business

Baby Steps in Kids' Products

A designer with retail ambitions needs to start small, with local shops and holiday boutiques, and build word of mouth

By Karen E. Klein

Q: I design children's clothing and infant crib sets, and I want to start selling them retail. Are there copyright or licensing issues I should be aware of on the fabric that I use in my designs? How do I start building up clientele and marketing my products?

---- E.N., Anaheim, Calif.

A: If you're purchasing textiles on the open market, you don't need to worry about violating copyright law or licensing agreements, experts say. The only time you might address those issues is if you want exclusive use of original designs for your products, and if that happens, you'd probably go into partnership or sign a licensing agreement with the creator.

You should obtain a resale license and find suppliers that will sell you the fabric you need in bulk quantity at wholesale prices, says Jean Gipe, a textile consultant and professor of apparel technology based in Los Angeles. This will reduce your cost substantially and boost your profit margin. Gipe suggests looking for suppliers in the B2B Yellow Pages under the "manufacturing" heading.

Start marketing the products slowly, with just a few designs, so you don't get overextended financially or wind up with orders that you can't fill. You might buy booths at several of the holiday boutiques and street fairs that are gearing up this time of year as a means of seeing how popular your designs are, making some early sales, and gathering names for a mailing list. You could also visit local baby and children's shops and see if you can interest them in carrying a few of your products as a test, then go back and sell them larger quantities if the items move well.

KEEP IN TOUCH.

  You can increase your business by sending direct-mail promotions to the customers who sign up for your mailing list. Make sure to ask for an e-mail address as well as a street address. Happy customers will introduce their friends and relatives to your designs, but you need to keep in touch with them so they remember and refer you.

Don't be afraid to mention your new business to friends and acquaintances when they talk about holiday shopping or looking for a gift for a new mother. Make up business cards and hand them out. There's nothing wrong with promoting yourself, and you don't have to be obnoxious about it.

As you get better established and you can handle more business, seek publicity beyond word of mouth. If you can spend some money, hire a public relations consultant to help jump-start your efforts. A professional will help you put together good-looking promotional materials, product pictures, and press releases, and send them to the places most likely to get you some publicity.

SPECIAL ORDERS.

  If you can't afford outside help, read industry and consumer publications carefully and note those that feature products similar to yours. Then send the editors a letter introducing your company, along with some samples of your designs, and suggest that you would love to cooperate on a story that would be valuable and interesting to their readers.

Finally, make sure you listen to your customers. Find out what they're looking for and what they want. If you don't make the items they need, consider adding to your product list. Be available to do special orders and make up one-of-a-kind products for the nursery or a special birthday. You can charge a premium for special-order items that take some extra creativity but don't have to cost you any more in terms of supplies or time. Being available, reliable, and following through are all important to establishing good relations with your customers.

Have a question about running your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at smartanswers@businessweek.com, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 6th Floor, 2 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE