Packaging of products is, undoubtedly, an extremely strong means of conveying the essence of the brand, its ethos and its personality.
Packaging is not only a vehicle to endorse the identity of a brand in a consumer’s mind, the growing need for sophisticated packaging also results from many lifestyle needs such as ease of transportation, storage, usage and disposability sought by convenience seeking and time pressed consumers.
But, increasingly, it also reflects the brand’s responsibility and sensitivity towards Nature and its resources.
If we, as consumers, were to reduce or optimize packaging from our daily lives, especially for food and beverages, there will be a redefinition of the processes involving our purchase and usage. It will also to a larger degree alter the systems and processes of organisations whose distribution and retail is integrally dependent on packaging.
Original Unverpackt, a concept grocery store in Berlin, Germany operates without food packaging that would later turn into garbage. The idea around which it is build is to bring one’s own containers and have it weighed. The supermarket will label your containers. After one shops and gets to the till, the weight of the containers is subtracted and one has to pay for the net weight of the groceries. The label is designed to survive a few washings so one may come back and skip the weighing process for a few more times. In this way, not only do the food products shed their familiar identifiers (brand colors, packaging structures, and bold logos) but the ways they move from shelf to home becomes radically different. While shoppers are encouraged to bring their own bags and containers with them, a range of re-usable jars and containers are also available for purchase onsite. As much as possible, produce is sourced locally.
At this point of time, it may seem difficult to adopt this framework in entirety. However we should remember that just a few short decades ago we followed similar practices such as engaging biodegradable, recyclable, reusable materials for packaging, making use of one’s own containers and bags and filling them in with quantities as per the requirements from the bulk containers.
Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA) will be introducing mandatory requirements for companies to use sustainable resources in packaging and reduce packaging waste very soon. It is still being decided in what forms the regulations could be developed, but the preliminary ideas include requiring companies to submit annual reports on how much packaging they use, to develop waste reduction plans, or to meet recycling targets. Belgium on the other hand has been championing the cause of waste management by maximizing recycling and reusage.
The global trends are moving towards sustainable packaging given the ecological resource wastage it creates, the garbage the packaging material produces and the air and the ground water pollution the landfills create. Earth Overshoot Day, which marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year, is arriving progressively earlier and earlier, indicating that the humanity’s resource consumption for the year is exceeding the earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources in that year.
Another very grim consequence that was witnessed is the frightening and highly visible impact on marine life – since the start of this year more than 30 sperm whales have been found beached around the North Sea in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, Denmark, and Germany. After a necropsy of the whales in Germany, researchers found that four of the giant marine animals had large amounts of plastic waste in their stomachs. Although the marine litter may not have been the only cause of them being beached, it had a horrifying consequence on the health of these animals.
Given the serious consequences and the growing sensitivity towards these consequences, it is imperative for product manufacturers, raw material manufacturers and equipment and technology providers to design packaging with solemn intent to address sustainability.
The best time to reduce the use of packaging was 50 years ago. The next best time is now.
The apparel retail sector worldwide thrives on change, on account of fashion as well as season.
In India, for most of the country, weather changes are less extreme, so seasonal change is not a major driver of changeover of wardrobe. Also, more modest incomes reduce the customer’s willingness to buy new clothes frequently.
We believe pricing remains a critical challenge and a barrier to growth. About 5 years ago, Third Eyesight had evaluated the pricing of various brands in the context of the average incomes of their stated target customer group. For a like-to-like comparison with average pricing in Europe, we came to the conclusion that branded merchandise in India should be priced 30-50% lower than it was currently. And this is true not just of international brands that are present in India, but Indian-based companies as well. (In fact, most international brands end up targeting a customer segment in India that is more premium than they would in their home markets.)
Of course, with growing incomes and increasing exposure to fashion trends promoted through various media, larger numbers of Indian consumers are opting to buy more, and more frequently as well. But one only has to look at the share of marked-down product, promotions and end-of-season sales to know that the Indian consumer, by and large, believes that the in-season product is overpriced.
Brands that overestimate the growth possibilities add to the problem by over-ordering – these unjustified expectations are littered across the stores at the end of each season, with big red “Sale” and “Discounted” signs. When it comes to a game of nerves, the Indian consumer has a far stronger ability to hold on to her wallet, than a brand’s ability to hold on to the price line. Most consumers are quite prepared to wait a few extra weeks, rather than buying the product as soon as it hits the shelf.
