ConnectIT 2000, billed as "the only trade show dedicated solely to information technology solutions for the apparel industry supply chain," took place recently in Atlanta, USA. Bob Shallow, MBA reports on an event that promised a lot but was the victim of poor timing.

The format was a combination of exhibition space for a large number of companies, plus a generous array of subjects in the conference program. Twenty-one sessions were scheduled, starting with a keynote 'Bridging the chasm, living on the fault line: manufacturing in the age of e-commerce' and finishing, three days later, with the final session: 'The Saks collaborative planning, forecasting and replenishment initiative.'

One of the more interesting presentations, 'What do retailers expect from manufactures in the new e-commerce world?', was given by Catherine Harding of Blue Martini Software. Catherine is a former IBM employee, and she kept one of the seminar's largest audiences attentive with a well planned and delivered discussion. She showed examples of websites with good versus poor search capability, and emphasized that merchandisers, not IT techies, must design and approve product search methods since they understand how the consumer's mind works.

Catherine used material from the Levi Strauss site - which was designed by Blue Martini - to demonstrate the need for manufacturers to provide graphic content that retailers can use on their sites. She explained that the Levi's project started out as a product catalogue and store finder, and that no B2C purchases were planned - although this has since changed.

Levi's created terrific collateral graphics for its site. But the customer sites to which its visitors were referred for product purchases used poor quality, retailer-generated graphics. Levi's convinced some major customers, including JC Penney, to use its own visual material. This means that when Levi's customers now go to the JCP site they see the same Levi's collateral that exists on the Levi's site - which leads to higher revenues for the retailer.

Catherine showed a chart that indicated for every dollar of direct B2C sales on the web, another seven dollars is generated via purchases at bricks and mortar stores. This seven dollars is created by consumers seeing or researching products on the web, but making purchases off-line for whatever reason - for example, they were unable to buy direct from the vendor via web, or are uncomfortable about giving credit card information etc.

Sales slowdown
The past eleven months have been very slow in terms of sales for most software vendors worldwide. Apparel manufacturers, textile mills and retailers spent huge sums in 1998 and 1999 preparing to survive the Y2K crisis, and this has eaten into subsequent investments.

At retail level, 2000 has not been a great year either, except for a few exceptions in the specialty store area. The price of fuel for autos and heating is 30 per cent higher than last year. The stock markets have not been kind to apparel, retail and technology stocks since the summer, making executives in the supply chain nervous. In the early Christmas 2000 season, consumers are already looking for markdowns and are buying sales items aggressively.

In this climate, companies throughout the supply chain are being cautious about any capital investment. And this has stretched out the time frame for purchasing decisions significantly. Project 'champions' must provide rock-solid return-on-investment (ROI) data to get their proposals approved; and if it is funded, they know that if the project then fails in practice, the 'champion' is probably unemployed.

Disappointing turnout
A number of the exhibitors said that they were very disappointed with the turnout at ConnectIT. One thousand visitors were expected, but numbers seemed to trail off rapidly during the last two days of the event. Some conferences were cancelled because too few people showed up. Also, the exhibition hall was only officially open during certain times each day to encourage attendance at the conferences.

It was probably the timing of the event that led to the low attendance. The program and exhibits were first-rate, but mid-November is a tough time to have a trade show, especially a new one.

The apparel industry was well-served by the Bobbin show which took place just six weeks previously (also in Atlanta), and since the fiscal year ends in December for most companies, little money is left in company budgets to send people back to Atlanta so soon afterwards.

Bob Shallow earned his MBA at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He is an educator and information technology consultant specializing in apparel, textile and retail opportunities that enable organizations to perform better through the proper use of IT and e-commerce. E-mail: bobshallow@home.com