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

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?

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