Innovation

No advertising, no outsourcing: Why Zara is coasting despite a languishing economy

Myriam Robin /

Myer chief Bernie Brookes says times are as tough as he’s seen them – in June describing retail in Australia as a “tale of woe”. Going by the balance sheets of Australia’s brick and mortar retailers, it’s an understandable statement.

But one brick and mortar competitor to Myer and David Jones isn’t down about the conditions it has to operate in. Inditex, the Spanish company that owns fashion retailer, Zara, overshot the analysts’ expectations on Wednesday, posting a record profit of 432 million euros ($AUS545.79 million) between March and May. This is an increase of 31% compared to the same time last year, despite growth in recently bailed-out Spain stalling. Inditex’s profits were driven by profitable growth in new markets. Its success has little to do with online retailing.

Zara launched in Australia last year, shaking up the local fashion sector. ”They’re popular in Australia because Australia’s been regarded, well, as a third-word country when it comes to fashion,” says retailing expert Brian Walker, CEO of the Retail Doctor Group. “Zara, along with things like [fashion retailer] TopShop, is bringing a global influence to our shores.”

The fashion house has stores in Sydney and Melbourne. Worldwide it operates 5,618 stores in 85 countries, after more than a decade of extraordinary growth (there were only 1,000 stores in 2000). Zara is planning to take on China later this year.

Inditex was founded in 1963 by the reclusive Amancio Ortega, the son of a railway worker who is now the fifth richest man in the world. Still a board member, he has $US35.5 billion in personal wealth.

Inditex owns a number of brands, but Zara is by far its largest. Since listing in 2001, the group has used expansion to boost its net profits from 91.7 million euros to 432 million euros, making it Spain’s largest company and the world’s biggest fashion house.

It prides itself on its fast-fashion business model, and has maintained its tight adherence to its strategy even as Zara pursues break-neck expansion. Whenever a Zara store opens, the hype leading up to it means it sells out its stock in minutes.

“Zara are the inventors of the concept of fast-fashion, and that has certain principles,” Melbourne Business School professor of marketing Mark Ritson says. “Product is ultimately the thing that carries the brand.”

Walker tells LeadingCompany Zara will design and start selling products based on the latest catwalk in just three or four weeks. Before Zara, Australian retailers were taking 12 to 16 weeks to do the same.

They can do this because Zara has no stock, explains Ritson. Store managers pick from a catalogue what they would like to stock in their stores, and it’s made and dispatched from Spain as quickly as possible. “This means they don’t have any seasons… They literally just react to demand.”

New items appear in Zara’s stores twice a week.

Inditex is able to achieve this through ownership and masterful control of their supply chain – from design to fabric, manufacture and distribution to store. The group rarely outsources manufacturing, and when it does, it uses cheap neighbouring European countries from which the output can be quickly driven back to headquarters. It cuts fabrics in-house at its La Coruña headquarters in northern Spain, and then sends them to local cooperatives for sewing. The cooperatives sew and package the items (adding price-tags and hangers), and send them back to be driven and flown to Zara stores all over the world.

Its designers, also based in La Coruña, are in daily contact with Zara’s store managers. And if that isn’t enough, they can also view the point-of-sale data that comes into HQ immediately from every Zara store, showing what’s selling, and even what customers try on but do not buy – by scanning the items as people exit the fitting room.

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Myriam Robin

Myriam Robin is a reporter for SmartCompany and its sister site LeadingCompany. She has degrees in economics, international studies and journalism. She likes writing about businesses taking risks and doing new things.

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