By  on November 16, 2010

A strong performance by VF Corp.’s brand portfolio lifted the company to the top spot within the apparel sector in an annual study on customer satisfaction, and also put apparel at the top of list of categories in the manufacturing nondurables area.

Apparel was the only sector to register a gain in the American Customer Satisfaction Index as athletic footwear was flat and food manufacturing and pet food both registered declines.

Apparel’s overall score moved up 1.2 percent to 83 on a scale of 100 from 82 in the third quarter of 2009, principally on VF’s move to 85 from 81 a year ago. VF’s brands include Wrangler, Lee, The North Face, Seven For All Mankind, Nautica, Vans and JanSport. “Other brands” rose to 83 from 82 while Hanesbrands declined to 81 from 82, Jones Group and Levi Strauss both fell to 81 from 83 and Liz Claiborne descended to 79 from 82.

ACSI LLC surveys consumers on their levels of satisfaction with individual brands, which are then either assigned to the “other brands” category, in the majority of cases, or to their parent company’s ratings. The results reflect interviews with 7,250 consumers during the third quarter of this year. Retail brands are studied separately.

The overall satisfaction rating in the nondurables area dipped to 81.3 from 81.5. It stood at 82.3 in 2008 and 81.7 in 2007.

Customer satisfaction is indicative of the desire to spend, according to ACSI managing director David VanAmburg. The drop in the overall measure suggests that, with the means to purchase still constrained by concerns about employment prospects and a greater desire to save, “we’re not going to see a lot of increase in demand,” he told WWD.

So why did apparel move up? “There was some improvement in quality, but what we’re seeing primarily is a boost from value. In the apparel industry, you’ve got emphasis in a down economy on offering good prices and keeping quality the same. As long as you maintain quality and provide a better price, people will be happier.”

In Liz Claiborne’s case, VanAmburg said, “it’s pretty clear there were some issues with quality, not so much the merchandise itself, but rather variety and availability. The customers weren’t saying they didn’t like the clothes, but they were saying that, with Liz now in J.C. Penney exclusively, it wasn’t as convenient to buy.”

Claiborne’s weak showing could also reflect the elimination of Liz & Co. from Penney’s shelves and the shift of the Isaac Mizrahi-designed Liz Claiborne New York line to QVC, the ACSI official noted. It’s also moved ahead with plans to close its Liz Claiborne outlet stores. The firm’s other brands include Juicy Couture, Mexx and Lucky Brand.

VanAmburg points to the success of companies such as Nordstrom and, in the supermarket space, Publix to assert that customer service and responsiveness are the “key drivers of satisfaction and the key determinants of whether you’ll hold on to and build customers. In nondurables, like clothing, it’s all about taste and preference. What we’ve seen consistently over the years is that quality matters more than value for value’s sake. Price sometimes works in the short term, but it’s the wrong route to go in the long term.”

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