Fashionably flexible

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Fashion can be a fickle thing. What’s in one week might be old news the next week so retailers need to keep on top of changing trends and adapt supply chains accordingly to thrive. Lucy Tesseras.

Running a timely and efficient fashion supply chain has never been without its challenges, but with today’s economic climate, the move towards global outsourcing and the rise of online shopping the hurdles have never been so high and so frequent. That coupled with the fact that customers are becoming increasingly demanding and savvy makes it a complicated sector to operate in.

Mark Holland, supply chain director at department store group House of Fraser, says above all else supply chains needs to flexible and efficient. “There is less rigidity in a fashion supply chain, than with food for example, but that can still breed complications. Even though products aren’t perishable they still have a very definite life span so there has to be a trade off between time and cost.”

Sarah Taylor, senior director retail, EMEA at Oracle Retail, highlights the time-definite nature of the business: “Speed to market is critical in fashion, as is the ability to change the way you manage product into store as that has an impact on the supply chain.”

High street fashion retailer New Look has implemented Oracle’s Service Orientated Architecture in a bid to increase operational flexibility, assist international growth and support its recently launched online channel. The software has helped increase visibility and control by integrating buying, merchandising, purchase orders, assortment and supply chain with one technology. This has helped improve the accuracy of its 40 million SKU store records and reduce errors in the 3,000 purchase orders raised each week.

Taylor adds that the recession has only polarised the fact that fashion retailers are trying to capture customer requirements as best they can. “Customers want items they see on the catwalk to be in store tomorrow, again emphasising that speed to market is key. Getting product into stores quicker than competitors is vital.”

However, while speed is undoubtedly important, Chris Stephenson, managing director of TNT Fashion Group, reckons change is a more pressing priority. “In a benign marketplace it’s easy to tolerate a few inefficiencies. Making significant changes to the supply chain is a high-risk operation, so it’s usually regarded as safer to put up with the limitations than risk the disruption of major change. That luxury is gone.

“I think our industry’s going through a shakedown that will see a few bold, entrepreneurial retailers coming out stronger and more profitable than they went in. But the body count on the way is likely to be pretty daunting. The winners now will be the ones with the nerve to wage war on the inefficiencies.

“Yes, speed to market is a vital element of success, but not if the costs outweigh the benefits. And by costs I mean areas like accuracy, flexibility and control of shrinkage, not just the cheque you write out to pay your logistics provider.”

House of Fraser realised the need to streamline data to increase efficiency and improve visibility within its supply chain. Mike Hiscock, director of IT at the retailer, says: “Supply chain functions could not operate without the systems that support visibility. It is absolutely critical to the effective running of a fashion supply chain.”

The retailer implemented the Inovis Data Synchronisation service enabling it to streamline electronic communication with its suppliers, which include Paul Smith, Hugo Boss and Henri Lloyd. It provides a collaborative platform through which data and images for millions of seasonal products can be captured from their suppliers. By eliminating costly mistakes caused by poor data quality and reduce the time taken to capture information by around 50 per cent efficiency has been significantly increased.

Stephen Jeffries, director of retail, EMEA at Inovis, reckons that fashion supply chains cannot run effectively without the support of technology. “IT drives efficiencies in the supply chain now and will do more so into the future. Cash flow is going to be king in the next year and a half so getting these efficiencies right, at the right time, is going to be key for retailers.” He adds that, while the high street has seen a bit of a sales slump in recent months, things are likely to pick up in the run up to Christmas 2009, so retailers need to be able to modify processes when this happens.

The increase in popularity of online retail has added a further level of complexity. House of Fraser recently brought its online operation in-house and is now running it from a mezzanine level at its main distribution centre in Milton Keynes. This has streamlined processes meaning products get onto the web quicker, so time to customer is also reduced.

Times are changing and those that survive are going to be the ones that adapt. Stephenson warns: “What’s worked for the last 20 years isn’t necessarily the best way of doing it today. We have to start thinking about big solutions, not just small adjustments… It takes nerve even to contemplate major changes in an uncertain market, but major change is what will pull the brave through the recession into the boom that’s sure to follow. Every day is a day wasted. We should be talking today at the top strategic level, and looking at the fast, high impact actions we can put in place to ensure survival.”



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