Lululemon – Supply Chain, Quality and Sizing Issues

I am writing this post about products consumers purchase on a daily basis.  My objective is to discuss supply challenges as it applies to apparel (garments), new business growth (SWOT analysis), education (training), implementation and management.   I may touch on staffing (culture, roles, and responsibility).

Brands today need to have a culture, vision and mission statement (ethics) that should be understood by everyone.   Brands need to have a deep level of integrity (not surface) and take responsibility for their products, supply chain, and transparency with communication and education to staff and consumers.

A brief about me, over the past 20 years I have travelled the globe (Paris, Florence, Milan, Amsterdam, Belgium, London, New York and Los Angeles), analyzing stores, business and looking for trends and opportunities.  I used to purchase inspiring silhouettes, product construction, fabrics, and applications to inspire future collections.

Over the past 10 years I have been focused on the supply chain end of the business, living in Asia since 2008 (China, Vietnam, Cambodia, India and Bangladesh), helping products, people and programs on the front line with improving products, infrastructure, systems and Kaizen initiatives.

In the fall of 2014, I was in Vancouver, Canada exploring career/consulting opportunities, visiting friends and family.  As I have a keen interest for business, success stories, health and wellness, I decided to visit the Lululemon flagship store on Robson and Burrard Street in Vancouver, Canada to see what all the buzz was about.

Lululemon Flagship Store, Robson and Burrard, Vancouver, Canada
Lululemon Flagship Store, Robson and Burrard, Vancouver, Canada

My intent was to explore their products, try on key pieces, understand the fabrics, the fits, and possible buy a few pieces to wear to the gym.  I was in shock, as the first piece of clothing I picked up and tried on had a serious quality problem.  There was a broken thread on the waistband, thankfully the waistband had 5 rows of stitches.  But the fact is that one stitch was broken, and how many other stitches on other products would have the same issue?  I showed the quality issue to one of the sales staff, who expressed their shock about the quality issue.

Lululemon short - broken thread
Lululemon short – broken thread

The next day, I decided to return to the store to purchase the short I tried on with the quality issue but that didn’t have any quality issues.  I was surprised to see the damaged product back on the sales floor, looking for the uneducated or unaware consumer to purchase.

Well inquiring about different sizes at the store, I was baffled to see so many size ratio issues on the sales floor.  There were sizing issues throughout the collection, there were plenty of products not available in full size ranges and I didn’t see any core items (essential items for everyday consumer needs) on their sales floor.  I decided it would be best to ask questions to a sales floor staff member, the sales staff advised that the one short I was inquiring about arrived 3 weeks ago and sold out quickly so there were only a few sizes left.  This is a huge opportunity for the company to capitalize on core products, runners and fashion items.

Mens short - size ratio issues
Mens short – size ratio issues
Core Short - Size Ratio Issues
After 3 weeks, this core short barely had any available sizes.

I decided to continue my exploration of the size ratio issues, what I noticed is that there were plenty of items on the selling floor that have size ratio buying, replenishment or allocation issues.  In one instance there were plenty of size S, but M and XXL were mostly sold out.  A basic Black short was featured, when I skimmed through the sizing, there was only one size small, lots of M, a few L, XL, and XXL, this item will definitely have size ratio issues.

Mens Short - size ratio issues
Basic Black size ratio issues

I wonder how Lululemon manages their inventory in specific locations, what do they do about size/colour/print sellouts? Is their consolidation?  Do they do a daily replenishment of products?  Maybe the lack of sizing gives the customer more of urgent need to purchase.  As an experienced professional I realize there will be lost sales, disappointed, and frustrated consumers who will go elsewhere for their purchases.

I decided to spend another 10 minutes at the store and explore quality issues, I was in shock of what I was to discover on the selling floor.

– The item below and other items had stretched waistbands, notice how the item in the photo buckles when it lies flat.  This item is flawed and should not be on the selling floor.  It should have been rejected at the factory level.

