During the prevailing pandemic, we found few Retailers/ E-com and their suppliers were struggling to cope due to changing customer preferences, travel restrictions, and high product returns. In a process of finding the solution for the same, we spoke with many of our existing customers and industry experts.
We interviewed the Global Quality head of one of the American clothing companies known worldwide for its brand name of Denim / Jeans Products. Over a century, the apparel brand is sustaining its position as a global leader of Denim / Jeans.
He is also having more than 2 decades of experience and worked in various well-known and prominent companies. He is very good at guiding the team by providing actionable inputs to improve performance. He is also an expert in process designing; even he got the ‘Best engineer award’ for his innovation.
Our interview on the subject- “Challenges faced by Retailer/ E-com during the pandemic” with him was splendid. We discussed various topics such as Quality, Supplier selection, customer experience, etc., And he shared a solution for each challenge the Retailers/ E-com companies are facing at this moment along with their experience of how they (US Brand) maintained the quality during pandemic. To know more, continue reading the blog. You will be amazed by his articulation.
Customer experience during the transition to E- com
Q – 1. How was your product return rate during the pandemic? If it increased, any reason for the same?
There was a slight increase in Product returns due to 3 reasons.
- The first reason is staining. During the pandemic, the Store representatives sanitized the garments. Most of the sanitizer use chlorine and other chemicals which are bad for Indigo. Hence, consumers found stains on the product after buying.
- The second reason for product return is mold formation. As we stored the products ideally for 6 to 7 months, there was mold formation on it.
- The third reason is colorfastness. As products were exposed to the sunlight for a longer period, there were colorfastness issues.
Q – 2. How are you dealing with non – genuine product returns?
- In our company, we don’t categorize customer complaints as genuine or non-genuine. All the product returns and customer complaints are considered genuine.
- We see the product returns and complaints as the scope of improvement of our employees and systems. It implies that our employees need more training on resolving the issue and convincing the customer with valid reasons.
- And only less than 1% of the customers do non-genuine complaints or product returns. So, we generally replace the product or refund the money to the customer without asking any questions if any customer comes with any issues.
Q – 3. Can you share one best preventive measure, the factory took to correct Quality failures?
Let me share 2 of the incidents where the factories and we took some of the preventive measures based on the result of proper study and analysis.
- One of the Quality failures which I came across is the strength of Jean’s Rivets and shank buttons was weak. Earlier, the factory used to test the button strength by applying a 10 Kg load for 10 sec. Later after finding out the weakness of the Rivets and shank, we made a control chart and recorded data of 15 points by pulling the button till it breaks. On the basis we calculated the Standard deviation and process control limit. Though the specific control limit was 10, we achieved process control limit of 28- 38. Whenever the process control limit is getting below 28 or above 38, we take it as an alert and do all the measures to avoid any weak Rivet and shank button.
- The second of the Quality failures is that the logo sticked to the Polo T-shirt was taking off. Due to which there were many complaints from the customers. During the analysis, the factory found it occurs due the Quality of the glue and time of pressing by Heat Glue method. While I made a detailed study on this issue, I found that the temperature, time, and pressure of the Heat glue method is also important besides the Quality of the fabric. Hence, we provided the guidelines in the century pocket. After following the provided guidelines, those issues were minimized.
Q – 4. What are the major problems faced by the customer experience team during COVID?
- The major problem during the pandemic was that the demand was less as the customers reduced buying garments. And they were afraid of the safety parameters such as the spread of disease through the products due to improper sanitization. It was the major bottleneck for E- com considering both new and existing customers.
- In addition, when any retailers are shifting from a Brick-and-Mortar store to E-commerce, the critical problem is the mindset of the people. Let me share an example.
“Around 18 years ago, I visited Shanghai for the first time. I asked my best friend about the best place to shop for my wife and daughter. He said that we could get better deals online and no need to go to the market then I was surprised and wondered how someone could buy online without seeing and touching the product. But now, I understood this is the reality. And for the past 7 years, I have never visited any mall for shopping.”
- So, it took 10 years for me to understand the benefits of buying online. Hence, the main issue here is the people’s mindset. And they need to understand the benefit of buying online.
- To shift the people’s mindset slowly and enhance their confidence in buying online E – com sites should come up with appealing online shopping benefits, user-friendly sites, effortless return, and refund policy to enhance the confidence of the customers.
Q – 5. What is the strategy you are following to minimize customer complaints?
- In my opinion, customer complaints are the source of improvement or innovation. So, I believe that implementing the customer voice in the manufacturing process can help us meet the customer expectation as well as minimize the complaints.
- Realizing that we started collecting the customer complaint data from our stores. Most of the complaints were related to stains and wrong MRP tags. As it is a part of the manufacturing, we can sense the communication gap within the factory. Generally, the Merchant will assume that the operator will understand the procedure by reading the instructions posted on each line. But the reality is most of the operators are illiterate who cannot read the written languages.
- Hence, communication or instructions to the operators should be in the language of their understanding. The person who is communicating should ensure that the operators are clear with the procedure.
Q – 6. What is the big missing you find in the quality management system in factories?
- Many of the factories believe that the Garment Making is an art. They think the garments can be manufactured only with Skilled labor. So, they outsource the skilled labors. But I believe it is pure science. Because a good internal training system for the operators and Quality Controllers can indeed enhance Quality of the garments. Hence, Implementation of 5s techniques is crucial.
- Also, we should implement the automatic defect identifying machines in our factories like Automobile and Food industries who are well versed in automatic defect identification.
Supplier Selection during pandemic:
Q – 7. What changes did the pandemic made in the supplier selection process?
