NEW YORK, United States — A decade ago, I began work with Warren H. Hausman, professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University. I was about to get schooled in the transformation and triumph of another industry: electronics. The challenge was this: could fashion adapt innovation from electronics manufacturing and improve speed-to-market, inventory management and profit performance? Could we identify and measure a link between supply chain flexibility and market capitalisation?
The result of our research was “The Zara Gap,” recently updated, expanded and globalised with data assistance from Citi Research. At Zara — which can get new product from design to store in less than a month, compared to the norm of 10 months for most American retailers — profits are up to four times as high as other apparel retailers. Our analysis showed that retailers could increase profits by nearly 30 percent and market capitalisation by over 40 percent if they reduced lead times and delayed finished product commitments in order to respond quickly to changing consumer demand.
Has the rest of the fashion industry moved to close its gap with Zara over the past 10 years? Not much — and certainly not enough. Amongst fashion executives, the talking points have certainly changed, with speed-to-market now promoted to analysts and investors more than the colours and styles of the season. “See Now, buy Now” is one of the initiatives that they are keen to highlight — but this strategy is just part of the buzzy language designed to mask and distract from deeper disconnects that have prevented real change.
For this strategy to work, it would have to have a much more tightly coupled relationship with the whole supply chain.
“See now, buy now” is little more than a PR effort — a publicity stunt not meaningful to financial performance. It is a way for brands to protect their considerable investments in runway shows, as presentations for editors, wholesale businesses and elite customers, and as part of the way to generate interest in the brand. While there were perhaps some inventory commitments to support a limited presentation, it has not become a whole operating model.
Most people’s approach has been an incremental change of cutting a week or two or three out of lead times. For this strategy to work, it would have to have a much more tightly coupled relationship with the whole supply chain, from fabric to factory to store, where lead times as currently as long as a year, but could be reduced down to weeks.
Interestingly, this doesn’t require re-engineering any manufacturing processes. Instead, it has to do with how decisions are made. It involves retailers taking out layers of approval, taking out cycles of sampling and making commitments for finished goods later in the season — all of these are ultimately process issues and they can be achieved, if there’s a commitment to the strategy and culture behind it.
In fashion, there’s a longstanding cultural bias that brands and senior merchants are tastemakers, who are going to present consumers with a point of view. But that isn’t as effective today, when you have a much more engaged consumer, who has access to information almost at the same level as an industry editor or insider.
In today’s faster-paced fashion atmosphere, retailers have to have lower level decision-making and a higher degree of trust in the middle of the organisation, creating a culture of decisiveness that doesn’t need multiple approvals. Things are moving too fast for the bureaucracies of fashion oriented to cost and control.
In the last 10 years, no global retailer has come much nearer to Zara. “See now, buy now” has not dealt with what really has to happen in the industry culture, which is to speed up decision-making and flatten organisations so they’re more responsive to stores and consumers. At the moment, the industry is resistant to change not because of inflexible manufacturing, but because of front-end product decision-making that is slow, duplicative and hierarchical.
John Thorbeck is the chairman of supply chain analytics firm Chainge Capital LLC.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.