Over the past few years, the Internet has revolutionised the way individuals, companies or corporate entities interact with each other. It provides a growing mass of information and, with cheap and direct access, is easy to navigate, search and exit. So surely, as many pundits forecast, the Internet should bring an end to intermediation of any sort. Well, yes, and no, says Devangshu Dutta.

Yes, the Internet makes information more easily accessible to everyone. Every week, literally thousands of websites, hundreds of portals, and at least a few dozen exchanges spring up. These get hit upon directly, or via the many search engines that are also constantly updating and fine-tuning their search tools.

However, despite these updates, search engines don't always generate intelligible information. Just a few days ago, I was searching for hotels in the US. I downloaded a morass of information and spent a whole day sorting through it. It would have been easier if I had requested a trusted travel agent to come up with a few appropriate options for me, from which I could have booked my choice.

Computers have a long way to go before they can catch up with the human mind for versatility. We can connect and inter-relate seemingly unrelated items of information, for example, creating travel itineraries covering flights, hotels, and other details while also bearing in mind time constraints, costs, and objectives for travelling. Robot programmes need much more attention from their developers before they can automatically find the best prices and the most convenient locations or times, let alone do that for hotels AND flights AND trains and any other items that your itinerary contains.

Travel is probably one of the simpler examples. Let us think of a more complex example - the textile and apparel supply chain. It is one of the most fragmented industries, and possibly one of the most global in terms of trade flows. There are multiple layers of raw materials and intermediate products, most of which pass through some sort of intermediaries (such as commission agents, stockists, importers and so on). The industry is a prime candidate for opening out to the Internet, where suppliers can create their websites, or store their information through other platforms (such as "exchanges") which can be accessed by buyers from around the world - easy to set up, independent of time zones and very low cost. Get rid of the multiple layers that mostly add costs, book orders directly, get rid of stocks - sounds like a heaven-sent opportunity.

Web-based exchanges proliferate
Well, that is how it is being seen by the 70-80 exchanges that have sprung up around the world, or are in various stages of being set up. Some of these have been set up by existing industry players, some by technology companies, and yet others by people who have set up exchanges in other sectors and who believe that similar business principles can be applied to the textile and apparel supply chain as they have applied in the other sectors. This should dramatically raise the direct access between suppliers and customers, be the end of agents and other intermediaries, and basically make millions for the companies promoting the exchanges.

Yet, around the world, retailers and brands that buy finished products and raw material do not seem to be rushing to stake any significant proportion of their purchases to web-based sourcing. And there are multiple reasons for that.

Firstly, such a proliferation of exchanges seems to be only a reflection of the fragmentation, and there does not seem the likelihood that any clearly dominant player will emerge in the next few months. There is little or no differentiation between most of these exchanges - most of them offering a sophisticated yellow pages capability, while others offer possibly a few add-ons such as functionality that allows buyers to bid for stocks, or suppliers to quote for products.

Secondly, in certain areas, buyers or suppliers themselves have got involved in setting up exchanges. Some of these are private web-based initiatives (such as Wal-Mart or Littlewoods on the retail end, or LiFung.com or TheThread.com on the supply side), while others apparently are more public and collaborative, such as World-Wide Retail Exchange.

Closed web-based systems are excellent for the company that is initiating it, because it enables the company to streamline its operational processes but it does create another platform for people to adapt to, though web-based systems are less painful certainly than EDI systems or other proprietary systems, which require specific investments. Also, occasionally it brings up the question of conflict of interest. For example, how comfortable would one supplier feel in sharing internal information with another supplier who has taken on an additional role?

Group dynamics
Other initiatives, such as the WWRE, have got off to a good start but internal stumbling blocks are inevitable due to the composition of the groups. Consider the WWRE: 27 retailers currently, in four separate areas of operation (as diverse as food and clothing), with different geographical bases, which make the business imperatives very different for the various participants. Add to that the fact that people are loath to share knowledge that is considered proprietary by them, whether process knowledge or supplier contacts. It is a long-drawn process of consensus management in such a large initiative.