- Pandemic showed us a new way of conducting the product and process audit as we couldn’t travel anywhere for sourcing and supplier selection.
- Due to the travel restriction, we decided to do all the product and process audits digitally. We provided our digital tool to the nominated Quality person of the factory. They conduct the process audit themselves and submit us the report. They also provide us the Virtual tour through webcam. Our Quality Head will review the reports and identify the capacity, capability, competency level, area of improvements & mindset of the factory. Also, we have a tool to analyze the report, automatically.
- In addition, during the pandemic, we started giving complete responsibility to the supplier. Hence, if something goes wrong with the product, the factory is responsible. This is how we have gained 3 vendors in the past months during the pandemic.
Q – 8. What are the “Do’s and Don’ts” in selecting a supplier during a pandemic?
- Before the pandemic, we choose the supplier based on their capacity and capability. But now, we are also checking whether the factory can perform individually, do troubleshooting and problem solving by themselves without depending on us.
- Secondly, we are now using the virtual mode to connect and communicate with the supplier during the pandemic. Hence, it is important to ensure the factory’s operation, quality staff, and management are competent enough to deal with the virtual audits and handle digital tools. In addition, they should have a good internet connection as everything is based on the internet now.
Q – 9. If someone is sourcing overseas without the knowledge of that country, what advice will you give them?
- The key advice I would like to give to all the buyers is “Know your source base” before choosing any supplier from any country. The buyers should know different cultures, state-wise legal requirements & Government policies of their sourcing country.
- Considering the pandemic, they should choose a place that can be handled remotely. Choosing the factory in rural area can cause various issues related to internet connectivity, employee’s education level, transport, etc.,
- It is always recommended to choose a mediocre factory to get the best quality cost-effectively.
- And before choosing a supplier, they should check below 3 things to be assured of factory’s credibility.
- Quality level
- Internal process of the factory
- Customer base &Factory’s current performance
Quality monitoring during pandemic
Q – 10. Are there any new specific quality systems implemented during COVID to maintain quality?
- As we all know “Prevention is better than cure”, we stopped conducting Final Inspection/ Audit in the factory. Because we don’t want to react after something goes wrong instead of preventing it before it occurs. Hence, we introduced a strategy wherein we prevent the issues before it occurs. It creates a big change in our ways of working.
Q – 11. What are the quality control tools you used during pandemic?
- During the pandemic, we focused on how to track things by using digital tools and methods, remotely.
- Besides, we focused on training the people. I would like to share an example of why we need to train not only our people but also our partners.
“In Mexico, the mayor of a city called all the farmers and awarded a person for getting Best yield of that season. The reporter asked him what he did unique to get maximum yield than other farmers. He said that I used the best seeds, fertilizer, etc.
The reporter asked again that even other farmers also used the best seeds and fertilizer but how his yield was higher. The farmer informed that he not only used the best seeds, fertilizer, etc., for his farm but also the neighbor farm.”
- Hence, training our partners too will help us to achieve the most benefits as their performance will impact ours. For which, we have more than 150 training programs where all our vendors can get trained through our portal.
Q – 12. During Pandemic, many of the changes happened in the Supply chain, is there any major change that happened in your organization? If yes, what is it?
- A lot of things started changing.
- Firstly, instead of controlling the suppliers, we started giving responsibilities to the vendors for On-time delivery and the quality, as we trust each other.
- Secondly, we are working on the simplification of the manufacturing process. Simplification in terms of number of checkpoints and final audits for a few products categories
- In addition, we are working on to reduce the lead–time and the cost to sustain in the market.
Business model changed to E-com during pandemic.
Q – 13. What is the impact of COVID -19 on Retailer’s sales on selling the products on store and e-com platform? Can you share your viewpoint?
- As of now, there is no major impact on the Brick-and-Mortar model. However, in the future, there will be an impact on the brick-and-mortar model, as people prefer buying online considering the convenience, time, and discount.
“I was reading an article 20 years ago. In that article, the author asked people’s viewpoint on what will happen after 50 or 100 years if there is petrol scarcity? People said that there would be more traffic. Hence everyone will shift to electric or solar-charged vehicles. But finally, the author concluded that there would be less traffic in the future as people would not go outside. Because they will buy everything at home shopping online and they will work from home.”
- Even in Bangalore, the traffic has reduced drastically due to the Pandemic. But it may reduce further in the future. Hence definitely the E-com business will increase.
I hope you got some new ideas from our conversion. I would like to summarize my key takeaways in the following.
- Every Quality issue is important as it impacts the customer despite its size.
- Pandemic paved a new way of conducting the factory audits and Quality control by using digital tools.
- Besides evaluating the capacity and capability of the new supplier, it is important to know their competency, process digitalization, location, ability to perform independently, do troubleshooting and problem solving by themselves without depending on the buyer experts.
- The buyers should know their source base i.e., different cultures, state-wise legal requirements & Government policies of their sourcing country.
- When any retailers are shifting from a Brick-and-Mortar store to E-commerce, the first problem is the mindset of the people. To change the mindset and reduce customer fears, E – com sites must be user-friendly, should maintain a return policy and a refunding policy to enhance the confidence of the customers.
- To minimize customer complaints and to achieve customer satisfaction, the voice of the customers can be captured and replicated during the manufacturing process.
- All the product returns and customer complaints should be considered genuine as it demonstrates the scope of improvement of the internal team’s competency.
- Training the partners (especially suppliers) is as important as training our own team as they play a major role in achieving our goals.
Let me know what your takeaway is and what are you planning to implement in your organization to improve the quality and enhance your customer experience.