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Jennifer Marks

Know thy customer

"The U.S. market needs to understand our culture better." I've heard it said time and again by manufacturers from all corners of the textiles producing world.

And the refrain from U.S. suppliers: "Overseas companies need to understand our market better." This comes from even seasoned procurers of global goods.

One the one hand, they say, the best of the export-oriented manufacturers are keen learners who are moving rapidly up the learning curve. On the other hand, U.S. suppliers are bombarded with solicitations from operations that describe themselves as the biggest, the best or the most successful producer of (fill in the blank) from such-and-such province in such-and-such country … Please send your specifications at your earliest convenience.

Even as the industry moves toward a more unbridled global trade structure, it's evident the universe is still suffering from a cultural disconnect.

The song sung by overseas suppliers is often the same. They want a partnership, not an alliance. This almost always implies exclusivity. It often includes some form of direct investment as well.

True partnerships of the type that many exporters long for — arranged on the Springs-Coteminas model — are likely to remain rare. For one thing, there aren't many sizable producers around — not on that scale and not in any country.

Instead, the industry appears to be adopting the portfolio strategy. A U.S. supplier forges alliances with a network of suppliers in one or more countries, often keeping an eye open for fresh resources. Similarly, an overseas exporter forges alliances with one account to a handful of accounts, banking on a reliable stream of orders but also keeping an eye open for other potential customers.

Cultural understanding is unquestionably important, but not to the point of myopia. I was astonished in speaking to overseas suppliers during the New York Home Textiles Market to discover how little they know of their competitors from other countries. They may be familiar with a name or two — often because of direct competition related to a particular account — but nearly every non-Chinese exporter to the United States was woefully under-educated about potential rivals from other countries, especially those in China.

Case in point: the global towel situation. My trivia question of the week for towel suppliers was how many manufacturers today could handle a Pillowtex-sized program on their own: for example, a 40-color line similar to the new Royal Velvet launch. The answer, all agreed, is five.

Who are the five? WestPoint Stevens, Welspun, Coteminas and … um … um. Maybe that one in Turkey. Or that other one in Turkey. Maybe another one in India. Maybe … um … um … somebody in China?

Clearly, there's a lot more to learn on all sides of the equation. And for an industry that's learning on the fly, it's a tall order. But to play in and stay in it, everyone will need to widen his view.

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