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Lean Retail – Making Apparel Business More Sustainable

The operating environment for the fashion retailers in India is only moving towards a more challenging and competitive direction even though the market is yet to mature. The market has grown over the last two decades on account of brand proliferation and developing retail network and more recently due to new product category creations. High consumer awareness and exposure to international trends has cut the product life cycles short. Topping this up, the last 12-18 months has witnessed the growth of the online platform offering an alternate, convenient and cost effective shopping option for consumers.

It is necessary that fashion retailers manage their operations efficiently both in terms of managing a complex and responsive supply chain at the back end and delighting the customers at the store with great product offers and customer service. Adopting lean practices can help fashion retailers to achieve significant improvements in store profitability and customer satisfaction, making their retail business sustainable through a positive impact on bottom-line.

The concept of lean philosophy, pioneered by Toyota, is built on the premise that inventory hides problems. The basic tenet of this philosophy is that keeping the inventory low will highlight the problems that can be dealt with and fixed immediately instead of maintaining inventory in anticipation of any bottlenecks.

“Lean retailing” is an emerging concept and has  already been adopted by retail organisations in the Western countries using technology such as barcodes, RFID (across the product value chain from raw material sourcing through production through final delivery at the retail store) and item-level inventory management and network architectures.

In an ideal scenario a retail organization would be lean at both the store and the distribution center. The organization would leverage technology such as RFID to uniquely identify the movement of its inventory accurately and use fulfillment logic as per the store’s merchandizing principle to have replenishments in tune with customer demand.

Some international retailers that have adopted lean retailing techniques include Wal-Mart, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, The Gap and J. C. Penny. Applying lean philosophy to fashion retail in India may sound like an avante garde concept as of now. However, there are some leading large retailers in India such as the Future Group who are early adopters and have already adopted lean practices in their retail supply chain.

An understanding of what lean retailing is and some of its principles can help in appreciating how this concept can make the apparel retail business more sustainable. Lean retailing aims to continuously eliminate “waste” from the retail value chain, waste being defined as any activity/process that is not of “value” to the customer. A fundamental principle of lean retail is to identify customers and define the “value” as those elements of products or service that the customer believes he should be paying for, not necessarily those that add value to the product.  Further the value should be delivered to the customer “first-time right every time” so that waste is minimized.

Lean retailing requires simplifying the workflow design in delivering products to customer. Given that the connotation of value is customer-centric, simplifying the workflow design requires streamlining the core and associated processes so that any kind of waste is eliminated. Further pull-system drives replenishment at the stores (and the shelf) based on what customers want “just-in-time” (neither before nor after the time customer demands). This results in a value flow as pulled by the customer.

Those practising lean retail have invested in information technology that allows the stores to share sales data in real time with their suppliers. New orders for a given product maybe automatically placed with the supplier as soon as an item is scanned at the check-out counter (subject to minimum order size criteria). Smaller stores may use visual systems wherein the sales staff can gauge through the empty shelf space the products that have been sold and that need to be re-ordered.

Removing bottlenecks throughout the supply chain is another principle driving lean retail. It entails redesigning processes to eliminate activities that prevent the free flow of products to the customer. Further, lean retail requires following a culture of continuous improvement. Continuous improvement (or “Kaizen”) focuses on small improvements across the value chain that rolls up into significant improvements at an overall level.  Kaizens not only can lead to elimination of wasted effort, time, materials, and motion but also focus on bringing in innovations that lead to things being done faster, better, cheaper and easier.  Involvement of staff at the lowest levels is very important in Kaizen activities and that means that companies must invest in training, up-skilling their talent pool in Lean Principles.

In the context of apparel retail business, lean retail can help in improving organisational responsiveness to customer needs, the speed with which the products are delivered to them and meet their expectations as per the latest trends. Systematic application of lean principles translates in increased throughput (Sales), with lower Work in Process (Investments) and as per customer requirements of Quality, Design, Trends and Time. Improved information visibility across the chain leads to reduced instances of out of stock and excess inventory at the same time, minimising inventory control costs and reducing shrinkage. At the front-end lean retail may lead to redesigned in-store processes and systems for consistency in frontline behaviors to provide standard customer experience.

