How to enter the U.S. market -from a contractor

Posted by Kathleen Fasanella on Nov 10, 2008 at 4:53 pm / Contractors, Production, Sourcing / Trackback

I got an interesting question over the weekend from a vertical off shore sewing contractor. In response I have ideas I wouldn’t have known to consider until I made that trip to Colombia. I am (and I’m sure the person who wrote me is) curious what you have to say on the matter. This entry is really long. Sorry.

My name is Timmy, a Chinese American based in Manila Philippines. I stumbled on your blog on one of my searches, I’m amazed by the amount of insight you give. Having my own pattern makers, the advice they give is invaluable as a source of where I take certain designs to full production. We don’t have any plotting machines and the like, so it’s a real hands on manual task which makes me appreciate the whole process even more. A wrong pattern or layout could mean money wasted on excess or wrongly cut fabric scraps.

I would though like to get your point of view on a certain topic. Our parent company, I mean that literally because my father handles it, is into textiles. We have over 200 machines, mostly circular knit machines and yarn and dyeing facilities as well. On my last count we could produce jersey, fleece, jacquards, lacoste, patterned knits, and any ribbed fabrics as well. We’re versatile and we’ve managed to handle the ebb and flow of China fabric coming in the local market. I’ve attached some pictures here for reference.

But here lies the conundrum, I want to bring and ramp our production level to that of an export ready manufacturer. I’ve even gone so far as to research tradeshows to join, albeit prematurely, such as Ready to Show, Intertex, Premeire Vision. All of which are bereft of any Philippine manufacturers. Ideally I’d want to produce and sew anything from knit polos, stripes, and tees for the European market. A bit selfish of course because it would allow better margins. We can source pretty much any type of yarn, although organic yarn seems to be the “in” thing, it isn’t as tested or affordable as good old fashion 100 combo cotton at high counts. Dyeing isn’t a problem as well because we are vertically integrated.

What does it take to secure and begin a successful European or American connection? Studying and living a big part of my life in the states myself, I understand quality and basic worker standards of the norm. I’m currently redoing the layout of the garments factory. But in a marketing perspective, what do I present to these potential customers that the Chinese suppliers can’t? I’m almost at a loss because I can’t come up with anything. On more than one occasion my father and I have spoken about importing as well, but then our 200+ workers would be out of jobs. We do know that eventually China’s cost would become higher, as to any nation that undergoes increasing costs of living, but we’re not planning on wait for that to happen.

The first piece of advice I give to everyone is never exhibit at a show you haven’t attended. That’s first, no substitution. At that point I can’t see how you couldn’t fail to glean your value proposition based on what you learn from competitors showing there.

Second, you have some options. One is producing packages for folks here. In such cases, your first order of business may be to seriously consider adding CAD infrastructure. This way clients can send you pattern files and vice versa if there’s a problem. I will, unfortunately, go on too long about it quoting here but the number one complaint I get from my visitors over sourcing overseas is that from iteration to iteration, patterns change dramatically. As one member said:

I mentioned to Kathleen once about my contractor- in -India’s way of handling a customer’s patterns. In short, they are thrown onto the floor in a small room, because it is easier to tell the pattern maker to re-do the entire shirt than to hang each customer’s pattern in a closet. This is not a sweat shop. This is the way they do things. They do not see things the way we do..that is, that each garment is built on a solid foundation, etc. This is a culture difference. Yet the company is enthusiastic and helpful. Old family friends, not shady at all. But it does not bother them to send something completely changed (like a whole new sleeve placket ) after I have spent a year getting it to the final. They just do not see that as a problem. It boggles my mind because the clothes are always nicely sewn, pattern completely re-done.

