Byline: Denise Power

MINNEAPOLIS — When Target puts its fall private label apparel collections on the selling floors in a few months, a greater share of the merchandise is likely to get a higher approval rating from shoppers, store buyers and the designers behind the collection. That’s because Target has begun creating garments with a new technology that yields colors that come closer to the original visions of designers, rather than merely being a close approximation.
A garment in the latter category is referred to internally as a “best can do,” and it’s what retailers must accept when a mill fails to achieve a specified color, and production deadlines close in.
Before Target introduced a new color development process, buyers settled for the off-shade “best can dos” for private label merchandise about 30 percent of the time. Since revamping the process, and leveraging sophisticated color measurement tools, the track record has improved, with only 5 percent of private label merchandise failing to meet exacting color specifications, according to Keith Hoover, manager of color services. Hoover oversees color development for the Target, Mervyn’s California and Marshall Field’s divisions as well as Associated Merchandising, the New York-based apparel sourcing and product development company. All of these units are divisions of Target Corp.
“Color is the first thing you see when you walk into a store,” he said. “And you don’t even have to buy anything to get a bad impression if colors are substandard or inconsistent within a collection. By contrast, a product’s other attributes, such as fabric shrinkage or color fastness, do not become evident until after the item is purchased and brought home.”
The new color development process used at Target not only improved the frequency with which color specifications were met, but it greatly streamlined each stage, from the conception of color palettes for a brand to the often-arduous lab dip approval process. Mills perform lab dips and submit the resulting dyed fabric samples to retailers to demonstrate they can achieve a prescribed color.
Too often, about 70 percent of the time at Target, that initial lab dip had failed to meet color requirements and a second and third round of dyed fabric samples exchanged hands before the exact color was achieved, or the retailer was forced to accept an inferior color. This was as much due to quality control at the mills as it was inadequate color management and communications processes at Target, Hoover said.
The new process resulted in a dramatic improvement in initial lab dip approvals, from 30 percent of first submissions accepted last year to 60 percent of first submissions accepted as of last month.
“This new process puts an emphasis on speed,” Hoover said. “‘Speed is life’ is an internal Target philosophy and the color development process has traditionally been a drag, taking longer than anyone wants,” he said.
Hoover outlined some of the key improvements in the process and noted that the system revealed new ways for Target to work with vendors and mills more effectively.
Adding a color coordinator has helped the process, he explained.
Under the old method, design teams for each of Target’s 15 brand groups developed colors for a collection in a vacuum. Because one team was unaware of the colors created by another team, it was possible for duplication or near-duplication to occur across brands. Under the new process, a color coordinator reviews all color proposals from designers and eliminates redundancy. At the same time, the color coordinator evaluates each proposed color, from a production standpoint, to weed out those color-fabric combinations that may be almost impossible to reproduce with a high degree of consistency.
New technology has also helped the process. Target invested in a suite of color measurement applications and instruments from Datacolor of Lawrenceville, N.J., that enables it to communicate effectively with international vendors and mills. Because information is exchanged electronically, instead of via fax, approvals and changes can be communicated rapidly and all users’ computer monitors are calibrated to the same color specifications.
In addition, analysts are currently tested on visual acuity, to confirm they have the skills to verify whether a lab dip dyed sample meets Target’s color specifications.
The mass discounter is leveraging the color measurement technology and simultaneously modifying its process of evaluating lab dip samples. Under the old process, color analysts would visually examine samples and reject those that appeared unacceptable; this practice of relying solely on an analyst’s subjective judgment led to some samples being rejected incorrectly, Hoover said.
Now, Target’s first step in evaluating a fabric sample is to use color measurement technology to determine whether a sample falls within an acceptable range; if it does, a visual review follows. If the piece falls outside the designated range, the mill is notified and no color analyst’s time is wasted examining the piece.
The result, he added, has been that samples that are significantly off shade are identified more efficiently and the vendor is instructed to investigate and resolve the problem with the mill. This frees up Target color analysts to focus their efforts on those samples that are very close to meeting specification.
In the end, it’s about speed, Hoover said. With better controls at each stage of the color development process, Target can respond faster to market trends by accommodating shorter time frames for fashion-sensitive apparel. The company expects to extend the new color development process to hardlines this summer.

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