I can remember an audience of supply chain professionals left agog a few years ago, as they listened to Spanish academic José Luis Nueno explain how Zara can see an outfit on the catwalk in Paris – and have a version of it on the shelves of its stores 24 hours later.
Of course, that level of performance is exceptional – but even the norm of a few weeks was way ahead of its competitors who were still designing seasonal collections months in advance.
Since then “fast fashion” has become a key ingredient in the product offer for many apparel retailers as they have realigned supply chains to push the moment of production as close as possible to the moment of sale.
But achieving this is tough and some major retailers are still struggling to match the industry’s best.
For example, in March 2015, the CEO of Gap, Art Peck, said in a magazine article that it was taking Gap up to three times as long as competitor such as Zara and H&M to get product ideas into the store.
And when it published its 2015 annual report earlier this year, Gap said: “For fiscal 2016, our top objective is to improve sales performance through a more consistent, on-trend, product offering. To enable this, we have several product initiatives underway, and in addition, we plan to continue focus on our responsive supply chain and inventory management.”
But now, it seems, fashion is getting even faster. Next week Burberry will take the first step in a strategy that moves it away from its traditional four runway shows a year to just two, straight to consumer shows.
CEO Christopher Bailey said its shows had been evolving to close the gap between when consumers could see collections on the runway and retail availability. “From live-streaming, to ordering straight from the runway, to live social media campaigns, this is the latest step in a creative process that will continue to evolve.”
US designers Tommy Hilfiger and Tom Ford are also reported to be adopting “see-now, buy-now” strategies.
Clearly, there are big wins to be had, but equally clearly, there are big implications for the supply chain. By definition, products have to be available immediately – no waiting to see how the collection is received. That means that the risks associated with a poorly performing line are going to be greater.
So not only must supply chains be able to accommodate the increase in speed to market – they must also be more responsive and agile to deal with problems more quickly.