Another said:

I started working with one company early last year. This company had a niche in taking small orders. So I tried small sample runs to test things out. The first one needed changes to the sizing, then the second one, they did strange things like just out of the blue change the trim or the way something was sewn. Then on one sample they were convinced my specs were wrong so they cut it “right” which meant it was sized for a small Asian person too tight in the chest and too short in the sleeves. THEN they got it right but made the buttonholes unbelievably small for absolutely no reason at all. I had absolutely no confidence that the issues were fixable. They wanted to know when I would place the production order, I explained that they were still messing up the samples. (They had tech packs, photos, detailed sketches and everything under the sun).

Still another said:

As for the ever-changing, random “issues” that crop up with each production run, my experience is that until you have had a fit over issue X (e.g. this particular placket), then it’s fair game for them to change it. What I mean is, if you’ve never overtly called out a detail and demanded that it be a certain way, then it’s open to their interpretation during production. I’m not sure that’s coming out clearly. If you’ve never rejected a sample based on a particular issue, then it must not be too important. Makes no sense to us. It’s cultural.

Their processes are incomprehensible to me. I had an entire batch of 500 pcs cut several inches short. Cut. Short. What does that mean?? Are they even using patterns and markers? This was after about a year of making this same, exact (one-size) product. One day they cut it short. Then they say, can we send them? Now, I had never had a fit over this measurement, but it’s in my specs. Still, maybe it’s not too important, they’re thinking. Gotta love ‘em.

In summary, the number one issue for customers is consistency in the pattern and sampling process. Consistency is easier if you keep patterns in digital format. You might need to start looking for a CAD or maybe even a CAM solution.

Another pivotal element is in offering full package. This is very valuable to customers but it can depend on the level of involvement your firm is willing to extend. Some small companies need hand holding, they don’t know much themselves and sadly, some are a pain in the butt. For each level of service you offer (full package from fabric onwards), you’ll have to determine the smallest size order you can produce and still turn a profit. I do know that small orders are very attractive, now more than ever. A good source of potential clients is retail stores. However, either for good or bad, they are not likely to have the means to have patterns and samples made and will need you to do this for them.

Other considerations include social conditions. Businesses in the U.S. are increasingly concerned about pay and working conditions in factories they use. While I don’t know that it is required for your plant to be certified to gain trust, hopefully you will be amenable to site inspections (most good plants are, I intend no offense).

Then there’s the matter of getting product here. If you do not know how to assist your customers in navigating the world of duties and customs, you will likely need to develop the expertise to advise them appropriately. Again this falls under hand holding and while not your responsibility, could mean all the difference to a customer.

In speaking with manufacturers like you (albeit in Colombia), they cited three main barriers to entering the U.S. market. I can only imagine you’d have these and more.
1. Which trade show to attend
2. Sizing (Americans are bigger and heavier).
3. Getting products into the country.

If I had to make a generic show recommendation to get an idea of the pulse in the U.S. with the biggest bang for your travel expense, I’d recommend MAGIC. There’s a lot of satellite shows taking place at the same time and some you must visit.

Sizing will be tricky. At the outset it may be best that your clients send sample garments or detailed specifications.

Most recently, there is a dramatic change in the laws governing product certifications. You can read more about that here. This will affect you; your clients will want testing results they can use downstream.

As far as networking, I can’t advise you on appropriate organizations other than my own (naturally). I think your blog is a good start but I would suggest a shift in content and perspective. Right now it’s about fashion, of more interest to trend setters or consumers. Companies here are intensely interested in production processes and management. If you were to change your focus to reflect the day to day operations of your plant, who’s who (down to pattern makers and line stitchers), problems you solve, how you do things like weaving, knitting and dyeing, the more viral your content will become. I don’t know of any contractors who write about their day to day work lives. If the content is related to mine, it will be useful to my readers and I might even link to you.

Now I throw the question to my readers. What are the conditions that would compel you to take an interest in considering an offshore supplier? How could one provide a measure of confidence?

