If a shopper orders a garment online and notices a defect, they will likely return it – usually without buying a replacement

If a shopper orders a garment online and notices a defect, they will likely return it – usually without buying a replacement

In the modern apparel industry, change is rapid. Consumer behaviours and perceptions are shifting. Cost pressures are intensifying. And while poor quality has long resulted in widespread markdowns and chargebacks, now it may result in permanently lost clients.

To thrive in today's competitive environment, brands must keep pace with change by adopting new quality control sampling plans and Acceptable Quality Levels (AQL), as well as a focus on quality assurance – allowing them to face the evolving consumer landscape of tomorrow.

Facing an evolving consumer landscape

Across the world, consumer perceptions of quality have substantially transformed. With the emergence of digital retail channels, consumers no longer have the same behaviours and expectations when purchasing apparel.

For instance, when a shopper at a store finds a damaged garment (such as a shirt with a wavy stitching line), they will likely look for another in the same size or ask a sales person if there are more in stock. Often, the next item won't have the same flaw.

However, the behaviour is different in an online transaction. If a shopper orders the same garment online and notices a defect after the package arrives, they will likely return it – usually without buying a replacement. Even worse, consumers who do re-order the garment and discover yet another defect often permanently shift their business to another brand. 

Poor product quality can have costly future consequences for companies, including a direct impact on brand and customer loyalty

In addition, for every one consumer that complains, another 26 do not bother to complain, according to statistics from the White House Office of Consumer Affairs. As a result, poor product quality can have costly and unheeded future consequences for companies, including a direct impact on brand and customer loyalty.

To meet changing consumer expectations, reduce product defects, maintain brand strength, and improve bottom-line gains, apparel manufacturers should follow four key steps:

  • Evaluate quality control sampling plans
  • Employ a Tightened Inspection Level III sampling plan
  • Adopt a zero-defect policy
  • Shift focus to quality assurance

1: Evaluate quality control sampling plans
Organisations often overlook actions on the factory floor that can yield long-term benefits. Such is the case with evaluating quality control sampling plans, which detail the per cent of units controlled during a final inspection that are acceptable defective units.

Sampling plans must be consistently reviewed and updated to match the tolerance for defective units – as well as consumer expectations for quality.

To update their sampling plans, companies should compare them to the International Organization for Standardization's (ISO) standard tables. The ISO tables show the appropriate product quantities that should be inspected, as well as the tolerance level for defective units, for three sampling levels: I (Reduced), II (Normal), and III (Tightened). Using these standards helps ensure that product quality is suitable for a given shipment.

2. Employ a Tightened Inspection Level III sampling plan
When comparing sampling plans to ISO standards, companies should employ Tightened Level III sampling levels in lieu of the industry-standard Normal Level II as the ISO standards clearly state that only manufacturing processes that are stable and under control should be verified with a Normal Level II sample plan. That way, the number of inspected units is increased by 50%, improving detection of poor quality.

For example, suppose you are a footwear brand selling an order of 2,000 pairs of shoes to a retailer. Using a Tightened Level III plan, 200 pairs of shoes should be inspected, compared to 125 pairs using a Normal Level II plan.  

3: Adopt a zero-defect policy
While employing Tightened Level III sampling levels helps to reduce the output of defective units, it is not enough.

If the footwear brand has decided that their AQL for production and brand are 1.0% of major defects and 1.5% of minor defects, the "consumer risk quality" of the sampling plan claims that up to 10% of the orders could have 4.2% of the goods with major defects and 5.27% with minor ones. Thus, the brand has agreed and is satisfied that up to 9.47% (4.2 + 5.27) of defects can occur in 10% of their orders.

Considering the shift of consumer preferences to e-commerce, these AQLs are resulting in far too many allowable defects. In fact, some brands and retailers are still returning to their suppliers with concern over unsellable items in their shipments – even though they set and agreed upon the very high AQLs.

A zero-defect policy allows companies to achieve a high level of product quality, meet consumer expectations, and stand out amongst competitors

Therefore, companies should also switch to a zero-defect policy, allowing them to achieve a consistently high level of product quality, meet consumer expectations, and stand out amongst competitors.

4: Shift focus to quality assurance
In addition to adopting a zero-defect policy, companies should change the focus of their time, energy, and resources from quality control to quality assurance.

Buyers' facilities should take complete responsibility for quality, replacing low-quality final shipment control processes with workers who are fully knowledgeable of company defect policies. These factory operators are willing and involved in improving product quality, and less likely to pass on defective units. That way, consistently high levels of product quality are not just the result of meeting standard requirements and procedure, but also the outcome of a brand dedicated to enhancing product quality and increasing customer satisfaction.

Ultimately, apparel companies and factories require leadership from brands to begin changing their quality management systems and processes to integrate zero-defect policies and Tightened Inspection Level III plans.

With today's online retail trends reshaping perceptions of product quality, following these steps can help companies to reduce product defects and the loss of more customers. And, it can ensure they're ready for the future, surpassing customer expectations and strengthening brand equity.

About the author: Jose R Suarez is the founder and CEO of Impactiva, a world-leading supply chain optimisation solution provider for the apparel, footwear, and leather goods industries.