With the focus on training and involvement of the workforce, Lean principles have resulted in improving employee satisfaction without increasing labour costs that in turn positively impacts revenues and profitability. Some retailers in the West have reported reducing their store labour costs by 10-20 percent, inventory costs by 10-30 percent, and costs associated with stock outs by 20-75 percent on account of lean retail.

In addition to top-line and bottom-line impact, lean retailing by enhancing the enthusiasm and motivation of the frontline staff creates distinctive shopping experiences for customers.

Inditex, the world’s largest clothing retailer with Zara as its flagship brand, has successfully achieved supply chain excellence following lean principles.  It targets fashion conscious young women and is able to spot trends as they emerge and deliver new products to stores quickly thereby establishing its position as the leading fast fashion retailer. The product development processes is based on customer pull-system. Its design team reviews the sales and inventory reports on a daily basis to identify what is selling and what is not.  Additionally, regular visits to the field provide insights into the customers’ perceptions that can never be captured in the sales and inventory reports. Critical information about customer feedback is widely shared by store managers, buyers, merchandisers, designers and the production team in an open plan office at the company’s headquarters. Frequent, real time discussions and interactions within the team help them to understand the market situation and identify trends and opportunities.

Further, Zara manufactures the products in small lots and many styles are typically not repeated. Style cues for replenishments are derived from real time customer demand. At the back end, Zara holds inventory of raw materials and unfinished goods with its supply partners which may be local or offshore manufacturers. Typically, the fashion merchandise is produced at the local manufacturing base and quickly delivered while the staple low-variation range is produced offshore at cheaper costs.

Following lean retail practices implies a higher stock turn and frequent replenishments by the suppliers based on real-time sales. Building and maintaining reliable and responsive suppliers through win-win partnerships, is imperative to realize the success of lean retail implementation as high stock turns and frequent replenishments involves the commitment and involvement of the entire supplier base.

Like in any transformational effort, change management plays a critical role in reaping the benefits of lean retail. The whole philosophy requires paradigm shift in attitudes, behaviors and mind sets of those involved upstream and downstream across the value chain. Training, communicating and inspiring the front end staff is thus an important aspect in the overall success and companies need to device a compelling vision that is shared by employees across functions and hierarchy across the entire chain.

Collaboration – A Supply Chain Disruption Still Awaited

A recent discussion online on retailwire.com quoted a book “Jump the Curve” by Jack Uldrich, in which he describes rapidly growing trends that stay small for a long time and then suddenly explode. He uses the example of water lilies to illustrate the point about exponential growth.  Say we start with one water lily and it multiplies to cover a pond completely within 30 days. On Day 20, only 0.01 per cent of the pond would be covered, and on day 25 it would be just over 3 per cent. The last days, hours, would show dramatic growth.

The water lily example is just so apt to describe technology adoption in the retail sector (especially in fashion and other soft goods). It’s so slow sometimes that it looks like molasses dripping down a wall. (And when a weed-killer gets dumped in the water at an early stage, the adoption can take even longer. )

In 1985 the industry was breaking new ground with the principles of Quick Response (QR) – then in the 1990s Efficient Consumer Response (ECR), Collaborative Planning and Forecasting (CPFR), and numerous other acronyms appeared in the supply chain alphabet soup. 

During 1999-2001 in my previous company, the team developed a collaborative supply chain enablement solution to create an easy-to-understand common platform for the various stakeholders in a supply chain to work together seamlessly. By 2001 we discovered that we were among a handful of companies speaking the same language, and among a sea of 300+ web-based portals aiming to catch up. And then the bottom fell out of the market. 

As we stand today, about a decade on, design-to-delivery lead times are still measured in months, buyers are still trying to gaze into crystal balls to forecast their future demand, and their suppliers are still trying to consult oracles to interpret their buyers’ orders. 

We may yet see adoption of true collaborative platforms in the next couple of decades. At that point it will look like sudden growth that’s come out of nowhere, and everyone will be asking “how did they ever manage supply chains in B.C. (Before Collaboration) Era?” 

Until then….

