How this designer locks in wholesale prices

Designer based in Birmingham, Alabama Douglas C. Davis has adapted its approach to shopping as its namesake business continues to adapt and grow. These days, sourcing challenges have altered his loyalty to suppliers and helped him clarify what he expects from his partners.

Douglas C. DavisCourtesy of the designer

When you started your business, you resisted opening business accounts. What was it ?
I thought we were just going to find unique things for each project. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into always selling lighting brand X or upholstery brand Y. But over time we changed that strategy, partly for price, but also for quality. If you find things that are always good and in stock and then refill with unique pieces, that solves some easy problems.

Was it difficult to run a design business by sourcing only one-of-a-kind items?
It was – and it didn’t create the variety we expected because we were always shopping at the same places. If we could have traveled the country for each project, it might have worked, but that’s not always the case. Opening a trade account is a smarter pricing and buying strategy for us.

Are buy-ins and order minimums a big hurdle?
We opened a saddlery account this year with a fairly large buy-in. We had to wait until we had a big enough job to not own a bunch of products in order to get just one thing.

Have you ever wanted a room so badly that you just bought, say, six more chairs?
To access a line of lights at a great price, I bought more than I wanted this summer, and more than I probably should have. But it can make sense when the opportunity arises, especially if it’s a long-term strategy. Now we have wholesale pricing with this account forever, and look what this will do to our profit margins three years from now. It is worth investing from the start.

Did you work from the start to get into the wholesale level?
No, I don’t know if I understood all of this as well as I should have when I started. Fortunately, as my company succeeded, [wholesale purchasing is] an opportunity given to us. I started with two people in the office, and now we are six. It’s taken a decade of organic growth to get to the point where I feel like we’re really getting aggressive pricing on things.

Is your relationship with suppliers different depending on the category?
We’ve found that we get the best prices on things like upholstery and lighting. Fabric pricing is sort of what it’s all about – I don’t think there’s another level of pricing we’re going to get into with this. When you buy from multi-line showrooms, the prices are quite well controlled.

If not, how can you look for better margins on the product?
Finding custom vendors is the last frontier, as it gives you the opportunity to weed out the middle person. Now I don’t know if I want to start printing fabric, necessarily – I don’t want to have to put my fabric in every project just because I have a good price on it, or write in our aesthetic because I got a bunch of stuff in a warehouse. I don’t want it to stop being about design, but of course we all want to make more money. We used to buy these beautiful custom English dining tables from an antique store that we love; then we realized that there was someone there who reproduced them perfectly, and instead of getting 20%, we now get 60%. We also have a great blacksmith who will make any piece of steel we can think of, so instead of buying a black metal bookcase from a retailer like Room & Board, we can have it made to the inch ourselves. . And in addition to better margins, these opportunities to make the project truly special for each client are important.

Has the pandemic changed the way you work with your suppliers?
I know we’re all tired of talking about logistics, but it’s not going away, it’s only getting worse. Brands that have stuff in stock is great. And those who have exactly things in stock, even better. Vendors sold us something then turned around and it doesn’t actually exist or told us they had 100 yards but later told us it was in six pieces and the cuts weren’t working. It’s really important to have access to accurate information, so that we don’t show people things that we know they can’t get. It has changed how we shop and who we shop with, to some degree. We’ve become much more loyal to some successful vendors, and we’ve also realized who we can’t rely on so much.

This article is part of a series of interviews that explore different approaches to shopping, offering tips and strategies to make sourcing a business more efficient, more inspiring and more profitable too. You want to know more ? Check out the rest of the series here.

Photo: In a new build, Douglas C. Davis has designed a decidedly modern kitchen with a sense of tradition. | John Allsopp

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