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Only two hundred years ago most of the fabric that our pioneering ancestors used was imported from England. In fact, the textile industry was so vital to England's economy that neither the machinery used in the production of fabric nor the people who operated the machines were allowed to leave the country. At the end of the eighteenth century, an English textile mechanic named Samuel Slater settled in Rhode Island and opened a spinning mill. With improvements in spinning and weaving techniques, Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin, the perfection of the knitting machine, and the development of the Jacquard loom, the textile revolution in the United States was on its way. This was the important beginning of an industry that can produce enough fabric to wrap around the Earth 250 times. What's more, our textile industry provides jobs for hundreds of thousands of men and women!

About half of all the workers in the textile industry have jobs in mills that weave fabric used in clothing or household furnishings. About one third of the workers produce the knit fabrics that we see in stockings, underwear, and other knit garments. Still other workers put color and design on the cloth or are involved in the manufacture of carpets, rugs, lace, embroideries, threads, and various sewing accessories. The production of textiles is complex and offers many varied activities and occupations, ranging from the production of yarns to the production of woven or knitted cloth and the finishing of that cloth by workers who add color, texture, pattern, and ease-of-care features.

Large textile plants are concentrated in New England-where the textile industry was born-and throughout the southeastern part of the United States, with heavy concentration in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

In the early 1900s, the number of textile-producing plants in the Southeast grew, since that part of the country had lower labor costs, cheaper steam and electric power, and was closer to the all-important cotton crop. Today, the Northeast employs a great many workers in the manufacturing of lace, ribbon, fabric tape, and in the weaving and finishing of wool. New York City, however, remains the heart of the textile industry in terms of the designing, styling, and selling of the fabric, though some smaller design and sales centers are located in New England, Philadelphia, and on the West Coast.

As the textile industry serves one of our three basic needs-that of clothing-it is an essential part of the nation's economy, even though it is very sensitive to economic changes. It is one of the few industries in the country that places great emphasis on creativity and artistic expression.

Textile designers, colorists, stylists, merchandisers, and other skilled workers all play an important role in the creation of the more than ten thousand different designs produced every year. Imagine the range of career opportunities available for those with creative talents and the proper educational background!

Although the textile industry is one of the oldest in our country, textile advances in the last twenty years have been astonishing. Fabrics that require no ironing or that have the ability to stretch as you move were unheard of only a short time ago. The range of new fabrics includes the heat-resistant textiles used in an astronaut's space suit and even the tires on a jumbo jet. In research laboratories, more and more exciting advances are being developed for the world's increasing needs, which means that researchers are needed to produce new wonders-new finishes, new colors and dyes, new blends, and new fibers.

Merchandisers, salespeople, designers, technologists, and stylists also are needed as these areas of the industry become more sophisticated and customers want something new and different each season. There is a place in the textile industry for the scientist, the salesperson, the artist, the accountant, the production analyst, and a host of other skilled people. The textile field offers challenging and promising careers along each step of the process from fiber to finished fabric.


Not too many years ago, the salesperson was viewed very negatively-as a slick character without much sense of responsibility toward the customer. It was assumed that a sale was made by pressuring the client with a fast-paced sales talk. Fortunately, the image of both textile and apparel salespeople has changed greatly in the recent past.

With the wonderful technological advances of the 1950s and the 1960s, efficient new high-speed machinery became part of the textile industry. It became possible for every manufacturer to produce fabrics and garments at standard levels of quality. This brought about a new focus on salesmanship. In the early 1960s, management established an interest in training better salespeople who could help the company meet the growing competition in the years ahead. The accent was on anticipating a customer's needs and on offering a full range of services.

Today's salesperson is an important representative of the company who is able to talk intelligently and knowledgeably about a product and give reputable advice and direction to the customer. Some salespeople sell fibers to yarn manufacturers, while others may sell yarn to fabric manufacturers. Still others sell finished fabrics to garment manufacturers or makers of home furnishings. All salespeople must be fully familiar with their lines, and with their firm's policies and procedures. The salesperson also must be part technician to fully understand the basics of the textile or apparel manufacturing process, as well as being aware of fashion and color trends.

