Besides outrageous housing prices and great cafés, Vancouver has a distinction that may surprise some: It is home to the largest reseller of branded Italian merchandise in the world. And since 2012, it’s also been home to an exclusive shopping “club” that ferries Vancouver’s one per cent to and from the bricks and mortar shop — a condo-penthouse-turned-boutique — in limousines.
Colton International is a wholesaler that buys brands such as Prada, Gucci and Fendi from Italian merchants and resells them to retailers online, including some of the biggest e-sellers in Canada and the U.S.
“We sell to every major retailer and e-commerce company in the world, not only in America, but overseas as well,” says Howard Colton, the larger-than-life man behind the company. “We’re in a niche market.”
Colton’s Personal Couture, meanwhile, is the club, where members pay $25,000 up front for the privilege of shopping for his Italian name-brand merchandise at lower prices, while also availing themselves of the perks that go along with it, including the specialized sales service. A $7,500 portion of their fees goes toward membership while the remaining $17,500 becomes a store credit for merchandise.
The genesis of the pair of companies, which are wholly owned by Howard Colton, was as a buyer for Costco Wholesale. Colton remembers his first sale, in 1996, being tailor-made golf clubs to the ubiquitous mass marketer. His first online sale, which came along several years later and exponentially grew the company, was Giorgio Armani products.
In 1996, Colton International’s employees numbered three and sales were $2 million, a number that’s since bumped up to $75 million thanks to the lucrative online market and smart merchandising. Colton estimates that Colton Personal Couture makes up about $3 million of that. “Today, we have our own offices in Italy, where we employ 20 full-time employees, and we have offices in Vancouver, where we employ 25 people.”
Most of Colton International’s e-business is done in the U.S., which accounts for 75 per cent of its sales. Another 15 per cent of sales are in Asia while the balance — 10 per cent — are in Canada.
“We were innovators in bringing this type of designer goods to the internet,” Colton says of the early days.
The U.S. e-retailers to which it sells are well established, Colton says, but some of the Asian ones are less well known to Canadians. That’s why the company called on the services of Export Development Canada (EDC).
“We wanted to have insurance on uncertain customers overseas that we didn’t know much about, but that were very high-profile accounts,” Colton says, and adds that they tapped EDC’s accounts receivable insurance program.
“It was a comfort level to our bank if we could have those accounts insured. And it gave us comfort, knowing we could supply these things to our customer. It let us sleep at night, not worrying about the account.”
Knowing that option is there also gives Colton the confidence to go out and find customers who might otherwise be too risky or unknown to him.
“It gave us a chance to go out and find new customers,” he says. “It’s allowed us to open up in different markets with smaller clients. Most of our customers are credit insurable, but, of course, there are some that are not. Knowing that EDC will insure a customer gives us more confidence as well.”
For its part, EDC often prefers to support exporters in conjunction with their Canadian bank.
“EDC was introduced to Colton by a banking partner and they immediately caught our attention given their unique line of business with a focus on e-commerce and an international supply chain,” said EDC account manager Heather Stokes.
“Colton has an impressive showroom in Richmond and their luxury items from well-known brand names are certainly coveted by consumers. B.C. has a growing apparel sector and it is exciting to work with a seasoned exporter in this space.”