Speed-to-Market: Getting From Concept to Market in Eight Weeks


This step-by-step guidance takes your organization through the changes in mind-set and on the fashion calendar necessary to get goods to market five times faster.

the notion of compressing the apparel concept-to-consumer cycle from the traditional 52 weeks into eight weeks may seem like the stuff of legend and hype, closely aligned with promises like "lose 10 inches in five weeks!" But it doesn't have to be that way.

This article will explore how a U.S. fashion business can achieve Zara-like* speed without owning its manufacturing locations. It is unlikely that an apparel company would want all its designs to be completed in eight weeks. A majority of garments may continue to be developed via traditional processes, with some efficiency improvements. However, given competitive pressures, apparel companies must dedicate a portion of their lines to designs which are fresh, current and trendy, and have the pull to get a consumer into a store multiple times during the season just to see what's new.

Still, getting even a portion of a line completed in eight weeks can be a monumental challenge. As U.S. apparel companies have grown in size, their design-to-market processes have evolved to include almost 20 steps. Does the following to-do list sound familiar?

1. Get market feedback by analyzing sales history data.
2. Discussions/meetings between merchants, designers and product development.
3. Propose a concept.
4. Discussions again.
5. Get the concept approved.
6. Select the fabric.
7. Update systems, create initial concept number, request fabric samples from vendors.
8. Create e-mail/spreadsheet to send to mill.
9. Follow-up discussions with mill.
10. Get swatches from the mill.
11. Discussions to approve the swatches.
12. Put up the colors for approval; send the fabric for lab dips.
13. Designers work on the specifications.
14. Put up the style for adoption.
15. Obtain feedback from chief designer.
16. Chief designer changes his or her mind on the fabric to be used.
17. Go back to Step 6 and the list can go on and on.

Is it any surprise that most companies now have calendars where the design for the next season is initiated more than a year in advance of the actual season?

To make matters more complicated, cost economics have dictated that much manufacturing is now outsourced to factories in Asia. Companies may evaluate the cost vs. speed equation, and consider manufacturing closer to home. But given competition and margin pressures, cost typically wins.

So assuming there are going to be three weeks needed to ship the goods across the water, let's strip the to-do list down to only those activities that add value to the final garment:
1. Obtaining market feedback (one week).
2. Conceptualizing and finalizing the design and specifications (two weeks).
3. Manufacturing (one week).
4. Transportation to the store (one week).

These steps become the critical path to bringing the design to market. What about all the peripheral activities like fabric selection and approval, mill selection, vendor selection, PO creation, PO tracking, air/sea decision-making, concept approval, etc.? Some of these are non-value-adding activities that facilitate communication and ensure discipline. They are steps that increase in effort and volume as an organization grows in size. Others, such as fabric and vendor selection, add value but should be managed so that they do not fall on the critical path.

Pre-requisites to life in the fast lane
To get your design-to-market cycle down to eight weeks, it is important to make organizational changes required to establish a "fast lane" within the regular supply chain. This fast lane is like a mini supply chain within a larger supply chain built to ensure that short-cycle styles get the special attention they require. Here is a closer look at its key facets.

The fast-lane team: Ask any designers, and they likely will tell you they long for the days when they were part of a small design outfit, able to churn out multiple designs quickly because the organization was small and nimble, the manufacturing vendor was known intimately, and the designer was also the merchandiser (and probably also in charge of product development). To get from concept to market in eight weeks, some of this environment has to be recreated. Form a core team consisting of representatives from design, production, planning and your vendor's product development department to execute your concept-to-market fast-lane program. Find a team of people who work well together: heated debates/discussions are OK; ego issues are not. Equally important is to let the rest of the organization -- especially those on the supply chain and store execution teams -- know that this fast-lane program is the VIP coming through the system.

The fast-lane vendor: Partner with vendors that either have their own mills or have good relationships with the mills. The partnership needs to go all the way. The vendor needs to be a part of each and every step in your processes, and representatives from the vendor should be part of the core team. Block dedicated capacity at the vendor's factory for the "fast lane," and ensure that senior managers in both of your organizations are committed to making this short-cycle program a success. Make the commercial arrangement independent of the transaction. A potential approach could be for vendors to get a share in the margin, as opposed to payment on a transaction-by-transaction basis. This method also ensures that vendors have a significant stake in the success of the program.

Fast-lane fabric selection: Pre-select the fabric and have sufficient inventory available prior to the start of the process. A key to this discipline is to limit the list of fabrics and fabric types that can be considered for fast-lane designs. Also key is the realization that inventory left over is not a bad thing as long as the cost is factored into the cost of manufacturing.

