Learning Curves


In 2020 companies faced a unique challenge: How to sell textiles without being able to touch and feel fabric. The natural order of the textile world was turned upside down this year with online fairs replacing in-person interactions and video conferencing the new sales call.

Sampling fabric for its “handfeel” became a screen sharing experience as suppliers and customers worked remotely, limited by COVID-19 restrictions. And yet, execs report progress made on the sales front. Working creatively, the textile community — marketers, ingredient makers and material suppliers — found ways to successfully navigate an evolving business landscape.

“The silver lining of a pandemic is that significant change prompts creative and resilient behavior,” stated Dr. Trevor Little, professor of Textile and Apparel Management, Wilson College of Textiles at NC State University. He urged industry to keep pace with the today’s consumer behavior by focusing not only on the product but on how the product is communicated. “Fashion cannot afford to ignore this. This is an important part of the future,” said Little during his online talk on “What is the Future of Fashion and the Industry” during the SEAMS organization conference in October.

Noting that Millennials and Gen Z will represent half the U.S. population in about five years, Little stated that “digitalization sophistication has to be in fashion’s future.” He continued to explain “Gen Z will number 82 million people by 2026 most of whom have never known a world without Internet; Millennial number 70 million, are a tech savvy group that likes new ideas.”

Teleconferencing, for example, is here to stay, according to Little’s review of these demographics, however, he also forecast more broadly, stating, collaboration and collaborative tools will be directional in the fashion of the future.

Suppliers are on board. Execs report that initiatives that enhanced the user experience online and escalated digital presentation of product to create more compelling and productive customer experiences were keys to success in 2020. In almost every case, these initiatives and investments, accelerated due to the impact of COVID-19, now look to be important tools in selling textiles going forward.

Here’s how a handful of firms put creativity to work, sparking new ideas and on-the-fly style learning to sell textiles in a changing marketplace.

Differentiate & Communicate

“From webinars to virtual shows to what’s next, its all happening at a new faster pace with a barrier to entry that is lower,” said Mike Simko, global marketing director, Hyosung. “Webinars were new, now everyone does them; online fairs were new, now everyone does it. At the end of the day we’ve got to differentiate, get in front of customers and get their attention,” Simko added. “You have to be innovative with your communication, and keep evolving. Electronic communication is the way of the world.”

Positioning itself as “one-stop shopping,” Hyosung is able to generate push and pull sales strategies with customers. According to Simko this is a similar tactic to how Hyosung presented its trade show booths only now the concept has be adopted virtually.

Frequent email blasts identify market trends and provide solutions, whether that is for masks, WFH apparel or the emerging Wellness at Home category, have proved effective. So, too, is solution-oriented responsiveness to customer queries, such as what and how to source specific performance textiles during this time of restricted travel and without face-to-face meetings.

According to Simko, the company has matured a lot with virtual media; a new website is slated for 2021 and the current site features a new blog, social media investment. “I’m happy with progress made in the last six months,” said Simko.

HeiQ has also made gains in 2020.  The Swiss firm took full advantage of being first out of the gate with ingredient tech focused on combatting COVID-19 and accelerating its digital tools to get the technology into the marketplace quickly while exploring new avenues to access customers and ramp up interest in Viro-block. The company sidestepped trade shows in favor of HeiQ hosting a number of successful webinars that attracted large audiences.

For example, the company participated in a public relations managed launch of an India-based shirting brand customer partnership with HeiQ’s Viro-block. “The press conference was on Zoom and there was a huge audience of over 1000 people,” commented Hoi Kwan Lam, chief marketing office, product management, HeiQ.

A webinar presented via Zoom during the TITAS show Taiwan also generated significant interest.

The company continues to build content on its website and has added a HeiQ YouTube channel.

According to Lam, there are now one billion masks using Viro-block technology worldwide, with approximately 400 brands just in the past six months. About 20 percent are based in Latin America, which is a new region for HeiQ.

Lam recalled a meme on LinkedIn recently about who is the biggest driver of Covid-19. The answer options included:  A) CEO or B) CTO or C) Digital trend.

A Time for Tech

“COVID became a powerful force to make everyone re-think age-old methods and sped up that decision to change,” said Wayne Fan, chief strategy officer, Frontier.

He gave as an example a popular workshop the company held in Taipei.  “We found that as soon as developers — whether from the brand, mill or manufacturer side — had the opportunity to experience our new Digital Product Creation (DPC) tools and understood how best to embrace them for their own use, they discovered how adaptable they are,” said Fan.

