Table of Contents
Gap Inc. is a well-known and iconic American clothing and accessories retailer established by Doris and Don Fisher in San Francisco, California, in 1969. As of December 2017, Gap Inc. operates 3,165 company-owned stores and 429 franchise stores across more than fifty countries worldwide and generates a total sales revenue of $15.5 billion per year (Gap Inc. 2017a). Currently, Gap Inc. manages five major brands that each have their own distinct portfolio and target market:
In 2017, the average unit retail price of these five brands ranges widely, from $28.32 (Old Navy) to as high as $244.95 (Intermix) (see Appendix 1). Excluding Intermix, Gap Inc.’s brands cover products in broad categories, from dresses, tops, bottoms, outerwear, and underwear, to accessories.
Like most US fashion brands and apparel retailers, Gap Inc. imports almost everything it sells from overseas. In the 2017 fiscal year, Gap Inc. sourced its products from approximately 800 vendors in fifty countries around the world (Gap Inc. 2017a). China is currently one of the largest apparel sourcing bases for Gap Inc.; products sourced from this country accounted for 22 percent of the company’s total sourcing value in the 2017 fiscal year. However, with a fast-changing business environment, including increasing production costs in China, US consumers’ higher expectation for speed to market, and the escalating US-China trade tensions, Art Peck, CEO of Gap Inc., believes it is time to reexamine the company’s sourcing strategy.
While apparel manufacturing remains labor intensive, apparel sourcing is about far more than simply identifying places with the lowest wage level. Instead, apparel sourcing is increasingly about striking a balance between various factors, ranging from sourcing cost, speed to market, reliability, flexibility, to risk control (Berg, Berlemann, and Hedrich 2013; Ha-Brookshire 2017). Gap Inc., must also consider these factors.
First, for Gap Inc., production and sourcing cost remains one of the most critical factors in deciding where to source. Apparel retailing is a highly competitive business in the United States (S&P Global 2018). Ignoring the cost factor is often not a realistic option for fashion companies that target the mass market, such as Gap Inc. Price competition, in particular, is heated in the United States: as a reflection of this, in 2017, Gap Inc. sold 66 percent of its garments at a discounted price in the US market, of which about half were discounted by more than 50 percent (EDITED 2018).
Contrary to common perception, when breaking down the production cost of making a garment, only 12–20 percent of the production costs for making a garment goes on labor costs (which typically includes the cost for cutting, sewing, finishing, grading, and marking) whereas materials, including fabrics and trims, typically account for over 50 percent (Dinh 2014; Myers-McDevitt 2011). Because of the significant impact of the raw material on the final production cost of a garment, understandably, US fashion brands and apparel retailers are increasingly interested in sourcing from countries that have the capacity to provide locally supplied price-competitive textiles (Lu 2016, 2017). For example, in recent years, Gap Inc. has been leveraging its so-called “co-location” strategy in order to reduce production and sourcing cost. In this strategy, vendors need to cut and sew garments in the same country where raw materials are grown and processed (Abdulla 2018).
Besides labor cost and raw material, other main drivers of sourcing costs typically include shipping and logistics, foreign exchange rates, as well as the cost associated with compliance with trade regulations and social responsibility/sustainability requirements (Berg, Berlemann, and Hedrich 2013; Lu 2018a).
Second, speed to market is becoming an increasingly important sourcing factor for Gap Inc. With consumers’ upgraded demand, US fashion brands and apparel retailers are under growing pressure to supply better quality products with greater innovation at a faster speed (Barrie 2018a). While the average lead time can take a year for many apparel retailers, Gap Inc. has set an ambitious goal to significantly cut its lead time to only eight weeks for many of its products (Abdulla 2018). Likewise, in a 2018 study conducted by McKinsey & Company, almost two-thirds of surveyed fashion brands and retailers said that improving speed to market was either a top priority or the highest priority for their company (Hunter, Marchessou, and Schmidt 2018).
The need for speed to market is gradually affecting where Gap Inc. is sourcing its products. For example, Gap Inc. is making particular efforts in growing partnerships with vendors in Central America and North America to lower the shipment time to US consumers (Abdulla 2018). Trade data also echoes the trend of apparel companies sourcing close to where their end products will need to be distributed: the value of US apparel imports from Mexico and Canada enjoyed a robust growth of 5.3 percent and 7.7 percent respectively in 2017 when compared to the figures from a year earlier; this growth is much higher than the world average of 1.4 percent (OTEXA 2018). Similarly, a 2018 survey of nearly thirty apparel sourcing executives suggested that near-sourcing from the Western Hemisphere, including members of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), is growing in popularity among US fashion companies (Lu 2018a).
Third, supply chain risk and compliance with various environmental and social responsibility regulations also have a significant impact on Gap Inc.’s selection of sourcing destinations. Recent surveys of industry executives show that “unmet compliance (factory, social and/or environmental) standards,” “labor disputes,” “political unrest,” and “lack of resources to manage supply chain risks” consistently ranked one of the top challenges facing US fashion companies (Barrie 2018a; Lu 2017, 2018a).
