Large energy savings, product development and a foray into export markets are enabling Derbyshire, UK-based Courtaulds Legwear to remain competitive in a tough retail environment.
The company is housed in a 10,500 sq m building with 470 knitting machines and 500 employees, 410 in manufacturing and the rest in customer service, back office and support functions. It manufactures 35 million pairs of hosiery per annum. It owns the brands Pretty Polly, Aristoc and Elbeo and its three major customers are M&S, Boots and Sainsbury’s TU.
Speaking at the Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industry conference, Jonny Mitchell, managing director of Courtaulds Legwear, explained how his company is addressing market challenges. “If we concentrate on volume and efficiency we have a better chance of surviving. We have different products that work in different markets. Complexity brings its own challenges. Each customer wants the same or similar products with a little bit of differentiation. They all want to keep moving forward.
“A lot is commodity product – there is a lot of function as well as fashion. We have to stay on our toes and cannot rely on ‘Made in England’. It doesn’t guarantee anything. It’s a very competitive world and changing times. We will never be the cheapest – we have higher labour rates and manufacture everything from the multipack to complex control products, spending a lot of time on innovation and design. We differentiate ourselves through innovation, quality and service.”
Key challenges include seasonality, with 70% of sales falling between September and January - the mix is 60% private label vs 40% branded product. Further challenges include skill shortages and competition from China, Turkey, Italy and Eastern Europe. There is also growing pressure from retailers on manufacturers to meet environmental credentials.
The plant is M&S Plan A certified, the first factory to be accredited in Europe, said Mr Mitchell. “We have invested £1.2m in eco initiatives to get accredited and find ways to be environmentally friendly and save money.”
The plant’s energy bill is £2m per annum; it has reduced energy consumption by 52% in the last three years. Water use is 20,000 litres per hour and this has been reduced by 17% in the last three years. All cardboard, plastics and metals are recycled and rejects/scrap has been reduced by 4% in the last three years, according to Mr Mitchell.
Recent product successes include suspender tights – the firm has sold 100,000 pairs and secret socks for wearing with boots. Mr Mitchell is also developing a market for the company’s products in the US. “We’d had very little export business yet have two great brands so we went to the US to get an initial distribution. Last September we got them into five Nordstrum stores and also stores were trialling them including Dillard’s and Shoppers Drug Mart.
“This autumn we have 130 Nordstrum and 60 Macy’s stores all buying Pretty Polly. The hosiery market in the US is worth $1bn/annum.”
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