Alan Wragg, technical director at Tescos F&F brand, speaking at The Fit Factor: World class wisdom and fashion sizing and fit

Alan Wragg, technical director at Tesco's F&F brand, speaking at 'The Fit Factor: World class wisdom and fashion sizing and fit'

Supermarket retailer Tesco has calculated that cutting lead times by one to two weeks on around one-third of the styles in its F&F clothing range adds 4-8% to net margin and generates savings of between GBP20m and GBP40m (US$30-60m). And this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits of 3D virtual fit and prototyping technology.

The startling statistics were revealed by Alan Wragg, technical director at Tesco's F&F clothing brand, at ‘The Fit Factor’ conference organised last week by the ASBCI (Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industry).

Charting the company’s use of 3D virtual fit and prototyping tools over the past 18 months, he explained: “We're trying to use technology to reduce our lead time and reduce the number of samples from 1.8 to 1.2 per style.

“We will always see one garment in the UK, and I don't think that'll ever change. But we don't want to have to see the repeat fits, where things have gone wrong, and we think that will be eliminated by doing a virtual fit.

“We want to be consistent on size and fit across all styles, so as long as you fit one of our standard sizes, we want you to be able to pick it up and trust that it's right, whether it's a formal trouser, casual trouser, bikini, or a coat.”

The challenges facing the retailer are, in part, due to its success. Since its launch 14 years ago, the F&F affordable fashion brand for men, women and children has expanded into company-owned stores in 22 countries in central Europe, Asia and the US; franchise stores in 10 countries; and an online business that offers more than 10,000 clothing products and delivers to 70 countries worldwide.

“If you have a limited number of sizes, the challenge is to try and fit as many of those body shapes as possible,” Wragg notes, “because at the end of the day we want to sell as many products as we can.” Another issue is to try to minimise the number of garments that are returned by online shoppers.

Prior to its investment in Lectra’s Modaris 3D virtual fit and prototyping solution, Tesco was battling to provide consistent fit and quality across styles and suppliers.

“Each factory created their own pattern from our size charts and/or blocks,” Wragg explains, leading to “inconsistent fit on the same product from different suppliers. You might buy the same T-shirt from a long lead time country (India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, China) and a short lead time country (Turkey) - but they're not the same because the factories manipulated the block and changed it.”

Using Modaris, Tesco has created “a substantial library of core patterns that our worldwide supplier base can access. We don't need them to tinker with it at all. In essence, what we're really doing is the first fit virtually.”

Benefits so far
A number of benefits have already resulted, including rapid response to changes in fit fundamentals, lower online returns, fewer fits, shorter
lead times, and be first to market with new trends.

Tesco is the second-biggest schoolwear retailer in the UK, and has been able to re-grade all products and verify new grade rules to ensure they match changes to children’s size and shape in line with data from the Shape GB size survey released two years ago. 

“The kids survey not surprisingly showed the modern child is a lot bigger, and our old fit models were out of date. So the patterns and samples we were fitting on those mannequins were wrong compared to the customers who were buying the product.

“What we were able to do very quickly when we got this information was to verify on a 3D avatar whether those patterns we'd established over a number of years were correct, and also whether the grade rules were correct.” The 3D fits were perfected virtually, without cutting any fabric, “so when we did actually make a sample we'd already gone through one iteration and our sample/size set was right first time.”

The company took the top 27 styles in schoolwear, fit-approved them virtually on the new base sizes, and fully graded all patterns in just six weeks. “We don't have a sample room, and were 81% right first time.

“Last season, I think we were the only mass-market retailer to be able to adapt the Shape GB size survey results and amend our schoolwear with the new information because we could do it quickly.”

Online returns is another area where re-fitting the faster-selling styles using Modaris has helped reduce return rates from around 19% in 2013 to 14% in 2014. “We worked out that each 1% return saving saves us over £750,000,” says Wragg.

The retailer has also calculated that fewer fits have the potential to save around GBP100,000 in model, buyer/technologists’ time and courier charges.

“Most of us use the same fit process: the designer comes up with a buying brief, we get the size chart, send it to Asia or Europe, we get a garment back, and we fit it. Those fit meetings cost a lot of time and money. Our ambition is to more from 1.8 samples per style to 1.2…we're currently at about 1.5.”

Shorter lead times
But the biggest saving of all comes from shorter lead times. “If we can make one less sample on 50% of all of the products we make, then we can save something like one or two weeks in lead time. And that means we sell more at full price rather than having to mark down, and that's a big margin difference, something like 4-8% more net margin.

“We worked out that if 30% of the lead time was reduced due to us fitting things quicker and getting things approved and into production quicker, we'd save between GBP20-40m. So there's a really tangible benefit if we can make that saving in leadtime.”

Shorter lead times also enable the retailer to make the most of market trends. “We don't consider ourselves a fashion leader,” Wragg admits, “but what we've discovered is that if we do tap into the latest trends within season, we sell it. Because we buy everything offshore, we've got to be slick in the product development stage.” He adds that using Modaris 3D “we only sample what we really intend to buy, making decisions earlier in the development cycle.”

Tesco has managed to go from design concept using 3D virtual fit to right fit time approval in just seven days. “We digitised the pattern, did a virtual fit in-house, got the pattern to Turkey, and we got that back in seven days.”

The next challenge is to make sure F&F products have a consistent handwriting across the world, but are also appropriate to some very diverse markets. By 2018, the company’s aspirations are to be in 45 countries with 30 partners operating 750 stores.

“At the moment, we've just extended the size range at either end of the product we buy for Europe...XXS to XXXL and we've added a short as well. We don't really want to put our manufacturers through the trouble of making a completely different size range.

“Basically, it's all down to gaining customer trust and loyalty; if you can give people confidence that whether it's online, through a franchise outlet in Gibraltar or whether it's your local store in the UK, when they buy their size it's going to be consistent; we get fewer returns, happier customers and hopefully they'll buy more.”

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