Supply Chain Partnerships: How Levi's Got Its Jeans into Wal-Mart

It’s noon on a Tuesday in late April, and the Levi Strauss in downtown San Francisco is nearly empty. There’d be echoes in the four-story flagship store on Post Street if not for the techno-jazz pounding on all floors. As smiling assistants fold T-shirts and straighten 501s, a cargo-style elevator creeps up and down the middle of the building. An old-fashioned sign, picturing a man in a cowboy hat and coveralls, reads "Levi’s fits ’em all."

Maybe so. But these days, not enough customers are buying.

Once upon a time, Levi’s and blue jeans were synonymous. James Dean looked oh so cool in them. Marilyn Monroe looked...real good. Almost since its founding 150 years ago, the company has been an American icon. But tastes change. For a time, nothing could come between teenage girls and their Calvins. Twentysomethings started going to malls and haunting The Gap. And by the mid-1990s, Levi’s had missed the baggy pant craze that overtook American high schools. In 1996, Levi’s sales peaked at $7.1 billion. Last year, they fell to $4.1 billion, a six-year low. The competition has nibbled away at Levi’s jeans market share, which has tumbled to about 12 percent from 18.7 percent in 1997.

Since the peak, Levi’s, which also makes casual Dockers and higher-end Slates clothing lines, has seen its customer base pulled apart. On the high end of the market, fickle fashionistas are eschewing Levi’s in favor of boutique brands such as Blue Cult, Juicy and Seven. On the low end, moms are buying Lee and Wrangler for their kids because they’re affordable (on average $10 less than Levi’s Red Tab) and because they find these brands at the superstores they prefer: BJ’s, Sam’s Club, Target, T.J. Maxx and so on.

David Bergen, Levi’s senior vice president and CIO, says his company is caught in the "jaws of death." "We’re getting squeezed," he says in his office in Levi’s Plaza, which has a startling view of San Francisco Bay and is about a 30-minute walk away from the Post Street store. But Levi’s thinks it may have found a way to cheat a retail demise.

Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, is where moms go to stock up on Max and Maddy’s school supplies, their juice boxes and, of course, their jeans. So if you want the kids, and the rest of their families, you need to sell at Wal-Mart.

And you need a new product for this new customer. This month, Levi’s is introducing its new, less expensive Signature jeans line. (The jeans, for men, women and children, sell for around $23. They have fewer detail finishes than Levi’s other lines. They don’t have the company’s trademark red tab or stitching on the pocket.) Of course, there’s something in it for Wal-Mart. The company, already the largest clothing retailer in the world, wants more affluent customers. To lure them in, it needs big brands. Acknowledging that the company’s customers come from a "cross-section of income levels and lifestyles," Wal-Mart Senior Vice President Lois Mikita says the company "continues to tailor its selection to meet the needs of those customers."

Levi’s believes the new line, and the new retail venue, will revitalize the company by boosting annual sales by hundreds of millions. With up to 100 million shoppers trolling through Wal-Mart every week, that’s not an unreasonable assumption. "Levi has to face reality," says Ira Kalish, a retail industry economist. "This is a company that’s dropped in size 40 percent or so over the past couple of years. The move to Wal-Mart could be sizable." By partnering with Wal-Mart, adds Harry Bernard, an executive at retail consultancy Colton Bernard, "they’ll get the volume they’ll need to survive."

If it works.

And, to a large extent, the success of Levi’s strategy depends on the performance of its technology?and its CIO.

The Mass Market Changes Everything

Levi’s decision last November to begin doing business with Wal-Mart changed CIO Bergen’s life.

Like every supplier stocking the $245 billion retailer’s endless shelves, Bergen had to rethink his supply chain?every detail of how Levi’s jeans, jackets and shirts would get from factories to new regional warehouses to Wal-Mart’s 3,422 U.S. stores when they are needed, not before and certainly not after. That’s a mighty leap from the demands placed on Levi’s by smaller department store chains such as Macy’s (243 stores), or even J.C. Penney (1,049 stores).

Complicating this challenge was the fact that Bergen would be going live with a completely upgraded supply chain system during the back-to-school rush, the worst time for a retailer to roll out a new technology.

But 47-year-old Bergen says he signed on at Levi’s in November 2000 for precisely these kinds of challenges. He’s sought them out all through his career. In 1981, he helped install The Gap’s first point-of-sale system, which tracked both sales and inventory. In 1985, he moved to clothing maker Esprit de Corps, where he managed all IT development before heading back to The Gap to help improve production planning.

When Levi’s new President and CEO Philip A. Marineau called in 2000, Bergen was at Carstation.com, a startup with a business model he questioned. He was itching to return to the apparel business. "One of the things that excited me was the changes Levi’s was going through," says Bergen, who bears a slight resemblance to the actor Tim Allen and, like most employees milling around Levi’s Plaza, dresses in the company’s casual clothes. Marineau came to Levi’s from PepsiCo in 1999, a year after helping the eternal number-two beverage maker surpass Coke in sales. Shortly after his arrival, he planned a turnaround that would entail making clothes that better met demands of stores and customers?selling to the mass market and tightening operations around the world.

