By  on March 22, 1994

NEW YORK -- Establishing partnerships with customers and suppliers, avoiding product cannibalism and engaging heavily in product and consumer research are key elements for survival into the 21st century.

That's the word from Paul Charron, executive vice president of VF Corp., who addressed a group of 65 textile, banking and consulting executives last Wednesday at a meeting of the New York Textile Club, held at the Princeton Club here.

"Partnerships will be the cornerstone of any successful company, including ours," said Charron. "Whether from a product, marketing or merchandising standpoint, partnerships allow you to know your customers' and suppliers' businesses better, and allow them to understand yours better."

Charron cited VF's partnership with DuPont, a key supplier of fiber to many of VF's businesses. In an interview prior to his discussion, Charron said the company has "built a strong relationship with them. They can react faster to our needs, which in turn helps both companies in the marketplace."

While partnerships remain vital, said Charron, another important aspect is creating multiple brands and products for multiple distribution channels. VF, he said, has aimed to do that in its intimate apparel group, targeting Eileen West at department stores and better retailers, its VF brand at department stores and Vassarette for the discount market.

"By being able to put different brands into different retail channels, our company has been able to increase its revenue in lingerie by 70 percent since 1990," Charron said. "If you cannibalize your business, that is, having the same products compete with each other in different distribution channels, you lose your strength."

Finally, Charron said, a commitment to both research and product testing is vital.

Charron told the group that while fit and quality are important elements in purchasing lingerie, "it is a highly emotional purchase. If we didn't do the consumer research, we wouldn't have found that out, and we would have been marketing lingerie in the wrong manner."

As for product testing, Charron said, in the late 1980s Lee Jeans changed the fit and feel of its products, "as we deviated from fit to fashion, going more for a Calvin Klein-type fit, because we thought that's what everyone wanted. "We were wrong," added Charron, "The Lee customer liked the Lee fit, so we went back to the original recipe. And now, Lee is a very successful brand."The executive said he still sees the traditional retailer as VF's key customer. Commenting on home shopping, he said, "I don't share the same enthusiasm for it that everyone else does, not when you have 25 percent returns."

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