Part of the problem, at the brands’ end, could be some inflexible costs. The three big productivity issues, in my mind, are: real estate, people and advertising.
Indian retail real estate is definitely among the most expensive in the world, when viewed in the context of sales that can be expected per square foot. Similarly, sales per employee rupee could also be vastly better than they are currently. And lastly, many Indian apparel brands could possibly do better to reallocate at least part of their advertising budget to developing better product and training their sales staff; no amount of loud celebrity endorsement can compensate for disinterested automatons showing bad products at the store.
Technology can certainly be leveraged better at every step of the operation, from design through supply chain, from planogram and merchandise planning to post-sale analytics.
Also, some of the more “modern” operations are, unfortunately, modelled on business processes and merchandise calendars that are more suited to the western retail environment of the 1980s than on best-practice as needed in the Indian retail environment of 2011! The “organised” apparel brands are weighed down by too many reviews, too many batch processes, too little merchant entrepreneurship. There is far too much time and resource wasted at each stage. Decisions are deliberately bottle-necked, under the label of “organisation” and “process-orientation”. The excitement is taken out of fashion; products become “normalised”, safe, boring which the consumer doesn’t really want! Shipments get delayed, missing the peaks of the season. And added cost ends in a price which the customer doesn’t want to pay.
The Indian apparel industry certainly needs a transformation.
Whether this will happen through a rapid shakedown or a more gradual process over the next 10-15 years, whether it will be driven by large international multi-brand retailers when they are allowed to invest directly in the country or by domestic companies, I do believe the industry will see significant shifts in the coming years.
My first brush with Zara and Inditex (Zara’s parent company) was in the 1990s, when we were comparing product development and supply chain best practices for another European retailer.
In 2002, after writing a case study on the Zara business model, I was (and continue to be) surprised at the number of downloads from the website (referenced at the bottom of this article).
In 2004, the interest at the Images Fashion Forum was so intense that the Q&A after the presentation exceeded the allotted time, to the extent that I was almost declared persona non grata by the organising team!
I’m glad to say that we’re all still friends and, together, witness to the logical next phenomenon: the much anticipated Zara store launch in India in May 2010. And what a phenomenon! On a high-footfall day, at full price, the Delhi store looks as if the merchandise is being given away for free.
In 2006, India was the 8th highest source of traffic to the Inditex website (more than half a million, almost 2 per cent of the total); incredible, considering that the other Top-10 countries already had Inditex stores. Although Zara finally signed a joint-venture with the Tata Group, I’m pretty sure that those thousands of other rejected prospective Indian licensees and franchisees must be getting their Zara-fix now as customers.
What does the Zara launch mean for the Indian fashion and retail sector? Is this the beginning of a new era? Should we expect Zarafication of the market, where the customer is driven by fashion, and the supply chain will turn and churn products faster than ever before? Should other international brands and Indian fashion brands be worried?
A peek at history is useful here. It is said that when Spanish conquistadors landed on the shores of the Americas they managed to conquer the land and the people through a combination of guns, germs and steel. [Credits to Jared Diamond for that evocative phrase.] That is, the Spanish carried guns and fine steel swords but, most importantly, they also carried diseases that were alien to the local population. In many places, the weakened and leaderless indigenous people were simply too battered psychologically and physically by disease, to fight the colonisers.
Keeping that in mind I would say, Zara’s entry is a warning bell only if your business is suffering from recent financial and operational illnesses. It is only dangerous if your team are psychologically weak, and would be overwhelmed just by the thought of the supply chain wizardry that Zara has deployed in its business internationally. It may be fatal for sleepy marketing teams whose only strategy has been to spend lots of money on advertising in season and on mark-downs after the season.
But it’s not doom and gloom for brands and businesses that have a competitive spark of life. If you’re prepared to learn, Zara’s business can provide lessons on how to create a product mix that doesn’t stay on the shelf for months, and on how to create the buzz and excitement around the brand.
Zara’s business success in India is not a foregone conclusion. Let’s look at the facts.
