Retail systems are no longer something sewnproducts makers and marketers can afford to watch from the sidelines, especially ase-commerce reinvents the symbiotic relationship between the supplier, the retailer and theconsumer.

Breakthroughs in e-commerce are opening newdoors for retailers and sewn products manufacturers to share more data on abusiness-to-business level as well as serve the market on a direct-to-consumer basis.

With this backdrop in mind, consider thefollowing key trends in retailing, which to a large extent, are being powered byadvancements in information technology (IT).

Multichannel Retailing.It’s likely that the most competitive of sewn products manufacturers, marketers andretailers of the future will be selling through some combination of brick-and-mortarstores, catalogs and Web sites (both theirs and those run by others) and other media, suchas direct TV.

Personalization.No matter what the channel, the name of the game is obtaining and processing data aboutconsumers and their buying habits and using this data to provide a high level of tailoredcustomer service to them, and cross-sell goods to them, based on their profiles.

Value-Added Customer Service.More retailers and manufacturers/marketers are realizing the value of providing”free” background information to consumers as part of their customer serviceprograms. For instance, if you’re in the market for skiwear, you can count on thebest stores, virtual or otherwise, to provide slope information, how-to tips, etc.Consumers have come to expect this type of value-added service, based on their on-lineshopping experiences.

Web-Ready Merchandise.Just when many sewn products manufacturers thought they had mastered the art of providingretailers with floor-ready merchandise, the prospect of providing “Web-readymerchandise” is on the horizon. Among the requirements Web-ready merchandise mightinclude, Blue Martini Software retail specialist Vahe Katros told Bobbin, are garmentphotos and html copy ready to be uploaded to the Web by the retailer.

The Full Package of the Future

Taking a closer look at these trends asthey relate to apparel firms supplying this new retail world, Frank Andryauskas, aprincipal with CFT Consulting Inc., says he sees the on-line apparel marketplace evolvingto include: powerful, big-name brick-and-mortar retailers who also sell through virtualstores on the Web (i.e., The Gap, Nordstrom, etc.); major apparel brands that supporttheir own Web selling sites (i.e. Lands’ End, Levi, etc.); and virtual malls thatoffer a variety of apparel labels (i.e. fashionmall.com, styleclick.com,etc.).

Andryauskas notes that as apparel and sewnproducts firms position themselves to support on-line sales – those of retailers as wellas their own – they must develop:

  1. fast, flexible collaborative planning, forecasting and replenishment capabilities – because consumers will respond to on-line product offerings, especially new products, much more quickly, compressing the time the retailer and manufacturer have to ship goods and adjust the selling plan;
  2. the ability to ship goods directly to the consumer – because consumers will expect to receive goods they’ve ordered on-line immediately, and retailers will not be able to afford an extra day or two for goods to be shipped through their distribution centers; and
  3. the ability to manage Web-ready content, such as product images and product explanatory text – because more on-line retailers need to provide consumers with extensive product information about quality, price, special garment features, etc.

The latter can prove to be “anincredibly onerous task” and there are third-party services that can help firmsmanage their libraries of product data, adds Andryauskas, who reiterates: “It’sessential for manufacturers to deliver systems that can manage this content.”

Behind the Best E-Commerce WebSites, You’ll Find Extensive Software Integration

For those firms that choose to sell goodson-line via their own Web sites, it’s typically necessary to invest in a mixture ofsoftware solutions to support the business, and to use a combination of in-house ITresources and outsourced technical and design support to get the site up and running.

Nordstrom, for instance, utilized in-houseresources in developing its on-line store, building on Smith Gardner software systemsalready in place to support its catalog business. Yet the retailer also relied on helpfrom the Web site design firm Sapient (formerly Adjacency), and technical integration fromIBM, which brought its Net.Commerce and other solutions to the table.

Unlike the days when “pure play,”or entirely virtual, on-line selling pioneers such as Amazon.com were getting started,off-the-shelf software packages that enable Web selling are being developed at ablistering pace. As Microsoft COO Bob Herbold noted in a keynote presentation at this pastspring’s Retail Systems Expo and Voluntary Interindustry Commerce Standards (VICS)Conference: “We’re at the point now where you should be pretty upset if you haveto build applications yourself.”

It’s true there are many new programson the market for handling the sales, marketing and merchandising aspects of on-lineselling, such as personalization of content, cross-selling and data mining of consumerbuying habits and other information. On-line order processing programs, for handlingtransactions from an accounting standpoint, also are coming on the scene, as are packagesdesigned for creating and managing the many digital images, fonts and design aspects of aWeb site.

When it comes to the fulfillment challengesof rapidly shipping single units to thousands or millions of individual end consumers,however, apparel manufacturers most likely will find themselves leaning heavily onexisting enterprise resource planning and supply chain management point solutions, not tomention flexible manufacturing processes.

That’s not to say there aren’tnew “end-to-end” systems that address on-line order fulfillment issues. Somerecent examples of these types of systems include Smith-Gardner’s WebOrder softwareand IBM’s Innotrac partnership.

Whichever systems road is taken, it’simportant to anticipate integration problems between software vendors, which can mire eventhe best-laid e-commerce initiatives. “Require software vendors to sign contracts inwhich they agree to work with other vendors to make the project work,” emphasizedPhil Wilkerson, director of technical architecture for The Gap Inc., in another keynotepresentation at Retail Systems Expo.

The Power of the Pure Plays

For apparel and sewn products firms thatwant to sell on-line, there are other options besides servicing the Web sites oftraditional retailers, or investing in their own e-stores. Companies such asfashionmall.com and styleclick.com (formerly ModaCAD), for example, offer ready-madeselling forums, plus Web content management support.

Pam Cohen, director of public relations forstyleclick.com, describes the firm’s offerings as “a Chinese menu ofservices” for apparel manufacturers. The company specializes in building digitalstyle catalogs using its trademark 3-D digital imaging techniques. But it also offersfull-fledged Web site development, Web marketing and order fulfillment services. (Thelatter are handled through a Los Angeles, CA, third-party-run distribution center equippedto ship directly to consumers.)

In terms of marketing, both fashionmall.comand styleclick.com recently signed deals with amazon.com and America Online, respectively,to offer apparel shopping via these on-line giants’ sites. Thus, apparel firms whocontract with the virtual malls gain access to the millions of potential customersvisiting amazon and AOL, in addition to those going directly to the fashionmall.com andstyleclick.com Web sites.

With the marketing and maintenance ofapparel firms’ on-line presence taken care of by the virtual mall, Cohen concludes,the most important service issues that remain for the apparel manufacturer are determiningwhat styles to offer on-line, and responding to unpredictable demand.

And that, most apparel manufacturers wouldconclude, is all in a day’s work in this industry.

by Kathleen DesMarteau, Bobbin

Kathleen DesMarteau is senior editor ofBobbin.