Janet Fox, SVP, director of sourcing of JC Penney and chair of the USA-ITA

Janet Fox, SVP, director of sourcing of JC Penney and chair of the USA-ITA

Modern day sourcing demands that retailers control their inventory and supplier matrix, while keeping tabs on the growing list of manufacturing hot-spots. just-style news editor Joe Ayling discusses the challenge with JC Penney sourcing boss Janet Fox.

The sourcing hub of Hong Kong is an apt meeting place for a sit down interview with Janet Fox, JC Penney's SVP & director of sourcing and chair of the US Association of Importers of Textile & Apparel (USA-ITA).

She has just stepped offstage after presenting to hundreds of delegates at Prime Source Forum, and without so much as a coffee adapts to a more intimate discussion with just-style. Accompanied to the interview with USA-ITA president Julia Hughes, we sit in a triangle of leather sofas in Prime Source's media room.

In both her responsibilities, Fox's remit is to free the flow of garments from global sourcing hot-spots to the US, making Hong Kong the perfect base. Both Fox and her colleague are demanding the Obama administration gets its priorities right when it comes to textiles and apparel, especially now the President's Health Care Bill has been dealt with.

Unsurprisingly, Fox is resolutely anti-protectionist, and insists that wherever apparel manufacturing moves next, it should not be back to the US. "That business has left the US and it will not come back, just like it has left Japan and will not come back," she tells just-style.

Retailers learn lesson
It is the second consecutive year that Fox has appeared at Prime Source.

In 2009, with the global economy in a critical state, Fox presented the case for a Government rescue for ailing retailers. This year, speaking to just-style at the sidelines of the event, she painted the picture of a retail industry that had learnt its lessons.

She says: "The economic crisis taught retailers a lesson on how much inventory they really need sitting on their shelves in store, and it really made us focus on better store strategies, inventory management, and being able to read sales and chase orders was the norm last year and has really become the standard now of how you do business.

"The days of bulk ordering your whole season, or 70% of the season, are really over at companies like JC Penney. We work closely with a very tight matrix of suppliers and partner with them on production planning all the way back to the raw materials and pre-positioning our materials so that you can react much quicker than in the past."

Fox has held her current role at JC Penney since March 2008, and in addition to sourcing has experienced the retail, textile and apparel sides of the business for 25 years now.

Chinese currency issue
In Fox's presentation to the forum this year, she advises Washington congress members calling for the Chinese Government to allow its currency to rise in value against the dollar to "back down a little".

"I don't think the US consumer is quite ready yet to pay higher prices for apparel and textiles out of China," she tells delegates.

However, she later tells just-style that despite this, importers have their eggs in sufficient baskets to withstand a revaluation of the Yuan, and the higher export prices it would lead to.

"While China is one of the more efficient countries of origin it's not necessarily the most inexpensive, even today, to do business in. There are some products other than textiles and apparel that you're not able to move out of China as quickly though," she says.

So which countries are breathing down China's neck when it comes to sourcing footwear and apparel? Fox identifies Bangladesh and Indonesia as leading the charge.

She says: "When you look at Bangladesh, there's a lot of opportunity. It's the lowest labour cost market there is at the moment, there is an ample and able workforce there, labour costs are low and the country's largest export is apparel.

"Another is Indonesia, which I think will grow even more if we can get some raw materials production there. We need some more fabric mills, and more localisation so there can be virtual verticalisation of the industry. In regard to factories, Indonesian factories are second to none."

The objectives of the USA-ITA are unlikely to fall on deaf ears in Washington with Fox at the helm. She brings a healthy mixture of American spirit and global perspective to the table.

Of particular interest currently are garment makers in Haiti, and the setting up of effective reconstruction opportunity zones (ROZs) in Pakistan.

Fox says: "This was something [ROZs] that was initiated during the Bush administration, and it was ill-conceived at the time as to where they wanted to put these ROZs, including on the Afghan border. These were places nobody would put a factory.

"There's been a lot of work done on trying to ensure that doesn't just become a hollow gesture Bill, because right now special interests are trying to carve out the products that they actually make there, which is predominantly cotton product.

"If you really want to help Pakistan now, the infrastructure's in place for textile and apparel."

Therefore, Fox clearly believes there is scope for sourcing outside the giant Chinese market, with Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan among many other rising destinations.

It seems that while importers need to develop far-reaching supply chains, the mechanics of post-recession retailing are leaner than ever.

Striking this balance requires a very smart Fox.