Traditionally, product development was a collaborative, in-person experience filled with international travel and meetings. But as Covid-19 spread around the globe, simply hopping on a plane to visit a mill or design office became more complex, requiring companies to adapt and adopt virtual processes.
Although vaccinations have ushered in some return to normalcy, there are still constraints preventing product teams and their suppliers from interacting as they did before, explained Concept III managing partner Chris Parkes during a recent conversation with Sourcing Journal founder and president Edward Hertzman. Office capacity limits mean that not every team member is in the same place at the same time. And quarantine requirements and efforts to curb excessive contact have made multi-stop travel plans obsolete.
“The days of jumping on a plane, going to Seattle and seeing eight to 10 customers in three days may not be possible,” said Parkes.
For Concept III, which acts as a logistical bridge between mills and brands, the collaboration and sourcing model has completely evolved. And the company is taking its cues from clients’ preferences—whether that means a visit with safety precautions or no visit at all.
When office visits are off the table, Concept III turns to remote presentations. While these have been a valuable stopgap measure, Parkes said they don’t replace the ability to feel fabrics. In the past, Parkes explained he might have carried a giant sample bag to in-person meetings with a plethora of options. Now, if he can’t visit, he instead pulls a smaller selection together based on the client’s input.
Aside from tactile fabric selection, brands are missing the ability to visit and vet prospective factories. Filling in this gap are third-party sustainability accreditations and brand-to-brand word of mouth. Parkes has seen customers vouch for a factory—even to a competitor. Another solution is virtual walking tours of a factory with a smartphone, but these can be tedious.
With all of these obstacles, coupled with supply backlogs for raw materials, relationships and trust matter. “There are challenges out there, but people are being more patient,” said Parkes. “Partnerships are much more important. We just have to all plan and work together and be as visible and transparent as possible.”
Amid this change, one trend Parkes remarked on is the narrowing of development, even as consumer purchases rebound. Instead of creating tons of new products, brands are centering their efforts on core styles that have already been tested in the market and that have earned shoppers’ trust. Because of this, the upcoming seasons’ designs may look similar to other recent collections. “Brands are learning that they don’t need to change everything every year,” Parkes noted.
This pared-down product strategy also has a sustainability impact, helping to avoid mountains of overflow goods and markdowns.
“Brands are looking to create product that they know will sell, not just throwing things out there and hoping they sell,” said Parkes. “There’s more constructive thinking and better planning.”
Click the image above to watch the video to learn more about how product development and mill-brand collaboration is evolving.
This video is part two of a three-part series. Watch part one here.