Last week I had the pleasure of attending the PI Apparel NYC conference. PI stands for product innovation. The conference was actually more focused on process innovation than product innovation. Majority of the attendees are brands and retailers looking to find new ways to compete in a rough retail environment. How are you the one to survive when you know the US is over saturated with stores? Retailers are struggling to compete with lower and lower retail prices. According to OTEXA the average cost per unit of an imported garment has fallen 3.9% in 2017 compared to 2016. Companies haven’t magically figured out how to make garments cheaper. Companies are sacrificing quality to compete on price and customers are starting to realize they only need a certain amount of clothing. The fast fashion model works for some, not for all.
After day one of the conference, I didn’t believe the industry was doing enough. The apparel industry is terribly behind in innovating and utilizing technology. The discussions and speakers I listened to on day one were focused on how they were implementing technology, but no one was discussing changing their traditional business model. Many challenges were discussed, but few offered solutions that would win new customers.
Speakers presented how they were developing product with more digital methods. Fast Retailing Co., Ltd talked about how they built apps so designers and technical designers could work within the PLM system on tablets. Pepkor discussed how they were using 3D prototypes to speed up the traditional development process. Digitizing the development process is great, but other industries have been using 3D modeling and PLM tools for decades. We need to figure out how to use those tools in more innovative ways.
Day two was like starting with a fresh slate! Marleen Vogelaar, founder / CEO, of Ziel Wear bluntly discussed how antiquated the typical apparel supply chain is. Marleen pointed out that there is no valid reason apparel can’t be produced immediately to fill a consumer need or desire instead of the typical 12-18 month lead time.
Craig Crawford, IT strategist, was next up to make the point that if you are not already reaching your customers digitally, then you are already behind. Regardless if the store is a single location boutique or a major US retailer, the product in the stores should also be available on-line. The consumer needs to feel engaged with the brand’s story and message in both the digital and physical store environments.
The conference closed with Moritz Waldemeyer discussing some of his works, which include some fabulous wearable art. I would have loved to hear more about his creative process, but the artistry was wonderfully inspiring.
By the end of day two, I was optimistic. Large brands and retailers are starting to realize they must take risks to move forward. There is also huge opportunities for start-ups to innovate new ways of working and reaching consumers. So what must happen for brands to thrive with all the challenges they are currently facing?
Not only shorter, but FLEXIBLE supply chains
Yes, product can be designed and produced in a week. Yes, product can be shipped to the consumer in two days. We need to think about apparel production in radically new ways. The technology already exists to support a new way of working. If you haven’t seen Olivier Scalabre’s Ted Talk “The Next Manufacturing Revolution is Here”; please do so. Flexible, smaller manufacturers have the potential to pave a new path of growth.
Think like a start-up and drop the legacy culture of the apparel industry
Stop worrying about what someone else is doing and figure out what your customers need or want from you. If it’s not working, pivot. Only Amazon is Amazon. You undoubtedly share customers, but it doesn’t mean the customers want the same exact product or service from you. As the authors of Rework, and founders of 37signals say “Focus on competitors too much and you wind up diluting your own vision.”
Don’t get hung up on what technology is needed. Figure out the business model or process, then find or build the technology. There are oodles of software tools out there that can be adapted to your needs. At Fireflyline, it’s the start-up brands or those outside of the industry that find new and creative ways to use our services. The established brands are using 3D prototypes for the processes we already know lead to success. But some of our favorite projects are from those who want to test the boundaries of what we can accomplish together!
Develop relationships with other companies
You don’t need to buy another company to learn from them and develop synergies. You need a short-term contract and a non-disclosure agreement to start sharing; not a merger. Want to learn how to deliver product in the shortest time possible, why not talk to food delivery start-ups like DoorDash or Postmates? Want to build cool interactive store displays, talk to museums.
Face the fact that innovation is difficult, predictability is easy
Gary Klein dedicates a whole chapter titled “How Organizations Obstruct Insight” in his book “Seeing What Others Don’t”. The premise is that it’s easier to manage the predictable but insight is disruptive. People only claim they want new ideas, but they are naturally more open to those that fall within existing business practices. New ideas can’t be neatly placed on a predictable timeline and budget. Create flexible budgets and timelines for implementing new concepts. Manage the timeline and budget, but build in flexibility.
I left PI Apparel NYC inspired to break down the barriers to innovation. As a small company we have much more flexibility than large corporations. Fireflyline was started to help companies of all sizes incorporate technology and innovation with minimal risk. Hopefully others left the conference inspired to incorporate a culture of innovation within their companies.