Fast-lane focus groups: Borrow a best practice from CPG companies. Carefully identify a few consumers to participate in regular marketing focus group. These consumers should be of the same profile as your target consumers. Give these consumers the pleasant task of shopping around and watching the market for trends. In general, treat their feedback as feedback from the actual consumer. Before you try to select focus group participants, you must define your target consumers. Take advantage of data mining if necessary. Give your target consumer a name and build a profile for him or her so that it is easier to conceptualize this shopper and select consumers for the focus group. For example, is your target consumer "Debra," who is 35 years old, married with two kids and a disposable income of $85K, or is it "Kelli," who is 22 years old and starting out in her career, with a disposable income of $50K? Knowing your target consumer, and ensuring that the rest of your organization knows him or her, can be invaluable in rallying your company to meet the consumer's needs with fast-lane performance.

Rolling out that fast-track fashion calendar
Once you've tackled those important pre-requisites, it's time to get down to the business of planning and executing against your new fashion calendar. Here is an example of how your new to-do list can flow.

Week 1
Get the core team and the focus group into a room. Discuss trends. Identify potential concepts. Brainstorm on ideas. Look at what the competition is selling. At the end of week one, the team should have a well-defined idea of the concepts to pursue for the fast-lane designs and a short list of good design ideas.

Week 2
The designers work on the designs of the individual garments. The vendor's product development representative does a "reality check" to see whether the proposed fabric and trim will be available given lead times. As far as possible, the designer should work within the constraints of trim and fabric already developed and available. A lot of designers will find it difficult to work under these constraints; some designers will find it challenging and creative. Find designers who find it challenging and not difficult!

A key success factor here is to have the vendor representative involved in the design process. It will go a long way in cutting down the effort and time spent in communication with the vendor, and also the associated heartache of creating a design that cannot be manufactured in the fast lane.

Get the planners involved at this point, so that they can begin thinking about store assortments. Better yet, have the production activities and assortment planning carried out by the same person.

While the design team works on finalizing the designs, the production team should order trims and fabric that are not pre-positioned. Allow production the flexibility to replace or substitute fabric and trim if required to meet timelines. This is where having design and production representatives as part of the same team helps. Typically over time they will learn to understand each other's needs and preferences and work more effectively together.

Week 3
Finalize the design specifications at the vendor manufacturing location. The expense of flying the team to the vendor location will be more than made up by the savings in time, effort and cost in having fit sessions and communication across continents. Technology is definitely an enabler, with PLM packages that allow for collaboration via the web, but as designers would testify, digital communication rates a poor second to having face-to-face discussions.

Make sure you have the resources available to make fit adjustments on garments on-site while the designer is working at the manufacturing facility. Treat this step as a custom tailoring session, if you will, with tailors dedicated to the fit sessions. Release the specifications to manufacturing when these sessions are completed.

Week 4
Manufacturing of the garments begins without a formal PO. The production department works on creating the PO for legal and receiving purposes while manufacturing is in process. Production then works with planning to pre-allocate the PO to facilitate cross-docking. During this phase, the logistics team confirms plans for the order's transport from Asia to the United States.

Week 5-7
Allow three weeks for sea shipments, a couple of days for air shipment. Mark the product as "fast lane" so that it gets the required attention at the freight forwarder and the DCs.

Week 8
Receive the goods at the DC and cross-dock them to stores based on the pre-allocated POs.

Turning theory into practice
As you can see, getting from concept to market in eight weeks is not difficult, at least in theory. The thing that enables organizations to move from theory to practice is the ability to get rid of preconceived notions, break down organizational barriers and have the flexibility in mind-set to work within constraints.

Many apparel firms have informal fast-lane processes, but only put them to work in those exceptional cases when the chief designer insists on a design change at the last minute or when there is some other sort of supply chain emergency. The trick is to formalize the process and make it a habit.

No article would be complete without mentioning technology enablers that can help compress the design calendar. My favorite one is from a Portland, OR-based company called Supplychainge, whose product optimizes decision-making on vendor commitments, taking into account margins, transportation cost and expected markdowns. The firm's solution also allows for expected fabric leftovers and factors those into the equation for determining not just how much to buy but also when to make commitments. Other technological enablers include product lifecycle management (PLM) tools that facilitate web-based collaboration about garment specifications. MatrixOne and PTC seem to be generating a lot of interest among retailers lately.

The point to remember, however, is that technology is just an enabler, and in many cases an enabler to improve decision-making and communication efficiency in complex and large organizations. Wouldn't it be better to just see first if organizations and their processes can be made less complex?

SUDHIR HOLLA is a senior principal with the Retail & CPG solution consulting group within Infosys. With more than 12 years of consulting experience, he has led engagements with several apparel wholesale and retail companies, providing business and technology solutions to address sourcing and supply chain issues. His expertise is in the areas of supplier collaboration, CPFR, planning and supply chain and logistics. He can be reached at [email protected]

Infosys, a provider of consulting and information technology services, partners with Global 2000 companies to offer business consulting, systems integration, application development and product engineering services. The firm's goal is to enable clients to exploit technology for business transformation. For more information, visit www.infosys.com

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