21 Responses to “How to enter the U.S. market -from a contractor”

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Marguerite Swope
November 10th, 2008
5:22 PM

Well, since I was just in Bali visiting sewing contractors, I can tell you what I want. Of course, I want quality production, but that’s a given. The things that I liked (in random order) about 3 of the 4 I visited are these:
1. They responded to my email inquiries before I left, and responded quickly. So I know they use email and are responsive.
2. They spoke English (the 4th didn’t, and that’s just too much of a barrier for me)
3. They had drivers pick me up at the hotel. This seems a bit bourgeois, I know, but when you don’t know how to tell a taxi driver where to go and you don’t know if they’re running up the meter, and you don’t speak the language, this is not optional for me. At least the first few times until I’m easy in the country, can speak a little, and know my way around.
4. They knew all about how to get things shipped to me. Not customs info. as Kathleen mentioned. Everyone who imports tells me I need a customs broker in the US to get my goods through customs. But, they will box my goods and wrap them in the plastic stuff they wrap them in (sorry that’s imprecise, but they all know how to wrap boxes to protect your goods), and they call whatever carrier you want, or they can find you one, and they have it picked up and sent to you.
5. They can all make patterns and copy anything you want. They work through email from sketches you send or photos you email or actual garments you send them, and then you can go for 2-3 weeks to work on samples. Unlike stories I heard that you have to go for 3 months to supervise production, these factories both told me that’s not necessary. They both made me samples while I was there (copied garments I took).
6. Competitive pricing after all customs are paid. This goes without saying or we wouldn’t be looking overseas.
7. Quality control. They check each garment for size before it’s packed. That certainly impressed me–they had a tape measure out and checked each garment.
8. Clean factories, happy-looking workers, good conditions. I asked everyone about this, and I toured the factory floor. All 3 had long-time workers. One woman talked to was an administrative aide who came with the driver, so I had a chance to ask her about vacations, days off, etc (sort of surreptitiously in the “making conversation” mode). I believe I could work with these factories in good conscience.

I’m sure I’m forgetting something. I do worry about the carbon footprint I’d make by shipping by air (which is pretty much how everyone does it), but I’m going to donate to carbon offsetting funds if I do that. You might consider having your factory agree to contribute to something like climatecare.org as a gesture that could set you apart.

Marguerite

Corky
November 10th, 2008
7:49 PM

A person I respect needs to recommend a new off-shore supplier. It’s all about relationships. Too much money is at stake to work with unknown suppliers and people because there are too many ways for business to go bad. How do you develop relationships with European and American companies? If your just starting out I think you have no choice but to work through trusted agents. If you go to a trade show make sure you and your agent are there.

Timmy
November 10th, 2008
11:29 PM

Marguerite,

It seems that you’ve outlined all of the necessary guidelines for exporters to follow. Out of the list, pricing is a consideration but the greatest value propositions are assurance that the product provided is consistent and accurate. Having a garments myself (the one kathleen mentioned above with the problem) we sometimes fail to concentrate on the things that matter and cut costs too much which sacrifices the very things the customers are looking for.

Corky,

Actually agents are always a consideration. An employee of mine told me about her previous employers dealings with a customer in the United States. Her employee had an agent based in HK dealing with transactions. Due to a miscommunication, the customer from the States got a direct quote from the garments the agent was dealing with, bypassing him entirely. Suffice to say this did not bode well. For the squeezing of a couple extra bucks the whole account was lost. Pressures from competition and greed I guess.

Marguerite Swope
November 11th, 2008
5:09 AM

Corky,
Thanks…I knew there was something I forgot. The way I found the 3 contractors (who speak English) was through an FI contact. Last spring I wrote here that I was going to Bali, and a woman who worked with the Canadian government to help Bali sewing contractors contacted me and gave me a short list to contact. That was invaluable. The 4th I found while in Bali, but the lack of English and expertise with exporting stopped me (even though he did beautiful samples and I’m certain he needs the work).

So…FI has to be the best thing around for contacts. It proves itself over and over. If you’re thinking of working offshore and you don’t belong to the forum, then shame on you! All you need to do is ask. I wasn’t thinking of working offshore, but considering that I was already there on a business trip and I had this short list in hand, it seemed ridiculous not to visit them. Glad I did. I learned a great deal.

