Wilsons Leather sources the vast majority of the products that are sold in its 750-plus stores, a business strategy that provides a mix of challenges and opportunities.
While producing leather goods that are sold exclusively in its stores gives the company the ability to offer distinct merchandise, it also means communicating with several dozen factories, mostly in China.
While not many retailers are up to the challenge of essentially being their own supplier, more retailers want to have control, or at least some input, over the design and manufacturing process to gain a competitive advantage. Wilsons is ahead of that curve.
While many of the retailers who source their own goods manage the process with nothing more than a simple spreadsheet, last year, Wilsons began implementing a Web-based supply chain management system from New Generation Computing (www.ngcsoftware.com). The system has the ability to track orders and receive real-time updates throughout the production process. Already with the majority of its factories online, Wilsons plans to bring the remainder online by the end of the year.
The New Generation system, which allows the retailer to post drawings and product specifications on the Internet, was designed for garment manufacturers who need to transmit product specs and other data to factories around the world where English isn't typically the primary language, if it is spoken or understood at all. The visual guides help to ensure that the garment or accessory item is manufactured as designed no matter which factory is doing the work.
"Like most retailers, we want stand-out products, and in our case, that means we design and then source out the manufacturing of our own designs," says Steve Waller, VP of sourcing for the leather goods retailer. "Ninety-some percent of our items are unique products that are designed and sourced by Wilsons," he said.
Enabling factory staff to call up drawings and other product details on the Internet reduces the potential for manufacturing errors by reducing opportunities for communication errors and delays via e-mail and fax. "We knew it had to be Web-based," says Waller. The company also wanted to keep the sourcing system separate from the rest of the company's enterprise systems to ensure that there weren't any breaches in data integrity by enabling access to outsiders.
Flexibility was also key, Waller says. "Today we love one factory, but tomorrow any number of factors may cause us to move our work somewhere else."
Jeff Orton, Wilsons' VP of information systems & services/logistics, says the training on the new technology has gone well. "We've done most of the training by video conference and phone, although we had budgeted for more in-person training," he says.