A STITCH IN TIME
Impatience is seen as a virtue; willingness to wait is interpreted as lack of aggression. We are in the era of instant food, home delivery of groceries and internet on the go. Readymade clothing doesn’t seem fresh enough a phenomenon to rub shoulders with some of the path-breaking consumer trends we see around. If we are brought up in the 80s, or earlier, we could, with a touch of nostalgia, think of a time when we would take a piece of shirting to the neighborhood tailor and wait for him to stitch it for us. Closer the festival season, longer the wait. We were absolutely fine with it those days.
Fabric to Readymade
With time things changed; yesterday’s luxury is today’s want and tomorrow’s necessity. Today if we like a garment on a retail window at a mall, or on your mobile screen, you just can’t wait to flaunt it at work or wear it for the upcoming weekend getaway. We need everything readymade! There are businesses that are based on a core competency in fabric retailing; they have been facing the heat of a declining market trend in recent times. It is the readymade apparel brands that are riding the wave now, the ones that come with a fashion competency. The apparel brands need fabrics as raw materials, which they source from the fabric players and this drives B2B opportunities for the fabric players; however, it does not come with the same profitability model as B2C selling would. Let us take a look at how established players with rich fabric legacy, could sustain their connect with customers.
There could be different approaches to how a legacy brand could react to a market shift. The solution often does not lie in a single step, the issue is something that would need to be countered through multiple approaches. While we could always talk with the wisdom of hindsight after a certain period of time, the key here is to act in time and take pre-emptive measures. Let us look at some of the challenges that a traditional business encounters when faced with a shifting market trend.
Organizations tend to look inwards a lot, being different from this is easier said than done. Past performance is not a guarantee for future success, as the financial product ad says. We get so consumed in our own strengths that we forget that the customer will buy only what he wants, and not exactly what we would like him to buy. We have even seen people who blame the customer for not appreciating the unique features they put into the product. Let’s not forget that if the customer does not understand our features, the loss is ours, not his, for he has lot many options. In recent times, organizations have acknowledged the need to get more ‘focus’ into consumer marketing. The problem, however, in many cases, is the fact that the focus takes quite a while to manifest itself as actions.
The more successful we are in a certain context, the more difficult it could get to continue the success saga when the context changes. The same attributes, which have helped build your business, like culture, history, skills and other such aspects, could become impediments to change. A readymade business cannot be run the way a fabric business is run. Therefore, structural changes also often come into play when there is a strategic shift. There are fully integrated textile business conglomerates that have successfully bound together the businesses of fabrics, fashion, retail and garment manufacturing. This is something that comes with years of effort in product development, brand building, retail development, all with an eye on the ever-evolving customer tastes.
Pros and Cons
While we are in the context of fashion, let me refer to OTC fabrics as textile and readymade garments as apparel, as has become some kind of an industry-accepted practice. Why did the market swing the apparel way? A few reasons for this could be resting in the following benefits. First and foremost is the factor of instant gratification. We buy apparel today and we get to wear it immediately. Readymade clothing comes with brand-approved styling; in fact the whole brand play becomes a potent force in the readymade space- it becomes a stamp of approval and a representation of who you are. Readymade businesses lend well to post-garmenting treatments done on the product which play a significant role in unique hand feel, stylized features like puckered looks in casual clothing and other such effects. Readymade garments also come with the precision of factory finish.
On the contrary, the textile supporters also have their arguments. The biggest among them, of course, is the scope of getting the perfectly fitted piece of clothing. We can get a fabric stitched in exactly the same measurements that we are comfortable with; this is an advantage over readymade garments that come in standard sizes- it is difficult for an apparel brand to satisfy everyone in terms of fits. Textile, on the contrary, allows you to have every detail, like sleeve length, waist size, collar type etc. exactly as per your needs. Therefore, every custom-tailored garment is unique!
Flowing with the trend
Well, let us accept that there is no major debate on the issue of whether fabric brands are finding it difficult to keep their retail sales at desired levels. How do some of the business conglomerates that come with a fabric legacy, counter the declining market trend? There are two aspects to this. First is the possibility of extending the fabric brand into the readymade space. It is a logical thing to do and makes sense from the point of view of marketing theories. The challenges that the organization could face will be at different levels.
- The brand imagery in the consumer’s mind will be in line with that of a fabric brand. This could normally mean a few things; they are likely to be seen as special occasion offerings, which go well with planned purchases, like a wedding in the family, for instance. If this is the case, it will find it difficult to ride the wave of impulse buying. The other aspect here is the fact that the brand may not score well on contemporariness as an attribute because of the absence of stylized garments as would be available in a readymade collection.
- The second issue that I would highlight here is less about the consumer psyche and more about matters intrinsic to the organization. The core competencies, business practices, cost structures and other cultural aspects do not go well with the requirements of a readymade business. This transition is as much a challenge as the issues concerning market perception of the products.
Fighting the trend
While the extension to readymade space is something businesses will consider, what they will all definitely do is to try and arrest the decline in fabric sales. This business will normally be the bread and butter for the organization and all efforts need to be taken to keep working on the category and prolong the inevitable decline. Attempts ought to be made to see how OTC fabrics can cater to the evolving consumer preferences of today. Let us take a look at what are some of the steps that could be taken in this regard.
Play to your strengths; as much as it sounds like a cliché, it is a statement that you got to agree with. Fabric brands should tap into their ability to create newer fabric types to offer distinct benefits to customers. Natural fibers like wool can be blended with synthetic fibers to get fabrics with functionality elements. The consumer of today could see advantages of fabrics that have special features, like if they are stretchable, or has heat management properties, or can absorb moisture, just to name a few characteristics for illustrative purposes.
With the advent of readymade clothing, consumers now are habituated to seeing how they look in the clothes before they make the purchase decision. This is one aspect that B2C fabric brands need to overcome. Use of catalogues help these brands in showing how a tailored garment could look on a consumer; then again, for practical reasons, cataloguing and photography can showcase only a small fraction of the collection. Having said that, let’s make no mistake about realizing the fact that catalogues serve a big purpose here. They help to showcase the latest from the brand, both in terms of new fabrics as well as new styles that can be tailored, as sort of a recommendation from the brand.
Can technology be used to showcase fabric collections? For sure the catalogue can be shown using a tablet or other electronic devices in the store. What about an app that shows how different fabrics will drape on a body form? Possible, but not yet scaled up in a manner that really influences mass retailing in India.
Tailoring is integral to OTC fabric businesses. It must be said that even in evolved fashion markets, there is still a huge premium for fine tailoring. This is for the discerning customers who need the perfect fit and impeccable look for special occasions. B2C Fabric businesses could be supported by improvements in tailoring as a service. Made to Measure is a service offered by many brands, while the exact nature of service might vary slightly from one brand to the other, what is interesting here is the fact that you could get factory finish in a customized fit. Imagine you giving your measurements in a store and a fabric is cut in a factory in some other city so that work is underway to get a suit stitched for you! Yes, you will have to wait a bit to wear it. This time delay is a factor that is detrimental to the cause of B2C fabric businesses; add to that the second visit to the store to collect it. How about giving your measurements in a store in a mall, watching a movie, and then coming back and collecting your perfectly fitted trouser before driving back home? Unfortunately it is not yet a reality in any significant scale.
Change is the only thing constant; market evolution is a continuous process. If you are a category leader in a space where growths are stagnating because of changing market trends, then it is your job to take up the cause of your category, for there is a lot at stake for you!