Testing your market is vital when it comes to running a business. You might have a great idea of what your customers want already, but you can always know more. It means you can give the customer exactly what they want, develop a stronger product, and also prove to others that you know the demand is there.
Maxine Thompson is the founder of PolkaPants, creating stylish and practical chef’s trousers for women in the food industry. Here’s how she tested her market.
Getting started with market research
My primary method of market research was done by talking to women in the industry at every option available in the early days, just to discover if this was a common problem. I put together a short questionnaire (around 10 questions) regarding the preferred shape, fit, colour, length and any few features that they would appreciate on the pants.
I sent this out to every culinary school in the US and in the UK - targeting the next generation of chefs entering the industry, as these people have the potential to be in the industry for a long time, and possibly be long-term repeat customers.
I then collated all this information (of surveys that were returned to me). There were probably about 200 - so not a huge amount of data - but enough to get an idea of key features, colour and styles women prefer to work in (there were a LOT of requests for pineapple print trousers!)
We know and appreciate that women come in all shapes and sizes, so I tried really hard to design a trouser that would suit all body shapes, regardless of size, height and hip size, without having to go down the line of ‘the petite stye’, ‘the curvy style’, ‘the tall style’ that so many brands seem to offer now. Woman have such warped perceptions of their body types, so I felt this would create a whole world of customer service related problems later down the line and be expensive to roll out three different styles rather than one. So we decided to try and perfect one - one waist height, one leg length and one style for everyone.
I was fortunate as due to my fashion background I was able to develop the original pattern and sew the original samples myself out of sample fabrics, so we were able to keeps costs quite low.
When we were happy with the final cut and shape, we had a sample in every colour made by the production studio, to test the sewing quality, and then we also had to wear and wash-test each one to see how they reacted to different washing conditions and kitchen chaos!
Working with feedback
After the initial sample run of 100 pairs we decided to add a piece of protective fabric behind the zip to stop it rubbing or catching your skin, and added a button at the top (inside). I had originally decided against the button, due to personal experience of only having 30 seconds to run to the bathroom mid-service, and didn’t want to button to play too much of an important role in the holding up of the trousers as buttons can and do very easily fall off. However, due to customer feedback, we have adapted this.
Feedback has helped to make the pants a higher quality product and also has allowed us to adapt to our customer needs; we now offer a wider range of sizes and custom-make longer leg lengths. Eventually we’d like to offer a fully customisable product; so you can choose the colour, label colour, leg length, additional pockets and other features… one day!
As a final note - in some ways you never really stop the market research, sampling and improving phase! We take all customer feedback very seriously and are continuing to develop our product. I am constantly talking to women about trousers, and I look at every sommelier, bartender, waitress, chef, baker and butcher to see what they are wearing, how they are wearing it and why. You have to be constantly researching so you can make your product the best and keep your market engaged and your customers happy (and keep them coming back!).
- Troubleshoot EVERYTHING and give samples to a number of people to wear in different settings and circumstances. I gave mine to bakers, chefs, home cooks, photographers and food stylists - all of whom will wear them doing different activities and bend, stretch, move and pressure-test the product in different ways. We need to get honest and constructive feedback, even about the smallest details! You are thinking about so many different aspects when you are organising that you sometimes overlook the most basic things, like the colour of thread.
- Talk to people who have done something in a similar field before - I talked to, and still do speak with a number of other designers, studio managers, pattern-cutters and individuals who run their own businesses. Ask hundreds of questions; you personally don’t know what you don’t know, but someone will!
- Double-check everything that you order! One of our original fabric agents sold us one thing at a trade show and the fabric he sent us was completely different, which I didn’t realise until we had already cut 100 pairs (as our fabric is sent straight to our production studio). On receiving the stock I was devastated as the quality was not half as good as the original one that we had sampled. So we put those 100 aside, sent the fabric back and had to find a new supplier. Now on fabric delivery days, I make sure I am in the production studio to receive it and make sure it is what we originally ordered!
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