Lululemon Short - Stretched Waistband
Quality issue, Stretched Waistbands on many products

– Poor finishing, visually on the item below the waistband height is uneven.  The photo does not justify the product fault as it is much greater than shown in the photo.

Lululemon Short - Uneven Waistband
Uneven stitching on too many products

– The short that I ended up purchasing at Lululemon and that I thought was okay, had an issue, below is the findings:

Lululemon vs Nike, Drawstring Issues
Lululemon vs Nike, Drawstring Issues

As you can see both shorts are similar but there are differences in shape, fit, print, and the drawstring.  The major issue is keeping your shorts up when you’re at the gym, so its a good idea to bowtie the string on your shorts. The top short is the Lululemon short and the bottom is the Nike short, they both were purchased in the fall of 2014.

Drawstring, the short and long
Drawstring, the short and long

As you can see there is a huge difference in the size, length and branding of the drawstring.  I decided to measure them both by how much of the string was exposed when the short lied flat, Lululemon was 23.5cm (9.25 Inches) and Nike was 60cm (23.5 inches).  As you can imagine it is hard to tie the bowtie and then exercise at the gym with the shorter drawstring.  It was challenge to keep the Lululemon bowtie done up during the full workout.  So when you are doing the downward dog (popular yoga position), you do not have to worry about your butt crack showing.   I was baffled how the Lululemon drawstring was a tubular drawstring with no stretch that would shrink when washed and the Nike one was flat with stretch, due to the length of the Nike drawstring I did not notice any shrinkage.  In addition as a design and finishing note, the Nike drawstring was nicely branded with the Nike name on it.  The Lululemon had no branding on their drawstring.

It was really frustrating for me, with my 25 years experience and expertise providing solutions and more to apparel product, people, programs, supply chain, and operations to provide permanent solutions to the problems found in the view of the public and behind the scenes.

– Brands need to create infrastructure, systems, policies, and procedures for lean manufacturing.

– Brands need to select the right suppliers, based on the right reasons, the right products, and provide training, support and management.  Brands should understand all their suppliers.  Vendor Management.

– Product management systems must be established to manage calendars, expectations, and responsibilities.  Lots to cover in this area to find inefficiencies and improve the flow of responsibilities and the hand off stage to the next person in line.

– Successful brands should implement Six Sigma, Black Belt, DMAIC, and Kaizen structure and initiatives into their core competencies.

A starting point for the quality and size ratio issues would be:

– For quality I would elevate the sewing problems by creating a construction manual by product type.  I would further train my staff and suppliers about product quality and acceptable standards.  I could go more deep here with a more detailed explanation and action plan, but then I am giving away all my expertise.

– For size ratio issues, sales can be increased by greater than 50% of that item revenue, I have done this before and have built systems to manage the buys.  Previously I was directly responsible for any lost sales at retail level due to sellouts, and I ensured there was available core products 95% of the time, unless the item/color was being discontinued or the season was coming to an end.

As a proactive leader with a deep passion and interest to share my 25 years of expertise, experience and resources in the active, performance, sportswear and outdoor industries,  working with top fortune 500 and speciality retailers it is disappointing to see the above issues at retail level, as there will definitely be plenty more going on with the supply chain backend.  Over the years I have been entrusted by senior executives of the smallest to the largest apparel companies in the world to manage their products, people, programs and supply chain in Asia.  I am baffled by the brand’s integrity, the product, the quality and management to get things done “NOW”.

Lululemon Head Office Wall Mantra
Lululemon Head Office Wall Mantra

As the activewear industry has so much momentum, many brands product and supply chain can suffer during this growth stage as not many will recognize their faults and failures, until the market starts to reach its saturation point, the trouble will begin with brands that are lagging behind.   In addition the staff maybe not have the culture or industry expertise to sustain the industry opportunities, challenges and changes. Interesting to see who pulls up their socks and prepares for the saturation point.  A famous quote is: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”.

If you are brave enough to admit you need professional help in the above area and beyond let me know it would be my pleasure to help you create success stories. improve product, people, programs, the ROI, and shareholder value.

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