“They also realized how these tools can help them conduct business more productively and cost-efficiently than how they’re used to, which is by physical prototyping and sampling. We’ve had significant adoption of our platform with the mill level and now it is gaining real traction among brands.”

Suppliers are on board. Execs report that initiatives that enhanced the user experience online and escalated digital presentation of product to create more compelling and productive customer experiences were keys to success in 2020.

Fan said he often fields the question of “handfeel” in the digital space, to which he responds, “If mills can’t even get their newest collection in front of customers, there will be no handfeel discussion.” He compared the situation to Uber Eats, “if we can’t taste the food, how do we order food online? And yet, it’s the biggest food order platform in the world. Material development is a process that includes getting lead time, quality specs, factory audits, testing results, compliances, price and more from your vendors; we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater when we enter the handfeel discussion.”

More and more companies are introducing new innovative platforms with specific relevance to today’s corporate climate. Business analyst Denine Pezone, owner/manager of Ardent Associates in Charlotte, NC recently came to know and work with a company called Quartr that is making huge impact on measuring consumer preferences.

Quartr is a mobile technology platform that provides companies with a simple way to talk to consumers and reward them for sharing informative feedback. The authenticated community members earn cash for their attention and thoughtful feedback and businesses gain quality data and insights to make smarter decisions and build stronger relationships.  “Most importantly, consumers are in control of their data on the Quartr platform,” explained Pezone. “At a time when brand actors cannot engage focus groups or in-person testing, Quartr is gaining valuable consumer information.”

Put Down the Phone!

Execs are embracing video conferencing as it is quickly replacing the phone as a means of communication. Schoeller’s Stephen Kerns highlights the advantages of video conferencing as focused and productive. No travel time wasted, nor are there outside distractions and the right people are available and in attendance.

Schoeller has worked to enhance the calls using powerpoint presentation and additional assets from Schoeller headquarters in Switzerland, including more in-depth product information and sophisticated visuals such as mood boards, all this bringing more to the discussion, explained Kerns. “Because the brand team on the call is more informed the selection process is more thoughtful. We send out three headers versus 20.” He added, “We are making more headers than in the past but video conferencing has been a success and will definitely stick going forward.”

The Lycra Company is likewise bolstering digital assets as remote work continues and business interactions as via virtual meetings become the norm.

Explained Julien Born, chief commercial officer for Lycra Company: “By sending out fabric samples in advance of calls, our technical experts can provide commentary on product performance through video conferencing while our customers interact with product in real-time. We are also building up our digital infrastructure to help maintain connections across our business and we continue to lean into digital marketing to drive awareness and interest in our new product offerings and technology solutions.”

The company has been participating in trade shows, such as Shanghai Intertextile, but has shifted content to better meet the needs of virtual shows like Kingpins24 with video interviews and digitized collateral. “Back at the start of the summer, we launched a series of webinars to further connect with new and existing customers and supplement our traditional B2B marketing activity,” said Born. “These webinars are typically attended by hundreds of people from across the industry, including representative of mills, garment makers, brands and retailers.”

Lycra Anti-Slip fiber for stretch denim is a new development. The product provides a seam slippage solution for single core spandex fabrics that require durable stretch and good recovery power. Introduced last month at Intertextile Shanghai and promoted across our digital platforms, the new product has had overwhelming favorable response from brands and retailers, according to Born.

Sales Fundamentals

Concept III has succeeded by doing what it’s always done, said Chris Parkes, president. “It’s all about service, service, service. That’s’ what we do, and that’s why Concept III is successful.” Parkes doesn’t endorse Zoom calls nor is he keen on exhibiting at virtual trade shows, yet business projections from earlier in the year are close to, or even more likely, better than expected.

“Although we’re not attending any shows, the same approach applies. I spend time with those that count rather than trying to see everyone,” explained Parkes , who prioritizes being “super responsive getting clients what they need fast.”

“The point is keep the customer happy and keep the mills happy,” Parkes concluded.

Keeping relationships and contacts engaged and current is key in 2020. “I have seen the rise in social media activity and the increased connections between brands, retailers, product developers, material innovators, and consumers,” Pezone shared. “The USA has always been resilient in times of crisis. This year is no different. I have seen layoffs lead to the increase of thoughtful and creative start-ups. People have been given the time to follow their passions and put dreams into action,” added Pezone. “I’m encouraged by this true spirit of entrepreneurship and our future.”

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