What traditional retailers can learn from Zara

Zara has become a thorn in the side of the fashion industry. With its tendency to produce knockoff versions of runway styles in just a few weeks, the Inditex-owned fast-fashion company — which just posted a 9 percent profit boost for the last three quarters, equal to $2.4 billion — has thrown the fashion industry into a frenzy to keep up with consumer demand and better respond to social media–driven trends.

The fast-fashion giant is, of course, problematic, plagued by the pollution of over-production and unethical labor practices. But in order to compete with the company, traditional retailers can borrow a few best practices from its playbook.

“Zara has lit a fire under the feet of traditional retailers,” said Caitlin Aylward, senior research associate at L2, who recently led the company’s Specialty Retail report on fast fashion. “In order to really perform like Zara does, retailers would have to consider a real overhaul. But their responses so far have been competitive.”

Without completely tossing out existing business models, here’s what brands can do to borrow from Zara’s success.

Shorten production lead times
The recent fashion calendar shift to reflect a see-now-buy-now mentality was a power move from brands like Burberry, Michael Kors, Tom Ford and Tommy Hilfiger to respond to the disparity between when new products hit the runway and when they’re available in stores. Putting items on sale immediately after they’re displayed also undercuts Zara’s ability to recreate fast-fashion versions of the trends.

“See-now-buy-now is certainly a way to be competitive,” said Aylward. “It has brought attention back to these traditional retailers, in a way, because they’ve piloted this move.”

Shifting internal production systems to allow for a collection that’s ready to ship at the time of the runway show necessitated an agility that many legacy brands are not used to. However, Burberry CEO and chief creative officer Christopher Bailey told  Business of Fashion that once the shift took place, the new structure allowed for more freedom to reflect upon the collection and garner new inspiration.

Outside of luxury fashion, retailers have used data to faster respond to consumer trends. Kohl’s recently rolled out a new millennial-geared sub-brand, K/Lab, that uses social media data to inform its decisions around fabric, cuts and colors. K/Lab’s three-person team scans social media, fashion blogs and customer behavior analyses to turn around production designs and get items manufactured in a 13-week period. In November, Lord & Taylor launched an initiative to ramp up its production schedule with weekly drops from three partners: Isaac Mizrahi, H Halston and Highline Collective. By adding new items on a weekly basis, Lord & Taylor will be filling in new inventory at the same rate as Zara.

A data-driven, frequently replenished collection hits on all the notes that Zara has perfected — though Zara does it at a much higher, more consistent scale.

“[This is] what shoppers are looking at, obsessing over, sharing and coveting right at this moment,” said Erwin Penland’s chief planning officer Jessica Navas. “They can test designs in market and identify winners in real time, which can then be incorporated into their other, more established lines.”

Bring manufacturing closer to home
Zara’s quick turnaround time is due, in part, to the company keeping 60 percent of its manufacturing in Europe. This way, Zara doesn’t have to wait as long for products to be shipped out to stores.

“That’s a driving factor,” said Aylward of Zara’s close-to-home network of manufacturers. “It makes it much easier for them to connect their factories to their warehouses to their stores.”

Other companies are beginning to follow suit. J.C.Penney and Gap have both shortened their manufacturing turnaround times by moving some of their production to Central America and the Caribbean, respectively, rather than Asia. While fully producing a clothing brand in the United States presents a set of its own problems, brands that do it find more control over their production chain and easier communication with manufacturers.

“It’s a lot easier to catch quality issues,” said Bayard Winthrop, CEO of American Giant, in a previous Glossy interview. “When our partners are in LA, we can hop on the phone to discuss problems. Mistakes are harder to allocate otherwise, from a communication standpoint.”

Create a sense of urgency online and on social
In L2’s Specialty Report on fast fashion, two of Zara’s online practices are highlighted: First, its ability to drive urgency on its product pages by spotlighting the products and sizes that are about to sell out. If an item is sold out, a customer can sign up to be notified when it comes back in stock — and Zara can then use this customer intel to determine what styles and trends they should be investing in more (only about 15 percent of Zara’s products are planned out in advance).

This push for urgency is being adopted by other brands, including Fendi, which installed a tool on its e-commerce site that lets customers know how many other people are looking at the same online product if they linger on the site long enough.

On Instagram, Zara’s feed closely resembles the minimalist product photos on its website, and each post is accompanied by a referral number to make it easier to facilitate online purchases. This practice is also used by Revolve and Ann Taylor to help social followers find the products they like.

“Certain brands are really sacrosanct with their captions,” said Thomas Rankin, CEO of marketing analytics company Dash Hudson. “They wouldn’t do something like this because they want to put something more clever or a call-to-action instead. But for most people browsing through a feed, it wouldn’t bother them.”

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