Finding the right suppliers can be very simple if you follow these five keys to successful sourcing:
- Variety of Vendors: You should develop partnerships with multiple vendors either based on country of origin, proximity to fabric and trim resources, specialties, flexibility, and costing. The obvious reasons rely on speed and cost of production, but also you want to have design and line development options which edges you ahead of your competitors. I have always prioritized to build strong relationships with many different vendors as these relationships have netted big pay-off in terms of solving production delays, quick sample turn-arounds, and increased design development options.
- Know Your Vendors Strengths: As we all know, the cost of production machinery is expensive, especially specialized equipment used for needle-punching, stitching and bonding leathers, enzyme washing, beading, etc. It pays in time and money spent, as well as customers saved, to have a very clear understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of your vendor base. As a production manager, it is important to develop a vendor matrix which quickly outlines and targets these strengths and weaknesses as these are important factors to consider for booking and allocation. Hence again, the importance of having a variety of vendors in your matrix as it widens the playing field in terms of design options you can bring to prospective buyers, as well as allows for greater negotiation power. There are quite a few stories I could share on the nightmare of booking sample development and/or production (note: I did not do the booking) only to discover the vendor does not have the machinery to produce the garment. Although, not in charge of the booking, I've often had to find miraculous ways to circumvent these issues which has always inevitably cost the company time, money, undue stress, and in some cases the lost confidence of a customer. Save yourself the hassle now...be sure you know your vendors' strengths and weakness before booking samples or bulk production. Create and manage a vendor matrix. It will be your best resource when it comes time to book for development and/or bulk production.
- It Pays To Visit: Many companies are slow to send representatives overseas to visit manufacturers complaining about the cost and lost in manpower back home. Trust me, the pay-off will far outweigh any initial costs in the long-run. As I just stated in the preceding key, you need to know your vendors' strengths and weaknesses. This is best gained by being on-site, visiting their show/sample room, walking the factory floor, asking questions about equipment, working conditions, common production problems, and making note of what you see both on the factory floor and in their respective offices. In addition to having "real' knowledge about the vendor you are working with, you can now sit down with the factory managers and address any production issues causing delays, plan for bookings and allocations for future development and production, see what new developments the factory is working on for other design companies, source local fabric and trim suppliers to add to your vendor matrix, and most importantly, build better working relationships so that you and your vendors become partners in your line's success.
- Bigger Is Not Always Better: Cultivating relationships with smaller, lesser used vendors gives you the flexibility to competitively price for SMUs and build unique, fashion-driven designs into your product mix. In addition, smaller manufacturers can be a life-saver for last-minute sample development especially when your bigger vendors are overbooked with production runs. Of course, the same rules apply, as listed in the above keys, when using smaller, lesser known manufacturers, but I've found some of my best production runs in terms of quality, cost, and speed typically come from smaller vendors. Smaller vendors want it more and will work hard to gain and keep your business. Consider the factories located in Africa for example...The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) provides duty-free and quota free treatment on a number of apparel items. Africa is decidedly much closer in terms of transport time than China and here's one to "grow" on...Chinese manufacturers have already set up "shop" in many of these African countries...so if you are working with a large Chinese factory chances are your bookings are already being subcontracted to Africa. Cut out the middle-man and seek out these factories directly. Of course, be sure to consider factors such as political stability, infrastructure, ease of entry/port access, access to fabric/trims, etc. Take a trip and then decide if a new, smaller, little tried vendor is a good option for your production.
- Hold Your Vendor Accountable: In the wake of the recent Bangladsh factory fire that killed 112 workers, Walmart has decided to take a tougher stance on its vendors. Zero tolerance for subcontracting without Walmart's prior approval. Now, this could serve as a cautionary tale and weigh back to my prior point on the importance of factory visits, but what should be stressed is how these factory visits work to keep vendors accountable by maintaining an open line of communication. Having worked with Walmart for many years, I can safely say factory visits is not one of the company's biggest priority...getting the lowest price for the best quality is how Walmart works and has in the past "entrusted" factory conditions to the "lowly" concerns of its multitude of vendors. As long as goods are cheap, pass CTL, and arrive on time, Walmart is happy and will continue to give you business without any thought or care of how its vendors managed these miraculous feats of production. There are countless news stories, like Walmart, highlighting the damaged reputation of brands due to poor factory conditions, environmental abuses, and unethical practices in terms of mislabeling, etc. Macy's and Sear's just recently were fined $1 million dollars by the FTC for mislabeling rayon as bamboo. This is a big ouch and a huge cut in profits. You don't want to find your company or brand headlining a factory fire, improper labeling, or environmental waste story in major newspapers or all over the internet. The amount of time and money needed to sway public opinion can be costly or even detrimental. Companies like, Sears, Macy's, and Walmart have the money and clout to swiftly address this media firestorm and pressure its vendors. You may not. It's never a good idea to be reactive, best line of defense is no defense...so work toward a strong offensive, proactive strategy when working with your vendors. Levi Strauss serves as an excellent example of building vendor accountability right into every contract. It's best to plan for vendor accountability and find out how many, if any before goods are booked and one of those factors to include in your vendor matrix spreadsheet.
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