The Global Textiles and Apparel Industry – 8 Things to Think About

I had the privilege of bringing the Prime Source Forum in Hong Kong (April 1-2, 2008) to a close.  As in the previous year, the Forum had senior executives from companies based in the Americas, Europe, and Asia, as well as government officials and highly respected academics. The discussions covered wide-ranging topics, and with the variety of people on the panels, there was also some amount of difference in opinion.

8 issues came to my mind as key themes for the global industry, as I was preparing my closing speech, and I thought that those who were not present at the event may also be interested in these. Some of these are views expressed in the panel discussions, others are just my musings. Hopefully thinking through these 8 things can improve the fortunes of the industry around the world (8 being a lucky number in China). 

1. Costs vs Prices – Rising costs were a big theme, running through the various panels.  Chinese labour costs, power costs, the increasing costs of fuel, new costs of doing business (compliance) – more cost heads were discussed than I can possibly remember.

Once upon a time prices used to go up when costs went up. But that has not been the case for at least the last couple of decades. Even as costs have climbed, retail prices and FOBs have remained steady or even declined. Clearly, the question is whether this is a sustainable situation – though consumers and retailers have been winners so far, how long can factories and labour be squeezed without impacting the very survival of the business?

The interesting contrast is luxury goods, where production costs have come down due to outsourcing and manufacturing in low labour cost countries. (So even in that area, prices and costs don’t show a correlation!)

2. Where next? – Dr. William Fung (Li & Fung) clearly struck a note with most of the audience in his opening keynote address, as he tackled the BIG question: with costs significantly rising in China, and the risks of a concentrated sourcing basket, which other countries could companies look to. According to him, “within the next 3 years, the follow-up country to China is…China”.

After all, which other country’s industry has poured billions of dollars in up-to-date manufacturing capacity and supply chain infrastructure? So even while the Chinese government’s move to push factories to the north and west of China may be producing results as quickly as they may have hoped, buyers clearly have limited options on the table.

Certainly, other countries such as India and its neighbours, as well as Indonesia, Vietnam etc. are an option, but a lot more needs to be pushed through.  According to Dr. Fung, India shows higher product differentiation and development skills that make it a logical place for buyers to invest time and energy.

I believe that what buyers did in China 15-20 years ago, is probably what is needed in South Asia and other supply bases now.  At that time, China had neither the production capacity nor the supply chain and other infrastructure that it has now. But intrepid buyers opened the Chinese frontier and created the demand pipeline which pulled the supply base up. Would retailers have a similar focus on the other supply bases today, to balance their exposure in China? This is not a new question – in fact, in the last few years it has come up several times when there has been a hurdle or barrier to cross with China (quotas, SARS etc.).  But now, with the Chinese government also wanting to turn the industry’s focus away from low-value products such as clothing and textiles, could this be the opportunity for buyers to push their initiatives in other countries ahead?

3. Fashion is about change…but are we prepared for change? – Speed to market is not just about producing quickly and shipping fast, it is about responding to change in the market. The very nature of the fashion business is “change”.

Though benchmarks of 2-week turnaround and even 2-day turnaround exist, by and large the industry works over a lead time of months rather than weeks. We know that it is humanly impossible for even the best buyer to predict with 100% accuracy as to what will sell 6-12 months in the future.

So the answer, especially in these uncertain market conditions, is to take product decisions closer to the sell-date, rather than try and forecast accurately. The only way to reduce the risk is to respond to market needs, rather than to try and predict what the market will need in the future.

4. Neither free nor fair! – There was enormous debate (although mostly in polite terms), about whether free trade and fair trade meant anything.  

What is very clear is that trade barriers continue to exist. Even as import tariffs fall, non-tariff barriers remain in place. While thousands and tens of thousands of people around the world are actively working to bring trade barriers down in all countries, within their own markets there are others who are actively lobbying to keep trade barriers up, or to erect new ones.  A very interesting perspective shared by one of the panelists was that to a protectionist, “protectionism” isn’t a dirty word! Such a person will have a clear justification for keeping or putting up trade barriers.

So while the vision is that of free trade between nations, we are probably some way off from that.

5. CSR & compliance pressures – “Compliance pressures” are here to stay. Yet, even after years of debate and discussion, it is evident that there are wide gaps between the perceptions of the various players.