Zara’s business model in its home market was built on getting up-to-date fashion into the market before anyone else, and at lower costs. Its prices encouraged fashion-conscious consumers to buy more frequently, and though its limited production quantities were a way of reducing risk, it added to the allure of the brand. In most overseas markets, however, Zara is a somewhat more premium brand. The “value-for-money” for the brand rests on fashionability rather than product quality.
The Indian consumer base, on the other hand, is less fashion-sensitive than the European consumer. This is not equivalent to being less sensitive aesthetically – Indian consumers can tell good design from bad; allowing, of course, for varying taste! However, value consciousness drives many consumers to buy during discount sales with delay of 2-3 months, rather than buying current fashions at full price. This can be a problem for a brand that thrives on change.
Zara will initially have a limited physical footprint. It is targeted at the premium to luxury end of the market, fitting a certain physical profile of customer. Its products that are imported are disadvantaged by a hefty import duty and shipping costs, as well as the shipment lead time. So, there is time available to Indian businesses that want to adapt their business model, and learn from this new competitor.
With the product development strengths and the agility that Indian apparel companies have displayed in the past, there is no reason why Indian brands cannot compete effectively with Zara on their home turf. When it comes down to it, I think Indian businesses (the small ones, with less “organisation” and “process” orientation) are fast on their feet in identifying design trends and are able to responding to the trends with products being available in the market very quickly. I would call them the Indian “baby Zaras”.
So the real question is this: can these Indian “baby Zaras” learn to be disciplined and structured, and learn to scale up their businesses?
Could we, perhaps, even see some people creating copies of Zara’s styles and bringing them to the market quickly at much lower prices (in effect doing a Zara on Zara)? Let’s not forget, what is today an 11-billion Euro business was once a contract manufacturer to other retailers, and Zara started with one shop carrying low-priced versions of products inspired by those of high-fashion designer brands.
The coming years promise to be interesting and I think we should watch out for an Indian version of an Inditex emerging in the next few years. It remains to be seen whether it will be from among the existing players in the domestic market, an exporter who is a contract manufacturer for western retailers (as Inditex once was), or someone totally new.
The people who should be really worried are those international brands whose product mix in India is weak, whose prices make you want to marry a rich banker, and whose brand ethos is totally unclear. To them I would say: Zara has you in its gun-sights.
Here is a summary of the Sustainable Fashion Forum, and some more pictures from the afternoon.
The Textile and apparel industry is of particular importance to India. It not only provides employment to a broad base of semi-skilled and unskilled labour but also helps to extend the economic bounty to urban and semi urban areas. Though India has a history of thousands of years in global trading of textile, it contributes only 3% to the global exports of textile and clothing.
While the urge to grow exists, there is a huge difference between the current exports of about Rs. 864 billion (US$ 20 billion) and the target of Rs. 2,500 billion (US$ 55 billion) by 2012. To achieve this vision, exports must grow at around 25-35 per cent a year for the next 4 years, depending on how weak or stable the current year is. This growth rate seems difficult considering the fact India has actually grown its exports of textiles and apparel at an annualized growth of a little over 14 per cent from 2003-04 to 2007-08.
Even if the industry looks at increasing the volume of exports to achieve the vision, the ports do not have the handling capacity considering that they currently operate at 91 to 92 % of available capacity.
Hence, incremental thinking will not help to achieve the vision.
Our key concern is the value “lost” by the industry. Being the low cost supplier does not necessarily translate into greater market share. The Indian Industry must look at enhancing the value delivered rather than competing on the cost platform. Indeed, India compares poorly to other countries on the value captured per employee. (For instance, if the export value captured per employee in India was as much as Turkey, India’s exports would be close to China’s exports of US$ 161 billion.)
One major concern that needs to be addressed is that India’s exports are still weighted in favour of raw materials and intermediate products, rather than finished products. Apparel exports account for only 41% of India’s textile exports in 2007-08. India’s product mix also needs to be aligned to global market needs, rather than only focussing on “traditional strengths” – this includes enhancing the share of non-cotton products in the basket.
Another area that is neglected is the inherent competitive capability of developing new products. The industry needs to develop and nurture these skill sets to create a sustained competitive advantage in the global scenario. India already provides buyers with value in terms of product development and design, which needs focus and further strengthening.
Further, India’s domestic industry, and its skill at understanding market needs, creating and merchandising product, can also play a valuable role in the industry’s growth.
