Fast Fashion is one of the industry’s main winners. But many large brands are still struggling to reduce time to market. Read on for ideas to speed up lead times!
Success as Measured by Speed
‘Direct-to-consumer’, ‘see now buy now’ and ‘Fast Fashion’ are fashion industry buzzwords. But is faster always better in the fashion world? Why have fast fashion brands taken so much market share from slower brands in the past? If you have wondered about these questions too, please read on for tips on reducing time to market. If not, please get back to work, fast 🙂
First of all, I do not believe that speed is the silver bullet to gaining market share or growing your business profitably. Just to give you some hope in case your time to market is still very long (i.e. longer than 12 months for your main collection) – I have also worked with brands on a very long calendar (almost two years from design start to first in-store date) and they have grown profitably for multiple years in a row (and that at company sizes of larger than €150m). How? Mainly by having a truly unique product and value proposition, executed flawlessly across all channels. For some great ideas on how to orchestrate your brand, please have a look at this article here [in German].
But back to harsh reality and the fact that many competitors are able to better seize market opportunities by being closer to market and/or being able to react to trends in season.
How Fast Do You Have to Be?
So, why is faster often considered better in fashion? Essentially, because it allows you to react closer to market trends and proven best-sellers, rather than designing and hoping that something will sell based on your marketing.
If you didn’t have at least one leopard-print item in your summer 2019 women’s line, then you’ve likely lost some business that others with a shorter reaction time may have been able to pick up.
The holy grail for many brands today remains having a good read on ‘mirror season’ sell-out data. To collect and prepare this kind of data before you begin the merchandising and design process on your main line, you need to aim for a calendar from seasonal kick-off to first in-store date of under 50 weeks. In-season fast track is something that will run in parallel to that and might be topic for another article.
McKinsey has looked at the topic of speed and time to market in a 2018 Article called the need for speed and focused on ideas around digitisation as key levers. While all of them are valid, let me focus this article on some tips around the nuts and bolts of your operational business processes that reduce time to market.
Time to Market Is a Team Game
Reducing time to market is not something that can be achieved by changing only one function or by digitising one process. Only if all functions along the planning, design, manufacturing and delivery process work together, can significant reductions in lead time be achieved. Once you start throwing over one stone in the supply chain, usually many more will logically have to move as well, or the effort is wasted.
This kind of project absolutely needs C-level attention, ideally from the CEO, as there will be many cross-functional discussions and ‘if I don’t get this from function x , I can not deliver’ discussions. So some tough decisions will most likely be required.
Let’s look at time to market throughout the entire development season.
1. Calendar Management & Discipline
A detailed seasonal calendar with all key functional milestones needs to be signed off by all functions well ahead of each season start. Describe all key meetings with specific, measurable outputs along all milestones and make someone with enough weight in the organisation accountable for keeping all deadlines and escalating issues in a timely manner. This is the visible ‘contract’ between all parties and should be used by all functions to guide their actions and deliver as planned.
2. Strategic Planning & Seasonal Financial Planning
Make sure that by the time your merchandising teams begins their seasonal assortment planning process, you have given them at least a seasonal net sales, product gross margin, and assortment productivity targets.
These targets may need to be given outside your typical financial calendar dates. But without them, the product teams can’t be expected to structure the tightest and most productive range and will potentially lose time designing and developing styles that won’t make it into production.
3. Merchandise and Assortment Planning
Enable your teams to have the right tools at hand (both for the wholesale and own stores parts of your organisation) to properly plan the assortment, both from a financial perspective as well as an assortment structure perspective. A lot of this can be achieved with a spreadsheet, but of course professional planning software tools are available too.
The tools allow you to make sure that your range is only as big as it needs to be, and that you are able to track changes made during the development process that affect sales and margin. Also use detailed assortment analytics (e.g. style efficiency, regional assortment overlaps, etc.) to drive your top-down targets for the season.
4. Design & Development
Make sure that you have as much of your seasonal fabrics decided on as early as possible. Fabrics and trim lead times are typically the biggest hindrance when it comes to reducing time to market. This, alongside a robust forecasting process, enables you to pre-book greige fabric and take out larger chunks of the manufacturing process.
Don’t make the design process too democratic. Keep the group of people who comment on design as small as possible (including key accounts) and get critical input as early as possible. And one round of protos needs to be enough if your design and development teams do a good job and your sales teams trusts the design team.
Make sure that you have a well-structured end-of-season feedback process so that the design team is able to easily and without misinterpretation repeat what needs to be repeated and change what needs to be changed.
Much has been said about digital samples replacing physical samples and reducing time for protos. While this is a real opportunity, I still have to see this gain traction on a larger scale. Both due to cost and complexity of the tools, and a lack of acceptance by wholesale sales teams and retail buyers, who will often argue that they can’t possibly judge a style that they cannot physically touch.
5. Sell-in & Order
Don’t overextend the time that your sales teams are given to sell; six weeks are plenty for any brand of any size.
Unfortunately, especially when seasonal order targets are not hit, the deadline is extended so that the targets can be chased. This has a negative impact both on production cost and lead time (as well as relationships with suppliers) at the end of the supply chain and should not be taken lightly.
When extending a deadline after the calendar has been signed off at the beginning of the season, expect products to either be late or have a reduced gross margin. Once you open the door to any sort of non-adherence to the calendar, it loses all its strength.
Forecasting is one of the topics that time and again becomes an issue when it comes to effective factory allocation and production planning. Once you have variances between forecast and PO, sourcing teams will react by building in buffer time and ask for POs earlier than required to avoid issues with ex-factory dates in case your next forecast is off again. Think about making forecast accuracy part of bonus payments should accuracy be an issue for you today.
Acknowledge that in wholesale business, there are certain industry-wide accepted times when clients will order. Don’t expect to change those all by yourself.
If your have your own retail stores and or e-commerce business, make sure that those teams place their orders very early so that the rest of the organisation can learn from that before buying themselves. The same goes for your key accounts: make sure they order as early as possible. This will help your forecasting accuracy by driving alignment across the organisation and gives your sourcing teams an earlier read on the styles that will make it into production.
Sourcing will to a large extent depend on the quality of the work done up front in the process. If your forecasting accuracy is far off, or if you keep changing styles until the last minute and adding key account packages after end of sell-in phase, don’t expect wonders from your back-end to catch up lost time.
But, of course, sourcing can and needs to contribute to ensuring that e.g. the fabric greige booking goes smoothly. Greige booking alone can have an effect of 30 to 40 days lower lead time. And if you can, don’t over-emphasize Bangladesh in your sourcing mix, because the fabric import process will cost you time.
Ready To Shorten You Calendar?
If you have an aligned set of issues you want to improve to move to a new, shorter calendar, the last step is the rollout of the new calendar.
Two final thoughts on this, based on what I have seen happen during implementation phases:
First, if you need to set up a new process that hasn’t worked so far, by all means, go through the new process one season without taking out time of the calendar and see if everything works out as planned. Only once all new processes have been established take time out.
And once you decide to take out as much time as possible, don’t do it in small steps because the real benefit will only come once you can access mirror season sell-through data, which means you need to be well below 50 weeks.
Now I wish you a wonderful development season and awesome sell-through!
About the Author:
Christoph is a consultant in strategy development and process optimisation for fashion brands and retailers. He has more than 15 years experience as a consultant, line manager in the sports wear industry and in e-commerce marketplace distribution. Read more of his work here and connect with him on LinkedIn.