Op-Ed: Retail Survival Depends on More than Just Speed to Market

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Speed to market has been among the most talked about topics in retail in recent years, but while brands and retailers focus on simply cutting days out of production processes, many don’t realize the critical role consumer experience plays in introducing greater speed into the supply chain.

With growing competition, consumer demands and pressure for faster deliveries, speed to market is more essential than ever in the apparel and footwear industries. But speed to market requires more than just cutting down on production processes—it requires delivering consistently high-quality products through a seasonless development process that allows for continuously available fresh product.

The importance of consumer experience

Today’s consumer wants a shopping experience with seamless, end-to-end gratification, including stores designed for fun and inspiration, input on product designs and new technologies to explore, like in-store virtual product try-on. But above all they want freshness—new product in the omnichannel all the time.

Unfortunately, factory bottlenecks have made it difficult for many companies to deliver this customer experience. Specifically, while brands and retailers are striving to create optimized demand chains with a pull-versus-push product strategy, their factories haven’t been able to accommodate this change in paradigm.

Among retail’s problems in delivering on those consumer demands, have been challenges at the factory level. Brands and retailers are looking to create optimized demand chains, a pull versus push strategy for product, and many factories aren’t yet aligned to accommodate. Add to that, labor costs are continuously rising, the pool of skilled labor is continuously shrinking and constantly country-hopping to chase the lowest cost simply doesn’t work anymore.

To overcome these challenges and achieve the real speed to market needed for growth and survival, forward-thinking leaders should concentrate on three key areas: thinking in days, not months to sure product freshness; producing right from the start to deliver faster; and cutting manufacturing lead time by embracing lean processes.

Thinking in days, not months

The retail environment is quickly evolving, and in five years, today’s newest strategies to speed supply chains will be the new normal.

To begin, companies must rethink product design. They should standardize a high percentage of materials and components, design with manufacturing in mind, and increase the frequency of collections. Season-less product launching will soon be commonplace, with brands and retailers moving from 2 seasons per year to 6, 12, 24 or more. Manufacturing lead times will shrink to as little as 30 days, and tier-2 material vendors may start supplying with a mindset of days rather than weeks.

Brands and retailers should immediately shift their thinking, as the benefits of product freshness can already be seen at retailers that have remained successful despite the industry’s general malaise.

For instance, at T.J. Maxx, where comparable store sales continue to outperform analyst expectations, a continuous product rollout has fueled the “treasure hunt” sensation for consumers and resulted in increased foot traffic. At Zara, the release of new collections every two weeks has given rise to the “scarcity sensation,” encouraging shoppers to buy on the spot. This strategy has also allowed Zara to avoid the vicious promotional cycle.

Conversely, Macy’s has largely stayed wed to its summer and winter collections, plus capsules, and its stable supply of brands and big discounts. Not surprisingly, the retailer has been struggling to get out of a longstanding sales rut.

Producing right from the start

Once brands and retailers begin thinking in days, not months, getting factories to work in this same manner entails transforming their facilities.

Accomplishing these goals requires creating a factory culture of managing with data, numbers and metrics. In addition, it requires optimizing Tier-1 and Tier-2 relationships to allow for close partnerships that find ways to reduce material lead-times by 30 percent to 50 percent. Materials must arrive with extremely high levels of quality so that they can go directly-to-cutting without the need for time delaying 100 percent factory re-inspections.

Cutting manufacturing lead-time by embracing lean processes

Transforming factories also requires standardizing processes and enabling quick changeovers. To do so, companies should embrace lean strategies to maximize production flow and dramatically reduce manufacturing lead-times to hours and not weeks.

A key focus of this effort should be on creating a culture of continuous improvement. Seventy percent of the efforts should be on change management and only 30 percent on implementing the necessary tools, like line balancing, standardized work, Kanban.
Companies should take steps to ensure that new behaviors and habits become a day to day standard for leaders, instilling values like discipline, accountability, transparency, positive energy, experiment-to-learn, and safety. In turn, those values will result in a culture of high worker engagement and a mentality of continuous improvement.

Case studies for achieving true speed to market

Brands and retailers that are already focusing on these areas—through the implementation of a comprehensive quality assurance and continuous improvement programs—are yielding substantial results, as demonstrated by the following examples:

Women’s fashion footwear retailer. The brand, which produces more than 50 million pairs of shoes each year, faced delays among its Tier-2 leather supply chain. By implementing a Leather Quality Assurance Program with direct-to-cutting upon arrival from the tannery, it slashed 12 days from its supply chain. The company also improved its on-time delivery of its tanneries from 40 percent to 78 percent within the first 12 months. 99.5% of leather shipped without factory claims and nearly 98 percent went direct-to-cutting without factory re-inspection.

Casual women’s footwear brand. The brand, which produces more than 25 million pairs of shoes each year, was challenged to move production out of China due to cost reasons. In the new manufacturing country, they were getting a first-pass-rate of only 23 percent resulting in massive shipment delays. The company implemented a Footwear Quality Assurance Program, allowing it to reduce its rejection rate to less than 4 percent in only one season, thereby allowing it to meet their promised ship dates. Program teaching and coaching instilled a strong focus on quality among the factory’s artisans and supervisors, fundamental for the long-term sustainability of the transformation.

Ultimately, despite the many competitive and financial challenges facing the footwear and apparel industry, producing fresh, high-quality, efficiently made products remains the key to your future success. Your Survival = Consumer Experience * Speed2—the only way to ensure the sustainable satisfaction of all of your customers is to transform your demand chain now.

About the Author

Jose R. Suarez is the founder and CEO of Impactiva, the world’s leading supply chain optimization solution provider for the apparel, footwear and leather goods industries. Learn more at www.impactiva.com.

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