We need to lead, not follow, in the digital age – The Daily Star

We make clothing in Bangladesh, and we do it exceedingly well. But how good are we at marketing and selling this clothing? The traditional route to market for Bangladesh apparel makers has been through agents and other middlemen, who in turn connect us with global fashion brands and retailers. Exports via these avenues have formed the backbone of the Bangladeshi economic success story for the past 30 years, and there is no reason why this should not continue for many more years to come.

However, selling directly to brands will always be a critical part of the business proposition for Bangladesh.

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So, in an industry which is changing at lightning speed, I believe it is time our garment makers begin thinking deeper about their route to the market (and to end consumers). I also believe our policymakers should put more focus in this area, by ensuring we have the right skills and capabilities to thrive in the digital age.

This week, I read an interesting report from the United Kingdom about Amazon. It was focused on individuals who have created multi-million-pound businesses, selling their products via Amazon. In some cases, revenues of more than 10m Euros annually had been achieved.

I have discussed Amazon as a potential sales route for garment makers in the past so I will not go over it in too much detail here. In summary, Amazon allows other sellers to list their products on its website, and will even do the delivery (or “fulfilment”) for them using its huge logistics network.

The massive scale of Amazon means that if a seller can get the products and the marketing right, they can find themselves selling huge amounts worth of goods quite quickly.

Can Amazon also be a direct route to customers for Bangladesh RMG sellers? I believe we need to be thinking more broadly in this regard, while considering all routes to market and the issue of digital marketing generally.

In the past, it was enough for our garment makers to focus on their core business—making clothing—and to let others worry about digital marketing and selling. I now think this issue has become so central to our industry that it’s too big to ignore. It is too vital to our industry as its lifeblood to farm it out to third parties and hope for the best. We all need to understand what is happening in the digital space.

There are a couple of changes I would like to see, for instance. In our schools, universities and technical colleges, I believe we should now have much more focus on training and development in digital sales, marketing, coding and other related issues. That means understanding the mechanics of marketing and selling online, getting to grips with developing websites which are ripe for search engine optimisation (SEO). Better SEO makes it a lot easier for a website to be found.

Additionally, I would like people within the Bangladesh RMG industry to become leaders in digitisation in the same way they are leaders in garments manufacturing. Let’s really set our sights high in this area.

The second thing I would like to see is more support for Bangladeshi garment businesses which choose to sell directly to consumers, through the internet. This could be in the form of grants, free access to training and other support networks. I believe our business leaders should push the boat out in this area and see if it is possible to foster some major digital success stories in our garment sector.

There is a company from China called Shein. You may not yet have heard of it but this Chinese online fashion seller is now valued at around USD 30 billion. The company has sales of more than USD 10 billion annually—despite having been formed just seven years ago.

Shein is turning fast fashion on its head by selling directly to consumers from its base in China. The business asks for its clothing manufacturers to be located no more than a five-hour drive away from its sourcing hub in the Chinese city of Guangzhou. This is to allow for better speed to market.

The company also stipulates that its suppliers be able to complete the design and production process in around 10 days, again giving it a head start on traditional fast fashion brands.

When I read of stories like this, my first thought is—why not Bangladesh? Imagine a newly developed online fashion player, based in Bangladesh, coordinating its own, finely-tuned supplier network to respond quickly and seamlessly to the wants of international consumers. Shein is a Chinese success story in online fashion selling, and there are many more like it out there.

Where are the equivalent stories from Bangladesh? These stories do not exist because we have yet to properly embrace the digital space. We rely on others to do it for us. This has to change in the next few years. If we continue to focus purely on one aspect of the supply chain—RMG manufacturing—I believe we risk being left behind.

I wish to be clear here that I am not advocating for our shifting away from traditional RMG to becoming fashion brand business models. Rather, I am suggesting that we explore and embrace digital avenues in order to tap into potential new business opportunities.

The pace of change where the internet is concerned is rapid, and it can be bewildering at times trying to keep up with developments in our industry. This is certainly no place for the faint-hearted.

But the question I would ask of our industry leaders is not “can we afford to embrace digitisation?”, but “can we afford not to?”

Mostafiz Uddin is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited. He is also the Founder and CEO of Bangladesh Denim Expo and Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE).