The last few weeks have seen us in a frenzy of inspirational shopping trips and the start of the planning process for Autumn/Winter 2016, with various members of the team heading for Antwerp, Copenhagen and New York, as well as scouring the London shops, returning with new ideas for creating a wide variety of new lines and products. As is often the case, we need to be “wearing several hats” at one time! Alongside planning A/W 2016, we are trading our way through A/W 2015, and doggedly working our way through the critical path for S/S 2016, chasing through all our long lead time lines from the Far East, ensuring that all of our stock is making it to port and shipping on time to meet our in store launch dates. Meanwhile some of our teams have been in Turkey, and up and down the M1 to Leicester and Manchester, filling in the gaps with shorter lead time lines and key fashion pieces.
Trading through the next 10 weeks, in the run up to Christmas is the most critical time in our calendar year, what happens during this time period can make or break our season, so it is absolutely key that we get it right, and what we get wrong…..we learn from and incorporate into our strategy for next year!
In the midst of all this we had booked our next major sourcing trip overseas, confirming all flights well in advance to get the best deals, but as is often the case, these things rarely go according to plan! We always need to be prepared for every eventuality, although the drama doesn’t usually start before we have even left the UK! In producing clothing for the UK high street, and always trying to deliver the best possible prices to the customer, we are often involved in making product in developing countries and/or volatile regions in the world. We have encountered typhoons, dehydration inducing temperatures, traffic like you wouldn’t believe, the occasional minor car crash, and even, on the last trip, an earthquake, but events this time have forced us to draw a line and pull out of the Dhaka leg of our tour! There have been two incidences of foreigners being shot over the past couple of weeks, and the government have implied that they believe further attacks and terrorist activity are likely. Now, I am a fairly hardy individual, but let’s be honest, we are making t-shirts, not saving lives! I have the utmost respect for anyone who goes willingly into dangerous regions of the world to work in hospitals, or for aid agencies etc, but I really don’t feel inclined to expose myself or any of my team to that level of danger in the name of garment manufacture. It is simply not worth the risk! So, a change of plan, our itinerary turned on its head, and the flight jigsaw puzzle goes back to square one…….
Back to the day-to-day and we are, as usual, running at a hundred miles an hour just to keep our heads above water! A “buyer’s life” is a very strange combination of exhausting and exhilarating; a quiet life it will never be, but I think that is what has kept me in the industry for so long! Trade meetings, planning meetings, trend presentations, store layouts, meeting suppliers to start new product development, trade fairs, store visits, photoshoot preparation, stylist meetings, model selection, window planning and approval, and range sign offs are all packed into our daily itineraries, and there is much juggling of many different balls going on, but there is one underlying theme that the buying teams must manage effectively, without fail, regardless of whatever else may be going on around them……the critical path. An explanation of this process is long winded and complicated, so for all you “buyers of the future” out there, I thought I would share the potted version that I used to explain this to students at the FRA. I hope you enjoy it, and that it gives you a valuable insight into this complex process!
What is the “critical path”?
A series of key deadlines for product development and production, which must be met, in order for a product, or range of products, to be delivered to store on time.
Also known as KDP (key dates plan) or progress chart/chaser.
Critical dates will vary according to the product launch date, product type and sourcing location.
It can be months long, for example, in the case of outerwear being sourced from China or Vietnam, but may be as short as 4 weeks, if sourcing t-shirts in the UK.
The critical path is developed by working backwards, from the required delivery date.
Who is responsible?
Ultimately, the buyer and merchandiser are responsible for ensuring that all products that they have placed orders for, are delivered on time.
On a day to day basis, the assistant buyer will drive/manage the critical path and hold weekly critical path meetings with the team, and, if possible, the relevant suppliers.
The buyers assistant is responsible for ensuring approvals come in and are approved on time, and for highlighting any lateness to the rest of the team.
Communication is the key to success!
Communication, both within the buying team, and with suppliers, is of paramount importance in managing the critical path effectively, and the process relies on developing strong, open and honest relationships with all involved.
The best way to do this is to ensure that all members of the team (buying, merchandising, QA and design) attend the critical path meeting.
The buyer/AB will follow up with supplier through face to face meetings/video conference/skype or phone call.
It is important to incorporate as much face to face discussion as possible, remembering that, particularly if you are dealing direct with overseas factories, you will have to contend with both the time difference and the language barrier, which can create many opportunities for misunderstandings and delays.
