Byline: Adam Blair

MINNEAPOLIS — Storehouse, a London retail chain, is using an Internet-based system that allows buyers to collaborate with apparel suppliers to speed the product development process.
The system also reduces the number of samples that need to be created during the process — 85 percent, said one supplier testing the system.
Storehouse operates stores under two banners: BHS, which has 150 stores in the U.K. offering men’s, women’s and children’s apparel, and Mothercare, with 350 stores in the U.K. offering clothing and other merchandise for mothers and children. There also are stores in the Far East, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
Storehouse realized a return on investment within months of going live with the system in the second quarter of 1999, according to Tony Pusey, director of information technology. Some product-line development times have been cut as much as 50 percent, he added.
The retailer currently has 111 suppliers using the system, which, combined, account for 80 percent of its product offerings.
“We felt we needed to reduce the time to market, partly because of the shorter life cycles of fashion products, but also so we can build on our successes and minimize our failures,” said Pusey, who spoke at Predictions ’99, a technology conference held here last week and sponsored by Retek Retail Solutions, also based here.
“We wanted to buy more of what we’re selling, rather than force people to buy what we’ve bought” from our suppliers, he added.
The WebTrak system from Retek provides a time line for parties involved in the product development process, Pusey explained. The system operates off a web server at its center, which provides “one version of the truth,” he said.
The system “formalizes” the critical path process, establishes important deadlines and sends e-mail warnings if key dates are missed, said Pusey.
Data from the product development process is integrated into Storehouse’s planning system, also from Retek, and its merchandising system, Makoro from IBM, Armonk, N.Y. “We didn’t want to have to re-key data,” he noted.
“We needed something that was simple, visual and could operate in real time,” said Pusey, noting that many suppliers had never used a computer before. The retailer chose WebTrak because the new system “had to match the current processes to be acceptable to the buyer and supplier community. WebTrak had the collaborative approach and was tailored to a specific retail solution.”
Buyers and suppliers can view digital images of apparel, for example, and offer comments on color, style and production. They can participate in real-time roundtable discussions or comment electronically, leaving messages in Post-It-Note-style boxes that appear on the product’s page in the WebTrak system.
“The key [to the system’s benefits] is collaborating with suppliers, and even further back, with their raw material suppliers,” said Pusey.
“Sharing information with suppliers was a bit of a culture shock, but once we established the infrastructure that allowed a free and open flow of information, we quickly saw which suppliers could cope with that, and embrace the opportunities,” he added.
In addition to making design and development processes faster, the system has cut the time needed to produce samples as well as the number of samples, and created a digital archive of apparel-product images.
“There’s considerable time spent shipping, storing and managing samples,” said Pusey, adding that the retailer spends $19.5 million annually on the process. In addition, because of space limitations, “we can’t keep more than two seasons’ worth of samples.”
Because the new system provides digital images of products under development, “now we can have a corporate ‘memory’ of samples that were accepted and rejected.”
Pusey believes Storehouse’s use of WebTrak will continue to shorten product development, which currently requires its buyers and suppliers to work 10 months ahead. “Beginning in January 2000 for the spring-summer 2000 season, we’d like to get in-season reports on sales that could be brought back to the suppliers, and possibly linked into their manufacturing systems,” he said. “We see this as the only way to react to consumer responses to products within the season.”
Storehouse plans to use WebTrak for availability scheduling further upstream in the supply chain, online color approvals, online access to fashion trends and information services and to create digital images for quality-assurance checks.