Our initial research focus was on understanding the factors influencing apparel productivity and delivery processes. We knew that after 6 years of intensive robotics research and development, the Textile Clothing/Textile Corporation [TC]2 had already concluded that robotic sewing combined with the state–of-art optics was not a cost effective substitute for skilled apparel sewing operators.
We were aware that bar codes were just being introduced into apparel retailers to speed up and improve accuracy at checkout. Optically scanning the bar coded of items at checkout would also enable retailer to have, for the first time, real time knowledge of their actual apparel inventory at the SKU level. These tools combined with appropriate software and changes in their supplier’s practices would lead to retailers’ carrying lower inventory levels of all basic apparel items.
Bar codes and information technology were the necessary tools allowing inventory risk to be shifted from retailers to manufacturers. Manufacturers of basic apparel had to carry finished inventory so they could quickly respond to retailers’ order. This story in all of its detail is the backbone of is the our book A Stitch in Time: Lean Retailing and the Transformation of Manufacturing—Lessons from the Apparel and Textile Industries, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Manufacturers of basic items of apparel who located their plants close to the market had the advantage of short delivery times to the North American retail market. We believed that time-to-market was an advantage that North America based manufacturers had that would be more important than just the lower wage base offered by that South Asian manufacturers. Hence, when the apparel and textile quota came off in 2005 we expected that manufacturers of basic apparel items to remain North American based. The research in The Future of the Apparel and Textile Industries: Prospects and Choices for Public and Private Actors (see the list of publications) verified our hypothesis. We will visit apparel sourcing again in the future to explore the impact of the shifting currency valuations and wage rates and locations of suppliers of items basic apparel.
We have undertaken research that clearly shows that retailers’ real time demand information (POS) data at the check out counter could be used to dramatically reduce their risk of carrying inventory to meet hope for sales levels of fashion apparel. We have called this new way Flexible Supply Options (FSO). Rather than order the number of units you hope to sell, you order just the number you know you can sell and purchase supply options for a supplemental number of units you hope to sell.