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American Sourcing Executives: You Need to Leave Your Office and Travel!

I have spent the last five out of six weeks on the road: from Heimtexil in Frankfurt to Bread and Butter in Berlin, and from factories in Karachi to Dhaka. Traveling with this intensity opens my eyes to new trends and new resources and, in general, keeps my finger on the pulse of the business. I find no replacement for feet-on-the-ground experience.

It’s strange, as an American, to often feel like the odd man out. If there was one interesting, and somewhat surprising, thing I noticed repeatedly, it was the absence of my fellow Americans. Where are you guys? Why don’t you travel?

I suppose I could chalk up your aversion to travel to the holiday season; I’m sure Christmas in the U.S. beats a week in Dhaka. But I wouldn’t feel compelled to write this blog post if this were an isolated occurrence, rather than an identifiable trend. I’ve also discovered that Americans hardly ever go to international trade shows or to the major sourcing hubs abroad.

I really think Americans need to step up their game. I’ve been traveling back and forth to Asia regularly for a decade now, working for several U.S.-based brands and retailers, and the experience of having your boots on the ground is invaluable. Many of you are missing out on enriching experience, unproductively emailing your days away.

And when you do travel, it’s an empty gesture that misses the point of the experience. When I talk about the importance of traveling I don’t mean a business class flight to your Hong Kong office, or a 24-hour stopover at the Radisson in Dhaka to have lunch with your agent. I mean visiting the factory your office suggests for your next order. How else will you make an informed decision if that factory satisfies your company’s code of conduct? Or maybe take the opportunity to approve samples in person, rather than wasting six weeks waiting for DHL to deliver different lab dips. You can also visit your agent’s office and learn about the product development he’s conducting or what product he’s been shipping to what markets. Seeing how others source a product may even inspire you. At the very least, you’ll likely learn how others design at a certain price point or what fabrics are being produced and sampled.

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Why even leave your office and fly to remote parts if you’re not going to take advantage of the opportunities available to you?

I’ve learned that Europeans, in contrast, really understand that a hands-on approach yields better results. Whether it means visiting their agents abroad or inspecting their own factories, or taking a few days to tour Heimtextil for ideas, they understand the value getting your hands dirty brings.

Of course, Europeans have foreign offices and agents just like we do. However, their designers and sourcing teams work collaboratively to make important decisions at the factory itself. If they reject a wash, they go back four days later to see it in revised form at the washing unit in the factory. They search for new fabrics and products and price out garments at the factories so they know what they’re buying before they leave. They meet with fabric mills, negotiate the price and then, and only then, pull the trigger. They visit the factories over and over again, capitalizing on every opportunity to learn more about their business.

Having worked for both buying houses and trading groups, I’m able to speak from experience about how foreigners take advantage of overseas travel in a way most Americans don’t. We often wonder how they react so swiftly to trends as they emerge, how they turn goods so much faster than us. Some of this can be attributed to a superior decision making process, but much of it is a consequence of their willingness to travel and stay in closer contact with their suppliers.

I know many will curse me after their bosses ask them to fly to Asia next week. But hear me out: once you recover from jet lag and Delhi-belly, you’ll be glad you made the trip. And don’t forget to sign up for the frequent flyer program on Etihad–you will appreciate the upgrades when you’re flying long distances four times a year.