The competitive advantage offered by being able to influence the development of a product is immense. And given that sourcing lead times are shorter in unpredictable times, a supply base that has been involved with the buyer right from the development stage of the product is most likely to get the final order. Third Eyesight proposes a four dimensional model: Define, Design, Develop and Deliver so as to achieve the industry-wide development, of projecting India as a valuable supplier, and sustaining its value needs.
By creating an ecosystem focused on design and product development, India can create and capture the billions of dollars worth of value that is being lost to other countries.
This is an extract from Third Eyesight’s report presented at the FICCI 3rd Annual Textile And Garment conference in Mumbai. The report was released by the Minister of Textiles, Government of India. To download the full report prepared by Third Eyesight, please click here.
To discuss how we can help you with your specific business needs, please get in touch with us via email (please send it to services [at] thirdeyesight [dot] in) or via this form: CONNECT.
India has a rich tradition of textiles which dates back many centuries. The history of the Indian readymade garment industry, however, is very recent and can be traced back to the Second World War.
During the Second World War, as a contribution to the wartime needs of British rulers, clothing units for mass production were set up to manufacture military uniforms. With India’s independence in 1947, the industry stagnated as the policies of the Government were now diverted towards building a new nation. However, the industry began to expand after 1959 with the revision of the textile policy to allow the import of machinery for manufacturing.
The 1960s witnessed social shifts as a whole generation of young people questioned the very basis of their existence, and the hippie movement was born. Tired of their materialistic ‘man-made’ lifestyle, these young people began to seek answers in communing with all things natural, love and peace being the anthem. They began traveling, to explore, to seek the ancient philosophies of the East.
This voyage of discovery not only led to a change of lifestyle, but also the way they dressed. Natural fibres were rediscovered, and principally amongst them “Cotton”. India, with its natural abundance of this fibre, was an automatic choice of a supply source. Simultaneously, the growing settlement of Indian abroad led to a ready outlet for a variety of India merchandise and clothing textiles as an article of trade because of its growing demand.
This sudden demand for cotton garments resulted in the Indian industry growing by leaps and bounds in a very short period. Export of “High Fashion” garments from India started off with the cheap cotton kurtas and hand-block vegetable dye printed wrap-around skirts in cotton sheeting to meet the demands of the western youth.
Cashing in on the boom any and everybody got into the manufacture of clothing. The Government, realizing the potential of earning foreign exchange for the country, announced incentives and tax exemption for exporters. The fallout was an industry that grew in an unorganized manner and developed a reputation for producing low cost, low quality, volume merchandise.
The 1980s established that the industry was here to stay but, in terms of product profile, India still had not been able to move out of the lower end of the world market and continued to have an average unit value of under US$ 5.
The 1990s saw the industry make a conscious effort to shake off the image of being producers of cheap, low-quality merchandise with unreliable delivery schedules. The second generation had begun coming into the business, and contributed to reorganizing their firms for clearer structure and professionalism. Funds were ploughed back into the business with the emergence of large and modern production facilities. Even though most of the export houses were family-owned, trained professionals were inducted into the business for clear-cut departments and areas of functions. Consolidation and retention of business was the focus of the late nineties as the abolition of quotas planned for the new millennium became a reality.
The industry was euphoric but at the same time apprehensive of what the post quota era would bring. Many of the producers looking for a synergy in the business and also to sustain the large production facilities began tentative forays into domestic retail. The face of the Indian consumer was changing. Exposure to the western society via the electronic media helped in creating a ‘borderless’ world for lifestyle products, and contemporary fashion merchandise found a ready market in domestic retail.
The new global consumer over the years has evolved as a demanding and yet discerning individual. The novelty factor along with price and quality has become the watchword of the new millennium consumer. As consumers around the world change, so does the product strategy to keep consumer interests alive and ensure loyalty.
The new millennium has seen the emergence of the ‘Quick Response’ or ‘Real Time’ merchandising in fashion as a strategic solution to nurture, retain and grow the business. ‘Fast Fashion’ was born. Retailers could no longer work on the concept of two major retailing seasons with a couple of promotions thrown in. Product planning and the merchandise on the racks had to be constantly current and trendy.
