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Supply Base Consolidation: A Step Too Far?

May 29th, 2001 by Devangshu Dutta

For many decades from the early 1900s onwards, retailers followed a ‘trader’ or ‘merchant’ model, largely buying from those suppliers who could provide the best prices. Of course other parameters were considered as well, such as desirability of the product, but price was the major driver. It was also rare for retailers to go out to look for suppliers – suppliers normally turned up at the merchant’s doors to sell their wares.

There was little, if any, strategy to selecting the ‘supply base’. Retailers were much too busy building their presence in the market, opening new stores, acquiring new markets, growing their product offer; in short, concentrating on the business of selling to consumers. International trade existed, as it has since the dawn of history, but was led by traders. Retailers, by and large, followed the domestic sourcing route.

The retailer goes abroad

The 1950s were driven by the need to rebuild war-shattered economies through trade and economic cooperation. Bi-lateral, and later multi-lateral, trade agreements were brought into force. An awareness of other countries around the world was also brought into sharp focus through two successive world wars, particularly the second. Retailers began to explore supply bases outside their home countries, and from the 1960s to the 1990s this international trade grew by leaps and bounds. Naturally, as the pioneers went overseas, so did their competitors – it is very hard to compete profitably, when your rivals are buying comparable merchandise at much cheaper prices.

As a result, by the early 90s the supply base of any large retailer in the major consuming markets would take in more than 30-35 countries from which products might be sourced. And as the number of supply countries grew, so too did the number of suppliers. It would not be unusual for 500-1000 suppliers to be dealing with a single retailer.

Consolidation, conservation and conservatism

Retailers such as Wal-Mart in the USA, M&S in the UK, Carrefour in France and many others have had preferred suppliers who grew along with them. These suppliers were typically based in the home country of the retailer, and set up production units or sourcing organisations overseas from where they could supply goods to their customer at a competitive price. In some cases, their sourcing strategies were driven by their own analyses; in others the retailer led the way (such as M&S or Wal-Mart identifying the next preferred supply country).

In the 1990s a scientific sourcing principle began to be applied. It was good to cut down supplier numbers, since this reduced the management effort on the part of the buyer to constantly look for new suppliers and maintain current relationships. Terms such as ‘key’, ‘preferred’ or ‘strategic’ supplier came into vogue.

As an example, witness the dramatic supply base reduction undertaken by most large retailers in the UK. Some organisations even looked to supermarkets to understand and apply their supply base management principles, where product categories were dominated by, or completely split up between, less than four suppliers. In a few cases, it reached such extremes that one supplier virtually controlled a retailer’s entire product lines.

Some organisations even quantified the cost of moving into new supply countries in an attempt to understand whether it was worthwhile and how best to shape their sourcing strategy.

At the end of the 90s and into 2000, however, there seem to be rumblings among retailers about the need for some more diversity in their supply bases. Statements such as “we are uncomfortable with our overexposure to country X”, or “I wish I could manage to meet some more suppliers to get a feel for what is happening out there in the marketplace – otherwise our range ends up looking like everyone else’s”, or even, “sometimes we feel we miss out on innovative factories because we are so deeply bound with our existing supply base”, reflect the general consensus.

So, the question is, has supply base consolidation been taken too far?

Time for a new deal

The first step should be to acknowledge that the business of retailing needs a healthy balance between predictability and innovation. Predictability, as much as is possible in sourcing, could be represented by relationships with known and trusted suppliers. It would take a very strong individual, and a very large safety net, to work every season with large numbers of unknown, new suppliers. It would also require a lot of management time and effort to keep educating new suppliers about the business and its needs.

However, equally, it must be acknowledged that the fashion business is not like automobile or aircraft businesses where practically the entire market and supply base is known.

Nor is it as expensive to develop new products or product components. In the automotive industry new models cost hundreds of millions of dollars to develop – and with such high stakes, buyers tend to select their suppliers carefully and, once the relationship is established, stick to the relationship for a fairly long period of time, with both parties investing resources in it for mutual long-term gain.

In the fashion industry, on the other hand, most product development investment does not exceed a few thousand dollars. This is well within the capability of not only the largest preferred suppliers of the large retailers, but most of the supply base around the world. Whether design-led or technology-led, new products and new looks are constantly being created. Similarly, innovative business practices that generate more responsive factories, improve quality or reduce costs, are not the sole domain of large, old and established companies.

The two critical areas that need to be addressed by any retailer are:

  1. A focus on cost/margin/profitability management: how can we make the management of sourcing more efficient in terms of effort and cost?
  2. An eye towards innovation and risk-management: how can we tap into new suppliers without expending too much effort in development only to find that the relationship does not work out?

There are many answers to these questions. One of them, which provides a structure or framework in which to work, is the link between product-type and sourcing strategy.

In this, as a first step, a buyer must make a mental division between ‘largely predictable’ products and ‘fashion’ products. Largely predictable products include not only basic or staple items, such as the three-pack of underwear or a $150 suit, but also seasonal items (such as swimwear) for which sales vary dramatically from summer to winter but follow a rhythmic pattern, with some variation, over the same season from year-to-year. For one company such predictable products might be 80 per cent of the business, while for another it might be no more than 20-40 per cent of the entire range.

