Where should apparel firms be focusing their investments now if they want to remain competitive into the future? Technology agendas should include tools that help shorten the time from concept to consumer, boost collaboration across the supply chain, and offer end-to-end visibility, flexibility and speed. 3D product development and visualisation is also coming to the fore.

Susan Olivier, vice president, consumer goods and retail, Dassault Systèmes:
Generally speaking it is easy to justify expenditures on revenue generating, customer facing investments such as new store renovations, new e-commerce platform, things for customer relationship management.  

But at the same time, merchants are involved in thinking about the right products to appeal to their consumers, planning those assortments, viewing them, and waiting a long time to make decisions. So reducing cycle time to market is critically important to ensure you have the right products to sell more at full price and fewer markdowns, better appeal to what customers are looking for. And that's one place where it's harder to perhaps picture those investments and another place where an image is worth a thousand words.

So how to better work with assortment visualisations, visual assortment review, visual merchandising in the stores? Those are the places that can make an increasing amount of difference as well, and another place where investment interest is growing quickly.

Anastasia Charbin, worldwide marketing director - fashion & apparel, Lectra:
It's harder to attract new customers than retain existing ones so a future focus should be on customer loyalty and repeat business. Great designs, great fit. Ready-to-wear suffers from an overall sameness syndrome today, where you can go into many stores and over and over you find the same trends.  

Creativity and agility are key to standing out. Teams become more creative and think outside of the box more easily when different talents and profiles mix and merge: production and design, pattern-making and costing. Product development technologies like collaborative design, PLM, 3D product development, design to cost, help achieve that.

Bill Brewster, VP of global sales and marketing at Yunique Solutions:
For years, industry consultants have analysed the product development process and found that a large portion of a product's cost is determined during the development phase. These costs include raw materials, construction methods, and material finishes.

Robust PLM systems provide visibility to costs early in the development process, enable easy reuse of materials and encourage vendor suggestions to help identify cost savings. PLM systems are an excellent tool to facilitate collaboration with supply chain partners - encouraging them to be valuable, productive contributors to the process. It also provides visibility to managers to ensure the right products are delivered, on time and at the lowest cost.

To remain competitive, companies should also consider other tools and best practices to reduce process steps such as 3D visualisation, 3D virtual sampling and modern manufacturing practices.

Bob McKee, global fashion industry strategy director, Infor:
The goal of every member of the fashion value chain is firstly to fulfil consumer desire, and secondly, to optimise company profits. For fashion companies, the key to achieving these goals and business success is 'inventory, inventory, inventory'.

Some estimates suggest there is US$3 trillion of inventory tied up worldwide in the fashion supply chain and at retail. Thus, a first priority has to be ensuring you have a technology platform that can manage your global inventory along with all the intricacies of fashion such as style and non-style items, attributes including colour, size, fit, cup size and source of origin. The aim is to reduce inventory without impairing customer service.

The ultimate goal has to be that you take an order before you source it, although we are probably still some distance from that point in most sectors of the fashion industry. However, the large food chains operate by selling goods long before they have to pay for them. The food manufacturer is often working to short turnaround times with orders received only few hours before they have to be delivered.

The fashion industry needs to strive towards shorter time from concept to consumer. This also means investing in PLM technology to shorten development times through improving collaboration between creative designers, technical designers and commercial teams, enabling more parallel tasks to shrink the critical path and the automating of repetitive tasks.

Jatin Paul, CEO, WFX (World Fashion Exchange):
Technology is always a catalyst and source to unlocking efficiency. An investment in technology that nables better product planning and execution is undoubtedly a way to remain competitive, especially where speed and accuracy is crucial to survival.

Other areas of investment should be exploring emerging markets as avenues for new demand. The traditional markets of "manufacture" such as India and China are now also growing fast with internal demand for those same goods. Companies need to invest and explore ways to capitalise on these new economies.

Finally a strong web strategy, as on-line sales growth is dwarfing that of brick-and-mortar. Ensuring that there is a sound strategy and investment in growing that channel will be key to any brand/retailer's success.

Russel Beron, marketing director, Core Solutions:
Companies that want to remain competitive should be looking at systems that can help them change the way they work from a process point of view and help their businesses grow in a sustainable way.