Thirdly, what kind of a service offer is the best? As of now, there is a range of options available from various B2B service providers, offering varying areas of benefit, from listing services to "software solutions" for various applications, to loose working relationships. Not only do the service offerings actually vary, there are varying degrees of claims and counterclaims that muddy the waters further.

Confusion rules
The scenario is actually as confusing as it seems to be - players, whether exchanges, portals, or any other kind of company, are dynamically evolving their business models, with changes almost every week as it seems, and new players emerging all the time. In such a scenario, buyers who are early-adopters will get into as many exchanges as possible to get the maximum choice, and to hedge their bets. On the other hand, the majority, which comprises buyers who adopt new technologies later, will hold back to see which exchanges come up as the most widely accepted or most appropriate for them.

Finally, whether we like it or not, textile and apparel products are inherently 'emotional' products. Sure, they are driven by specifications, and those specs can be defined fairly precisely. What the specifications cannot ever completely convey is how a buyer feels, instinctively, about including a product in a range. Or what the impact would be of making some minor adjustments that can be visualised, discussed and decided in an interactive session between a buyer and a supplier. Or, for that matter, what is the best way to reconfigure a supply chain, under pressure of a new order, or an unforeseen delay in the process. Intermediation is something that has become ingrained in the textile and apparel supply chain.

In such a scenario, it is unlikely that intermediaries will disappear immediately. What is certainly happening, however, that while previously buyers were willing (or forced) to pay for having access to information, pure information itself is being made a commodity. In this frame of reference, companies are seeking out "genuine value-for-money" before they will shell out a buying or selling commission. Process or domain knowledge is an absolute must - only this can enable web-based companies to create unique and genuinely value-adding web-solutions. Simply putting up a "telephone directory on the web" will fetch very little - even though a telephone directory has hundreds of thousands of entries, how much do you pay for it? Relationship-management and process-management capability will remain in demand, and many of the existing intermediaries certainly show a lot of that.

Vertical integration of apparel and textiles
One of the most important developments, that will certainly be an accelerated outcome of the Internet, will be the vertical integration of the textile and apparel supply chain. While, in the past, the diverse nature of the stages of the supply chain has created and maintained multiple layers, web-based technologies are now enabling companies to structure and manage the apparel supply chain from as early a stage as they wish to, be that fabric, yarn, or even fibre.

Another significant outcome is that the web breaks down "size" barriers. Large retailers typically bought from large suppliers, while small retailers typically did business with small suppliers. Any "criss-crossing" (small companies dealing with larger companies) needed middlemen - individuals or companies that broke bulk or consolidated orders, for small or large retailers, respectively. This had more to do with operating systems, management capabilities and the scale needed for relationship management than it did with actual barriers. Now, however, web-based systems can allow some parity between organisations of different size, because at a low cost the same level of functionality is available to companies of all sizes. This is significantly changing the balance of power, and the overall structure of the industry. Scale was never the only surrogate measure of capability in this industry, but the correlation between actual scale and perceived or actual capability is getting even more vague over the Internet.

The impact of the web on the textile and apparel industry is not going to be immediate - it will take a while to permeate the hundreds of thousands of companies that make up the supply chain - so there is some breathing space. But surely, in the next five years, the textile and apparel supply chain will be structured quite differently from the existing supply chain. There will certainly be some casualties. What is important is that both suppliers and retailers start taking notice of the changes to come, and begin changing their businesses to avoid being one of the casualties.

Devangshu Dutta is director of India-Apparel (www.india-apparel.com), a web-enabled product sourcing and technology company, and an associate with Kurt Salmon Associates. Despite his apparent scepticism, he is a firm believer in the benefits of applying Internet-based technologies to business. India-Apparel focuses on apparel and home products, and its services include supply chain development, sourcing management, and process consulting to buyers and suppliers in this sector. He can be contacted at devangshu@india-apparel.com.