Understandably, Gap Inc. is making increasing commitments to minimize the risks associated with sustainability and social responsibility in sourcing. For example, like many other US fashion brands and apparel retailers, Gap Inc. keeps records of the name, location, and function of all of the suppliers within their supply chain (Gap Inc. 2017a). Gap Inc. also regularly assesses its vendors overseas to ensure compliance with laws, environment and labor standards, occupational health and safety, and management systems (Gap Inc. 2017b).
In recent years, Gap Inc. has emphasized the use of “sustainable raw material” within its products. For example, Gap Inc. has instructed its suppliers to be in line with CanopyStyle, a company who’s aim is to develop business practices to protect the world’s forests, on the sustainable procurement of wood-derived fabrics, such as rayon, viscose, modal, lyocell, and Tencel, to eliminate the sourcing of wood pulp from ancient and endangered forests. Gap Inc. also encouraged all its suppliers to conduct the environmental footprint of their productions by using the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index (Gap Inc. 2017b).
While almost all countries in the world make and export some apparel, it doesn’t mean Gap Inc. has many options to choose from regarding where to source its products. Particularly, when Gap Inc. considers all the three primary sourcing factors—sourcing cost, speed to market, and risk of compliance, no sourcing base seems to be perfect. For example (see Appendix 2):
Asia currently is the largest sourcing base for Gap Inc. and most other US fashion brands and apparel retailers (Gap Inc. 2017a; OTEXA 2018; USITC 2018). Top apparel producers and exporters from countries within the region, such as Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, can offer a very competitive prices. However, US fashion brands and retailers also say sourcing from Asian countries, in general, will incur a relatively long lead time because of the physical distance. A further concern for US fashion companies is that sourcing from some developing Asian countries involves high compliance risks (Barrie 2018b; USFIA 2018). For example, the high level of media and public attention to the social responsibility problems in the Bangladeshi garment industry, such as factory safety and treatment of workers, makes US fashion companies hesitant to source more from this country, despite “Made in Bangladesh” enjoying a prominent price advantage over many suppliers (Edmont 2018; Lu 2018a).
Western Hemisphere, includes members of NAFTA and CAFTA-DR as well as local sourcing from the United States. A new trade agreement, known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), will also be implemented in 2020. Thanks to the geographic proximity, the Western Hemisphere enjoys notable advantages “in speed to market” compared to its Asian competitors (USITC 2018). US fashion companies also see sourcing from the Western Hemisphere as involving lower compliance risk compared with other regions in the world. However, the sourcing cost is a big disadvantage for the region as an apparel sourcing base; the special rules of origin in NAFTA and CAFTA-DR, which require that apparel is cut and sewn in Mexico and other Central American countries in order to qualify for duty-free benefits, often requires the use of expensive US-made yarns and fabrics (Platzer 2017). Moreover, the limited manfucatoring capacity in the region often results in a lack of flexibility in sourcing textile raw material; this creates another concern for Gap Inc. and many other US fashion companies (Mesloh 2012; USFIA 2018). Given these disadvantages, in general, countries in the Western Hemisphere typically account for less than 10 percent of a US fashion brand and retailers’ total sourcing value or volume for apparel products (Lu 2017, 2018a).
Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and Egypt are also candidate sourcing bases for Gap Inc. The import duty-free benefits provided by the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and the Egypt Qualifying Industrial Zone (QIZ) provide the main incentives for US companies to source from the region (Berg, Hedrich, and Russo 2015; Lu 2017). For example, AGOA’s “third-country” fabric provision allows most SSA countries to export apparel to the US duty-free by using yarns and fabrics sourced from anywhere in the world. In comparison, most US free trade agreements adopt the strict “yarn-forward rules of origin,” which, in general, require that all yarn spinning, fabric weaving, apparel cutting and sewing happen within the free trade agreement area (Lu 2018b). However, the poor infrastructure and very limited textile and apparel production capacity in SSA and Egypt make sourcing from there ideal for neither cost nor time saving. Restrained by the overall economic advancement level, apparel factories in SSA and Egypt do not have an impressive record of social and environmental compliance either (Berg, Berlemann, and Hedrich 2013).
China is one of the largest and most important sourcing bases for Gap Inc. In January 2017, Gap Inc. was sourcing from 234 vendors in China, compared with only 129 vendors in Vietnam, 120 vendors in India, and 51 vendors in Bangladesh (Gap Inc. 2017b).
China’s enormous production capacity and the completeness of its textile and apparel supply chain allows Gap Inc. to source almost any product in any quantity from the country. As shown in Appendix 3, in 2017 “Made in China” has no direct competitor within the US import market measured in value, textiles, and apparel (OTEXA 2018):
For the eighty-seven categories of apparel that China was the top supplier for, China’s average market share reached 52.4 percent, 36 percent higher than the second top suppliers for these categories.
For the eleven categories of made-up textiles that China was the top supplier for, China’s average market share reached 58 percent, 43 percent higher than the second top suppliers for these categories.