Ever since the industrial revolution in the 1800s, talk of more humane conditions in factories has been prevalent. It took European and American companies decades (at the very least) to move up health & safety and labour standards. However, the industries in the current supply countries do not have that luxury any more, since the pressure on prominent brands and the risk to their image is too high – whether you like it or not, compliance standards are being and will be pushed through aggressively.

The key is to understand how to do it most efficiently, and a critical element in getting there would be to have a set of common standards and database of audits and certifications.

However, let’s not underestimate the challenge in getting diverse interests and competitors to agree to sign on to common standards, and to share information about their suppliers.

6. Consolidation (?) – Consolidation may be a model among mature retailers and mature suppliers, but there is enough organic growth in the market to attract and sustain smaller companies, especially in the case of the “emerging economies”.

Developing markets are breeding grounds for new businesses, each of which feels that they can be the next big thing, and in such an environment, being acquired by another company is the farthest thought from the management’s mind.

Another factor against consolidation on the supply end, comes from the inherent development-oriented nature of fashion products – excellent and innovative product development is not the privilege of large companies, and the cost of entry remains low. So we should question the logic of viewing consolidation as an unstoppable juggernaut.

7. Vertical Integration / Control (between suppliers, brands and retailers) – When companies sit across the negotiating table, they are clearly vying to gain the most margin. Retailers are closest to the consumer, and they have the most margin. The downside is that they also bear the most risk or markdown. So when manufacturers look at becoming brands, and brands look at becoming retailers, they need to keep in mind, there is a cost to moving downstream, even with the extra margin being available.

Over the last few decades retailers have also tried to grow their private label to gain extra margin (in effect, to replace some of their suppliers) – but there is a cost to doing that as well. It is not as simple as just stripping out an intermediary’s cost, since the product development and sourcing operation still needs to be managed.

Vertical integration is the holy grail – perfect vertical integration is what people wish for, but it’s impossible to achieve. The best one can hope for is as much vertical control as possible over the chain from raw material to consumer.

8. Victims of our own success – We treat globalisation as a new phenomenon – the fact is that many thousands of years ago, the Egyptian civilization was trading with the Indus Valley civilization, the Chinese and the Romans had discovered each other way before US department store buyers landed in Hong Kong and Korea.

As Nayan Chanda describes in his excellent book – Bound Together – traders, preachers, adventurers and warriors have created bridges across continents for tens of thousands of years. So retailers and importers in the west, are only following in the footsteps of those pioneers, albeit helped by the communications and travel revolution in the last 30 years.

However, lately, companies’ business models are victims of their own success.

Too much has been outsourced too far. Where earlier, buyer and supplier were next to each other, today there is a physical and cultural distances between them, that sometimes seems impossible to bridge. Where earlier, a buyer and designer could pop around the corner to the pattern room to check the fit, and discuss the quality with the factory, today they sit at opposite ends of the earth, and work in a phase difference of day and night.

The costs related to bringing the skills back certainly are prohibitively high. But clearly bridges do need to be built.

Recreating or transferring the skills that have been lost, or are being lost in the US and Europe is absolutely vital for the industry to survive profitably.

Through training & education, through more frequent travel, through internships and gaining work experience in each other’s environment, or through technology, buyers and suppliers need to invest in reaching something of the sort of understanding and close collaboration that used to exist when buyers and suppliers lived in the same city.

 

A lot to chew on, and many unanswered questions, which I am sure will bring hundreds of industry executives together again next April at Prime Source Forum 2009 in Hong Kong.

Weapons of Mass Dialogue

REVIEW: DISCORDANT DEMOCRATS: ARUN MAIRA (Penguin Books India)

As I read through Arun Maira’s book, the month unfolded with a number of high-pitched disagreements around the world. In India, quotas and reservations were a hot topic, as was an apparent divergence between the Prime Minister and corporate chiefs on executive income and distribution of wealth. Self-appointed moral police disapproved the expressions of a student of art, while, elsewhere in the world, suicide bombers expressed disapproval of foreigners on their soil.

We are surely not the first to wonder why, after millennia of physiological evolution, societies around the world are still stuck in the same, predictable response: where disagreement (on an issue) translates into disapproval (of a person), more often than not leading to conflict that is frequently violent.