In the future such systems will increasingly be in the cloud, with much more flexible delivery models than traditional enterprise systems. These solutions should not only bring efficiency across their entire extended supply chain, but should also help them to ensure they meet quality and sustainability (CSR) requirements, which means full visibility into their extended supplier base. Supplier collaboration is a big area where we see potential for companies to work more closely with their key vendors to produce a better product, faster and with fewer quality and CSR issues.

A few other interesting areas for apparel firms to consider include 2D/3D sampling and modelling - which allow companies to reduce the time it takes to get from product concept to final delivery to meet consumer demand. Digital printing and 3D printing, while still not economically viable for the mass market, should also be on the radar.

Andy Hinton, business development director, Fast React Systems:
Many companies have taken on appropriate new technology (such as PLM and planning) to provide visibility and control to help their businesses grow, enhance their processes, and reduce excess costs. There are still many businesses that need to make this move and therefore should look at investing in this type of software as soon as possible.

Another key area that firms need to consider is investing in software that enables effective visibility and management of business key performance indicators (KPIs). Having access to information that enables specific trends within a company to be monitored is essential, as this enables the appropriate corrective action to be taken. Examples could include monitoring design adoption rates by designer and/or buyer; monitoring the actual time taken between key events in the critical path (eg customer sample approval time).

This important data analysis allows managers to understand any bottlenecks/inefficiencies, helping them identify ways to improve the process and then complete continual reviews. From KPI analysis, managers are able to define accurate objectives/goals that help drive the business forward.

Mark Burstein, president of sales, marketing and R&D, NGC:
The key to competitiveness is synchronising the global fashion enterprise. In order to do this, apparel firms should focus their investments on solutions that integrate PLM, global sourcing and supply chain management into a single, seamless system.

These systems should encompass not only product design and development, but all the phases of SCM as well, including WIP tracking, vendor collaboration and management, materials management, quality and logistics, and much more. This should integrate with other enterprise systems as well, including ERP, to synchronise everything (and everyone) that is involved, from the initial design until the products are available on the retail floor.

The benefits of doing this can directly impact the bottom line. One apparel company implemented an integrated PLM, supply chain management and ERP system last year, along with a new warehouse management system, and saw a 9% increase in gross profit in the first year. Another 7% increase is expected this year, as additional features in the systems are implemented.

This company viewed integration of all its business systems as a top priority, and chose a solution that fully integrated PLM with SCM and ERP. It's an excellent example of why enterprise synchronisation is so critical for apparel companies.

Howard Heppelmann, general manager, supply chain solutions at PTC:
Companies should invest in comprehensive technology platforms that can serve as an integral enabler for automation of critical business processes that span concept to store. Companies should also consider adopting a best-practice approach to deployment in order to achieve a rapid payback against proven business improvement metrics.

Today, PLM is recognised as a must-have solution to enable retail, footwear and apparel companies to consistently deliver winning products on time, on-trend, and on-cost. As it has become mainstream, solutions have emerged with embedded best practices that, in turn, enable pre-configured PLM offerings which allow companies of all sizes to achieve predictable and accelerated return on investments.

A best-practice approach to deployment and adoption provides a common reference point for harmonizing requirements across divisions, brands, channels and geographies and can eliminate costly and non-value-add activities.

Today's market advantage does not reside in the unique processes companies design for assortment planning or quality inspection.True competitive differentiation is unleashed when companies can implement their product and brand market strategies with greater speed, agility, and value chain collaboration while simultaneously reducing material costs.

John Robinson, senior vice president sales and marketing, Simparel:
While all companies expect technology to reduce the complexities of the fashion business, far too many are unable to realise this promise due to the fact that much of the industry-specific software available is still based on code written 30 years ago.

With this in mind, we recommend that apparel firms take the time to fully evaluate not only the functional capabilities of technology, but also look at what is required to meet potential changes and growth in their business.

Of course, each company will have different needs in terms of the specific types of technology they require. Perhaps the larger consideration today is making a choice between single-purpose software (point solutions) and a natively integrated enterprise solution.

With the pace and scope of change that has occurred in the fashion industry in recent years, many companies have become acutely aware of the functional and visibility gaps that exist across their portfolio of business software solutions. These companies may well find that eliminating the costs and hassles of building and maintaining interfaces can significantly reduce complexity throughout the business. Considering the requirements of speed, accuracy and visibility these days, moving to a single system approach could be a sound investment.

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