Globalisation is here to stay. It willnever be the total exodus prophesied by some industry gurus, but most suppliers to theUK’s mainstream clothing manufacturers will be expected to offer an international service.

In the last three or four years we haveseen a large section of the UK’s garment manufacturers move at least some of theirproduction offshore to take advantage of the lower labour costs. While some have returneddisillusioned with poor quality and response, the majority have decided to runmultilateral production operations: using off-shore facilities for large, standard runsand UK-based operations for small runs, sudden demand contracts and premium qualitymerchandise. It has emerged that when response and quality are at a premium – UK is best.Or to be more accurate – local is best.

The challenge for suppliers therefore is tooffer the same standard of customer service and product quality overseas as they do athome. In short, they must do both and they must do both well. Customers want more productchoice, more expert support – never less. And they want it wherever they choose tooperate; be it in Stockport or Sri Lanka.

The best way to support customers irrespective of where they are is through alocal presence. When it comes to service and generating the feel-good factor, there isstill no substitute for proximity and face-to-face contact. There is also no denying thatcustomers feel reassured when vital technical support and stocks directly relevant totheir business are available within a two or three hour drive. This requires a majorcommitment and resource from the supplier but it says more clearly than any words evercould that “We are here for you”.

Donisthorpe’s experience in setting up acustomer service centre and bonded warehouse in Morocco has more than vindicated oursignificant investment. The beauty of Morocco is that we are also winning new localbusiness as well as serving our offshore customers. It is a win-win situation for allconcerned.

It is, however, of vital importance todevelop an international presence without in any way compromising the levels of serviceoffered to established UK-based customers. As suppliers we must maintain standards acrossthe entire international operation. It is still a long way from London to Glasgow, sosuppliers who can offer a local presence on a nation-wide basis are much sought after.

There is no doubt that if our industry properly utilised and exploited the globaltechnologies that are available to all of us, we would significantly increase ourcompetitive standing in the world’s fashion arena. And the good news is that this is notthe costly option it once was. With easy and relatively low cost access to Internetservices and products most companies could enhance their services to their customers bothat home and abroad.

At Donisthorpe, for example, we are in theprocess of developing a computerised global colour matching system. Ultimately designerswill be able to manipulate and match threads and linings to fabrics and produce precisedye match specifications that can be sent via the Internet to their operations anywhere inthe world.

I would strongly urge any suppliers who donot have a global IT strategy to get one. Find someone who can guide you through theoptions available. A good starting point is the Textile Institute’s Business InformationService, who will provide lists of ‘regional’ information technology consultants free ofcharge.

Another good contact would be the ProductDevelopment Partnership, PDP, an influential international forum, headed by GerberTechnology, General Sewing Data and Donisthorpe, whose aim is to make the UK fashionindustry more efficient and competitive by linking the supply chain through technology.

Twelve of the industry’s key IT suppliersare already working together within the PDP to ensure that their strategic solutions cancommunicate with each other irrespective of location, sharing critical information aboutevery aspect of a product’s design, costing, production, distribution and sales status.Links between these systems are enabling manufacturers to halve the time it takes to bringa new product to market – this in itself means better response to customer demands andimproved operational efficiencies.

In this global trading climate it is the suppliers who have invested in and extended theirservice operations who are positioning themselves for on-going success. Indeed, thosesuppliers who are able to offer more choice at every level are those who are more likelyto succeed in the long term. Product, people, marketing: they are all part of the criticalmix which has to be developed and delivered for an international industry.

Ironically, when times are as challengingas they are today, the instinctive response is to reduce operating costs. Time and again Ihave witnessed companies make their cut backs only to see them lose their customers to acompetitor who has not. It is a demanding world, but for those who can deliver the rightmix of products and services internationally the rewards will be immense.

Useful contacts:

The Textile Institute’s BusinessInformation Service. Tel: 0161 237 1188.
The PDP’s chairman, Roz Davies, can be contacted on 0171 387 5196.