Marguerite

joni
November 11th, 2008
6:02 AM

Being a very small manufacturer, I’m happy to keep my work here in North America. I was recently able to ‘compete’ with an offshore company for a contract – the purchaser sent 3 samples to the offshore place and they all came back fitting differently for a one size article. They just didn’t get it.
The big question for me is: why would anyone choose to shop offshore when there is an economic crisis here? North Americans need work – sure you may find your ingredients much cheaper – but the manufacturing part should stay at home. Shipping costs are huge- in all ways!If we don’t support each other then we’ll all suffer the consequences.
Perhaps its me who just doesn’t get it

Marguerite Swope
November 11th, 2008
8:01 AM

Joni,

I’ll address that. For me, supporting each other includes everyone, here and abroad. The economic crisis is worldwide. When I visit (and live in) 3rd world countries I realize how much we have and how unfairly the world’s resources are distributed. I want to do what I can to help right that, and providing jobs is one way I can do that. I expect that the clothing I make with USA-manufactured fabrics will be done here, and the clothing made with Bali-produced fabrics will be done there. I hope I can create jobs to help make people’s lives better wherever they happen to live.

I hope this helps you see at least one perspective on offshore manufacturing. It’s not just about the bottom line, but if my company is to be successful enough to provide jobs for people, here and abroad, then the bottom line is definitely a consideration.

Marguerite

Bethany
November 11th, 2008
8:15 AM

I would love a website with lots of pictures. It would be really helpful for me, especially for a company that specializes in knits, to see the swatches online, and then has a menu of the different dye processes and what they look like. It would also be amazing to have a knit supplier that can do custom stripes in smaller quantities like 300-500 yards. I would also want a page on the owners of the factory with a little paragraph about them, their business, pictures, etc. I like to connect with the factories I work with on a personal level.

Timmy
November 11th, 2008
8:45 AM

Bethany,

Great insight. Usually when I do comparisons of fellow supplier websites, they indicate expansive factory and technical machinery but without really getting to the details such as ease of navigation and having DECENT pictures up close. By decent I mean being able to see the texture of the fabric as well.

Flexibility is key in today’s textile market, I can tell you that we’ve changed our minimum requirements, much to our local customer bases delight. It may entail added scheduling work in terms of dyeing the fabric, but the end result is the same. A satisfied customer.

Timmy
November 11th, 2008
9:11 AM

Joni,

Your concern for keeping work in your home country is palpable and understandable. As a textile/garments manufacturer based in Manila, I can tell you that companies here used to be at the top of outsourcing garments abroad. Then came competition in various forms, cheaper imported fabrics that affected our costing bottoms lines until the entire value chain was outsourced to China.

I felt that it was unfair China was getting most of the work and that our government in was not supporting and helping our state of decline. But you mentioned that you were able to compete with the other suppliers on the basis of accuracy and consistency. I think that is wonderful that your customer values this and the relationship you’ve managed to establish through this has endured.

In the end free markets will prevail, it was inevitable as China competed with us. It is a question of how to respond and become a better supplier is what decides a contractors fate. There are more than enough people in the world to supply garments to and even if China can do it themselves, I’m sure there will be contractors in home countries that can become the exception to the rule.

Pam
November 11th, 2008
10:01 AM

I probably did one of the riskiest things and don’t know if I would do it again. I did not know about FI at the time, was just starting out and had been on some other wholesale forums on the internet. I posted that I was looking for a specific type of clothing and I got a response from the person who is now our manufacturer in Pakistan. We talked on the phone, she sent me photos of samples, I then purchased samples and she sent them to me. Honestly, it took at least a year of back and forth to start to feel comfortable with the whole process. I still have not gone there even though I really want to.

But one place Timmy you can post your offerings would be on Alibaba and some of the other wholesale websites, they are out there and I know people use them. It is a point of contact at least unless you can come in person to some of the fabric tradeshows even if it is to just walk them to talk to people that way.

