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Does Online Sourcing Signal the End for Textile Trade Shows?

In a 1995 Newsweek essay titled, “Why the Web Won’t Be Nirvana,” writer Clifford Stoll predicted the Internet was doomed to fail, and said that “instant catalog shopping” was nothing but hype.

Fast-forward to 2015 and Stoll couldn’t have been more wrong.

Despite digital naysayers declaring consumers would never shop online, they do—and in increasingly large numbers. According to the most recent Department of Commerce data, first-quarter e-commerce sales totaled $74.9 billion in the United States, an increase of 14.5% from the year-ago period.

Then there are the cynics who said retail buyers would never place orders for their stores based only on product photos or digital line sheets without first touching and feeling the merchandise in person. A few months back, a Forrester report projected that B2B e-commerce in the U.S. would hit $780 billion by the end of this year, and thanks to virtual marketplaces such as UBM Advanstar’s ShopTheFloor and Pop-Market, buyers can browse for potential business 24-7.

But the online wholesale business goes beyond selling finished goods. Fabric suppliers from across the globe are hopping on the e-commerce bandwagon, offering (and gaining) access to international apparel companies without either party incurring the cost—or inconvenience—of travel.

Alibaba’s, for one, affords buyers the opportunity to order textiles, leather, zippers, buttons and more in bulk from Chinese factories without ever setting foot in the overseas unit that produced them.

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And therein lies the caveat: quality assurance. Just as online shoppers everywhere cross their fingers that what they’ve ordered matches the description they read, textile buyers who turn to e-sourcing solutions without first vetting the merchandise have to hope for the best—except if their order isn’t up to scratch, it’s slightly more serious than having nothing to wear to a party.

But as sourcing professionals around the world struggle to find new suppliers while keeping up with the ever-increasing pace of fashion and striking a balance between cost and quality, a shift to online is inevitable. As Jason Heffelfinger of Phoenix-based e-sourcing service Intesource put it, “The two biggest challenges in sourcing textiles are finding new sources of qualified supply and identifying ways to counteract volatile supply prices—and keeping this cost burden off consumers.”

Bob McKee, global fashion industry strategy director for software company Infor, echoed these issues but called e-sourcing “a curious development.” “While the interest in online sourcing likely stems from a belief that you can do anything online—and to a degree this is true—there is always context for those decisions,” he said.

Fashion-tech entrepreneur and former banker Jag Gill is hoping Sundar, her virtual marketplace that connects designers, brands and retailers with global and local merchants, manufacturers and artisans, will remove the stigma from the process. “Our mission is to be the number one sourcing and discovery platform for design-based industries,” she said, noting that quality assurance is top of mind and every vendor undergoes a solid screening before being added to the network.

“Designers spend more than 75 percent of their time searching for materials and suppliers, not doing what they love, which is being creative. It’s a really old school, pen-to-paper process,” she said, explaining the genesis behind her company. “Meanwhile, infrastructure is jumping ahead with the advent of digitization, platform solutions, data—all these big things that can really be applied to this offline industry.”

Le Souk, another online sourcing platform, offers around-the-clock access to textile mills and tanneries in nearly 30 countries, including India, Japan, France, Italy and the U.K. Maker’s Row, meanwhile, offers buyers American-made fabric and component options. Each differs slightly from the next but their goal is the same: to simplify the wholesale experience by moving everything online so buyers and suppliers can connect in a more cost- and time-efficient way.

“[For many fabric wholesalers] online has allowed them to expand their audience beyond the tightknit group of people who would normally frequent their store,” revealed Ariana Gomez, PR and marketing manager for Los Angeles Fashion District, noting that a lot of the downtown LA vendors are mom-and-pop shops that want to maximize all the resources available to them. “It’s an opportunity for them to be part of that [online sourcing] movement and reach those people who are out of town without having to put in the manual labor.”

But, she conceded, it’s a little trickier on the sourcing side. “It’s really hard to gauge what the quality is going to be because you’re going by a description, can’t see it, can’t feel it. That’s the disadvantage to doing things online,” she said, adding, “It’s worth it to make that one trip to see it person and then after that find them online, whether it’s a wholesale platform or their own website, but I think that initial face to face contact is very important.”

McKee agreed. “Textiles and yarns are tactile, product-based industries and the relationships with these sourcing companies are more than asking questions and getting responses (that you believe). It is also about the texture, color and hand-feel of the product and at this moment judging hand-feel virtually hasn’t been perfected,” he said.

Thus, taking a chance on a photograph could have “Catfish”-esque consequences and buyers have no one to blame but themselves when the image presented online doesn’t resemble reality. “More and more international legislation is making everyone in the value chain responsible for the actions of anyone that they have contracted within that value chain,” McKee said, adding, “The retailer is as responsible for quality defects, and all the potentially dire consequences, as the manufacturer. The maker was operating on behalf of the retailer and in that shares the responsibility and ‘should have known’ of any associated purchase decisions.”

According to Gill, however, there are several ways to enforce quality in a virtual wholesale marketplace: “You can do very solid vetting of the vendor and who they’ve worked with. You have a contract with them that says if you’re not who you say you are, you’re out and you’re punished. In these small communities it’s very word-of-mouth.”

And with the value (and relevance) of trade shows increasingly called into question as costs rise and companies find themselves with less funds for multiple buying trips throughout the year, online sourcing could be the solution that helps brands stay on top of textile trends.

“With the increase in seasons and collections, more organizations are working with suppliers and ‘suppliers in waiting’ as an ongoing process or practice. They are no longer being driven by the inspiration of a swatch gathered at a trade show, especially when compared to a weekly, monthly or quarterly review with key suppliers,” McKee noted. “This is certainly a process that could be augmented—and possibly optimized—with some virtualization.”

“Trade shows take a lot of time and effort to put on successfully—and they aren’t necessarily the most efficient, cost effective or foolproof way of finding reputable and reliable suppliers,” Heffelfinger echoed. “E-sourcing facilitates the process of searching for legitimate suppliers and manufacturers who can satisfy specific product certifications and requirements. The e-sourcing process also gives an efficient way to connect and communicate with overseas buyers, suppliers and manufacturers without having to spend thousands of dollars on a lengthy trip.”

So does that mean the traditional trade show’s future hangs in the balance? Not quite. Rather, a year-round digital marketplace can help the event address a broader audience beyond those who ponied up to attend in person. “Potentially, they’re very different businesses,” Gill said. “There are strong partnership opportunities to harmonize the offline and online worlds in sourcing.”

As Heffelfinger put it, “While interacting directly with your supply chain partners is still very important throughout the life of a business relationship, the e-sourcing process can move this from a tactical interaction to a conversation that supports a strategic approach to procurement.”

Not to mention, it can help reduce supply chain risk. “The bigger, more geographically diverse your list of suppliers is, the better chance you have of finding alternative sources of supply quickly, under agreeable terms and at an ideal price point,” Heffelfinger explained. “If one supplier experiences a disruption, you have other options for supply at your fingertips and can easily pull the trigger on another order.”

McKee’s advice: Proceed with caution when dealing with unknowns. “E-sourcing is likely to be most helpful as a first step in supplier due diligence and as a tool in keeping costs low or competitive,” he said, adding, “My feeling would be to deal only with those suppliers who fall into your Class A rating; the ones that you know and trust and with whom you have made a number of positive observations over time.”