Today, over 650 Zara stores in some 50 countries attract well-heeled customers in luxury shopping districts around the world, and Senor Ortega is arguably the richest man in Spain. The clothing company he founded, called Inditex, has been growing ever since he opened that first Zara shop. From 1991 to 2003, Inditex’s sales—70% of which spring from Zara—grew more than 12-fold from €367 million to €4.6 billion, and net profits ballooned 14-fold from €31 million to €447 million. In May 2001, a particularly tough period for initial public offerings, Inditex sold 25% of its shares to the public for €2.3 billion. While many of its competitors have exhibited poor financial results over the last three years, Zara’s sales and net income have continued to grow at an annual rate of over 20%.
The lesson Ortega learned from his early scare was this: To be successful, “you need to have five fingers touching the factory and five touching the customer.” Translation: Control what happens to your product until the customer buys it. In adhering to this philosophy, Zara has developed a superresponsive supply chain. The company can design, produce, and deliver a new garment and put it on display in its stores worldwide in a mere 15 days. Such a pace is unheard-of in the fashion business, where designers typically spend months planning for the next season. Because Zara can offer a large variety of the latest designs quickly and in limited quantities, it collects 85% of the full ticket price on its retail clothing, while the industry average is 60% to 70%. As a result, it achieves a higher net margin on sales than its competitors; in 2001, for example, when Inditex’s net margin was 10.5%, Benetton’s was only 7%, H&M’s was 9.5%, and Gap’s was near zero.
Zara defies most of the current conventional wisdom about how supply chains should be run. In fact, some of Zara’s practices may seem questionable, if not downright crazy, when taken individually. Unlike so many of its peers in retail clothing that rush to outsource, Zara keeps almost half of its production in-house. Far from pushing its factories to maximize their output, the company intentionally leaves extra capacity. Rather than chase economies of scale, Zara manufactures and distributes products in small batches. Instead of relying on outside partners, the company manages all design, warehousing, distribution, and logistics functions itself. Even many of its day-to-day operational procedures differ from the norm. It holds its retail stores to a rigid timetable for placing orders and receiving stock. It puts price tags on items before they’re shipped, rather than at each store. It leaves large areas empty in its expensive retail shops. And it tolerates, even encourages, occasional stock-outs.
During the last three years, we’ve tried to discover just how Zara designs and manages its rapid-fire supply chain. We conducted a series of interviews with senior managers at Inditex and examined company documents and a wide range of other sources. We were particularly curious to see if Zara had discovered any groundbreaking innovations. We didn’t find any. Instead, we found a self-reinforcing system built on three principles:
Close the communication loop.
Zara’s supply chain is organized to transfer both hard data and anecdotal information quickly and easily from shoppers to designers and production staff. It’s also set up to track materials and products in real time every step of the way, including inventory on display in the stores. The goal is to close the information loop between the end users and the upstream operations of…