Zara: Fast Fashion from Savvy Systems

Both Zara and The Gap are retail online clothing giants in the fashion s industry. Zara, now worldwide, was founded in Spain. The Gap, also now worldwide, is a US Corporation. Both companies made a critical strategic decision on the future growth of their companies, with Zara taking the lead to move their significant marketing online. Gap later followed. Both still make retail sales but are positioned on the Internet. Zara currently has over 1M hits on its website each month. Read this chapter to understand how early the use of IT, particularly data collection and analysis, helps gain a competitive advantage. How did Zara use data to make early decisions about its business operations? How did Zara's use of data compare to Gap's?

Don't Guess, Gather Data

Manufacturing and Logistics

In the fickle world of fashion, even seemingly well-targeted designs could go out of favor in the months it takes to get plans to contract manufacturers, tool up production, then ship items to warehouses and eventually to retail locations. But getting locally targeted designs quickly onto store shelves is where Zara really excels. In one telling example, when Madonna played a set of concerts in Spain, teenage girls arrived to the final show sporting a Zara knock-off of the outfit she wore during her first performance". The average time for a Zara concept to go from idea to appearance in store is fifteen days versus their rivals who receive new styles once or twice a season. Smaller tweaks arrive even faster. If enough customers come in and ask for a round neck instead of a V neck, a new version can be in stores with in just ten days. To put that in perspective, Zara is twelve times faster than Gap despite offering roughly ten times more unique products! At H&M, it takes three to five months to go from creation to delivery - and they're considered one of the best. Other retailers need an average of six months to design a new collection and then another three months to manufacture it. VF Corp (Lee, Wrangler) can take nine months just to design a pair of jeans, while J. Jill needs a year to go from concept to store shelves. At Zara, most of the products you see in stores didn't exist three weeks earlier, not even as sketches.

The firm is able to be so responsive through a competitor-crushing combination of vertical integration and technology-orchestrated coordination of suppliers, just-in-time manufacturing, and finely tuned logistics. Vertical integration is when a single firm owns several layers in its value chain. While H&M has nine hundred suppliers and no factories, nearly 60 percent of Zara's merchandise is produced in-house, with an eye on leveraging technology in those areas that speed up complex tasks, lower cycle time, and reduce error. Profits from this clothing retailer come from blending math with a data-driven fashion sense. Inventory optimization models help the firm determine how many of which items in which sizes should be delivered to each specific store during twice-weekly shipments, ensuring that each store is stocked with just what it needs. Outside the distribution center in La Coruña, fabric is cut and dyed by robots in twenty-three highly automated factories. Zara is so vertically integrated, the firm makes 40 percent of its own fabric and purchases most of its dyes from its own subsidiary. Roughly half of the cloth arrives undyed so the firm can respond as any midseason fashion shifts occur. After cutting and dying, many items are stitched together through a network of local cooperatives that have worked with Inditex so long they don't even operate with written contracts. The firm does leverage contract manufacturers (mostly in Turkey and Asia) to produce staple items with longer shelf lives, such as t-shirts and jeans, but such goods account for only about one-eighth of dollar volume.

All of the items the firm sells end up in a five-million-square-foot distribution center in La Coruña, or a similar facility in Zaragoza in the northeast of Spain. The La Coruña facility is some nine times the size of Amazon's warehouse in Fernley, Nevada, or about the size of ninety football fields. The facilities move about two and a half million items every week, with no item staying in-house for more than seventy-two hours. Ceiling-mounted racks and customized sorting machines patterned on equipment used by overnight parcel services, and leveraging Toyota-designed logistics, whisk items from factories to staging areas for each store. Clothes are ironed in advance and packed on hangers, with security and price tags affixed. This system means that instead of wrestling with inventory during busy periods, employees in Zara stores simply move items from shipping box to store racks, spending most of their time on value-added functions like helping customers find what they want. Efforts like this help store staff regain as much as three hours in prime selling time.

Trucks serve destinations that can be reached overnight, while chartered cargo flights serve farther destinations within forty-eight hours. The firm recently tweaked its shipping models through Air France–KLM Cargo and Emirates Air so flights can coordinate outbound shipment of all Inditex brands with return legs loaded with raw materials and half-finished clothes items from locations outside of Spain. Zara is also a pioneer in going green. In fall 2007, the firm's CEO unveiled an environmental strategy that includes the use of renewable energy systems at logistics centers including the introduction of biodiesel for the firm's trucking fleet.