This year it was Millau we travelled to and nothing seemed to have changed in forty years: chilly temperatures, most restaurants and shops closed for the season. The glove industry for which Millau is so famous grew out of the Roquefort cheese business so a visit to the Roquefort Caves was essential. In the village of Roquefort in January only the chemist is open; not a single other shop, restaurant or bar.

Knowing that the hugely important French lamb business originated well over a 1000 years ago as a by-product of cheese explains a lot about its quality. Those interested in business will know about Path Dependency and how the present evolves out of the past. Like the QWERTY keyboard this sometimes leaves us with odd legacies. Roquefort cheese comes from sheep milk and this meant the sacrificing of the lambs whose extremely small skins were best suited for gloves. They were also without a blemish and with a beautiful fine grain.

Whenever I am given a new project I spend time trying to understand the context. Sometimes it looks like a waste while hours are spent searching for information. Yet understanding what we now call the Resource Based View of the French Glove Trade is important to understanding it today, and I was there to research a book I am writing on the subject. The starting point used to be directories, back issues of trade journals, magazines like the Economist and the Encyclopedia Britannica. Today, the Internet makes any such search a thousand times faster but fraught with the danger of jumping to conclusions from a mass of doubtful data and opinions. Building a framework of sound knowledge over a long period helps identify when bad data or short-term trends push themselves into the limelight.

Filling in the gaps in Millau

To fill in gaps in knowledge market research is required. Initially when I suggested doing some in the leather industry I was laughed away. It would be too expensive and the leather industry anyway “is a specialist industry” and does not fit with other businesses. Market research can indeed be costly and should be properly budgeted. Yet useful information can be built up at quite low cost using Omnibus research, online tools like Survey Monkey and direct email or phone. Quite often in business-to-business situations the populations to be surveyed are quite small.

In Millau the temperature was around 00C yet very few people appeared to be wearing gloves. Given this was a city that still defines itself as the “capital of glove-making” after a couple of days we did some quantitative market research. From the comfort of a window seat in a bar overlooking the main intersection we watched shoppers and commuters. However ridiculous you may consider this activity the results were undeniable. The best estimate was two in one hundred people wearing gloves with almost zero for men.

Now French lamb is expensive and so no leather gloves for sale in Millau were cheap, but there were a lot of cheap textile gloves around – knitted or using technical materials like Polartec. It just looked as though the citizens of Millau would rather keep warm with long sleeves or hands in pockets. Some Millau glovers blame the student riots in Europe for the moment when the regular gloves fell out of favour (sorry, I was part of those) but hoping for a future entirely in high fashion and gloves for film stars does not feel correct. It is time for the glove industry to look for ways of getting ordinary folk back into gloves of any sort, and then in due course seeking out quality leather gloves for best.

Most of the Millau glove trade was too busy to help with my book. Perhaps they are also too busy to look out of their windows and see what is happening to their trade? Acquiring knowledge need not be expensive but requires an open mind.

Mike Redwood

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