China’s overall status as a “balanced” sourcing base, regarding sourcing cost, speed to market, and the risk of compliance, makes it competitive compared with other sourcing destinations (see Appendix 1):
First, apparel “Made in China” continues to enjoy overall price competitiveness. In contrast with the popular view that “Made in China” is becoming more expensive, official trade statistics show that the unit price of US apparel imports from China actually dropped from US$2.68 per square meter equivalent (SME) in 2015 to US$2.38/SME in 2017, a decrease of 11.4 percent (OTEXA 2018). Similarly, the unit price of “Made in China” apparel in the US market was 80 percent of the world’s average (US$2.96/SME) in 2017, down from 86 percent in 2015 (US$3.13/SME).
Second, industry sources say that sourcing from China overall will incur a shorter lead time when compared with other Asian suppliers, largely because apparel mills in China can easily get access to raw materials, trims, and accessories locally (Re:Source 2018). In comparison, many other leading apparel-exporting countries in Asia such as Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia, as well as countries in SSA, still heavily rely on imported textile materials that negatively affect their supply chain efficiency (Lu 2018a).
Additionally, Gap Inc. doesn’t have to worry too much about the risk of compliance when sourcing from China. As of October 2018, 748 Chinese textile and apparel factories have been certified by the Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP) program, which provides important assurances to US fashion brands and apparel retailers who are sourcing from the country. China also introduced its own Social Compliance 9000 for Textile & Apparel Industry Program (CSC9000T); strong support for the implementation of this program had been received from the local government from as early as May 2005 (Re:Source 2018).
However, continuing to source from China is not without its concerns. One major issue that Gap Inc., and many other US fashion brands and retailers, are facing right now is the escalating US-China trade war, which has created huge market uncertainties (AAFA 2018; USFIA 2018). On September 17, 2018, President Trump announced a levy for an additional 10 percent punitive tariff on US$200 billion worth of imports from China, which covers several textile and apparel-related products sold by Gap Inc. such as backpacks, handbags, purses, wallets, baseball gloves, hats, and fur apparel. Even worse, the Trump administration plans to increase the punitive tariff rate further to 25 percent starting from January 1, 2019, and apply it to all imports from China should a trade deal not be reached between the two countries (Lu 2018c). If Gap Inc.’s apparel sourced from China were to be hit with these additional tariffs it would affect their profit margin significantly.
As the Chinese economy becomes more advanced, the labor-intensive apparel manufacturing sector is no longer regarded as a pillar industry of strategic importance to the country. In recent years, a growing number of garment factories in China have been closing their businesses amid a mix of factors, ranging from fast increasing labor costs and competition from other lower-wage apparel-exporting countries, to the increasing value of the Chinese currency (Leng 2018). The US-China trade war is pushing more Chinese garment factories to move production overseas. This adds another layer of uncertainty to the future of China as an apparel sourcing base for Gap Inc.
In the 2017 fiscal year, Gap Inc. sourced its products from approximately 800 vendors in fifty countries around the world. What are the benefits of adopting such a diversified sourcing base? Is this necessary?
One important outcome from this case study is that students understand that apparel sourcing today is far more than about chasing the “lowest labor cost,” or the so-called “race to the bottom.” Rather, because of the changing consumer preferences for clothing (e.g., expecting more fashionable items and faster delivery of products) and the growing importance of sustainability and social responsibility issues, sourcing is increasingly about striking a balance. Given that no sourcing destination is “perfect” in all aspects, US fashion companies such as Gap Inc. are choosing to adopt a diversified sourcing base.
The competitiveness of “Made in China” goes beyond “low price.” Notably, China’s huge production capacity is unparalleled by any of its competitors. It could be extremely difficult for Gap Inc. to find China’s alternative in the short term. However, as China’s economy keeps evolving, maintaining the status quo (i.e., giving so much weight to China in apparel sourcing) may not be sustainable in the long run either.
The US-China trade war is likely to make US fashion companies eager to shift sourcing orders elsewhere. However, it can be debated what is the most appropriate short-term response for Gap Inc. and how Gap Inc. should adjust its long-term sourcing strategy.
Note: The results were based on respondents’ average rating for each country in a scale of 1 (much lower performance than the average) to 5 (much higher performance than the average). In the table, a green circle means strength as a sourcing base (rating score between 5.0–4.0); a yellow triangle means average performance (rating score between 3.0–3.9); a red diamond means weakness as a sourcing base (rating score between 1.0–2.9).
Appendix 3 China’s competitiveness as an apparel-sourcing base for US fashion companies. Top: China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and India as a top supplier in the US textile and apparel import market in 2017: number of products (OTEXA code). Bottom: For products that China was the top supplier in 2017 (by value): China’s average market shares vs. market share of the second top supplier.
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The author(s) wrote this case solely to provide material for class discussion and independent learning. The authors do not intend to illustrate either effective or ineffective handling of a situation. The comments and interpretation presented are not necessarily those of the company or its employees.
This case has been written on the basis of published sources only. The interpretation and perspectives presented in this case are not necessarily those of the company in question or any of its employees.