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Coterie Panel

As retailing gets more competitive and market share is harder to come by, partnering can make or break a new brand as well as an existing one. Accessories Magazine sat down with three experts on the subject at the Maris Studio x COTERIE booth to discuss. It was a lively discussion with plenty of audience interaction. Panelists LeeAnn Sauter, Founder & CEO, Maris Collective; Jennifer Heim, Creator, Jemma Sands Jewelry; and Ling-Su Chinn, Owner and Designer, Blue Life all share their expertise. Below: key excerpts.

 Lauren Parker, Accessories Magazine; Jennifer Heim, Jemma Sands; LeeAnn Sauter, Maris Collective; Ling-Su Chinn, Blue Life 

Lauren Parker, Accessories Magazine; Jennifer Heim, Jemma Sands; LeeAnn Sauter, Maris Collective; Ling-Su Chinn, Blue Life 

Tell the audience a bit about Maris Collective and why you work with the two brands here.

LeeAnn: We have stores around the world that create platforms for brands as a direct line to a really terrific customer. Our stores are based on bespoke environments and you’re sitting in one today. I’m very passionate about these two women sitting here today. I’ve been working with Jen/Gemma Sands since we started Maris Collective. She was one of the first new brands we helped launch in a way at our stores. We really believed in her story… and her product. Ling, on the other hand, also has multi-brand retail stores. We’re both are in the multi-brand retail world but we choose to think, ‘how can we work together’ vs working in silos and not compete with each other.

How often do you add new designers? 

LeeAnn: Ling’s product is a very new collection and 20% of the collections that we bring into the store every year are new designers. We like to find people that we believe in and ask: What is the short and long-term vision? Who are we picking as partners? What are they creating that we believe in to promote? We’ll be doing a capsule collection with Ling’s A Bohemian Life in stores in December and we’re to evolve that collection and turn it into a lifestyle brand long term.

Do you think traditional boutiques don’t do enough to partner with brands? What should retailers do more of? 

It’s really about creating an emotional experience for our guests; evolution and change. Looking at lines and helping them grow and evolve so it’s not the same thing again and again when customers come in. It’s about starting with the client, understanding her, and interacting and communicating with her. Give them something that they don’t know they want, but present it in a way that’s really interesting so they keep coming back. We’re friends with our clients, we listen to our clients, we take them on our buying trips with us. We take it that far… and we’re not a small company. We really pay attention to what people want. So getting them involved and creating an emotional bond to these wonderful brands, gives the brands longevity and really keeps the clients loyal.



How can brands stay true to their vision but also listen to the feedback retailers are bringing you? 

Ling: I listen to my retailers all the time. I always do special deliveries for them. I call it The New RED. You have to be Relevant, have an Experience and be Desirable. A lot of retailers are really catching on to that and letting us know. Today they came in the booth and I stopped doing a top that I’ve done for 10 years, but it’s still relevant to them so I’m going to do it for them even if it’s a small quantity. because I think it’s important. To stay alive and be branded, you really have to work with your retailers. And listen. 



Is being in the stores and meeting the customers essential to a brand? 

Jennifer: For Jemma Sands, in-store events are incredibly important. I’ve done everything from a basic trunk show to make your own bracelets, to hand-stamping initials, and tye-die your own T-shirts are coming soon. We do it all. The customer just wants to be involved and wants to feel that it’s personal.
LeeAnn: We do a minimum of 60 events a year at our retail locations, either with our designers or something we come up with our teams. It really works. It will double your sales if you have any energy that you create in your store. It’s a really important part of retail that people underestimate.

When it comes to social media, should retailers sit down with their brands and devise a strategy, or should it be more organic? 

Ling:  Both. I have a whole team that works with the brands. Sometimes its organic and sometimes it’s a partnership of when exactly we’re going to post so it’s win-win for both.



