Live from NRF: Need for Speed Accelerates

New York—You think product lead times are tight now? Randi Nolan, vice president of supply chain strategy for apparel manufacturer/marketer Liz Claiborne, believes that five years from now, the average lead times for new products will need to be half of what they are today. Nolan addressed issues concerning speed to market during a Tuesday session at the National Retail Federation’s annual conference here.

According to a survey by Boston-based AMR Research and “Apparel” magazine, the most important initiative for apparel companies is reducing product costs to improve margin; following a close second, however, is reducing lead times for new products. Among survey respondents, nearly half of the lead times for new products were six months or longer. Lead times for apparel/footwear companies averaged 11 months.

Such lengthy lead times are at odds with consumers’ increased desire for instant gratification, fueled in large part by the Internet, which enables trends to spread globally in a matter of days.

To slash the time it takes to get new products to market, Nolan said, some companies will “buy” that speed through material- and capacity-hedging strategies, along with logistics and supply chain tradeoffs. Key decisions will be made globally; Nolan stressed that a “one-team mentality” is the only way merchants will thrive in the future.

Liz Claiborne has corporate office offices in the U.S. and Asia, and “we’ve integrated our entire process,” Nolan said, which “is fundamental to our strategy.” Part of that strategy includes making decisions by brand, division, and channel; allocating development resources by speed; not trying to be faster than is necessary; connecting to the planning process by adjusting quantities and flow; and specifying approval authority.

There are, however, potential “speed barriers,” which include geographic separation between activities and decision-makers; geographic separation between materials and manufacturing; linear design and development processes; unclear process and timeline expectations; accountability and decision-making procedures; and visibility to information.