GREENVILLE, S.C. — The mounting demand for Quick Response — including the delivery of floor-ready merchandise from manufacturer to retailer — held the spotlight at the SEAMS spring conference and trade show here last week.

For the first time, the two-day event, which ended Friday at the Palmetto International Exposition Center, offered educational seminars conducted by major retailers.

Executives of J.C. Penney Co. and Mercantile Stores outlined existing partnership programs with suppliers for Quick Response, programs that are shaping the future of the industry.

Al Howell, executive director of SEAMS — an acronym for the Southeastern Apparel Manufacturers & Suppliers Association — pointed out in an interview that association members had expressed a desire to learn about retailers’ needs first-hand at the show.

“Five years from now, there will be direct contact from point of sale to the contractor,” said Al Howell, executive director of SEAMS. “Contractors will have to be able to make and send floor-ready merchandise directly to the store. That includes the ability to do smaller cuts, direct shipment, and constantly improving quality.” Mercantile’s Michael Tenny, logistics liaison, stressed the importance of floor-ready merchandise — goods that require little or no processing in a distribution center before they are ready to be sent to the stores.

“Retailers want to sell merchandise, not play with it,” said Tenny. “Time we spend processing merchandise is time lost on the selling floor.”

This year, Mercantile has increased its partnerships with vendors capable of delivering floor-ready merchandise to 221 suppliers, up from 56 in 1993. The programs, which include such technology as electronic advance shipment notices, have cut two to three days out of the pipeline, said Tenny.

Anton C. Haake, Penney’s director of quality assurance, said the chain’s ASAP (accelerated supply and purchasing) program, initiated in 1990, had improved customer service, increased sales, decreased markdowns and balanced inventory positions. Quick Response partnerships with key suppliers and extensive merchandise quality testing has resulted in vastly improved profits, said Haake.

The ASAP program extends to all categories of merchandise, including fashion as well as basics. Today, partnership programs are limited to bigger domestic suppliers, although overseas programs and smaller vendors will be implemented in the near future, he said.

Retailer and supplier participation is costly, said Haake. Penney’s has invested $200 million in point-of-sale terminals and scanners alone.

“But we see the benefits as long term, and the customer is demanding it,” said Haake.

Additional seminars focused on projects such as the AMTEX (American Textile) partnership, a $50 million combined research effort between the Department of Energy and participants from the apparel industry. One project under the AMTEX umbrella, DAMA (demand-activated manufacturing architecture) will establish an information highway designed to link data from retailers, manufacturers, contractors and mills. The program was described by Frank Hughes, assistant director for interactive training systems with TC2 (Textile//Clothing Technology Corp.), a research consortium based in Cary, N.C.

While final attendance figures were not available, some 2,000 visitors were expected to attend, compared with 1,800 a year ago, according to Howell. Exhibitors, representing 400 companies, were primarily suppliers of equipment, thread and trim.

Contractors and vendors at the show sought new machinery, technology, work aids and information systems designed to speed up the manufacturing process.

Dennis Cuthbertson, plant manager at Klear Knit, a Rock Hill, S.C., contractor of men’s and women’s knit shirts, said the retail seminars were a major draw.

“We do business with Mercantile and other large companies, so we have to keep abreast of all their demands,” he said. “Our customers are dictating what new areas we go into, such as embroidery, screen printing or new fabric treatments.”

Cuthbertson said big contracts in recent years had pulled the company through the recession.

“We’re more immune to bad times, because as a fashion contractor, we can focus on quality and service rather than just price,” he said.

Sarah Friedman, president of SEAMS and plant manager for Aiken Industries, a women’s knit and woven sportswear contractor in Aiken, S.C., said global competition had forced domestic contractors to implement Quick Response programs in order to survive.

“We’ve lost business to Mexico and to 807 programs,” she said. “We have to have faster turnaround times to compete, and we’re trying to involve our employees with incentives for production, attendance and quality.”

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