • Ensure you have great visuals/samples of the product. Buyers are visual people and a picture/sample tells a thousand words.
  • If you have great reviews or sales information share these with the retailer as it offers increased credibility to your product.
  • Be clear on how many you can make and when you can deliver. Let them know your minimum order quantity and your lead times.
  • Ask what their payment terms are. Depending on the size of the retailer, you may be waiting up to 120 days for payment – can your cashflow handle this?
  • Are you logistically set up to deliver to them?
  • Smile, be confident

What sort of support do you offer established businesses?

I offer a variety of programmes from coaching packages to something bespoke to their needs. I can work on their vision and strategy and work together to build a roadmap to get there. I can work with them to find the right suppliers to help their business grow.
I take a critical look at their business and offer my advice on how they can make their business more successful
Also, I can work on project tasks that they would like me to manage. I’m Prince 2 qualified so I have a certificate in project management.

How do you personally define business success? Is it money, freedom, influence or something else entirely?

For me it’s a combination of all of the above but also happiness. My happiness and wellbeing, the happiness and wellbeing of my family and the knowledge that I have a positive effect on the businesses and clients that I work with.

Finally, what book do you think every entrepreneur should read?

I couldn’t pick just one, so firstly Richard Branson’s autobiography, Losing my virginity. It’s a very entertaining read of all the challenges that he experienced and his reflections on those early years.

Secondly, Profit First by Mike Michalowicz. He discusses a system that manages your business and finances where profit is the key component and everything else comes after that. He gives clear direction on where and how you should be spending your money so that your business is profitable.

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