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Sample Management Technology to Address Today’s Business Challenges

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In their first exclusive for WhichPLM this year, Michael Robinson and Christine Gallagher of Manner Solutions explore the benefits of sample management technology in today’s digital world.

It’s been a while since we last wrote for WhichPLM. And it’s good to be back. Since we published our last articles in 2017, we have been busy in NYC, Milan, and Boston working with clients to help drive change and adoption of new technology and workflows.

Through our work, we know firsthand that the retail industry continues to be in flux, driven by evolving macro challenges and rapid changes in the way customers are shopping and consuming media. In this uncertain environment, a few common areas of focus among have been:

  • Retaining and building customer loyalty
  • Fostering cross-functional communications and knowledge sharing
  • Retaining and engaging talent
  • Seeking out and implementing the best technology
  • Scaling resources for quality content creation

Despite headwinds, we see retailers and their leadership teams overcoming industry challenges by investing in technology and talent. In turn, we’ve found teams are hungry for software solutions to help track and normalize product development, merchandising, and consumer engagement. Retail organizations are recognizing the power of data, relational database solutions, and that working in dynamic systems (i.e. not Excel) improves collaboration, reporting, and knowledge transfer.

A recurring theme we hear is that despite a prevailing need to create 360-degree product and brand campaigns, information about individual products or SKUs – as well as the plans for how, when, and where to market and sell those products – remains siloed within each cross-functional team’s workflows. We have found one of the most fundamental manifestations of this disconnect to be the often-rudimentary ways retailers manage their sample collections.

We have seen a variety of sample tracking tools adopted. Historically however, they are implemented at the department level vs. as an enterprise solution. Style metadata is ingested at the beginning of a season and becomes stale almost immediately as design, merchandising, and production make changes to the line. Generally, samples are tracked by set with no comprehensive view of all seasonal samples in existence.

Beyond that, some of the other common sample management issues faced are:

  • Samples are tracked up until arrival at headquarters, but very limited visibility exists after this point
  • Different departments use different methods and/or software solutions to track their sample sets
  • Duplicative work in documenting samples within each department
  • Samples are kept in various locations and become prone to loss or theft
  • Digital assets are stored in multiple locations with limited accessibility
  • Real-time product changes are not effectively communicated across teams
  • There is desire for change and a universal process, yet teams don’t know where to begin
  • A challenging retail environment means already-lean teams must do more with less

PLM applications are transforming the way companies manage their product lifecycles, but the story should not end there. A PLM captures and stores valuable product information, yet there is opportunity to derive significantly more value if executives can connect this information to the work being executed by the customer-facing areas of the business – e-commerce, PR, marketing, and sales. Sample management is the red thread that ties nearly all cross-functional teams together, and an enterprise solution that incorporates this process should not be an afterthought.

Despite an increasingly digital world, physical product samples, undeniably, remain the lifeblood of a retail organization. Putting aside the opportunity cost of a lost sample that can be measured in terms of PR credits, internal and external photoshoots, influencer marketing and more, the production costs alone of a sample set are high enough to justify investment in an enterprise solution. A mid-size fashion label might spend $4MM to $5MM annually on samples – an incredibly high sum for assets that easily, and very often do, go missing in the course of a season.

The universe of software providers for retail companies is vast. In an environment where every dollar in an executive’s budget is being evaluated, new additions to a company’s technology stack must be carefully vetted and backed by a well-researched, bulletproof business case. Yet a cost-conscious environment should not preclude executives from seeking out and implementing enterprise solutions that lay the foundation for truly digital-first, data-driven organizations. Software solutions that address individual team needs but are not integrated with one another reinforce siloed workflows and arguably become more expensive in the long term as each team searchers for, vets, funds, and implements their own solutions.

It is time for companies to leverage the power of their PLMs to help track all of their product and sample information in one environment. We have seen firsthand how this approach benefits a company and its culture. We have seen the positive impact an enterprise sample tracking system powered by relevant data sources – PDM, ERP, and DAM, has on streamlining content development and cross-functional communication. When all teams have access to the latest product information and locations of all related samples, they can focus on more strategic initiatives rather than spending hours logging information in spreadsheets and searching for missing samples.

Accountability is a big concern. Samples are checked out, but are they checked back in? When tracking just a set of samples, say for PR, they may come back in and be sent out without being checked-in from the first send out. Usually, the style metadata is static and is NOT being kept up-to-date from the style master.   There is no incentive to check it in, the system is not current so if the style has dropped, the tracking system is not going to alert them to take the sample out of circulation. Users think it is their set and they know when and where it is going, so they skip a step in the process.

We have found that when there is an enterprise approach with dynamic style metadata associated with each sample, cross-functional collaboration improves. Teams hold each other accountable and collaborate to address send-out demands. Transparency across an organization creates a culture that focuses on meeting all sample requests to ensure all opportunities are actualized.

Furthermore, leveraging an enterprise solution that can aggregate not only product details and sample locations, but also real-time buy and sell-through information, empowers teams with the knowledge they need to make crucial business decisions anytime, anywhere regardless of whether a gatekeeper of that information happens to be in the room.

Retailers have embraced the digital transformation of the customer journey, and it is now time for them to look inward and integrate technology into their own workflows, at the enterprise level. Many software solutions provide open APIs (Application Programming Interfaces), allowing for open communications between various components and systems.   Businesses can knit together multiple sources to align data and provide actionable information for analysis and business intelligence. This can hold true for sample management. With the right tools and guidance, retailers can create a product ecosystem to follow every style from concept to archive, as well as track samples used to address business needs such as markets, press reviews, PR requests, celebrity dressings, photoshoots, and more.

No matter how you look at it, samples are required to communicate a brand’s seasonal story, and their sheer physicality means they will always require significant investment. But by adopting the right technology, retailers can take steps towards maximizing not only their sample investments, but optimizing the amount of time, resources, and manpower needed to manage their sample inventory.

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for over six years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like the Annual Review, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.