INTERNET: A CONDUIT TO NEW CUSTOMERS

Byline: Stuart Chirls

NEW YORK — If you’re a textile supplier and you’re not on the Internet, Steve Kohler has a suggestion: Get with the program.
“There is a serious opportunity to change the way we do business,” said Kohler, who operates the Apparel Exchange (www.apparelex.com), a Web-based virtual marketplace for textile and apparel companies. “Because the Internet lets you find more customers, without it demand is smaller than reality. In my opinion, the businesses who don’t use the tools won’t survive.”
Kohler’s remarks came during a seminar he presented, “Sourcing on the Internet,” at the recent International Fashion Fabric Exhibition here in March.
Just about every aspect of business, he said, can benefit from Internet access:
Communications. E-mail can enable customers to place orders on line, while at the same time enhancing contact between suppliers and vendors. “Instead of waiting days or even weeks for approvals of designs, companies can video-conference and discuss changes on the spot,” Kohler said. “Imagine the time that would cut out of the production process.”
Purchasing. Kohler said that there is a “huge opportunity” to reengineer the way purchases are made. “For example, if a designer is in the middle of preparing a line and needs a certain fabric to complete a collection, he or she can contact a supplier on line and order goods on the spot for overnight delivery.”
Sourcing. The rapid proliferation of virtual marketplaces like Apparel Exchange means that buyers can see lines from resources worldwide without going to the considerable expense and time of traveling. “Even for large companies, the cost of sending people around the world has become prohibitive,” said Kohler. “The Internet will also enable people to find suppliers they would otherwise never have known about.”
Selling. With faster phone lines and better security, the Internet’s future as a selling channel looks bright. “It wasn’t so long ago that the experts said that people wouldn’t buy clothes by mail,” Kohler said. “Look how big the mail-order business has become.”
Logistics. The Internet will help companies route orders faster, know where those orders are and keep closer track of inventories sometimes scattered around the globe.
Reference. Said Kohler, “The Web is a gigantic library of information. Databases could be developed to the point where an importer could get the latest information on quotas.”
Kohler also designs and manages Web sites for some 80 companies, including Guilford Mills. In a demonstration of Guilford’s site, Kohler showed how buyers can view color cards with the click of a mouse, while another click would pull up individual swatches of startling clarity and dimension.
“Of course, a screen image can’t completely supplant touch and feel,” Kohler acknowledged, “but there are cases where it isn’t necessary to see actual swatches when you are familiar with a company’s quality or you are replenishing.”
The Internet can be a boon to apparel manufacturers and their suppliers who juggle global logistics, Kohler said. “For example, at the Federal Express Web site, shippers can see if their goods are stuck in Customs.” He added that label maker Paxar has integrated automatic specification entry with its on-line catalog so customers’ orders are routed directly to the correct Paxar factory.
Kohler emphasized that as the movers and shakers of the industry shift to virtual commerce, others will follow or risk being left out of the pipeline.
“Sears is developing an electronic data interchange [EDI]-Internet package, and other companies are converting their EDI to the Internet. Sun, one of the largest manufacturers of sewing machine parts, has moved its customer order support to the Internet. That will also enable retailers to switch vendors much more easily and frequently.”
But more importantly, Kohler observed, “is that you will be able to find customers, and they you, and the fit will be a lot better. In the future, companies will be a lot more focused at what they’re good at and will be able to find customers globally. It will make everyone more efficient.”

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