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The Americas Apparel Producers Network: The Right Organization At The Right Time

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If you sell private label apparel, or are an apparel brand manager and you’ve never heard of Americas Apparel Producers Network (AAPN), it’s time you did. As far as I’m concerned, this is one of the most important organizations involved in the apparel world. Period, full stop.

Last week I had the privilege of speaking at the organization’s annual conference in Miami. I also participated in a great panel while I was there on the topic of near-sourcing. I feel like I’ve grown up with the group. Even though this was the first time in a decade I’ve managed to attend one of their events, it was also one of the first groups I participated in when I became an analyst.

The organization has grown ten-fold since those early days. I thought I’d be speaking to 30 people or so. Turns out there were more than 300 in the room on Miami Beach from organizations like UnderArmour, Carters and other companies that brand and sell apparel and footwear, along with producers from across the Americas. That was my first “mind blown” moment of the day.

More importantly, this organization, which has been nurturing and educating its membership for the past two decades, has prepared them for the times we are entering: when tariffs potentially make importing apparel from China unaffordable for consumers.

In fact, if I could show you the presentation given by Barbara Zeins, President and COO of Gerson and Gerson, you might easily come to the conclusion that low cost country sourcing has been far less profitable than we all give it credit for, when you take into consideration the bad behaviors driven by sourcing from so far away from the point of demand.

Here are a couple of quotes Ms. Zeins presented in her speech (source is Forbes from 2015):

  • 1.The markdowns at US apparel retailers and department stores are typically in the 50-70% range
  • 2.Estimates of the costs of markdowns alone range widely, some has high as 33% of retail sales.

Here’s another good one from Robert Kaplan and Robin Cooper from their book Cost and Effect:

“Direct labor-based overhead allocation systems made sense 50-80 years earlier (when they were designed) because direct labor was then a high fraction of the company’s total manufacturing …cost.”

Ms. Zeins did the math, and her conclusions were pretty compelling. In other words, we’re operating in a very outdated paradigm. In RSR-speak, we would say the driving organizational inhibitor across the industry is the “this is how we’ve always done it” syndrome that keeps us from seeing new possibilities and new processes.

Now, just to make sure our readers understand that I haven’t lost my mind, I am definitely not in favor of the US implementing 25% tariffs on goods imported from China. It’s simply a cost that’s going to get passed on to the consumer. It solves nothing. China is all grown up now, and is both a market and a source of goods. It can live without us. But you can check back through the annals of time to see that I am, and have always been in favor of sourcing goods closer to the point of demand. Why? It’s all about pushing that “go faster button” RSR has been talking about. We don’t just need to go faster technologically – that’s the enabler that will allow us to move faster as an industry.

Without a doubt, over the past two decades improvements in technology have helped the Americas compete better. With PLM and 3D design software, brand managers and retailers can be assured that what comes out of the Americas meet the same specifications as those in China. Collaborative design software can speed up the process of bringing new product to market (which remains at around nine months for most products) and the lack of need to cross the Pacific Ocean cuts an additional two plus weeks out of the process…which is great for replenishment purposes.

There’s no doubt that some work remains on getting fabric innovation back into our hemisphere, but need will drive innovation. I strongly believe that.

I do know there was a time when retailers and brand managers felt that the quality and time controls in the Americas weren’t up to the standards that they were in China. They weren’t wrong but those times are long gone.

All this means it’s time to stop grumbling and bringing in product early “just in case”, time to stop looking for our trade associations to actually have an impact in Washington (they haven’t done much beyond hand-wringing thus far) and it’s time to ACT.

There are more reasons to think about near-sourcing than the threat of tariffs. The consumer has her own demands. And we’re just not going to solve it by sourcing goods so far from the point of demand. Good heavens, we have been talking about Zara’s supply chain prowess and near-sourcing for 20 years now. We’ve been round and round about postponement strategies. It’s not a surprise anymore.

So, to end where I began, if you are based in the Americas, you’re involved in apparel sourcing and you haven’t been involved in AAPN, it’s time for you to get there. At the end of the day, it’s unhealthy to be dependent on a single source or even a single country.

 

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Articles & Opinions May 13, 2019
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