Header photo credit to Buck Mason, a true iconic American clothing brand found with humble beginnings and endless opportunities.
Apparel fulfillment at scale is not for the faint of heart! Fast-moving SKUs, inventory replenishments, direct-to-consumer (DTC) fulfillment spikes with peak seasons and sales, B2B wholesale orders, EDI requirements, returns management, damage control, moderating FIFO for POs, and the list continues.
My name is Arsen Janikyan, Founder and CEO of Ops Engine and former VP of Operations at Buck Mason, an iconic American apparel brand.
I have written this article to share my point of view on what it takes to design and execute operational excellence for apparel brands—the essence of apparel fulfillment, whether it's managed internally or by an apparel 3PL fulfillment center.
Your Passion, Brand's Growth, and Challenges
You started an apparel brand with a sketch on the back of a napkin. The idea grew into a passion, the passion grew into traction, and the next thing you know, you're shipping several hundred orders. At this point, you feel anxious about not being as effective as you used to be when you had just a handful of orders and knew where the products were located by memory in your garage or small office warehouse. Sounds familiar? Some operational inefficiencies may include, but not limited to, depending on the unique situations, are:
- Inventory management principles that enable efficient and effective product storage (back stock, forward locations, ABC inventory management principles)
- Scanning (software and hardware) technology for accuracy
- Shipping, strategic storage, and reverse logistics data analysis for continuous improvement purposes
- SOPs and training manuals for consistency and seamless employee onboarding
- Effective warehouse management system with the ability to create custom workflows with rule engines that can support your customers' experience
- E-commerce fulfillment shipping label and rate shopping abilities to get to the destination as fast as possible with the least costly option
- Inventory receiving process with strong check-and-balances, documentation, auditing, sorting, scanning, and stowing workflows
Apparel Fulfillment Center Solutions
Why did I list those challenges? Because I grew Buck Mason's operations from start-up to 9-digits and 30 brick-and-mortar stores. Without these workflows and dozens more, apparel fulfillment or any clothing fulfillment company is a warehouse disaster, a nightmare, a huge liability, and even a deadweight to the brand. However, if executed correctly, the operational weaknesses turn into an asset. Here's why:
- Operational excellence provides the apparel fulfillment center, internal or 3PL, unlimited data, and continuous improvement possibilities.
- Data analysis allows for the identification of trends
- Identifying trends allows levering economies of scale with your suppliers and service providers
- Suppliers improve the quality, quantity, cost, and dimensions of your outbound
- Outbound optimization improves shipping costs
- Internal optimizations improve picking and packing rates with strategic and logical inventory placements with automated system rules
I can write a book on all the challenges and opportunities. The ones mentioned above provide a good insight into why operational expertise is essential, whether you are handling fulfillment internally or outsourced to a clothing fulfillment company, also known as an apparel fulfillment center. As a brand Owner, Founder, or CEO, I think your key takeaways from all of the above details are:
- Hire a highly skilled operator to run your company's apparel fulfillment internally or outsource to an experienced boutique, dedicated 3PL with apparel fulfillment center experience
- Operations is as important as sales and marketing because you want to close the customer journey as strong as it started
If you agree with both points, you position your brand for unimaginable operational heights. Your focus can shift from day-to-day operations to product, marketing, and storytelling efforts because you know you have a strong pillar to lean on for operations and fulfillment.
Essential Characteristics for an Apparel Fulfillment Center
If you decide to work with a 3PL that provides apparel fulfillment services, please ensure they can perform the following on a cadence:
- Data analysis and sharing of the results regularly
- Continuous improvement mindset versus transaction-based relationship
- Value-based relationship to regularly inform you of improvement opportunities to save on time, resources, and cost
- Experience fulfilling international orders, and no, you don't need a clothing fulfillment center in other countries unless you're shipping thousands
- Qualitative services like cycle counting (ask for details (by PO, SKU, STYLE, and 4-wall). Every single one of them will say, "Yes, we can do it." Dig deep! Ensure their process exists; otherwise, you'll learn it doesn't when it's time to cycle count your inventory at scale
- Receiving process, returns management, damage control, PO control
- Wholesale capabilities, large retailers requiring EDI, and small retailers with manual workflows (emails, Excel files, and PDFs)
- 3PL's culture, cleanliness, organization, safety mindset, and performance measures
- How do they hold themselves accountable, find the root cause of issues, and execute a corrective action
As apparel brands grow, challenges are a dime a dozen. Whether you run your operations internally or outsourced to an apparel fulfillment company, how effective they are in problem-solving, thinking in solutions, identifying root causes, and issuing corrective actions with strong operational rigor and toolset will determine your brand's operational success.
Types of Apparel Brands We Service:
- Women's clothing
- Men's clothing
- Children's clothing
- Clothing accessories such as hats, gloves, scarves, and jewelry
- Activewear or athleisure apparel
Buck Mason is a prime example of our expertise and experience. They are my favorite brand, not because I worked for them for almost six years but because they appreciate operations, which allowed them to scale quickly and efficiently. Everyone can scale quickly, but how effective they will be on the journey to that success is a critical component and measurable KPI of their success.
There are many real-life cases of brands that emerge quickly, but they fall apart several times faster than their growth. Why? Because their operational execution was faulty.
Our Los Angeles-based fulfillment center is strategically located in SoCal and prepared to serve from port-to-dock, dock-to-stock, and stock-to-porch, giving you and your customers the end-to-end operational excellence experience. Have the peace of mind that experienced individuals are handling your business needs and treating your business like their own.
Kind reminder: look for a quality and value-based relationship with your apparel fulfillment center, not a transaction-based one. The operator behind the company runs the show, not the brand name of the 3PL, with potentially poor operators.
Founder & CEO