A glimpse inside the holy rail

2011-11-12 10:41

The just-launched Zara clothing store gives new meaning to the word ‘fashion’

The opening of the Zara store in Sandton, Joburg, this week was nothing short of a fashion-feeding frenzy.

A casual observer would have thought the crowd had never been exposed to a fashion chain store, and perhaps therein lies the ugly truth – South Africans who rely on chain stores for their fashion fix have, till now, been fed mediocre gruel.

For those who have not had the pleasure, Zara is a global fashion phenomenon.

They provide good-quality, on-trend fashion at an affordable price – the first retailer to create a boutique environment for mass-market chain stores.
Anyone who travels knows about Zara, and everyone seems to remember their first Zara experience.

This has been the typical conversation starter this past week as news spread of the chain’s arrival in South Africa: “I discovered Zara for the first time when I was in . . . (add any of the 80 cities across the world where Zara is found).”

The hype around this brand is understandable.

Their ability to translate designer collections off the runway in a matter of weeks has been the centre of debate in the fashion industry for years.

While the question of plagiarism and intellectual property is argued in design circles, their knack for giving a fashion-loving public a quick and affordable fashion fix is celebrated by the millions of happy customers who leave their stores carrying an iconic navy-blue shopping bag.

Even industry purists scratch their heads in admiration and ask how they consistently capture the fashion zeitgeist with such speed and efficiency.

Efficiency is a word that crops up frequently when you deconstruct the Zara business model.

I was one of the lucky few who were given an inside tour of the Zara headquarters in A Coruna in Spain.

It was a tour that was remarkably open and transparent.

We were shown everything – the design hub, their on-site factories, their logistics and distribution centre, and even their merchandising department where full-scale stores are stocked, styled and photographed so that a seasonal template can be replicated in all their stores across the globe.

It’s only when you are privy to the details of the inner workings of the company that you realise what a game-changer this is going to be for South African retail.

All their systems make traditional retail models look draconian.

Take, for example, the simple fact that all the price and security tags are put onto the garments at the distribution centre before being ironed and placed on hangers.

This means that when the stock reaches the stores, the staff just have to hang the garments on the rails, allowing them more time to focus on customer relations – the key to Zara’s success.

Customer feedback is pivotal and helps determine small but crucial on-going tweaks and alterations to their product offering.

So if a store in Singapore receives feedback that the latest skirts are a tad short, a new version of that skirt can be delivered to those stores within a week.

These details are gleaned on a daily basis from the sales staff in “Japanese meetings” (short meetings with the staff standing in a semi-circle) and are fed back to the design team in A Coruna. No other retailer operates with such lightning precision and no other retailer listens that closely to their customer.

In South Africa that level of customer engagement is quite literally a foreign concept.

Zara’s merchandise literally “speaks to you”.

Another remarkable policy Zara has is not repeating best- sellers. South African retailers milk a best-seller for years, creating a haze of deja vu.

Zara prefers to keep their customers hungry for the new.

This policy creates a shopping mindset of “buy when you see it or it will be gone”, hence the feeding frenzy on opening night.

At the end of the trip I ask my hosts why they are so generous with their information – information that other companies would guard jealously.

The reply was simple – without being arrogant, the Zara system has been developed and perfected over a period of 20 years. No other retailer is going to replicate it in a hurry.

Point taken.

So a gentle warning to our local retailers – up your game or be afraid, be very afraid.

» Chang is the founder of Flux Trends: www.fluxtrends.com

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