Selling the product is the most competitive area in the textile and clothing manufacturing process. It is considered a highly respectable and profitable profession for men and women who have what is sometimes called a "sales personality." Not everyone is cut out for a sales career. But for those who have the potential for sales, the opportunity and the financial gains are great.

Sales Trainee

Many large textile firms, fiber or yarn companies, or apparel manufacturers hire beginners as sales trainees. This gives recent graduates the opportunity to work closely with more experienced salespeople and allows them to have a good look at all parts of the sales department. The training period can be as brief as three months or as long as a year and a half. During this training time, the sales trainee learns as much as possible about the firm's product and production process, merchandising techniques, and about the customer's needs. All the while, valuable experience is gained for the future.

The trainee is expected to perform any duty that is related to the sales operation. Often this is as simple as hanging up samples of fabric and tidying up the showroom. More often it means becoming completely familiar with the firm's product or line; greeting customers in the sales showroom and presenting the line to them; learning to determine a customer's needs; going out with an experienced salesperson on sales calls to manufacturers or retailers; carrying the samples for the sales-person; doing all the clerical work related to each day's sales; and assisting with the billing, shipping, and handling of the orders.

Some firms have very formal training programs. Workdays are very carefully planned for the trainee, who may be asked to spend a few weeks with each senior salesperson and then spend more time in the billing or shipping departments. Other firms are more casual in the training they offer. Here, sales trainees are expected to observe the entire sales operation and pick up information with each new experience, either formally or informally. After several months of looking, listening, and learning, trainees become valued additions to any sales department.

Beginning sales trainees generally work in the company's showroom, supervised by an "inside" salesperson. Customers with appointments and some who just drop by unexpectedly will want to be shown the latest lines. The sales trainee assists the customers and the other salespeople in any way possible.

Once trainees have mastered basic sales techniques and have acquired a great deal of information about the firm's line, they may be considered for "outside" sales. This means calling on customers in their offices and bringing a line of samples along for them to view. They also may be expected to build up their group of customers and add new accounts to the firm. For people who like the idea of being on the go, rather than remaining in the sales showroom day after day, this job can be very rewarding. For those who are eager to travel out of state and feel ready to move wherever the company needs sales help, it is an excellent job to consider. Most major firms employ experienced outside salespeople who are responsible for servicing a particular part of the country, or territory. Thus, it is necessary to have experience as a sales trainee or showroom salesperson before being considered for an outside sales job or road sales.

Many selling positions pay a flat salary, and many pay a salary plus a percentage of the amount sold. This percentage is called a commission. Very experienced salespeople can expect to earn a great deal on commission. They may even have an arrangement to work on a commission basis with no salary if their sales record is very strong. However, it is recommended that beginning salespeople never work on a straight commission basis. It takes years of solid experience to build up good sales techniques and a strong customer following that can be relied upon to provide a steady income.

The Responsibility of the Salesperson

New technology and a changing marketplace make new demands on today's sales force. Successful salespeople have always had to convince, persuade, and then sell the product or service. Today's salespeople must be knowledgeable enough to educate their customers as well. Buyers may not be informed about the latest features and up-to-the-minute technology that is quickly spilling over into many facets of our lives.

An informed salesperson can fill the role of educator by explaining the uses and benefits of a new fabric or fiber and thus help secure the sale.

The successful salesperson meets complex challenges: giving attention to both the needs of the customer and the interests of the company. In addition to working hard to get as many orders as possible, it is the responsibility of the salesperson to observe what is happening in the marketplace and accurately report back to the company. This vital information can affect the production, the design, or the marketing of the company's product. As salespeople are always dealing with customers and listening to their requests and ideas, they are often the best equipped people to report back on what is current and new, and what is expected by the customer. All accounts must be visited and serviced, and follow-through on each and every order is essential. There is a need to make sure that all delivery and production commitments are kept and that the merchandise is delivered exactly as ordered. Customers must be told of changes in prices, new styles and trends, and new fabric developments. And, of course, customer complaints are always a part of the salesperson's life and must be dealt with courteously.