Jennifer: Same. If we’re doing a trunk show, we want everyone to see where we are and what we’re doing. We’ve done takeovers. If we’re doing a whole event with Planet Blue, we want everyone to know. If we do an event with Maris, we’re taking over their Instagram, or they’re taking over ours… and travel around the world that way. We want people to feel the experience and make that connection. Our customers that maybe aren’t in the store want to know and be there and shop via Instagram. Today it’s the most relevant and timely thing we can do. It changes every day and you have to just go to the next step tomorrow and be ahead of the game.

Is Instagram the most effective social media platform?

Jennifer: Yes. Both pictures and live. When I was in Maui in August, I did one photo of a one-of-a-kind pair of earrings and I had 6 people show up to buy those earrings and they were sold before everybody got there. People just want to… they’re constantly on their phone and looking for this escape… and escape from what they’re doing… wow you’re in Hawaii on the beach wearing these beautiful diamond and sapphire earrings and they want them! And then they go and find something else. Instagram Story is relevant. And tomorrow there will be something new to figure out to make it relevant and more shoppable.

And do you tag retailers in your Instagram posts? 

Jennifer: We go out of our way to tag and support the retailer. The best way I can support someone who is supporting me is to reciprocate. If I’m visiting or shopping, I want to support and tag them and drive the business to their store. I don’t have a store, I will never have my own store. I think it’s very important for me to be a designer and manufacturer and support the people who are supporting me. So yes, tag Planet Blue, tag Saks, tag Maris Collective… that’s how your business evolves and grows.

Is it a Catch-22 for a retailer to discover a brand, nurture it and make it a success, when now other retailers can get it too? 

LeeAnn: We support our designers and we wouldn’t be here doing this if we didn’t want them to grow. But that doesn’t mean we won’t be successful if they’re out in the marketplace. We’ll have a different partnership then they might have with someone else. We want to see them succeed and grow so they can grow with us. I can’t stress this enough: the reason retail isn’t doing well is because people are not working together. Creating efficiencies from a retail standpoint is definitely what changed the game. And that’s what Maris is trying to do.
Ling: I agree 1,000% percent. At Planet Blue, we’re about discovering emerging brands. And the minute we put them on the brand, they call us and say thank you because they got so many other accounts. I look at it as a compliment to support the brands because it’s a win-win for all of us.
Jennifer: My growth coincided with LeeAnn’s growth and really branding what is so important when you’re launching your company. Maris Collective gave me a platform to stay true to who I am; to take my brand integrity and what’s in my DNA and continue to evolve from there. I wouldn’t have evolved the same way but I believe everything happens the way it’s supposed to happen for a reason. It’s hard work but you constantly have to evolve and innovate. For me, I can do that with my partnerships.
LeeAnn: A lot of people who run companies come at is as ‘This is what worked in the past.’ But the past is in the past. NOW it’s about communication and working with each other to create the new. You can’t have people who continue to look at something the same way. We say: evolve and change, don’t burn down the furniture. If it’s not working, you need to take a new approach and make a hard right.

As a brand grows and gets picked up elsewhere, are exclusives more important than ever to avoid redundancy in the market? 

Ling: Of course. People want exclusives more and more and more. You have to differentiate yourself. People want that experience and the desire within their own brand. It really creates the brand within a brand.
LeAnn: On the flip side, the brands have to keep evolving. We’ve worked with Jennifer and Jemma Sands for many many years and done better year after year. She’s evolved using our feedback and we’ve done tons of exclusives with her. But she also does things with other retailers. And now we’re able to bring in a Bohemian Life collection. We’re going to do better and better with Ling’s collection and continue to do well with Jen’s and evolve both of them, and other brands come in behind that and it just works. You have to pay attention to the new and help grow the people that have been with you since the beginning. For us, 20% of the merchandise we deal with is exclusive to Maris, and there are various exclusivity factors because we don’t allocate product. The brand launches, we can have some exclusivity for some time and then we give it to the world! Exclusive is great but it’s really about getting the right product at the right time. I didn’t even hear the word exclusive 10 years ago, but from the first day we opened our doors, part of our business model was I wanted 20% exclusive product.

