CHICAGO — Is Quick Response quick enough to keep up with fashion trends that are notoriously short-lived? Gay Millson-Whitney, director of electronic data interchange at Saks Fifth Avenue, is trying to find out.

In a presentation at Quick Response ’94 here last month, Millson-Whitney said Saks is working with vendors to get this season’s trends off the runways and onto the shelves before they becomes last season’s fads.

“In fashion, you are talking about an emotion, and it can come and go with the wind,” she said. “It has a limited lifespan, and we have a limited time to sell it. If there are strong selling vibes in any category, that information has to get back to the manufacturer quickly.”

In Quick Response relationships, retailers share point-of-sale data with vendors so the latter can monitor and replenish retailers’ shelves faster. The strategy benefits retailers by reducing out-of-stocks and abrogating the need to carry deep safety stock. Manufac-turers say Quick Re-sponse lets them move more product through retail stores and better structure production schedules.

Saks, however, is adding a new twist to the still young replenishment strategy. While Quick Response has been successfully applied to mass-market commodity apparel, the New York-based chain could well be the first to even attempt to apply the strategy to the unpredictable world of fashion.

Millson-Whitney said Saks is now forming partnerships with apparel manufacturers Donna Karan Hosiery and St. John Knits and has been approached by Polo/Ralph Lauren about a similar relationship. She said the alliances will create an ongoing dialogue with the manufacturers allowing them to modify the mix of products they supply Saks based on consumer preference in mid-season.

Saks hopes to start sharing item-movement data with Donna Karan Hosiery and St. John Knits in June. She said Saks plans to upgrade its EDI capability to handle that information in May.

“We don’t have the EDI capability for that now, but we will soon,” Millson-Whitney said. “We have to work on our connectivity. Once we’re up, we will send the manufacturers weekly sales information right down to what sizes and colors are moving in particular stores.”

Millson-Whitney, however, said Saks hopes to take a prominent role in the relationships even before the products hit the shelves. Saks buyers will use their knowledge of consumer preference to help manufacturers plan marketable takeoffs on fashion trends from the storyboard level.

“Retailers still have that face-to-face contact with consumers, and we’ll tap into that and contribute to apparel design,” Millson-Whitney said. “We can provide more than just point-of-sale data.”

POS data, however, remains key to effectively altering the replenishment mix after initial shipments of products reach the stores.

“The designers define the trends for the coming season, but we can transfer sales information about what consumers are demanding back to the fashion house,” Millson-Whitney said.

She said manufacturers can use that information to shift their energies into producing the garments that are selling the fastest.

“With Quick Response, retailers won’t have to commit to manufacturers across the board for the entire season,” Millson-Whitney said. “We’ll have the chance to see what styles, colors and sizes are selling. We’ll use Quick Response technology to react to what’s selling, and we’ll base our reordering on that.”

Millson-Whitney said Quick Response could reduce retailers’ fears of committing to trendy fashions that might not sell.

“Retailers don’t want to sit with a lot of product that won’t sell and then be forced to put that merchandise on sale,” she said. “We have to share information with manufacturers to avoid that. We can’t act as islands holding that information to ourselves.”

Millson-Whitney said manufacturers will benefit just as much from the strategy as Saks — that despite the fact that altering production quickly in response to weekly POS data is a tall order. One benefit, she said, would be fewer chargebacks. “When products don’t sell, manufacturers currently compensate us via chargebacks,” she said. “We require them to get us out of those situations.”

The more obvious benefit for manufacturers, however, would be Saks’ ability to keep the strong sellers in stock while they’re still hot. She said it’s not uncommon for one size or one color to be left on a rack when more popular sizes and colors are long gone.

Though Saks originally envisioned the strategy as a way to keep up with consumer preferences in trendy women’s wear, Millson-Whitney said it could be equally useful with men’s wear.

“With men’s wear, we usually have to commit to orders a year upfront,” she said. “We’re guessing on whether a garment will sell. We would rather have the option to react to consumer purchasing in season.

“There’s no reason why this strategy is not relevant to men’s wear. Even GFT, the company that manufactures for Armani and Ungaro, could tie into the information loop with us. And Burlington Menswear came to me about nine months ago to discuss Quick Response relationships.”

Millson-Whitney said she hopes to share information on how the fashion-oriented Quick Response relationships performed at Quick Response ’95.

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