Turning the Tables on Supply and Demand

By Glenna B. Musante

A Pioneering Concept

Bill Grier is dedicated to reimagining retail.

A former US Marine Corps Colonel, current pioneer in digital printing and CEO and CTO at Critical Mass Manufacturing & AM4U Inc., Grier is at the forefront of an idea to replace large apparel manufacturing operations with high-tech, micro-factories that use retail store kiosks, digital printers and other new technologies to dye, cut, and assemble clothes on demand.

The system, which is being called Endless Aisle Retailing, would turn current apparel production and sales processes inside out. Today, apparel production “is supply activated,” Grier says, which results in what he describes as “vast amounts of waste.” Endless Aisle Retailing would put consumers back in charge of selective parts of both demand and supply and, in turn, potentially eliminate waste.

 Demo of the Magic at MAGIC

Grier demonstrated Endless Aisle Retailing at the summer 2018 MAGIC industry show in Las Vegas, USA, where he was a speaker in the show’s seminar series and co-host of a show-floor micro-factory in the Sourcing Pavilion at Magic. The micro-factory was fully automated, and used a digital printer to outline and dye fabric. Attendees could watch shirts and yoga tights being made from computer design, to printing, to cut and sew. The last phase, sewing, was the only stop on this production line that wasn’t automated. But the entire process of making each garment—from idea to final stitch— took less than an hour.

In Grier’s ideal world, this assembly line would be connected to a kiosk in a department store where a shopper could select the style, size, and color of a product and then place an order. This is what Grier calls “demand activated” retailing.

Automated cutter at Endless Aisle

Supply on Demand

“Until the late 1980’s, most of the clothes in the United States were made in the United States,” Grier says. Clothes were sold four times a year, reflecting a particular season, and manufactured in smaller lots than today. Rather than buying for quantity, this system supported limited waste, consumer demand based on quality, and price points that reflected limited supply.

Then, he says, the US began outsourcing apparel production overseas to countries that offered cheap labor and minimal environmental regulations. “That was the beginning of what is called ‘supply activated’ apparel manufacturing,” he says, “with as much as 98% of our apparel being made overseas.”

As Grier describes it, the current “supply activated” system involves a lengthy, expensive, and often inefficient process that begins with buyers and designers trying to guess which products consumers will want to buy six months down the road—and retailers buying large quantities of apparel to make sure something hits the mark.

Once those orders are made and production begins, the manufacturing process involves millions of gallons of toxic chemicals, vast degradation of water resources, and a massive carbon footprint tied to both the manufacturing process and shipping final products from cut and sew operations overseas to the US. Once the shipments arrive, products are stored in vast warehouses before ending up on racks at a local department store.

The saddest part, says Grier, is that only 23.7% of those products end up sold after eight weeks. After six months, he says, less than 50% are sold and the rest end up as waste, much of which is sent into landfills.

Endless Aisle Retailing would potentially reduce much of the waste and pollution currently associated with apparel manufacturing by supplying products only on demand

Reggiani digital printer at Endless Aisle

Looking Ahead

The Endless Aisle Retailing concept is still in its infancy. Many kinks in this system need to be worked out, including making sure that new technologies can speak with each other and work together in a fully integrated fashion. Retailers would need to adopt the concept of hosting kiosks in their store and designers would need to learn how to work with software that interacts with the entire system and ultimately, consumers need to buy in to make it work.

That’s a lot of work.

However, Grier says he’s determined to keep moving this idea forward. For now, he hopes to get a foothold in the retail market by using Endless Aisle Retailing to manufacture Athleisure apparel. Athleisure, which refers to yoga attire and other performance wear adapted to daily wear, is a growing market segment, Grier says, and easier than others to make on this type of assembly line. “That’s our goal for the next three years,” he says.

 Increasing Profit

The current process of manufacturing and retail, Grier says, “attacks quality and it attacks profits.” Endless Aisle Retailing, on the other hand, has the potential to build profits. “When you can change a piece of apparel into a digital set of instructions, it eliminates inventory you can’t sell,” which has the potential to increase profits. And that may be the incentive the industry needs to give this idea a shot.