I have worked in the garment industry since 2005. Over the last couple of years, I started to help purchasers of other products (from tools to furniture and electronics), and I realized the “right way to go” was different.
I am also a voracious reader, and a lot of the advice I was reading in sourcing blog/books didn’t feel quite right. Sure, garment people tend to feel like their product line is unique, but after all they are sourcing from developing countries… They have to follow roughly the same rules, don’t they?
Well, actually that industry IS different on many aspects:
1. Larger manufacturers don’t offer better quality
As I wrote in an article about large Chinese factories, a larger manufacturer tends to be better organized and more reliable. But that’s generally speaking, for most product lines.
You are probably better off avoiding very small workshops (up to 50 workers) in Asia, whatever you buy. They have a few old machines and low-paid staff, and nonexistent quality control. Bigger is usually better and more expensive.
However, if you purchase garments, you will probably be happier with a 200-operators workshop (which seems like the ideal size to me) than by a 5,000-workers plant.
2. It’s better to let the factory develop the products
If you let a Chinese manufacturer handle the development of a complex piece of hardware, for example, you’ll run into three problems:
- They will feel like they own the design and everything they learned during the development, and they will make it as hard as possible for you to switch to another factory (you’ll have to start again from scratch).
- They will tweak the product so that it matches their processes and so that it’s easy for the operators (read: no thinking required during production).
- They might not have enough engineers to work on new developments, which means long delays and/or loss of interest.
However, when you purchase garments from China or Vietnam, you are advised to let the manufacturer handle the development of samples. They often have a dedicated “sample room” for that.
If you send them paper patterns and detailed methods, they will just modify it without telling you (which is much worse than submitting samples that were made the way they like, because then you can reject them until the result is fine).
There is no mold or special tooling. The worst, if you switch to another manufacturer, is that they might not find the exact same fabrics or accessories as the previous supplier.
3. It takes time to fully understand all production risks
Most consumer goods are produced based on simple processes. It does not take years to understand how plastic mold injection, or aluminum die casting, works. If you have a logical mind, it is possible to make a list of all the factors that impact the final product, to make a few tests, and to compare the results.
This is not true of textile products. If you don’t have deep industry experience, you will always miss on something.
I heard the same complaint from several Hong Kong merchandisers working in this industry: “there are always problems, it’s so complex. Some friends are in electronics, and they are off work at 6pm. I envy them so much!”
It takes 6 months (full time, every day) to train a suitable textile inspector, and 5 years in the lines to get a good production supervisor. No shortcut.
4. Many importers buy the materials & accessories themselves
A certain number of large and/or upscale companies purchase the production inputs themselves, and choose a factory to do the cutting and the sewing. It’s called CMT, and it probably accounts for 10-20% of the total volume of apparel exported from China.
I don’t know of a single other industry where this is true. Maybe I am simply ignorant. But I am certain it is not widespread across many product lines.
Why? I guess it comes down to my previous point: production is complex and it’s easy to mess up. The purchaser should try to keep it under control as much as possible. Making sure the fabric is fine is a good first step.
5. No next China? Wrong! There already is a “next China”
For most “cheap products”, analysts tend to agree that there is no “next China”.
Let’s take the electronics industry as an example. The vast majority of components are made in Eastern Asia, and thousands of Chinese factories assemble them. Prices of finished goods are still trending down. No other country seems to be taking the relay.
This is less true of textile. South Asia and Vietnam are more competitive than China for certain types of fabrics, and their labor cost (adjusted for productivity) is slightly lower.
Do you want lingerie? Go to Guangdong province. Do you want jeans? Think of Pakistan. Embroidered shirts? India should be fine. And the list goes on.
So, have I convinced you? Is this a truly unique industry?