Body language, such as a hand gesture, a shrug of the shoulders, a smile or a scowl, can often convey so much more than a voice on the phone, and a game of email “ping pong” will rarely result in the outcome you are hoping for when negotiations get tough!
What events should be on the critical path?
Firstly, detailed information about the garment – description, colour, style number, order number, supplier, COO, cost price and selling price.
Alongside this, should be the dated sequence of events leading up to the successful, on time delivery of the product. The supplier will provide this information, based on their knowledge of the production of a garment, and it is then up to the buying team and the supplier to work together to ensure that all of these steps and approvals happen on the dates specified.
Events which should be included: approval of lab dips/strike offs/trims/base and bulk test reports.
Fit approvals: first fit/pre-production or sealing sample/bulk production sample.
Cut date and FOB date, plus into warehouse date.
There are a number of stages within the critical path, and within each stage, a number of actions which need to take place within a certain timescale.
Stage 1 – Initial Approvals
Lab dip approval
Lab dips are small swatches of fabric, dyed to match either a swatch or a Pantone reference.
Usually, a number of swatches (or yarns if knitwear) will be produced, each using a slightly different dye recipe.
The buyer/AB will then select the closest match, by comparing the swatches to the original. The dye recipe for that swatch will then be used to dye the bulk fabric.
This colour matching takes place in a light box, which replicates both natural daylight and store lighting – it is never a good idea to approve a lab dip without looking at it in the light box.
A slight difference in shade, or a fabric which is metameric (changes tone in different lighting) can mean the difference between a bestseller and a disaster! Shades of neutrals are often the most tricky – I have witnessed stone coloured chino’s which turn a nasty shade of pink, a khaki jacket which turned brown in store lighting, and numerous other mishaps for which the buying team will be held responsible!
Colour matching can also be done using a machine called a spectrophotometer, which calculates the accuracy of the match using “spectral data”. However, this equipment is very expensive, and many buyers prefer to select by eye.
In the case of a yarn dyed stripe or woven garment, the buyer may approve the yarns themselves, or request “hand loom” or “knit down” pieces on different colourways/designs before making a decision.
Base test approval
The selected fabric undergoes a series of physical tests at this stage, to assess its suitability and performance.
It will be tested for seam slippage, tensile strength, pilling, snagging, bursting strength, stability to washing.
The supplier is usually responsible for sending the fabric to a nominated testing house (eg. SGS, ITS, HTS).
The test report will then be submitted to the technologist/buyer for approval.
If the fabric fails the tests, the buyer/tech may ask to see the tested pieces for further assessment, or the fabric may have to be rejected.
The initial sample will be assessed aesthetically, to ensure that all details/trims are correct.
It will be fitted (1st fit sample), either on a model or a stand/mannequin, if possible, with the supplier present.
Any amendments will be communicated to the supplier, as these could impact on price, fabric consumption and delivery.
The size spec will be approved and all comments documented, so that they can be referred to when the next sample comes in.
If there are few alterations, the supplier may go straight to pre-production, however, if major changes are made, the buyer/designer/tech is likely to request a 2nd fit sample.
Stage 2 – Pre-production
Once a lab dip has been approved, the supplier will need to get all components such zips, threads, buttons, snaps etc dyed to match, or send in a selection of possibles for the buyer to select from.
All of the components above, plus linings, labels, interlining, beads, sequins, badges, should all be submitted to the buying team for approval, ideally all on one trim card. Frequently, however, these may all come in at separate times, creating a great deal of work for the team to collate and combine with all the other elements incorporated into a particular style.
Usually the buyer will want to review these, but in some teams the AB is responsible for this, dependant upon their level of experience/knowledge.
At this point in time, if there is a print on the garment, the supplier should submit a “strike off”. This is a first attempt at transferring the artwork from paper to fabric, and at this stage amendments can still be made.
Once a strike off has been approved, the printer will cut bulk screens, after which it is very difficult (and expensive!) to make changes.
If the garment is embroidered, the embroidery should also be approved at this stage.
In the case of a yarn dyed garment (knitwear or jersey) a knit down (test piece) of the end result should be approved.
Stage 3 – Bulk Approvals
Bulk Fabric and Test Report
A piece of the bulk fabric should be submitted to the buyer/technologist for approval, along with a bulk test report.