Although making appointments and trying to develop leads on new accounts occupy a good percentage of salespeople's time, they also must spend much time planning their sales presentations as new items are added to the line and older goods are taken out. If they are knowledgeable and familiar with the line as well as with the color, style, and fabric trends for the coming seasons, they will be able to represent their company in a professional manner, while at the same time providing their clients with the best service.

A whole new area of inside selling is growing with telemarketing, or selling by telephone. Important developments in communications have led many businesses to telemarketing. Many firms are able to cut costs and increase sales by allowing their road sales force to sell by phone as telemarketers. Firms no longer have to support a large outside sales staff, and they can more easily reach new customers quickly and more successfully via the telephone.

The Sales Personality

What makes a successful salesperson? Let's examine some of the traits that comprise the "sales personality." These are often the qualities sales managers look for when they hire beginners as sales trainees.

Maturity: Can you work well under pressure? Can you deal with the strain of the selling process? Can you handle many different people who have varied personalities? Are you able to accept the rejection of your line and quickly bounce back, without feeling you are a failure if the sale is not made? A poised and self-confident candidate is definitely ahead of the game.

Aggressiveness: Can you approach a customer-perhaps even a brand-new customer-with interest and enthusiasm about your line? Can you convincingly present your firm's product and encourage the customer to buy it? Can you make sales without pushing merchandise on customers that may not really be needed? Can you give your company as much business as it can handle? Will you give up easily when you meet an uninterested buyer, or will you try to keep the contact friendly and attempt to make the sale?

Integrity: The salesperson's character and reputation in the industry may quickly determine her or his success. It is important to gain the trust and respect of customers. Having integrity means being truthful. It means dealing honestly with the customer about the product, the date of delivery, the price, and any other factors concerning the sale. Salespeople will be judged on their performance, and it is essential that they live up to all commitments that they make. Promises can be easily made to get a sale. The difficulty arises in fulfilling those promises-late shipments, undelivered merchandise, and backed-up orders soon become the mark of the unprofessional and unsuccessful salesperson.

Creativity: Do you enjoy dealing with old situations in new ways? Are you able to ask yourself, "How can I do this better?" Can you take a good look at any routine and try to improve it? Salespeople are the all-important link between the customer and the product, and by adding a bit of personal style and creativity, they can please the client as well as the firm.

Sensitivity: Will you be able to adjust to the moods of the many people you will be contacting on a daily basis? Will you be able to respect another person's point of view and still maintain your own? The ability to be sensitive to the needs and desires of the customer allows the successful salesperson to know exactly when to forge ahead and when to deal gently and tactfully with a client. In some cases, it may even mean knowing it is necessary to put off the sale and return at a more appropriate time.

Appearance: Are you interested in the latest style and do you reflect it? In the fashion world personal appearance is obviously of the utmost importance. But beware. Being flashy and overdressed can be as damaging to you as being out-of-date and out-of-style. Many textile firms tend to be fairly conservative, so a well-tailored and a well-groomed look is generally the most appropriate one.

These qualities, coupled with a strong interest in sales and the ability to communicate clearly and easily, can often be the start of a successful and financially rewarding career in textile or apparel sales. In addition, a pleasant manner, willingness to work hard, enjoying contact with people, and an assertive style are a plus. More than ever, college graduates are being sought for positions in the sales field. Major companies prefer men and women with a four-year college background, but also will consider those with a solid two-year textile background for these competitive sales trainee positions. In very small firms it may be possible to be considered for a sales trainee position without such specialized school training. Previous sales experience, even on a part-time or summer basis, is often deemed sufficient.

Think seriously about a career in sales. Today's salesperson is well regarded as a leader in business and as a professional in the fashion field.
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