‘See now buy now’ transforms supply chains

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Fast fashion – with limited shelf-life lines arriving in store every few days – has become the norm for many retailers targeting millennials. Now, even the luxury brands are following suit making the latest catwalk fashions available to buy immediately.

Fashion used to be a leisurely business. Sample garments would be displayed at seasonal shows, orders taken and – as a result – appropriate production planned, with delivery to stores up to six months later. Spring fashions hitting the shelves in April would have been seen and selected by buyers the previous October, while the fabrics used would have been designed and chosen by designers maybe six months before that. Plenty of time, therefore to factor in production in the Far East and sea freight for shipping.

Today it is very different. “Fast fashion” means that clothing chains like Zara change the bulk of their product assortment every few weeks, while for some of their high fashion lines time from design to saleable garments can be as short as a fortnight. But even that isn’t fast enough for fashionable millennials who demand instant gratification.

Penelope Ody is a retail market specialist.

While styles on the catwalks of Paris or Milan used to take months to filter through to the high street, today’s shoppers are adopting a “see now, buy now” approach. The result is that luxury brands like Burberry and Tommy Hilfiger are making their catwalk fashions available to buy in store within hours of the new lines being unveiled.

As Burberry chief Christopher Bailey said, in a recent McKinsey report*: “You normally…show the show and then your supply chain kicks in. Now as we are designing the show we will be passing things over immediately to our supply chain partners to say…how can we work with this factory to get this on the date that we need it?”

And it isn’t just catwalk fashions that shoppers want immediately: it is whatever the latest celebrity is wearing or the leading vlogger recommends – and it can even span age groups as demand for replica items of clothing worn by the youngest royals testifies.

As Boohoo.com, targeting the millennial age group, says on its web site: “see it today, wear it tomorrow” – and not only wear it, but post an Instagram image of the new outfit as well. And if the must-have garment doesn’t happen to be in stock “tomorrow” then the chances are the sales opportunity will be lost for ever and the customer will seek instant gratification from the next must-have style.

As well as the need to compress lead-times to satisfy the “buy now” shoppers, estimating likely demand to ensure sufficient stock is available becomes even more challenging. In a new report Kurt Salmon**, part of Accenture Strategy, argues that fashion companies need to use various tactics to solve the problem: from selectively testing the reaction to a new style and then scaling production, to on-shoring or near-shoring with production typically shifted from the Far East to Turkey or Romania, to using flexible fabric finishing, dual sourcing, or forming strategic supply partnerships to become “customer of choice” so that their orders are given priority. The report includes a survey of senior managers, and Kurt Salmon found that for almost two-thirds a major economic challenge is now balancing the higher production costs of near-shoring with the need to cut shipping times.

Speaking at the Millennial 20/20 conference in London last month [Note to sub: the event was on 3-4 May], Nick Blunden, chief commercial officer at The Business of Fashion, described “see now buy now” as one of the key trends currently affecting the industry. “It is not right for every fashion company,” he said, “but if your customers demand instant gratification, then it requires re-engineering the supply chain to get products to market quicker.”

With retailers from Burberry to Boohoo embracing a “see now buy now” approach customers seeking that “instant gratification” are many and varied, but that need to cut lead-times and speed styles to market is unlikely to diminish in future. If the “millennials” are demanding and impatient, then some analysts are already suggesting that their offspring – dubbed the “centennials” – will be even more so. Focusing on the likely demands of this emerging group was another of Millennial 20/20’s speakers: Henry Tucker, managing director for EMEA at market researchers Kantar Futures. “Studies suggest that 62 per cent of 12 to 17 year olds care about style,” he said. “Their lives have been documented on social media from their moment of birth and they expect seamless access to whatever it is they want.”

Or as Kurt Salmon’s report concluded, these centennials “…will be wedded to their mobiles, demand the same levels of instant gratification and possess the same preoccupation with image and social media as today’s fast fashion buyers”.


* “The State of Fashion 2017” can be downloaded from http://www.mckinsey.com/industries/retail/our-insights/the-state-of-fashion.

** “See now buy now – how ready are you?” by Helen Mountney and Dan Murphy is available as a download from [email protected]

This article first appeared in the June 2017 edition of Logistics & Supply Chain.

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