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Op-Ed: Future-Proofing the Fashion Value Chain with Social Media

The fashion industry thrives on innovation. It’s what the consumer wants from us—something new, not just clones or replacements for worn-out items. New product introductions are critical to business success, but less than half of them achieve the profit objectives expected before launch. To improve the ratio of hits to disappointments, it’s essential to listen to the consumer and collaborate with the supply chain.

Consumers set the bar for value and the supply chain execution determines whether you meet or miss it.

The next decade will call for significant materials and process innovations at both the micro (product) and the macro (enterprise, supply chain, and industry) level, if shorter, more frequent product introduction cycles were the only challenge—but they’re not.

At strategic planning levels, the industry must figure out how to convert to more sustainable ways of doing business, starting with raw materials, research and development, and expanding product lifecycle management practices to include recycling.

At the operational level, rethink the way you work internally and collaborate with supply chain partners to eliminate waste throughout the value chain. If a process doesn’t add value for the consumer, don’t do it. Optimize the entire value chain and focus it on value creation. Innovations arise at every stage, when all the partners can see the value chain as a whole.

Future-proofing is the point of strategic planning. Planners attempt to anticipate future developments so they can take action to minimize a range of foreseen and unforeseen consequences, while positioning their organization to seize opportunities expected to arise from the same developments. The fashion industry is getting better at short-term planning, profiting from mature technology, better demand-side and in-context information with the examples from fast fashion models. However, the ability to plan for foreseeable long-term issues is limited.

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Action steps for social media

Use social media to get as much consumer input into the design process as possible, directly and indirectly. Ask questions on your Facebook product page and let consumers respond to polls via Twitter and mine Instagram for posts that can provide a path to both inspiration and probable popularity. Use interactive, multimedia presentations in stores and online. Survey the members of your loyalty programs; incentivize consumers to fill out post-purchase questionnaires. Read online consumer reviews and comments on Facebook fashion pages. See if your products turn up on Pinterest; follow pinners like those in your target market and see how they put together a collection. Join or start an online community whose interests align with or advance your own interests. Start your own online community based on a product or brand, and start experimenting. For example, crowd-sources designs for T-shirts, backpacks, bags, and hoodies, then its online community scores them, and the website takes orders for top-ranked choices.

Some companies allow the final consumer to customize existing designs online instead. For example, offers a portfolio of designs and fabrics that the consumer can customize for both style and fit, from women’s size 0 to size 36. Each style is cut to order and direct-shipped. Both of these companies have radically reduced the risk and expense of new product introductions.

Make sure your designers get as much inspiration from as many consumer inputs as from other designers. Review design ideas and concepts with the supplier community. Take their inputs into consideration—don’t try to use this communication as a bully pulpit for what you have already decided to do. Sort the inputs for relevance and act on them. Make samples and tweak them as necessary. Pull together relevant items for a collection and review that with the community. Release small succinct collections to market at a faster but more concise rate.

Using a PLM system will enable speed—reducing design and development times, cutting lead time in the supply chain, and improving time to consumer. Sharing your information between sales and operations planning systems through PLM will bring about much greater speed with less risk and better risk assessment.

In the fashion industry, the pace of change is now so intense that it feels like physical pressure. Data points wash over us all the time; reference points go by as though on a moving sidewalk. Opportunities and threats abound, and sometimes we don’t know which is which.

To help focus on the essentials in this dynamically evolving industry, adopt this as your mantra, “Listen to the consumer and collaborate with the supply chain.”

If you can harvest consumer input from social media and integrate your business applications and social networking technology for the sake of inside teams and supply chain partners, you will leverage all the effort you put into PLM, sales, and operational planning. If you are bringing new products to the consumer market, remember that you can’t sell what you don’t have – but you also won’t sell what consumers don’t want. Remember too that collaboration within the supply chain helps all partners stabilize existing positions, take sustainable business advantage of emerging conditions, and future-proof the business to the extent possible.



Bob McKee has more than 40 years of experience working in and with apparel, footwear, home textiles and fashion accessories companies. He has hands-on experience sourcing apparel products around the globe and was one of the first U.S. apparel executives to start sourcing in China in the early ’80s. His knowledge and skills span retail, sourcing, manufacturing, and product development within the fashion industry.