Retail has always been a consumer-focused business, but brands in today’s competitive environment have to be more attuned to their customers’ needs than ever before.
Delivering on consumer demand comes down to listening. Merchants can use tactics such as mining voice of the customer data to determine assortments, services and more that will match up to what the market actually wants.
For South Korea-based fiber producer Hyosung, this customer centricity also has a place upstream in the supply chain as companies cater to their individual client base with fiber innovations. “Many customers may have common needs,” said Mike Simko, global marketing director at Hyosung Textiles. “But when you get down to it, lots of times they’ve got a very specific consumer that they’re trying to sell to, to impress, to engage. So it’s not one size fits all.”
Hyosung has recently seen more demand from apparel companies for customized solutions that address their unique parameters. Simko noted that in the past, as brands sought to create products that would resonate with their shoppers, their focus typically stopped at the fabric level. Now, with the increased interest in sustainability, they’re looking further into the value chain to build a “fiber story” for garments that will make their customers happy.
For Hyosung, executing on demand-led innovation requires an intimate understanding of brands and retailers, including their goals. What may start as a discussion often turns into more of a partnership, since the significant investment or development needed to make a new fiber requires commitment on both sides.
In an example of Hyosung’s focus on listening, the fiber producer became the chosen collaborator for a group of five graduate students from the University of Oregon’s Sports Product Management program after a meeting at ISPO Munich. The students wanted to create a backpack, dubbed Intencity, that could hold up to the rigors of run commuting, and Hyosung worked with them to identify the exact yarn type that fit the bill: its lightweight yet durable Mipan robic nylon.
“The team at Hyosung were gracious to take the time to meet with us, when we were turned away from some suppliers who did not have the time or understand our project,” explained Jacob Bullock from Team Intencity. “Hyosung understood our needs and worked with us to find the perfect solution.”
Even for companies that aren’t outfitting run commuters, performance properties have a place in a wide range of apparel, further drawing attention toward fibers. Indicative of this crossover from activewear into other categories, Hyosung has seen solutions such as moisture wicking and cooling migrate to innerwear. Its creora Color+ dyeable spandex, which can be used to eliminate grin through—an effect caused by shiny spandex fibers that peek out of fabric—was originally designed for products such as yoga pants, but it is starting to catch on for intimates.
Aside from performance, sustainability is another prime example of the need for a more bespoke approach. While most companies are tackling environmental causes, their priorities tend to vary. For instance, one brand may be highly focused on reducing landfill waste, while another could be targeting their carbon footprint and energy usage. Others might value elimination of fossil fuel feedstocks as the top goal.
Taking a pull rather than push strategy to fiber innovation has its own sustainability benefit, since Hyosung is producing to market demand rather than rolling out products without guaranteed customers. From a business perspective, it also helps save time, money and resources on what could potentially be wasted development.
“At a former company, the mentality was more just build a better mousetrap and people will come pounding your door down,” said Simko. “If you’re really good at understanding the market needs, then that’s true, but lots of times we would build a better mousetrap and it wasn’t exactly what the market wanted.”
Making customer-led innovation even more business savvy, demand often begets more demand from other parties. Often, Hyosung is working with the “bellwethers” in categories such as activewear, intimates and denim. Since they set the trends, the rest of the industry follows, creating larger volumes of orders for innovations over time to justify the R&D investment.
For Hyosung’s eco-centered innovations, scale is also a means to more sustainable impact. While these fibers might launch with just a few brands, getting more companies involved is the goal. For instance, Hyosung is working on bio-based spandex that uses an alternative input to fossil fuels. This will originally be a targeted launch, but eventually, Simko would like to see it used by everyone because of the carbon footprint benefits. “The more people that are doing it, the better we all are as an industry and as a society,” he said.
With any new product, the process for expanding capacity takes time, since it may require a new manufacturing process or facility. “Generally, it’s not like a light switch and all of a sudden you could just [shower] the world with this new product,” Simko noted.
For some of the products in Hyosung’s portfolio, scalability also relies on outside factors. Hyosung’s Mipan regen is a nylon made of recycled materials, and therefore requires waste feedstocks. To increase the volume, Hyosung is working to source waste from other companies. Hyosung has also developed plastic bottle collection programs in South Korea on Jeju Island and in Seoul to support its recycled material lines.
Hyosung currently produces about a third of the world’s spandex supply, with a total 340,000 tons per year. As demand for spandex ramps up courtesy of consumers’ transition to athleisure and comfort attire during Covid, Hyosung is expanding its creora spandex production facilities in Brazil and Turkey to almost double their capacity. The company recently opened a plant in India, adding to its global footprint of five regional production facilities that also includes locations in China and Vietnam. Hyosung has more investments planned, which will be based on where demand lies.
“We don’t just want to sit in Korea and ship product around the world,” said Simko. “We want to have the product made as close to its consumption as possible.”
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