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April 21, 2020

Technology opens new channels for supply chain communication

With Covid-19 putting a stop to all non-essential travel, global supply chains are being put to the test as brands and retailers have to rethink how they work, how they communicate with their manufacturers on placing orders and product design, and with business associates globally. Technology is now taking a front seat and software companies are stepping in to help bridge the gap.

By Michelle Russell

With Covid-19 putting a stop to all non-essential travel, global supply chains are being put to the test as brands and retailers have to rethink how they work, how they communicate with their manufacturers on placing orders and product design, and with business associates globally. Technology is now taking a front seat and software companies are stepping in to help bridge the gap.

UK fashion and homewares retailer Next Plc is looking at a number of different scenarios to make up for the lack of face-to-face contact with its suppliers, including video conferencing. Its teams would previously have travelled to factories to work on new product development, but are now asking manufacturers to send samples over. Video conferencing, with one sample at each end, is helping to recreate the process.

Similarly, Swedish fashion retailer H&M is also recommending the use of digital tools as much as possible to enable its sourcing teams to “meet.”

“Since we have production offices with our own staff in our production countries, our close dialogue with [suppliers] can continue,” a spokesperson tells just-style. “This is an extraordinary situation and we are doing our best to have preventive measures in place to limit the spread of the virus.”

German sportswear brand Adidas says it has been encouraging employees to prioritise their safety and reduce the number of face-to-face meetings and make use of other means like videoconferencing technology, if necessary.

Montane, a UK outdoor clothing, equipment and accessories brand, says that while visits to its suppliers have inevitably stopped, relationships haven’t changed. The company uses suppliers predominantly in South East Asia and has “long-established understandings with them, so regular face-to-face meetings are not vital to ensure the continued relationship.”

The difficulty will arise if there is a need to begin working with a new supplier, Montane explains. “In the early stages of supplier relationships it’s vital to get to know one another, to learn to trust one another, and most importantly to visit and audit production facilities. Working closely with suppliers – actually person-to-person – is crucial to achieving the quality and consistency required of a high-end brand.”

Kate Hills, founder of Make it British, a platform promoting UK manufacturing and British brands, believes companies that weren’t previously embracing technology with their businesses partners are now going to have to make the move.

“If everyone is working remotely and they don’t want to work in their own little silo, then they need technology and to be able to embrace that. I see no reason why you couldn’t have a meeting via video-conferencing software with your manufacturer and talk through a product. Okay, you don’t have the touchy-feely side to it that you would have if you’re going to the factory, but you can certainly go through a lot of what is said in those product development meetings via video-conferencing.”

Adapting to technological change

Fashion firms that have invested in modern supply chain technology will likely adapt quicker to withstand the challenges Covid-19 has thrown at the industry – and those that haven’t will need to consider investing if they are to weather the storm. Supply chain visibility and the ability to communicate with customers has become crucial.

Software companies are stepping up to answer the challenges of existing and new customers seeking access to the right technology while working remotely, ensuring payments are received, and re-innovating their business models.

Chris Walia, chief operating officer of fashion technology provider Tukatech, says Covid-19 has certainly influenced the way in which the software specialist now works and it has had to adapt in a number of ways.

“We are assisting our partners to shift mindsets and stay afloat. We, as a team, have been working around the clock to assist these businesses, providing them with cloud-based CAD solutions so workers can work remotely from anywhere, anytime. We continue to offer custom patterns and marker making services with dedicated staff to help 24 hours/7 days a week all while practising ‘Stay Safer at Home’,” Walia explains.

“Our team has stayed focused and innovative running business in parallel with assisting much of the apparel industry who are transitioning into personal protective equipment (PPE) providers.”

Likewise, Centric Software has been working to help its customers who need solutions “right now” – with critical topics of concern around remote collaboration and team working.

“Many of our customers are used to working directly with suppliers, travelling for buying trips, visiting factory sites, discussing samples in person and ideating collaboratively to develop new products,” Anastasia Charbin, chief marketing officer, explains. “[Some] are concerned about how to coordinate buying sessions between central and regional merchandising teams that would have previously involved large in-person meetings.”

Much of this work, including reviewing samples and prototypes, is now having to be carried out online, she says.

“Alternatives must be found. Brands are looking into the possibilities of 3D virtual sampling, digital sample reviews, remote co-design and vendor communication that employs sophisticated online platforms rather than ad hoc systems of email, phone calls, disconnected chats and Excel sheets.”

Centric has responded by adding new packages to its product offering that can be deployed in just a few days. Three ‘Quick-Start Collaboration’ packages are pre-configured for fashion, retail, footwear, consumer goods and manufacturing companies and are designed to get those less familiar with remote work up-and-running in days, rather than weeks or months. They are cloud and SaaS-based, and can be used for physical or 3D samples.

“Our immediate concern was how best to respond to requests from our customers and the broader market need for ways to get up-and-running with remote working, fast,” says Charbin. “There has never been a more essential time for companies to arm themselves with digital transformation tools that empower employees to collaborate, work as a team, work closely with trading partners and control costs.”

Virtual events

In addition to the challenges of remote working, the dynamic of sourcing and machinery trade shows has also changed. Sourcing, fashion and fabric fairs are crucial for both manufacturers and brands wanting face-to-face meetings, to show off new materials and collections, and to discuss pricing, but organisers are now looking to host virtual and other digital alternatives as the pandemic forces the cancellation of events around the world.

Make it British is among those planning a virtual event to replace its ‘Make it British Live!’ sourcing show. “The industry is about making connections and bringing the supply chain back together and we can do that just as easily virtually as we can all together in a great big venue,” Hills says.

“There’s the software and the ability to do it now. It’s about face-to-face meetings, so you can do that via webcam just as easily as you can standing next to each other.”

SPESA (Sewn Products Equipment & Suppliers of the Americas) is considering the possibility of using video tours and other online technologies to showcase its members’ products.

And Kingpins Amsterdam is replacing the April physical event of its denim sourcing show with an online version featuring a live stream of panels, interviews, and exhibitor content (such as line presentations, sustainability and CSR updates).

Adapting to the new norm

Tukatech’s Walia believes the industry will bounce-back from Covid-19, but says “a new normal awaits us.”

“That new normal competitive landscape will reflect companies that invested in technology for design automation to be flexible and adaptable to ever-changing market conditions. There will be a new wave of apparel companies that will arise with technology as their power to progress.”

One company helping firms on that journey is Hong Kong-based apparel knowledge hub Motif. CEO Catherine Cole says the key is future-proofing a business for when the crisis passes. This includes diversifying capabilities and skills, and knowledge sharing.

“There are basic skills that still stand, and should we see a new normal in six to 12 months, there is certainly a new blend of skills that will be needed,” Cole told delegates on a recent Alvanon webinar. “Let’s think about 3D transformation training or improving the efficiency of the sampling and product development process by doing things more virtually or digitally. Things like how to run a fit session virtually. Suddenly that becomes more important.”

Cole believes there is an opportunity now for the industry to shore up capabilities for “a new way of doing business.”

“My biggest fear is we come out of this and go back to the way we always have as an industry, that we don’t learn anything, or worse we regress.”

There is no doubt many businesses will realise the benefits of their new-found capabilities on the other side of the crisis, and will choose to retain some of these solutions and practices. Centric’s Charbin believes many will also discover their new practices are actually far more efficient and cost-effective than the old ways of working.

“They will decide to make them permanent and invest further in innovations such as digital 3D sampling, virtual buying session technology and enhanced online vendor collaboration. It is impossible to predict the future, but one thing we can be sure of is that the world will not return to the way things were before.”

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