Fast Fashion is not simply a solution to increase consumption by introducing greater product variety but a strategy to retain, consolidate and sustain the market through proactive product development and efficient product delivery to consumers, and thereby grow the market by increasing market share or developing new markets.
However, fast fashion has been tried and tested in different avatars through the years. In the 1960s and 1970s it was present in the quick reaction time of the unorganized sector to service the demand for block-printed ethnic clothing merchandise. In the 1980s and 1990s it was represented in the proactively researched product development at the source market level by wholesale importer/designer buyers (like Rene Dehry, Giorgio Kauten, Diff and Steilmann). Today it is technology-aided product research and development techniques (practiced by Anthropologie, Rampage, Zara and H&M), coupled with responsive buying processes.
In product design terms, India has moved on from producing and selling ‘fashion basics’ to ‘basic’ merchandise, and now back to ‘fashion basics’ once again. History says that this is where India’s inherent talents and strengths as a source market lie. Rather than reinventing the wheel or try to catch up with other competitors strengths, India should cash in on its strengths to practice and master fast fashion.
In the business of fashion, time has always been important. However, speed and efficiency are now both a strategic imperative and a tactical necessity. With greater unpredictability in the market, it is critical to have the correct product at the correct time in the right quantity. Fast fashion requires completely different thinking in the way product is developed, how pre-production processes are undertaken and how production is organised. The Fast Fashion Seminar will draw upon the live experiences of leading practitioners from the area of product development and supply chain. It will be structured as an interactive session. This Third Eyesight Fast Fashion Seminar will provide you with a valuable insight into how to effect rapid changes in the market to your benefit.
Among other aspects, it will:
Describe in detail the concept of fast fashion
Identify key strategic actions to meet fashion consumer demand
Detail how leading brands such as Zara operationalise the concept
Discuss how to achieve less than 1% inefficiencies in their processes from design to delivery, including inventories and markdowns substantially below the industry average.
Understand the underlying principles of the fast fashion model and how these might be applied to retail and fashion business models in India
More details also on http://thirdeyesight.in/events/ff.htm. Discounts can be availed through ‘early-bird registrations’ for business delegates, and also by academics (students and faculty) by providing a proof-of-occupation.
Attendance is strictly by pre-registration. Registration information is also available over phone (please contact on phone +91-124-4293478 or +91-124-4030162).
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.
Fashion is, by definition, perishable. Like, bread, eggs and milk. Or is it?
When bread turns stale, eggs turn rotten or milk turns rancid, you do have to throw it away. Fashion is different, because its perishability is artificial, driven by popular perception that something is “out-of-date” or that something else is “the look of the day”. You don’t really have to throw that blue peasant skirt out in the garbage or in the Salvation Army bin…but you do anyway, because it is so yesterday…or that’s what everyone else is saying.
Earlier, perceptions took time to spread, today they can be spread instantaneously through the web, TV and cell phones, and pretty quickly, even through slow media like print magazines.
So ‘Fast Fashion’ is really a product of fast media and communications technologies.
Having said that, it is here to stay, and regular (mainstream) slow-coaches do need to be worried about customers being seduced away by the ever-fresh look of a Chico’s or a Zara.
I can’t even begin to estimate the millions of dollars that must have been spent on “studying the Zara model”. However, while Zara’s model seems to scream “best practice” and everyone wants to emulate it – is it really for everyone?
Inditex (Zara’s parent company) has grown over 40+ years of evolution, in a specific market and business context. It may have “exploded” on the global scene when it floated its IPO in 2001, but the business model has been brewing a long time.
It has such significant investments in production that Inditex is as much a manufacturer as a retailer. Its people and process model almost diametrically opposite the command and control, “buying director – driven” model of other retailers. Its technology investments are focused better than most of its peers. (See case study and presentation)
Would your company’s DNA allow you to invest in and manage fabric and apparel manufacturing? Would it allow young people to be sent out to take bigger-ticket purchase decisions with fewer approvals than they do now? Would your design team really trust your frontline store staff with feeding them relevant trend information every day?
And yet, and yet…As labour costs rise in Europe, Zara is also being forced to rethink its model of local or regional production. As it does move more production to places like India and China, the big question is whether it can maintain the sanctity of its business model.
I won’t advise other retailers to breathe easy, but they don’t need to roll over and die just yet.
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