Byline: Joshua Greene

NEW YORK — As the slowing economy and many Americans’ current reluctance to travel have executives reassessing whether it’s necessary to maintain extensive international travel schedules, they’re looking to technology for possible alternatives.
Importers agreed that meeting with factory owners and inspecting goods requires face-to-face contact. But they said the number of trips — which often last for weeks at a time — could be significantly reduced by using technology after initial meetings with suppliers.
“Getting to know people face-to-face is important, but I think there is going to be less of it. After you meet clients initially, shipping reports and proposals can be sent through e-mail,” said Nick Hahn, chairman of Hahn International Ltd., a textile consulting company in Stamford, Conn. “But I think we’ll lose something because of it.”
Arnold Kobelt, president of New York-based converter Nipkow & Kobelt, said e-mail quickens his company’s communication process.
“I received a new design from a buyer on a CD-ROM, which I sent to the Orient electronically, and the mill started engraving the design right away. In the old framework, they would have had to draw it by hand and mail it, but now, at least a week of time was saved,” he said. “People often send scanned pictures of fabrics they’re looking for, and we use the Internet to follow up [with these customers] very comfortably.”
He added that current world events may make this a good time to start relying on technology.
“I think people are ready to try. I am constantly asking my customers if they can accept different electronic formats over the Internet. Not everybody is up to speed, but it’s a case-by-case situation. Some of our customers have provided us with software they require, and now we send those invoices through the Internet everyday and it works fairly nicely,” Kobelt added.
Certainly, many start-up businesses in recent years have tried to convince sourcing executives to do more of their work on the Web. Many of these dot-com ventures, including Etexx.com and FTADirect.com, have since gone under — some industry officials suggested they were doomed from the start because they charged fees, adding costs in a business that is fanatical about reducing them.
Today, while sourcing executives may be more open to an e-commerce approach, executives at surviving Web ventures also are emphasizing that they will never make personal relationships obsolete.
“I think face-to-face business meetings are required,” said Vikas Luthra, chief executive officer and co-founder of Fabria.com, a Web-based software supply-chain management company. “I don’t think there is any technology that can take away the personal aspect, but it can be used to figure out what critical meetings you want to be in.”
Luthra said cutting travel costs is a common interest when speaking to industry colleagues about Fabria’s software. “We have received phone calls where people said travel concerns were a main reason for calling,” he said.
David Tracy, of the textile consulting firm David Tracy Associates Inc., who is also vice chairman of Fabria, said the Internet community is getting a breath of fresh air as textile companies look to technology to speed up business and cut costs, including travel budgets.
“You’re getting your work done faster and cheaper,” he said. “There’s still the importance of relationships, but they can be covered on the Internet as well.”
Tracy also said travel time can be reduced by the use of technology if middle managers are open to the change.
“Middle management may be a little insecure about losing their jobs,” he said.
Overall, Web and non-Web companies alike said it is impossible to do business with a factory one has never seen, but acknowledged that follow-up meetings, shipping reports and proposals are easily conducted via telephone or e-mail.
“E-commerce is not going to take away touching the fabrics. There will always be sales calls or a rep sitting down with the client showing the fabric line,” said Hahn. Last year, Hahn served as chairman of the now-defunct FTADirect venture, sharing his lengthy industry experience with its young founders.
David Feig, ceo of FOBconnect, an interactive online directory for global apparel traders looking for new contacts, said conducting business online is easier if there is a long-standing relationship between the companies, since they would both need the same software to communicate over the Internet.
“It’s difficult to establish a relationship because fashion changes so quickly and importers are constantly looking for new suppliers,” Feig said.
Importers were quick to note that the textile industry is a touch-and-feel business. And while importers said they were open to support from new technology, they agreed it would be impossible to eliminate travel outright. Importers also said that videoconferencing is gaining attention, but cost concerns and issues about time changes between countries were raised.
“At the end of the day, people want to work with people,” Tracy said.