The need to accept differences and the use of democratic dialogue as a process to close the gap is the basis of Arun Maira’s Discordant Democrats. While the book is largely about democracy in India, Maira draws from events, personalities and initiatives around the world to make the case for democracy as the only reasonable mechanism to manage diversity in society, and dialogue as the only reasonable mechanism to sustain it.

This is embodied in a quotation that is commonly attributed to French philosopher Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” In fact, Maira goes beyond free speech to the need for mass dialogue. While free speech typically stops at the “right to express different opinions”, dialogue is about the free “exchange” that can move people closer. Dialogue, unlike debate or argument, is not about sticking to one’s own point of view but about parties reaching a consensus through a process of mutual expression and understanding.

When comparisons are made between Communist China and democratic India, democracy is presented as the millstone around the neck of India’s development. India has a demographic diversity that is among the highest in the world, and a body politic that is among the most fragmented. It is the disagreements among the various segments, interest and pressure groups that some people often hold up as the biggest hurdle to India’s economic and social progress. On the other hand, the advocates of “democracy in action”; may hold up noisy debate as the true expression of desires of individuals and small, otherwise powerless, groups. And there is little common ground between these two groups.

But, as Maira writes in the preface: “This book is about democracy and about consensus: two ideas that cannot but be associated with India. Indeed, one must wonder whether India could be one country without democracy or without consensus.”

Maira takes a middle path, in differentiating between the “hardware” and the “software” of democracy. He describes the hardware as the mechanisms that we are all familiar with — the Constitution, devolved institutions and the framework of free and fair elections, whereas the software is dialogue and deliberations. The democratic hardware enables the freedom of divergent expression. But it is the democratic software that enables a convergence to consensus and the emergence of a functional rather than dysfunctional society.

This is an important distinction when we examine the relative success or failure of countries that are all apparently democratic in structure. Most elections may be free and fair, but are the results later really representative of the electorate’s wishes? From what we can see around us, the hardware of democracy is robust, but there needs to be greater emphasis on the software.

Maira devotes the latter part of the book to tools that he calls Weapons of Mass Dialogue. Using topical and real-life instances of the dialogue mechanism being applied, he takes the reader through the steps of creating a common aspiration, exploring and identifying the thought anchors of the parties in the dialogue, framing the situation and then arriving at a solution.

As a comparison, the example of a Native American tribe comes to mind. To resolve conflict between members, the tribe follows a structure that requires a member to silently listen to the other’s views and then express that person’s views back to him until he or she concurs that the listener has completely understood what has been said. Only then does the first listener get the opportunity to express his own views, while the first speaker only listens and then reiterates what he or she has heard.

This mechanism may appear lengthy in most modern debates, but when we are dealing with issues as complex as the evolution of our cities or the uplift of disadvantaged castes and socio-economic classes, do we really have any other option?

Our genetic response to crisis is hard-wired from our days in the wild: fight or flight. While the latter is clearly “escape”, the former is also an “exit” because it shows an inability to deal with a discord to a mutually satisfying result. We need to expand this to a trinity of responses that includes “unite” – an integrative process that can help cope with the complex and interrelated world we live in.

The tools may look contrived and slow to those championing the cause of “action” there are few alternatives to dialogue. But in a world where discordant democrats do not often listen to each other, Maira’s Weapons of Mass Dialogue are definitely worth a try. Here it is on Amazon.co.in.

EXCERPT:
We want action. And we want democracy. Sometimes, in despair, when that speedy action is difficult in democracy, he seemed willing to forsake democracy. But that is a cop-out. We have to find a way to have both – speedier action and more democracy. Once again, a very important “either-or” choice is raising its head. We must convert it into a ‘both-and’ solution. As Einstein said, we cannot solve the difficult problems that we face with the same thinking that led us into those problems. Rather, we must look into the theories-in-use that are causing the problem, and develop a new one. In this case, the problem with our theory-in-use of how people can work together to resolve problems that they are all part of. The call for an authority above them, “insulated from the intense pressure of democracy” – a dictator or expert that they would be willing to unquestioningly delegate upwards to – is giving up on the further evolution of humanity’s democratic enterprise.

[Here’s the book on Amazon.co.in.]

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