Fashion forward Zara

Julia Fein Azoulay
December 15, 2005

In the fashion business, time is money, money is time – and both have become a problem.  Email and instant messaging, MTV broadcasting around the globe, and cell phone texting means that people around the world know the latest fashion trends before they’ve even hit the stores.  Designers and buyers from major department stores alike are under increasing amounts of pressure to come up with the right look before it passes out of fashion. Shoppers have also gotten smarter:  they know the sales are coming, so they hold off on most of their purchases until the prices get slashed.  The only sure thing for most stores is the hot look:  that is something people will buy right away. 


In an attempt to stay on top of rapidly-changing trends, many designers and labels have transitioned their production process to digital:  everything from finding the right fabric around the world, to sending the factories that produce the clothing (often in the Far East and elsewhere) and the design specifications, from making sure the newest collection is shipped on the right date, to ensuring the store has it out on the sales floor is being tracked on computers, today. Maintaining a digital format for the apparel production supply chain - from design and product development, to sourcing and manufacturing, then marketing and sales and finally, distribution to the consumer - makes it easier to manage, revise, customize and modify a product line; it also makes it easier to plan restock according to computerized sales figures, which reveal what the public likes and how many of any given style they’re buying.  A digital supply chain keeps costs down, speeds up the amount of time it takes to get a new collection to the stores, and enables a fashion brand to tailor the newest product line to what the public wants to buy - almost in real time. 


Take the Spanish innovator Zara, celebrating its one year anniversary in Florence. As one of the busiest retail locations in the city, Zara’s draw is its constantly changing selection:  the assortment changes at a pace and rhythm unheard of among other labels and brands. Here, a new design can go from concept to pattern to store in three weeks, as opposed to the six months it usually takes. Founded two decades ago, Zara’s privately-held parent, Inditex, has become a flourishing $2 billion company with 816 stores in 31 countries; there are 30 Zara stores in Italy and at the time of going to press, 106 in the US. While many manufacturers ship apparel collections four times a year - outsourcing production to lower-cost resources in developing countries - Zara focuses on quick turnaround, producing two-thirds of its line at a company-owned plant in Spain, restocking stores around the globe twice a week, and continually redesigning its apparel line according to what’s selling well –coming up with a reported 12,000 different designs a year and guaranteeing that the product mix on the floor will stay fresh:  store managers send in new ideas to headquarters based on customer reaction to current offerings; if the idea is approved, 200-plus Zara designers come up with specs; the design is scanned into a computer and emailed to computers in manufacturing and production;  textiles are cut at high-tech cutting facilities, run by a handful of technicians in a laboratory-style computer-controlled center.


This is digital supply chain par excellence:  fashion design,  new product specifications, pattern-making, production, shipping, and sales tracking all exist in digital format. To find out how the Zara system is faring in Florence, The Florentine recently spoke with Zara Florence manager Laura Fossati, who reveals that the store receives “collections with different, new articles every week for every section of the store.Two or three visual merchandisers work on the shop, and organise the changing displays every week.”


Fossati also notes that there is a distinct difference in tastes and preferences between her Italian and American customers:  “Italians are interested in the fashion colors – brown, black, grey, green and this season’s fashion color, blue,” Fossati continues.  “Americans like more colour, more colourful clothing.  Plus Americans like flat shoes, ballet slipper style; the Italians like a higher heel and boots.  Gaucho/ capri pants:  Italians love that style, Americans never buy it.”


There’s a difference, as well, between the behaviour of American customers and that of the Italians.   “Americans don’t ask for much help,” Fossati says.  “Maybe because they know Zara from the States, but they don’t ask for much help:  they come straight in and start shopping.  When they do ask for help, they want a high level of assistance – but they’re generally very independent shoppers.”  Italians, in contrast, ask self-evident questions, questions they could eventually answer themselves if they were to look around the store.


The biggest cultural difference, however, can be observed in the long lines snaking out of the dressing rooms.  “In Italy,” Fossati notes, “we cannot stand in line.  We’re just not used to respecting the line.  Americans are better at that.”

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