Ukrainian apparel producers in Canada: Five steps to success

Olga Shtepa, coordinator of the CUTIS project, explained the specifics of the Canadian apparel market and provided five practical tips for Ukrainian apparel manufacturers to become successful exporters to Canada

Canada is a northern country. Due to its mostly cold climate, it is a powerful player in the field of warm clothing and home to such well-known brands as Canada Goose, Mackage, Sentaler, Rudsak or Moose Knuckles. Canadian consumers spent $36 billion CAD on clothing in 2018. Apparel imports in Canada have grown from $10.1 to 12.5 billion CAD over the last four years.

This is definitely good news for Ukrainian companies because thanks to the Canada-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement (CUFTA) and the abolition of import duties, Ukrainian clothing has 18% preferences on the Canadian market compared to imports from such powerful global players as China. All this creates attractive conditions for encouraging Ukrainian clothing manufacturers to export to Canada right now.

Each manufacturer, of course, has its own path and understanding, but based on the experience of the Project, we suggest reflecting on the following basic steps to enter the Canadian market.

The first step is to have an English language website. A simple but user-friendly site that presents the manufacturer’s products and basic company information in good English is the only opportunity to make a positive first impression on international partners. Therefore, if you enter international markets or are interested in attracting foreign buyers you have to consider developing a website, though not an extensive, but at least a business card website.

Clear photos, fabric composition with descriptions of care options, existing sizes and prices are a small list of information you need online.

Price is the main and decisive tool in any market. Therefore, the second and very important step is the detailed and calculated price for your own products for export. It is quite difficult for an enterprise that does not yet have export experience. A detailed analysis of competitors’ retail prices for similar products in a potential retailer’s chain may be useful. You also need to have a clear understanding of further logistics and additional costs associated with shipping products to a buyer overseas (transportation, insurance, brokerage services, importer fee, etc.). Also, depending on who the Canadian buyer is – a big retailer or a small boutique – the retail price of the end consumer must be divided by 3 or 6 to get the approximate manufacturer’s price. Ukrainian manufacturers usually operate in US dollars or euros, so keep in mind the conversion rate of the Canadian dollar. It is also not necessary to include value-added tax into the export price calculations.

I recall a story told by a friend of mine who recently moved to Canada and found his first job. Responsible work in the office, a managerial position, a large company, so he preferred the classic tie suit. His Canadian colleagues were very surprised and kept asking him all day about the cause of such a solemn style. There were lots of options offered – from baptism to funeral, so the next day he was forced to change his “look” to a more democratic one.

It is also not customary to emphasize one’s high position in society or financial status by accessories such as precious watches, jewelry or expensive attire. Wealth is irrelevant, and the determining factor is the person and his or her success. Clothes should be, first and foremost, comfortable and neat, but also affordable. Therefore, Canadians usually buy a lot of clothes to be able to wear something new every day without spending a lot of time washing and ironing.

Canada is a multinational country that is made up of many groups, mostly ethnic, and all have different styles. Indeed, it is quite a common situation when people wear down jackets in combination with flip flops in winter, or shorts with fur winter boots.

In major cities, Toronto and Montreal, the entire transportation system and social infrastructure are designed to stay indoors for months: underground passage with shops and restaurants, direct exit from buildings to underground transportation stops significantly reduce the demand for heavy and warm winter clothing. Understanding these features and forgetting the stereotypes is the third step for a Ukrainian apparel exporter to Canada.

Step four is to get rid of misconceptions about your own products. Our manufacturers believe that it is enough to offer high-quality products made in Ukraine using state-of-art technologies with the equipment of well-known world brands out of natural fabrics in accordance with the latest European trends in fashion and it will be all immediately bought. This scheme may work in Europe, Asia or the Middle East.

The Canadian market is completely different. Canadian buyers have appreciated the quality of Ukrainian products during the CUTIS project trade mission. Ukrainian products compare favorably with competitors as they look modern and follow the latest fashion trends. According to an expert on the Canadian clothing market, Ukrainians can make even stockings look attractive.

In Canada, however, they prefer practical clothes that can be washed in a machine without further ironing – clothes made from fabrics with polyester, viscose and elastane. This saves time considerably. Clothes should be light, comfortable, sensible, inexpensive and, last but not least, attractive. It is not common here to consider purchasing a coat as a family investment. Canadians would rather buy a few less expensive wardrobe items than one thing they will wear for ten years to then preserve for posterity. For many Ukrainian manufacturers, especially those who have experience exporting and selling in international markets, this situation is an unpleasant surprise. Even the free trade agreement between Ukraine and Canada that provides for customs-free import of clothing made in Ukraine does not save the situation. After all, Ukrainian manufacturers have to compete with companies from India, Pakistan, China, whose products, though taxed, are still cheaper than Ukrainian.

Step Five: prepare for the presentation of your products to a potential buyer. It would seem nothing complicated. However, this is a very important step in finding orders in the Canadian market. Large Canadian buyers are “spoiled” and accustomed to queues of potential suppliers in their waiting rooms. For example, during the CUTIS trade mission, one of the well-known buyers said that they received an average of 180 emails a day with commercial offers from around the world. So you can imagine what an unusual offer and what quality that should be to get their attention! Businesses negotiating with Canadians should be well informed and aware of the smallest details of their offers. Awareness and honesty are highly valued. Canadians do not accept evasion from answers. Our favorite phrase “how much will you give?” works great in Odessa but is perceived as unprofessionalism in Canada. Parrying a question puts an end to any further communication. Even exchange of business cards has certain specifics, which many do not even know.

There is a logical question: since everything is so difficult, is it worth doing? What is so attractive about the Canadian market and why should Ukrainian manufacturers go there?

The Canadian market means, first and foremost, stability. Having got a new supplier, a Canadian buyer is inclined to cooperate on a long-term basis – for ten, twenty or thirty years, and this is by far not the most impressive duration.

The purchasing power of Canadians is much higher than that of Ukrainians or Poles. In 2018, for instance, Canadian consumers spent CAD 8,650 on goods and services (FMCG). Ukrainians, by comparison, spent only about CAD 4,000. Payments under the agreement with a Canadian buyer will be in freely convertible currency. In addition, Canada is the closest neighbor to the most economically developed country – the United States, and it is much easier to cross the southern border than to try making contacts in the US from Ukraine.

As part of its activities, the Project has produced a lot of practical and theoretical information that will be of use to any manufacturer planning to export to Canada. The most up to date are industry-specific manuals that bring together all knowledge base on the exports of footwear, clothing, furniture, goods and ICT services. If you need a “live” consultation you can contact the Canada-Ukraine Chamber of Commerce, which provides practical advice and consults on exports to Canada for over 25 years.

Ukrainian manufacturers have already achieved considerable success in making the products that meet high international standards, so now there is a little left to do: to offer it professionally to Canadian consumers.

Do you know what our main advantage is compared with Chinese, Indonesians and others? The ability to learn very quickly regardless of the internal or external circumstances. This is our main competitive advantage and the key to success.

Author: Olga Shtepa, coordinator of the CUTIS project 

Source: NV.UA