I believe the same as Marguerite, our factory in Pakistan is now responsible for about 30 families there. They like their work, come to work every day, know they have a job, life is a little more bearable there for them. Sure, if I had this same contact here in the US I would use US manufacturing but the cards fell how they did.

Pam

Leah Barrett
November 11th, 2008
12:58 PM

I was so happy reading this post and the comments. For the first time I got the sense that people are beginning to understand how connected the global community is.
My advice; Look for the brands’, stores’, importers’ names and product line descriptions from business development organisations and directories, and do the research to find the ones that closely match what you have to offer. Buyers are looking for suppliers with factories very experienced in handling specifically what they want to buy, the more closely related and focussed the better.
I agree eco friendly and ethical business models will also get more attention.

Timmy
November 12th, 2008
1:59 AM

Pam,

Thanks for the reminder. I almost forgot about Alibaba.com, although you really do have to be careful with the amount of spam that goes through that site. I don’t bother checking my mail there because of the amount of nonsense that goes through the inbox. But I guess if you become a premium member you get better quality inquiries and leads. Information overload but once you filter it down there are great suppliers there.

After browsing this site and corresponding with the owner Kathleen, FI seems like a viable alternative the additional thing being that you learn so much more on an operational standpoint.

Rocio
November 12th, 2008
9:46 AM

Timmy,

I think your best bet is to:

A) Determine the market you are most suitable to set up and export operation for (USA, EU, Japan, Dubai) because laws, standards and market structure are very different
B) Decide what sort of presence you want to keep in your main export area (sourcing office, agent, website, trade shows)
C) At first, focus on a specific product type and price point to penetrate your target market with (budget, moderate, designer, menswear, womenswear, childrens)
D) Invest in tools that promote consistency and encourage constant communication (CAD/CAM, PDM etc)

As a domestic US manufacturer, I don’t feel threatened by off-shore factories because I have been in both situations and know first hand the pros and cons of each situation…. (Worked in Production for global retailers , been an Agent, Importer, Exporter, DE, Merchandiser, etc)
With that in mind, I’ve found that the market has room for both options.

Good luck!

Victoria
November 12th, 2008
3:12 PM

“Having my own pattern makers, the advice they give is invaluable as a source of where I take certain designs to full production. We don’t have any plotting machines and the like, so it’s a real hands on manual task which makes me appreciate the whole process even more. A wrong pattern or layout could mean money wasted on excess or wrongly cut fabric scraps.”

Timmy,
I value the manual patternmakers. It is only a frustration with an inconsistent product that makes me consider CAD.

Vesta
November 12th, 2008
7:40 PM

the carbon footprint I’d make by shipping by air (which is pretty much how everyone does it)

This totally depends on the size of your orders. We ship by sea, in partial container loads. We’d never ship production orders by air because of the expense, but our batches are presumably larger than many.

Even if a factory doesn’t know about logistics, they just need to team up with a shipping specialist that they trust. You can find these people in any country, who can take the shipment from the factory (and presumably advise them on how best to pack the shipment safely) and shepherd it through to the final destination. My experience is that you’ll pay the factory for the goods separately from these brokers. We use a big brokerage company for our Indian shipments, but from Guatemala we use a one-man operation. Both were recommended as reliable by the factories.

On top of the things already mentioned in the previous comments, I would look for:

-A willingness to make small batches, even if you have to increase the price based on volume.
-A willingness to work with escrow accounts (we’ve used escrow.com, which was easy-cheesey). You’ll find quite a few experienced manufacturers who absolutely will not exchange money until they’ve inspected the shipment.

I’d also like to reiterate that you need to be familiar with the testing companies who work in your country (SGS most likely does, for one – sgs.com). They can run any tests needed by your clients, as well as perform audits on your facilities, if needed.

