FIRMS WRESTLE WITH E-COMMERCE

Byline: David Grant Caplan

NEW YORK — While jeans suppliers continue to explore the idea of business-to-business e-commerce, the industry has hit some bumps in its efforts to move more of its processes online.
VF Corp., which last year took the big step forward by starting to develop its own online exchange for buying supplies and raw materials, with the eventual goal of selling to retailers, has pulled the plug on its initial experiment. However, that company’s change in direction hasn’t changed the determination of other jeans makers to get into the online game: Lucky Brand Dungarees and Miss Sixty are among the jeans suppliers currently developing B2B e-commerce plans.
As reported, Greensboro, N.C.-based VF last spring started ordering indirect supplies, such as corrugated cardboard boxes and office products, from the SoftgoodsMatrix.com Web site, launched last April by Dallas-based i2 Technologies Inc.
Since then, “VF has agreed with i2 Technologies to no longer invest in Softgoodsmatrix,” said vice president and business process executive Bob Coppage.
Coppage said, “the opportunities to engage directly with retail exchanges” — as opposed to an intermediary exchange — played a role in severing VF’s ties with Softgoodsmatrix.
“Many of the world’s largest retailers of consumer products, apparel and foods announced international alliances to develop their own trading exchanges,” he said. “It quickly became clear that VF could serve our customers better by collaborating with them via their trading exchanges, so we reacted accordingly.”
Last June, VF was planning to attract mills and other direct suppliers to the exchange and set up a pilot, but that never materialized.
“There is limited interest, at this particular time by most of our direct suppliers, in a B2B pilot,” Coppage said. “The decline in U.S. consumer confidence and a more challenging marketplace in 2001 call for focused and prudent technology investments, so there is appropriate caution about the timing of B2B procurement.”
While VF put its initial focus on buying, Guess last April jumped into the e-commerce game by beginning to sell merchandise to specialty stores online, through Apparelbuy.com. Los Angeles-based Guess also last spring began using the Web site for all its purchases of computer goods and office supplies, as well as supplies like hangars and fixtures for its retail stores.
Despite repeated requests for interviews, Guess officials were unavailable to comment for this story.
Even as some vendors are rethinking their e-commerce moves, Los Angeles-based Lucky Brand, which is 85 percent owned by Liz Claiborne Inc., plans to launch a Web site that will allow its retail customers to view inventory, place orders and modify orders by the third quarter of this year, said senior vice president of sales Brian Kail.
“I think we were more proactive than them actually asking us for it,” he said. “They are certainly delighted that we’re going to do it and love the idea of it.”
Lucky already operates a e-tail site, selling jeans and other products to consumers.
Italian jeans maker Miss Sixty also is preparing to take a stab at B2B e-commerce. It is developing a “Web-based inventory program,” allowing retailers to order merchandise online by the end of the year, according to Andrew Pollard, the New York-based director of sales and marketing.
On a simpler level, the company also is developing an internal Web site that will allow its Italian head office to access the order and inventory systems of its Canadian and U.S. offices in real time.
Gloria Vanderbilt Apparel Corp. also is confining its initial Web efforts to internal communications. In December, the company launched a pilot to harmonize the flow of information between its headquarters in New Jersey and its factories in Jordan and Sri Lanka.
“It is a Web site the distant factories will be able to log on to and they call up specific orders that they are processing and then they do stage movement for us,” explained John Semblewski, director of management information systems. “That way, we’ll know when they’ve cut a particular order, what stage of sewing or finishing it’s in and when it’s leaving their factory.”
Semblewski said the company will expand the pilot to its 50 factories by the end of the year “based on the success, the accuracy and the compliance level.”