At this stage the bulk fabric is tested for colourfastness to light, washing and water. Dry rub tests will also be carried out to test colour transfer eg. Indigo denim jeans – colour transfer is likely to be high.
Failures will be assessed by the technologist, and discussed with the buyer, in order to decide whether to reject the fabric or make a commercial acceptance.
Again, the buyer/technologist might ask to see tested pieces to assess by eye, if the fabric has failed.
This is the last sample submitted before the supplier starts production, and must incorporate all of the amendments requested on previous samples.
The pre-production (or sealing) sample should ideally be in the bulk fabric with all bulk trims, so that the buyer can review what the actual production will look like, however, this is frequently not possible. In this instance it is generally acceptable to seal garments in the correct quality and with correct quality trims, although the colours/prints may be substitute.
At this stage a buyer/technologist will often review several samples of different sizes, to approve the graded set.
Sample is signed off by buyer/tech/designer and “sealed”, sometimes called a gold seal or green seal sample, although the description will vary from one retailer to another.
Stage 4 – Production
This is one of the most important dates on the critical path – up until this point it is still possible to make changes. Once the knife has gone into the fabric there is very little you can do if you change your mind!
Also, it is very important to meet this date – fabrics go through the cutting room very quickly, and onto the production line. Miss the cut date and you are also likely to miss your production slot.
The supplier cannot afford to have empty production lines, or workers sitting idle…….Production is planned to fill every hour, often with orders from a variety of different retailers, so if the slot gets missed, it may significantly delay delivery.
The supplier cannot afford to wait for you to approve fabrics/sealing samples/trims etc – if you do not get the answers to them in a timely manner, and in order to meet critical path dates, someone else’s production will go on the line first, and your delivery will slip correspondingly.
It is best practice for a production sample to be approved prior to the garments leaving the factory.
At this stage some further physical garment tests may also take place, such as an appearance after wash test to determine any physical/aesthetic changes during the washing process.
In the case of childrenswear, safety is of paramount importance, and certain elements of a garment may be pull tested (eg buttons and poppers) to ensure that they are secure, and could not detach and be ingested by a small child. Some garments, such as nightwear and fancy dress costumes must also be tested for flammability. All of these elements have to meet British safety standards, and as a retailer, we have to ensure that we have adhered to the law and shown due diligence in the production and testing process of every garment.
It is much easier/cheaper to deal with any mistakes, quality issues etc if the garments are still in the factory – once they are packed in a container/on a boat there is no possibility of dealing with any problems until arrival in the UK, at which point it may become extremely costly and time consuming to rectify any issues.
The production sample should be approved in writing or on a computer generated tracking system – most retailers have a system of issuing approval codes (or “MDA’s), before shipment can occur.
Ex Factory Date/DC Date
If everything to this point happens on time, the goods should leave the factory on time – known as the “ex factory” date.
At this point they are sent, by road, in a container, for delivery to the forwarder at the port for loading on to a ship. The date the boat leaves port is known as the “fob date”.
It is always best practice to agree the fob date with the supplier, to ensure that they take responsibility for the goods arriving at the port on time.
The merchandising and/or shipping teams will be able to track the vessel on the shipping company systems, in order to predict when the goods will arrive at the retailers warehouse – “DC date”.
As you can see there are multiple reasons why things can and will go wrong!
Every stage must be monitored and approvals chased by the buying team to ensure all events happen on time.
Inevitably, this will not run smoothly every time, and the buying team will have to work creatively with their suppliers, in order to catch up any lost time/rectify any problems.
Whatever the issue, there is usually a way to solve the problem or improve the situation, but it will require creative, inventive thinking!
It is critical that you understand the implications of your decisions on the critical path, and ultimately the delivery of a garment. It is not simply a case of rejecting something that is incorrect, but being able to assess and act to minimise any disruption to the order.
Being pro-active and coming up with solutions is a key element of the buying and technical teams role. Never, ever, bring a problem to the table until you have thought about what possible action you might be able to take to solve it and reduce the impact on delivery.
And all of that was the “potted” version……in reality there are frequently many more components, processes, negotiations, and possibilities for disaster than I have detailed above. It takes a very committed and dedicated type of person to live this life, for it is a lifestyle choice, not a “job”, as such! It is a complete rollercoaster of an existence, but, as I have said on a number of occasions before, I absolutely love it……..most of the time!