I loooove the blog idea. If you would really open the door to the internal machinations of your house, I think you wouldn’t even need to travel to shows to sign up new clients. Talk about problems you run into, and how you deal with them. Talk about really basic stuff like how dyeing works. Talk about your adventures sourcing yarn for production. Talk about your people, a lot. Between the blog and interacting with people in the F-I forum, you could make one annual trip to the US (say, for MAGIC) to connect with your clients, and you’d have tons of business.

This is all assuming that you’re wanting to focus on small, high-value business. If your goal is pulling in Wal-Mart-type accounts, then disregard everything I just said, lol. But if you’re trying to figure out your value proposition, I submit that you should focus on small, high-value runs. The biggest problem that I’ve run into is embellishments. In the U.S., most small manufacturers have trouble meeting minimums that allow them to affordably create uniguely-embellished products (embroidery, screen printing, etc).

Wow. Sorry so long. If you want to talk more, you can email/PM me directly through the forum.

Timmy
November 13th, 2008
2:02 AM

Rocio,
Thanks for the advice. It’s funny you mentioned setting up an export operation. I’ll be joining a garment export organization here in Manila and participating in their seminars next week. Paperwork and packaging are the issues that I plan on learning more about and of course other things such as quality control requirements and production layouts.

Vesta,
Small, high value runs indeed. I’m weary of those big corporations. The demands they impose are sometimes too stringent financially and they aren’t as operation-wise flexible. I believe in all likelihood I’d be dealing with owners if it were smaller to medium sized brands, something I’d enjoy since I have my own brand here in Manila on the side. I actually do have a blog right now but it is more trend oriented as per Kathleen’s analysis. I include snippets of the operation floor at times but nowhere near the detail it should be. This may change though in the future.

On a side note, I’ll be joining you all shortly at the forums. Just purchased the book. The amount of advice and guidance I’ve received in the comments section alone warrants the purchase of Kathleen’s book. I don’t mean to sound canned but I think it is an investment worth its weight (250 pages plus I believe).

Linda Bruner
November 18th, 2008
1:32 PM

I am looking for a manufacturer as well as a pattern maker for a new line of ladies clothing. Do you have any suggestions. I think I prefer to stay in the U.S. but not opposed to going out of the country.. Thanks Linda

Kathleen
November 18th, 2008
3:54 PM

I am looking for a manufacturer as well as a pattern maker for a new line of ladies clothing. Do you have any suggestions.

This isn’t the answer you were looking for (suggested names of businesses) but it explains why we don’t list contractors on the site and how to go about finding them the way we do.

How to find sewing contractors
How to find help in the apparel industry for nearly nothing.

Trisha Stevens
March 9th, 2009
3:03 PM

What is FI anyway? I’m new to this so some names are unknown. Is there a website for this?

Thanks, Trisha

Marsha
January 5th, 2013
12:19 AM

Timmy, are you still in business? Are you still in the Phillipines?
I’m based only a few hundred miles away from you (still in ASEAN area!) and I’m actively looking for reliable sources of lightweight next-to-skin jersey and interlock fabrics. The kind of jersey fibres I work with are blends of rayon/bamboo/cotton, occasionally silk or silk blends.

I am pretty new to the business. Amongst other things, textile sellers/jobbers in my area are notorious for selling ‘whatever we have in store’ and for someone who samples THEN sells it’s quite a headache not having the confidence that the fabric will still be around when the orders come through. Plus, some of them are bad enough to not be able to tell me when their stock fabric replenishments are coming in e.g. a basic synthetic-based duchess satin in black.

For jerseys, so far I’ve been relying on textile agents/distributors for sampling but the scrooge in me says that they are available out there for cheaper prices (which is why textile sellers/jobbers can sell them retail at such a low price). Which means, I’m keen to source from you. I hope Kathleen can help us get in touch with each other, pretty please Kathleen?

Alison Cummins
January 5th, 2013
8:53 AM

Marsha,
I suggest you look at Kathleen’s post just above yours. Sourcing is done on the forum, not the blog.

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