Even though many companies have the financial clout to weather this slowdown, overall confidence remains dented. In such a scenario it is imperative that retail organisations look for solutions which will help restore their competitive advantage and soften the impact of economic turbulence. We have witnessed a plethora of retail formats emerge in India which have been copied and pasted from the west and implemented with varying degree of success. Maybe, it’s time to look for some innovative answers that are unique to the Indian market.
In the U.S hypermarkets like Wal-Mart, apart from the usual sizes S/M/L/XL for Men’s T-shirt one can find sizes like LT (Large & Tall), XLT ( extra large & tall ) etc. If we juxtapose this scenario over the fact that an average American is 4” taller than an average Indian and that median U.S height is approx 5’9”, we can determine that the retailers there are perceptive towards demographic uniqueness of the market. India has much more diverse population base. The body frame of an average male in Assam is very different from that of one in Punjab. Similarly, someone from Bihar will have different girth than a Tamilian. This makes consumer centric assortment planning an arduous task. With increased organised retail penetration, the problem can only get further compounded. Another stark fact is that many Indian retailers are grappling with the paradox of high inventory and poor stock service levels. It is not surprising to find an inventory level of more than 6 months in a category and frequent stock out of key value items in the same category (in different SKUs). One way to tackle this for Indian hypermarkets is to provide bespoke services along with regular product offerings. Customer can choose the designs from the available fabric options and the garment can be custom made according to individual specs with standard trims and accessories. Yes, many brands like Raymonds provide this service through their franchise and company owned outlets; it is yet to be successfully implemented in a hypermarket. We can examine the advantages and limitations of doing so. As a caveat, I must add that its not custom made in strictest sense as the customer has to choose fabrics from the available range and cannot propose his designs there.
The first obvious advantage is improved customer service and customer loyalty. If a big box retailer provides bespoke apparels, it will be a service highpoint and is bound to strike the right cord with the customer. Customer has an added choice in fabrics if he or she is not happy with the ready made apparel range in terms of style, fit or colour. This is going to reap in additional sales.
Ever since the deluge of branded apparels started to inundate the Indian markets, a large chunk of customers have remained isolated. These customer scout different retail outlets and have to make compromises in terms of design and style elements in order to get clothes that fit in. Such customers are the ones who are sustaining the livelihood of our traditional tailors. Some plus size retail outlets have emerged but they are still in fringes and not ubiquitous. Bespoke service if successfully implemented can bring in customers who have been previously left out and hence will help create a loyal customer base.
Space optimisation and productivity is the second advantage.
Say, 75 sq. ft of retail sales area accommodates approximately 200 shirts, fabric good for making 300 pieces of shirts can be accommodated in the same area. Agreed! we need to account for the space for the workshop where the garments will be stitched, but we must also acknowledge that the workshop need not be located in the same premises as retail outlets and can be operated in sub-prime locations where the space cost is much less. If we operate with fabric folders instead of thaans and fabric rolls in the retail stores i.e with a 10”X10” fabric swatches for the customer to see and make purchase decisions, the substantial gains be made in space utilisation. Meanwhile thaans and rolls can be kept in the workshop, which will ease the logistics and lower space costs.
Let’s examine the limitations and see as to how use can overcome them.
First limitation is the cost. Workshop operation is going to incur costs on several heads like wages of pattern masters, cutting masters and tailors, rent, electricity etc. One stitching table consumes around 42” X42” of floor area, pattern and cutting need a minimum around 8- 10 sq. ft. Considering all this , workshop would need an area of 800- 1,000 sq. ft to produce 100 pcs of shirts per day. A pattern library can be maintained in the workshop so that new pattern is not required for each and every specification. This will obviate the need for large number of pattern masters. Cost of tailors will be dependent on the average output required. Considering other expenses and the cost of trims accessory we can ascertain that a stand pack shirt can be made for approximately Rs 100-120 in a workshop. This is about Rs 40-50 higher than the CMTP (Cut, Make, trim and profits) offered to a vendor. Part of this extra cost can be passed on to the customer. In Wal-Mart the plus size garments are priced higher than regular ones. Custom made fit is an added value for which customer would be willing to pay extra. As mentioned bespoke can lead to better space utilisation and hence would lower rental costs.
Second limitation is that it is cumbersome for the customer to come twice to the store for one purchase decision (first at the time of selection and later for collection). Well! if Rs 200 pizza , or a book can be door delivered why not a shirt or a trouser. This will be another customer service highpoint. Apparel is one of the highest margin categories, any retailer would vouch for it. On the face of the home delivery looks viable. Optimum costs can be fixed through a pilot beat runs.
Another important limitation is scale of operation. Not all styles would render themselves for bespoke service. Many styles in denim pants, shirts, T-shirt undergo washes, embellishments, dry- process etc. which require mass production. In a hypermarket scenario it is difficult to customise such styles. Moreover readymade garments have a natural advantage of instant trail and gratification. The bespoke should be taken in as an augmenter. It is not argued that all styles can be custom made. A style specific feasibility call can always be taken. To some extent this limitation can be overcome by increasing the variety of fabrics available. Fabrics these days are available with different finishes and a lot of value addition can be done at the fabric stage itself. Availability of wide range of fabrics will satiate the customer’s demand of a wider assortment.
Lastly, to put it ironically, it is not in ‘fashion’ to talk about bespoke service in modern retail. It is true that many retail professionals of the present order would be more comfortable punching lap-top keypads and working with pivot tables than organising manufacturing workshops for the stores. However we must acknowledge that India unlike the west is an apparel manufacturing hub and the required skill set, sewing operators and other services are available cheap and we must not let go this opportunity. Maybe it is time we spice up imported retail formats by adding Indian flavour to it. As it is very often said ‘A stitch in time saves nine.’