Push manufacturing; subverting the fit feedback loop

“Push” manufacturing can be described as producing an entire line of products without pre-selling and taking orders for it. This means making up a bunch of stuff without knowing if anybody wants it beforehand. In my opinion, push manufacturing is very irresponsible. It’s irresponsible in terms of wasted resources if the items don’t sell. Similarly, it’s costly when you calculate the ROI after the season’s close. Push manufacturing is also responsible for a host of social sins beyond exporting jobs abroad (these tend to be large concerns with overseas production facilities). Push manufacturers are brand companies pushing an image; their operating budgets prioritize marketing rather than product quality as the selling point. Lastly, as push manufacturers are product pushers rather than product producers there is minimal investment in customer centered product development and most of their patterns are basic CAD templates. And herein lies the rub, push manufacturing has subverted the customer fit feedback loop. Push manufacturing contributes to the entropy of fitting and growing consumer dissatisfaction.

For example, consider the opposite -pull manufacturers of apparel. Pull is order driven; the order from the customer pulls the item into the production stream. Pull manufacturers produce prototypes, clean those up, some are made into samples which are shown to retail store buyers at market. Once all of the markets close, one tallies up all of their purchase orders for given styles and goes about acquiring the fabrics and organizing the sewing production schedule in order to fill all of the orders by the specified dates. If a style doesn’t sell enough to justify buying the fabrics and sewing it, the style is dropped. Perhaps 10% of prototype styles end up being dropped. Drops may be disappointing but it’s best to know in advance if nobody likes that style. That way you don’t waste your time or money on it. Similarly, buyers will measure or test fit apparel samples before they buy and if an item appears to be poorly fitting at market -according to what buyers know about their customers- the fit is corrected by the manufacturer before those items are cut. A manufacturer develops relationships with buyers and consumer level feedback is a big part of that. It is very common, anticipated and accepted for buyers to tell a manufacturer what consumers do or don’t like about their purchases. If it seems that consumers think the sleeves are a little too short or the waists a little too big, manufacturers change their sizing and fit in time for the next production cycle. That’s the fit feedback loop for pull manufacturers. It’s not ideal, it’s not rapid response but the environment sustains the continual cycle of improvement and the evolution of fit.

The fit feedback loop of push manufacturing is another thing entirely; it degrades and contributes to the entropy of fit. The consumer to manufacturer fit feedback loop is not sustained but rather, subverted. If a company is selling an image rather than product quality, their operational budgets reflect these priorities. Similarly it is necessary to understand the manufacturer-retailer relationship; it’s inappropriate to see only one element in isolation.

For example, the returns policies from retailers have changed drastically, much to the detriment of consumers. Previously, retailers placed purchase orders based on styles they thought they could sell to their customers. As there is always some misinterpretation of demand, it was common that retailers would end up with styles they’d then have to discount in order to move them off the floor. Likewise, some styles would sell better than expected and the retailer usually would not be able to order more before the close of that selling season. Buyers knew they bore the risk of their decision choices which is reflected in mark-ups. However, things have changed with the advent of push manufacturers. Push manufacturers get blanket purchase orders on styles that fill broad requirements, such as a specific number of docker type slacks, blue jeans and tee shirts. Since these items are so similar; discriminating with given style selection was counterproductive because the push manufacturers also extended very generous margins with promises that retailers could return what didn’t sell at the close of the season. Since push manufacturers focus on broad swathes of the market, styling and sizing became homogenized and not specific to anything other than the broadest sweep of the consumer market. Retailing in this environment was much more profitable for stores. Styles would hit the sales floor with 40% off tags and anything that didn’t sell could be returned for credit or refund. The risks associated with retailing were reduced and profit margins increased. The risks associated with anticipating consumer demand were relegated to manufacturers as buyers were covered in the event they made a bad buy. Selling in this environment isn’t any different from consignment.

The fit feedback loop for push manufacturing works like this: Buyers place orders for products that have either already been manufactured or are in the process of being manufactured which is in direct contrast to the pull manufacturers detailed above. The fact that goods are already in process is necessitated owing to the long lead times of shipping products from China and other points off shore. Buyers -in exchange for higher margins- must accept the items as represented in the sample goods because it’s too late to do anything about the fitting because the things are already cut. While buyers may not like the fit or appeal of given items, they are willing to accept them in exchange for higher margins and generous returns allowances. This contrasts to pull manufacturing in that retailers do not have the same latitude in returning products that don’t sell but rather, retailers are expected to assume the customary risks associated with selling to fickle consumers. In exchange for assuming part of the risk, retailers had say-so in how products fit consumers. With push manufacturers assuming all of the risks, retailers have less of a voice in how products are made. As with anything else, you can’t get what you want if you don’t want to pay for it.

Not all push manufacturers can be accused of ignoring consumer complaints about apparel fit and choices but there’s little that can be done about it in the short term if a push manufacturer has no idea there’s a problem with given styles until the returns start piling up on the dock. But by this time, the manufacturer is already mid-cycle into the next season’s production run so the problems can’t be effectively addressed until some time after that which amounts to at least a 2 year lag. Similarly, push manufacturers have comparatively little internal infrastructure to manage consumer complaints within product development. While much is made of the push to lean and CAD is a huge benefit to that, most push manufacturers use templates loaded with their CAD systems for style development. They’re using a CAD program to spit out blank duplicates using computer operators who don’t even know how to make patterns. Contrast that with pull manufacturers who employ staffs of patternmakers to address problems directly and relatively quickly -one selling season or less. Also, while pull manufacturers also use CAD, they use this tool appropriately; to clean up and facilitate large scale manufacturing while push manufacturers use CAD to generate it. CAD is a great tool, provided it is used appropriately.

With the trend in returns -retailers abdicating responsibility of their buying choices- and manufacturers increasingly expected to assume all of the retail cycle profit risks in addition to their own, there is no other anticipated outcome other than the continuing degradation of poorly fitting and styled apparel. If manufacturers must concentrate on the best bets of the market, this can only lead to continual design stagnation and the flattening of innovation and detail. Concentrating on the best bets of the market leads to homogenization and manufacturers will be even less willing to assume the risks associated with innovation.

The solution to these problems can be best served by new entrants into manufacturing. Niche manufacturers are much more focused on sizing, fit and style since that’s usually why they got into the business in the first place. Designer entrepreneurs are using another frame of reference entirely when they get into the business. Consumers stand a better chance of increased apparel choices through the selection of goods from domestic entrepreneurial manufacturers. Accordingly, consumers will have to learn that there are trade offs; they can’t get well designed, well fitted apparel from companies who can sell at Wal-Mart’s price points. You can either have cheap or good but you can’t have both unless your clothing choices are readily satisfied with the selection available at discount retailers.

Please refer to the other articles in this series which offer substantive supporting material. Add to the discussion rather than backtracking to topics discussed elsewhere. It is likely that the exceptions you’ve thought of have been dissected in depth. For your convenience, links open in a new window or tab.

The Myth of Vanity Sizing
Fit and Sizing Entropy
Push manufacturing; subverting the fit feedback loop
Sizing evolution
Shrinkage and fit
Alternatives in Women’s sizing
Tyranny of tiny sizes?
The history of women’s sizing pt 1
The history of women’s sizing pt 2
The history of women’s sizing pt 3
Sizing is a variety problem
The birth of size 10?
Vanity sizing shoes
Tyranny of tiny sizes pt.2
Vanity sizing: generational edition
Vanity sizing: generational edition pt.2
Vanity sizing: the consumer spending edition

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