Here’s a question for the brands: What’s the best piece of advice you got from Maris Collective? 

Jennifer: Never stop innovating. Never stop creating and just don’t be afraid.  Color outside the lines and really innovate.
Ling: I’ve recently met LeeAnn and she is somebody to be reckoned with. She has a lot of very innovative ideas and she did an unbelievable job here.

How can a brand grow without saturating the marketplace? 

Ling: It’s all about partnerships. You can have a big business with very few stores if you create a partnership.
LeeAnn: It’s a fine balance too. If you’re in apparel and starting out, you haven’t nailed your production yet. I work with a lot of designers and I say please don’t come to a show and get too big too quickly. I feel very passionate about doing it when the time is right, when you have enough SKUs, enough assortment, enough different types of product… You need to work with someone who can help you build the plan. It’s not about stores dictating what they want and how they want to work with the designer. It’s really about the individual designer and how they can work with the retailer and what is the best plan for everybody to have mutual success.

What’s some advice for a brand new brand trying to get started? 

Ling: I would say number one you need a good sales team. And you really need to understand the market before even getting into the market. Social Media is #2.
LeeAnn: Find the retailer that you want to work with, talk to them, and find the right person within that organization to give you honest feedback. Come up with the executable plan. Really work with those people and make it a win for them and a win for yourself. Find the right platform. I love social media but I also think people love real things too. Find where somebody can experience your product the way you want it experienced.
Jennifer: Be true to who you are but take it one step further and find ways to stand out. When I started, I sent packages to people and I did it my way. There was jewelry dumped into a box of Jelly Bellies. I was trying to get somebody’s attention. Cute, right? Send them a pizza! Offices love doughnuts and fun stuff. People are at their computer all day. Make it fun for them.

In a convention hall of brands, how do you find one you want to partner with? 

LeeAnn: First, it’s the product. I walked the show on the way in and I put on my client/consumer hat, which is my favorite hat. I’m shooting my buyers emails way too often asking ‘Do we carry this?’ and I love it when we do. Then it’s really about the interaction. I think that is something why we’re here as Maris. We’re looking at this experience as a store. Our buyers only buy product they love, even if they’re filling a hole. If we have a hole and can’t find it, we’ll go to our partners and have them create it. We think about what will resonate with our clients.

How can specialty stores compete in this environment of online and Amazon? 

LeeAnn: It’s one of the reasons I started Maris Collective. It goes back to partnerships. We partner w/ stores so from an SG&A standpoint [Selling, General and Administrative Expenses, which is a major non-production cost presented in an income statement]. Operational costs of running a specialty store are very high… you need great experienced teams, need to enter all the data… it’s a very complex and costly model. And that’s why it’s hard for specialty stores that have 1-5 stores. So we go in and work with people in different ways to help them operationally be successful. Even the Big Box stores are doing differently now and specialty retailers need to take their stake in how they’re working differently as well. We believe this is the way to do it and create the profitability everybody needs. How do you creative synergies and efficiencies from the cost standpoint so you’re more successful and easier to be profitable? That goes back to why we’re here, working together instead of working in silos and competing with each other.

Can designers and/or retailers come together for new efficiencies? 

LeeAnn: It needs to start to happen. That goes back to why we’re here. At Maris, we’ve been studying this bespoke model and how to work with people and different retailers for 10 years. I’ve been very patient with it and we now work with over 4,000 designers worldwide and have also introduced 30 designers to the U.S. So it’s really about coming together and this is the time to do it to make that happen. The designers are trying to stay alive too and big and small, they’re having a lot of demands put upon them. I’ve very respectful of that but it’s really about sitting down and communicating and coming up with a master plan. I go in and we have an eye; we have 200 employees on my team that can look at things individually and help retailers tweak things that can increase their sales revenue overnight by 30%. We see it time after time.




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