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Fast fashion technology

Retailers are embracing high-tech software to reduce cycle times and meet the needs of customers.

As clothing production and distribution costs head skyward, fashion retailers are desperately seeking ways to claw back margin. They are also conscious that consumers demand new ranges in ever shorter timeframes, with fashion ‘seasons’ renewing every few weeks, instead of the traditional spring/summer and autumn/winter periods.

Many fashion companies are turning to product lifecycle management (PLM) technology to both cut costs and speed up lead times. These systems can cost between £10,000 and several million to implement, depending on the size and scope of the solution. So what exactly do they deliver?

“Essentially PLM technology helps retailers collaborate more closely within their own organisation and in some cases with partners and suppliers located around the world,” says Christopher Schyma, strategic account director for fashion at software provider Lectra.

“PLM technology moves retailers on from the ‘organised chaos’ of dealing with Excel spreadsheets across countless different departments, to a secure, web-based platform integrating people, data, processes, and business systems.” It provides a product information backbone for companies and their network of suppliers, and the efficiencies this delivers can significantly reduce costs.

Speeding up product development is where fashion retailers are currently hoping to see financial wins, says Brian Marsden, EMEA president at TradeStone, another PLM provider. “Our client American Eagle, the US denim and casualwear brand, has calculated that every week it can take out of product development is worth $1million (£630,000) to its bottom line,” he says.

Changing with the times

Time can be saved by making use of style templates and colour libraries so that previous product specifications are used in new designs. The fitting stage, product testing and quality control also benefit from improved speed and accuracy benefits. The constant updates and last-minute changes to a design for a new product are far better managed too, says Marsden.

Many people within retailers or fashion brands are involved in producing, for example, a new skirt or pair of jeans - designers, pattern cutters, technologists, textile buyers, merchandisers and so on. “If one person updates a design - for example, shortening a sleeve length on a blouse - and that vital piece of data isn’t updated everywhere, a production order can go horribly wrong,” says Schyma. “You can end up with 30,000 garments with the wrong fit, and that’s going to cost.”

He explains that with PLM in place you have live data and changes such as altering a sleeve length can be made instantaneously, updating everyone accurately and in real time. “Making changes to spreadsheets across the entire enterprise could add two days, and that’s another cost,” says Schyma.

PLM also gives scope for garment designs to be improved - catching the trend of the day - in a shorter timeframe. A good example is surfwear brand Quiksilver, whose team of designers is spread across the US, Australia and France. Since implementing Dassault Systèmes’ ENOVIA PLM system in 2006, the company has been able to collaborate on designs and trends in real-time across the globe, according to Chris Schreiber, Quiksilver’s vice-president of technical services. “If the information is available to be seen and accessed by us and our suppliers there is no limit to what can be achieved creatively,” he says. “PLM allows us to leverage good local and good global information.”

PLM makes communication faster on product development, merchandise planning and cost management. “If the price of a ribbon you want on a dress goes up from 10p to 12p, you can work out the knock-on effect that will have to production costs and share that information,” says Schyma.

First class delivery

PLM can also help retailers save money at the supply end of a product’s lifecycle. Home shopping group JD Williams has been using a system from TradeStone to provide a single-view for merchandise planning and supply chain operations. JD Williams says being electronically linked to suppliers has speeded up delivery of goods, and the improvements to quality control throughout the supply chain has reduced returns levels - a big win for a home shopping operation with more than 20 catalogue brands.

Robert McKee, industry strategy director at software provider Lawson, adds: “The potential wins from having this seamless end-to-end data flow are very exciting for retailers, and many are fully embracing the technology as they look at what successful companies are achieving with PLM.”

McKee believes the real wins will come to those retailers that invest in PLM not just to collaborate internally on design, but to those collaborating with their suppliers as well. “Retailers need to be thinking not just about time to market, but time to consumer,” he says. “After all, cash is only achieved when you get that dress or coat into the consumer’s hands.”

Case study: How Peacocks keeps pace with trends

Value retailer Peacocks has more than 500 stores in the UK and 76 stores in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Its success has been down to its ability to react quickly to trends while keeping prices competitive. Typically up to 50 new womenswear lines land in stores every week.

This emphasis on speed to market puts pressure on designers, buyers, merchandisers and supply chain personnel, which is why the company recently invested in Lawson’s Fashion Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) system. It replaces spreadsheets with a central product development database for internal Peacocks users and gives online access to suppliers.

The solution enables Peacocks to hold product development specifications and supplier manuals in-house and allows partners to access them. As new blouses, jeans and jackets pass through the many stages of product development, it makea production and supply chain planning easier.

Real time updates

The system has automated what were previously time-consuming manual tasks, so that users will have changes to product specifications updated in real time.

“A huge amount of duplicated effort has been eliminated,” explains Alex Robertson, logistics business systems analyst at Peacocks. “A colour or size [entered] onto a spreadsheet was previously re-entered by the quality assurance, merchandising and buying teams, until the data was eventually keyed into the ordering system.”

Another benefit is that production information is more accurate and timely. Whereas there was previously a risk of cross-departmental bottlenecks in the paper chain, it can now flow quickly in electronic form.

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