For such products, supply base hopping is almost certainly the wrong strategy to follow. The sensible strategy would be to concentrate energy on developing relationships with certain key supply bases and suppliers who provide a long-term sustainability or constant improvement in terms of cost, quality and other performance parameters.

On the other hand, there are other products that follow the dictates of changing fashion moods more closely. For these products, putting a long-term commitment on any significant proportion of this segment to specific suppliers can be counter-productive. It can create a sense of security in the supplier, or even the buyer, possibly reduce the drive towards product and service innovation, and maybe even make the overall sourcing-supply relationship relatively inefficient over a period of time.

There is a sense of ‘supply dependence’ associated with supply consolidation, in comparison to the sense of ‘interdependence’ that comes from a flexible (even though not fully open) network of buyer and supplier relationships. A cosy ‘strategic’ relationship that assumes a two-way exclusivity also creates a relatively narrow channel of ideas and developments, and becomes largely process-driven at the cost of creativity. This is fine if you are selling the same product year-in, year-out; but certain suicide (or slow poison, at best) if you are in any part of the fashion market.

This is not to imply that strategic relationships can’t work in the ‘fashion’ arena. But make sure that in such a relationship the suppliers who are worried, nay paranoid, about their own survival. In the best organisations, uncertainty brings about creativity – pick a strategic supplier like that, and you’ve picked a winner!

Achieving the golden mean

Of course, a perfect balance between long-term strategic suppliers and new relationships is as elusive as the perfect business strategy. If one set of rules governed sourcing in the apparel and textile industries, the sector would have been consolidated around this many decades ago.

Previous experience is certainly a worthwhile guide to selecting suppliers and supply countries. But the competitiveness of supply bases is changing all the time, and suppliers are constantly developing new capabilities around the world. As someone once said, in business relying only on past experience is like driving a rally sports car blindfolded, while the navigator guides you looking through the rear windshield!

By using the tools to discover, build and maintain new relationships efficiently, most buyers should keep their doors open for new suppliers to walk in and display their capability. Closed doors mean closing the possibly to innovative products, significant margin improvement, and even new methods of doing business that might bring about tremendous improvements in ‘sourcing profitability’.

In a different context, a presentation at the National Retail Federation (NRF) seminar in the USA in 1999 by consultant Kurt Salmon Associates mentioned the potential need to move away from the ‘super-specialised’ and ‘super-analytical’ role of today’s retail buyer to bring in shades of the ‘merchant’ of the past.

The truth is that successful retailers have never really abandoned the merchant principle. This degree of freedom is essential to maintaining the healthy influx of new ideas that keep a retailer’s brand alive with the customer and keep it moving ahead in the market. During the selection process, smart buyers even look at the customer list of their suppliers with a conscious effort to imbibe product trends, technical knowledge and best practices from other companies in their own or other markets.

Managing diversification

The key factor that needs to be managed is the effort on the buyer’s part. If a buyer could manage more relationships with the same amount of time and effort, he would probably make more effective use of his own and his supplier’s capabilities to create a more dynamic product and service offer.

Two primary tools come to mind for creating and managing a more diversified supply base: collaboration and technology.

In ‘collaborating’ with the supplier, the idea is to see both buyer and supplier as part of the same demand-supply chain. In fact, take it right back to the supplier’s supplier. Understand that the processes run across organisations, rather than residing in any one – the buyer has as much responsibility and accountability in the sourcing process as the supplier. Information must be shared more transparently, and the overall sourcing process must be managed together, beginning from the product conceptualisation to final delivery. Brainstorming helps, ‘blame-storming’ doesn’t. This approach is as equally valid with a new supplier as with an old, trusted supplier. Good buyers already follow this approach, and it shows in their company’s market performance and financial results. And it does not even add lead-time; in fact, in many cases, it cuts down time.

Secondly, make use of emerging technologies. Don’t just depend on a company’s database or EDI systems. There are a number of tools available today which are relatively inexpensive and easy to use – from the basic supplier profiles available on the numerous marketplaces and exchanges around the world, to more advanced technologies that enable collaborative management of product development and sourcing process management.

There are even well developed systems that can act like virtual assistants, helping buyers and suppliers to keep track of order-specific tasks, and updating each other automatically of the status of these tasks. If you did not have to spend effort on fighting the fire caused by the task that you forgot yesterday, would you have a little more time available to speak to that new supplier whose profile you liked but just could not make the time to meet?

There is no quick fix, and each situation will be different. But I believe that for many buyers, the choices are becoming rather stark. Innovative or staid product? Market leadership, or complete loss of the pole position? Survival or decline? The choices that you make today have a habit of showing up in the profit and loss statements of tomorrow.

Posted in Apparel, Food & Grocery, Footwear, Leadership, Lifestyle & Fashion, Outsourcing, Product Development and Design, Retail, Soft Goods, Strategy, Supply Chain, Textiles, Uncategorized | No Comments »

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