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Faster Fashion: Digital Operations and the Fashion Supply Chain

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Managing a fashion supply chain is no easy task. We’ve been talking ‘Fast-Fashion’ for years and there have been hundreds of articles and case studies written on best practices from leading European fashion brands. Zara, H&M, Bestseller, Mango… how do they do it?

As an ‘insider’, it’s always entertaining to read analyst opinions on what makes the Fast-Fashion industry tick. Most conclusions focus on ‘logistics’ and ‘sourcing strategy’. Good answers, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle.

The Fast-Fashion leaders, what I call Fast(er) Fashion brands, have been innovating for years, and they do so in all areas of their businesses. These companies push the industry’s limits year-after-year while rival fashion brands continue to wrestle with supply chain optimization.

Playing catch-up, most established fashion retailers have rolled up their sleeves, hired (or poached) professional talent and have solved the fashion operations equation. Near-shore, off-shore, local source, you name it, fashion supply chains of practically all major brands have been optimized. Period. There are no more global sourcing secrets, no hidden agendas, and no more quick fixes to significantly impact the cost side of the fashion retail business. Great, but now what?

The fashion supply chain isn’t what it used to be, and pure operational excellence just doesn’t cut it. The fashion supply chain used to end at the store, and now it ends on a screen. Not that eCommerce is new news, but most brands don’t seem to understand this. Building a polished website, creating your own app and having a presence on social media are mandatory (and expected) but if this is the extent of your digital strategy, please expect to be blown away by your Faster Fashion competitors that are changing the rules of eCommerce, just as they changed the rules of the fashion supply chain more than 15 years ago.

For example, do you consider your photography studio (photographers, image editors, copywriters, eCommerce tech, etc) to be just as much a part of your fashion supply chain as your design, merchandising, sourcing, and logistics staff? Probably not, but Faster Fashion retailers do, and they have done so for years. These companies are just as good as preparing commercial product listings to be sold online as they are at sourcing from the best possible vendor, at the best possible time, for the best possible price.

Faster Fashion retailers have shifted focus (as you should) and are applying their lean, trial & error production mentality to different areas of their business. eCommerce, and specifically digital post-production departments, are receiving particular attention as they are proving to be fertile ground for revolutionizing how the industry operates. It is the combination of these lean strategies that are the real driving force behind the success of these brands.

So what lean tactics are you applying to your daily digital operations? Do you talk Studio-to-Web lead-times, Product Listing Optimization, Digital Asset Management, and Multi-Channel eCommerce in your strategy meetings? Probably not, but Faster Fashion companies do, and they are achieving incredible online sales because of it.

Did you know that the average fashion retailer takes two weeks to prepare their products to be sold online? Not bad right? But what happens when there is a website re-launch or when you receive a huge batch of samples at your studio. At this point, a two week lead-time looks like an amazing feat. Start asking around, digital post-production bottlenecks are a reality and significantly affect your bottom line. Faster Fashion brands know this and are setup to take a product, from photo studio to online store in 12 hours or less. Your competitors are getting their products online, and in a more commercial format, while you sleep.

Did you know that most Faster Fashion retailers utilize ‘hybrid’ photo studios where in-house graphic designers manage external post-production vendors as well as personally edit product images for urgent jobs? These teams drive down studio-to-web lead-times and maintain product image quality.

Did you know that Faster Fashion retailers normally use the most time-intensive photo editing techniques and often provide significantly more product images on their sites than other fashion retailers? These processes take 3-4 times as long to produce than standard images, but because they have streamlined their digital operations, they produce higher quality, and more diverse imagery than most brands, in less time and for a lower cost. Of course, they do this because high quality product listings have a huge impact on online sales. has conducted the largest product image study to-date, and they have found that professional product images increase conversions by 5%. Besides this, for each additional product image on your listings, you are 2% more likely to convert. Meaning that a listing with 6 different professional images is 15% more likely to convert than a ‘normal’ listing. These stats are no secret, professional pictures sell products.

In terms of online sales channels, Faster Fashion brands were quick to embrace multi-channel eCommerce so that their products could be found in all corners of the web. Of course, being everywhere online doesn’t come without its operational challenges, but because these companies have lean digital operations, making product image adjustments for Amazon or adapting their listings for Pinterest is handled in a few hours as opposed to a few weeks (or months!). These companies have also been quick to partner with leading third party integrators such as Mercent and Channel Advisor that make being everywhere online a painless process.

Now let’s add in High Street time-to-market into the sales equation. In an age where everything is INSTA, it pays to get your product online first. The distinction between the product offerings of most High Street brands has blurred, and the brand that is able to offer the right style, at the right time — ONLINE — wins.

So what’s your take on digital production optimization? Will it be part of your strategy in 2014? Get a head start with these 6 quick wins:

  1. Analyze your post-production workflow… and identify digital production bottlenecks that are preventing you from getting your products online faster.
  2. Find a reliable post-production partner… to be an extension of your in-house eCommerce team and start reducing studio-to-web lead-times and driving down costs.
  3. Start making more commercial product images… by adding On-Model, 3D Mannequin, and Product Detail images on all listings.
  4. Create multi-channel compliant product images… and take advantage of the reach of online third party integrators such as Mercent and Channel Advisor.
  5. Create a hybrid image editing team… that manages your external post-production partner and that can take-on urgent image editing jobs in-house
  6. Outsource low value-added digital design work… and have your in-house creative team focus on strategic projects; new product campaigns, digital merchandising, beautiful web design, and seamless UX.

Act on any of these items and make your online business significantly Fast(er)!