C&A is highlighting the improved fit of its garments with special labels on its latest denim ranges

C&A is highlighting the improved fit of its garments with special labels on its latest denim ranges

If proof was needed of the link between consistent garment size and fit and its impact on top-line growth, then look no further than European value fashion retailer C&A – where a 10-month overhaul of fit and product development processes is already paying dividends. Involving the supply base as early as possible has also been one of the keys to success.

Figures just released by C&A Europe show that to date, total turnover value for its ladies' autumn/winter 2015 denim range has increased by 17.4% compared to 2014, and the total turnover value of its entire adult denim collection is up 7.8% on last year.

On top of this, the total turnover value of adult denim is up 8.7% against C&A's planned budget – with ladies' denim up 9.1% against plan and men's ahead by 8.3%.

The numbers are no coincidence, Helen Walczak, head of strategic design projects and one of the key leaders of the C&A Fit Certification project, said at a briefing in London last week. "This is on our core denim range, so we know from a like-for-like comparison that fit had an impact.

"We decided to relaunch our adult denim programme because denim is one of the most critical fitting products. It's so subjective; every woman has a view on what she wants to look like in her jeans, so we knew that if we could get this right we were making an impact."

She adds: "We're thrilled with the results."

These results are all the more impressive given the scale of the challenge.

With head offices in Dusseldorf and Brussels, privately owned C&A operates 1,575 stores, sells online in nine countries, and also has a presence in Brazil, Mexico, and China. It produces more than 500m units of clothing and footwear a year for men, women and children, is the largest consumer of organic cotton in the world, and serves customers ranging in age from 17 to 70.

And with three main brands – Canda, Yessica and Clockhouse – targeting three different age groups and three different profiles across 21 countries across Europe, "that's a pretty wide market spread," notes Ed Gribbin, president of Alvanon, which acted as a strategic partner for the project.

"How do you engage diverse populations like that and get them to not only come into your stores but love your brands?"

On top of this, the whole project – from identifying and re-standardising the core customer body shapes across the three brands, to overhauling size charts, grading and fit across the entire size ranges, developing new fit forms and block patterns, and rolling out the changes across C&A's internal product design and development teams, as well as its seven sourcing hubs – was achieved in less than a year.

"The C&A project in terms of scope and timing is one of the most ambitious we have ever completed," Gribbin adds.

"The work was finished in record time from beginning to end. We were able to get buy-in at each stage of the development process, roll out to the vendor community, do the training and launch to the C&A buyers from around the world."

Supply chain success

Another key to the success of the project was the decision to involve C&A's supply base as early as possible in the new standards and fits. As part of the changes, all manufacturing tolerances have been overhauled and embedded in both size charts and product specifications.

"Our top 70 suppliers have the new fit forms. And with these top 70 suppliers we're impacting about 80% of our buy. So it's also about consistency throughout the supply chain," explains Jackie Lewis, unit leader for technical services at C&A.

"One of the key things is that everybody needs to look at fit with the same eye. That's why we chose to launch the fit stance to the supply base at the same time as we rolled out to our hubs, so we could really make a difference as quickly as possible," Walczak adds.

"We wanted to make sure that if were communicating fit comments that they were able to take those and understand what we were saying."

Lewis also adds: "When you're working with factories in China and Bangladesh, people quite often can't visualise what a European women's body looks like when she's a size 46 or a European man who's a size 66.

"They have no concept of that, so we've been able to bring to life for them what that customer looks like through the fit forms. That sounds like a simple thing, but it's fundamental because we know as well that you can give a size chart to a factory, but it doesn't define the shape of the pattern or what that body actually looks like. It's a huge thing to give them the right tools to do the job."

It's a point also picked up by Alvanon CEO Janice Wang. "One of the big things that vendors and manufacturers will always say is 'give us clear instructions.' They don't want you to change your ideas as they're about to cut the fabric.

"Once vendors know you're embarking on such a specific kind of project they are absolutely [behind you] as they understand how much time and money it will save them."

Consistent experience

With around 40% of items sold online, mobile and in-store returned due to fit issues, Gribbin believes consistent size and fit is an "opportunity for many retailers to pick up the money they've left on the table."

"Brands ask us all the time for quick wins. But if you're overhauling comprehensively you want your shopper to have a consistent experience across the product line. If they find a good fit in denim but then they buy a blouse and it doesn't fit very well, they'll be a bit wary about coming back."

As part of its work, Alvanon was able to filter out from its database around 60,000 European body scans representing the target customer across the 21 countries where C&A operates.

From this, the ultimate – or core – body was built for product development, along with fit forms or mannequins to ensure fit integrity across the size range for ladies' wear, children's wear and men's wear.

"In the UK most brands use a size 12, in Germany a size 38. That body has to be the most democratic representation of the target customer group possible, so that you can engage the maximum number of people with the fewest number of stock-keeping units (SKUs)," Gribbin explains.

"Once we get that body, we have to grade it up and down. If you think about it, the average customer who's a size 12 doesn't have the same body shape as a size 18 customer or a size 6 customer – yet most of the industry grades linearly so the shape of the product is exactly the same in every size. So what happens? The bigger or smaller customer gets a little bit disenfranchised. For the brand's sake, they lose sales."

Clear roles and responsibilities

One of the biggest challenges in any project like this is ensuring that processes are streamlined – including clear roles and responsibilities for fit.

This last point is key because "everybody believes that they own fit," and unless there is absolute clarity about who owns what within a business, "it can create a lot of problems," explains Lewis.

"We had some really honest discussions about who actually owns fit, so we were all clear on what was expected of us," Lewis says. "What's the difference between aesthetic fit and technical fit? What does commercial fit mean? Who owns which piece? Where are the handoffs in the process?"

Gribbin agrees. "In many companies designers say they own fit, merchants say they own fit, buyers will say they're in charge...everyone claims to own fit, and when that happens you have fit by committee. And that really doesn't work. What that means for the consumer is inconsistent execution."

Customer communication

Communicating all these changes to the consumer has also been a big part of the project, with C&A opting to go through Alvanon's AlvaInside fit certification scheme. This involves a series of audits based on how a company establishes and executes fit in its product specifications and its supply chain, and how it inspects for it in its quality areas.

So far, the retailer has been accredited to use the AlvaInside logo and "Consistently Accurate Fit Certified by Alvanon" on specified garment labels across its autumn/winter 2015 ladies' wear and adult denim ranges. The logo will also appear on shop windows. It is currently going through the fit certification cycle for men's and kids wear and the Clockhouse fashion brand.

As well as helping to build market share, sales and brand loyalty, C&A's work to deliver consistent fit is also seen as a precursor to building the retailer's multi-channel platforms.

Earlier this year, Alvanon's Ed Gribbin suggested fashion brands and retailers need to embrace "radical change" in their apparel sizing and fit strategies if they are to remain competitive in a changing environment. Click on the following link to read more:

The Fit Factor: Five rules for reinvention