Bergen wanted in. He knew that Marineau’s plan to change the line according to what customers wanted would demand big things. More slicing and dicing of customer data and investments in data warehouse technology. He knew that selling to the mass market would require supply chain improvements. He understood that globalization demanded standardized enterprise systems. What more could a CIO want?

After settling into his new job in 2000, he began working to make Levi’s technology fit for what the retail world calls the "mass channel," big discount stores where 31 percent of all jeans in the country are now sold. Levi’s wanted to play in that channel, and when Bergen arrived, the company was in tentative discussions with Kmart, Target and Wal-Mart, among others. But the water in the channel flowed swiftly; Bergen knew that without a technology overhaul, Levi’s would surely drown. He was most concerned that the company’s national distribution strategy didn’t suit the way Wal-Mart did business. Levi’s had a poor on-time delivery record too?the result of manufacturing and logistics problems born when it shuttered company-owned factories in the United States during the late 1990s and transitioned largely to overseas manufacturing.

Making Levi’s Wal-Mart Ready

But all of this change took time.

When Levi’s and Wal-Mart first sat down to talk, Levi’s was not?as Gregg Hammann, Levi’s U.S. chief customer officer, recalls?up to the demands that Wal-Mart placed on its 30,000 suppliers.

"Our supply chain could not deliver the services Wal-Mart expected," says Bergen, who spent time at Wal-Mart’s Bentonville, Ark., headquarters during "exploratory meetings" before a deal was signed. Being a supplier to Wal-Mart demands a certain level of performance?and cost control. Wal-Mart drives you to work with your supply chain to put the same requirements on your suppliers that Wal-Mart puts on you. If you can’t make your supply chain work, you won’t benefit from being a supplier. Period.

At Levi’s, executives couldn’t track where its product was moving in the pipeline?how many pairs of jeans were being manufactured in which factories and how many were sitting in trucks or in distribution centers.

This wouldn’t fly with Wal-Mart, a supply chain pioneer that moves products off its shelves faster than any retailer and expects replenishment on time to keep costs down. Levi’s needed to both get a handle on how its products were doing in stores and accelerate the speed at which those products moved from import dock to warehouse to retail shelf.

The lack of information available to Levi’s executives translated into poor performance even without Wal-Mart. "Before David, we delivered 65 percent of our product on time to customers," Hammann says. Industry gurus call that a poor performance. "Our rate today is 95 percent," Hammann says. That’s a healthy bump that could improve sales by 10 percent to 15 percent, according to Marshal Cohen, senior industry analyst of NPD Group’s Fashionworld, an apparel and footwear market researcher. Hammann credits improved demand replenishment systems and forecasting technology the company now uses. Additions include a so-called dashboard Bergen developed that sits on executives’ desktops and shows how Levi’s 501 jeans are doing with, say, Kohl’s department stores on a weekly, monthly or annual basis. The dashboard is designed to look like a website and allows executives to click on a specific product to track how it moves from the factory to the distribution centers to the stores. It shows how many pairs of jeans are available at a given time, what the demand is from the stores and whether the company is meeting that demand. "When I first got here I didn’t see anything," Hammann says. "Now I can drill down to the product level."

This system, unlike the old one, connects the employees working within the supply chain to the salespeople all the way up to the company’s financial office, a change Bergen oversaw. Execs use the dashboard to track trends?such as whether denim shorts are a hot item in a particular geographic area?and to prevent problems. For example, during the third quarter of 2002, when the company started shipping Dockers Stain Defender pants, it expected to sell about 2 million pairs. The dashboard, however, alerted Levi’s to that fact that the pants were flying off the shelves and another 500,000 more would be needed to meet demand. Having that information at its fingertips helped the company avoid bungling its inventory, plan in advance and sell more pants, Hammann says. That same sort of information will be crucial to helping replenish Wal-Mart’s shelves during the back-to-school season.

Supply Chain Transformation

Bergen says the most challenging part of the technology overhaul was changing from a national distribution system to a regional one. Before, all Levi Strauss 501-style jeans, for example, arrived at stores from four distribution centers in Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada and Arkansas. This wasn’t good enough to meet Wal-Mart’s demands for rapid-fire replenishment.

So Levi’s has added three "pool points" (in California, Texas and Florida) to distribute in-bound freight to either Wal-Mart stores or to the distribution centers. In addition, Levi’s will ship products for each new season in full carton "prepacks" from its distribution centers to Wal-Mart’s distribution centers. The pool points will replenish this supply, working by region to send stacks of jeans to Wal-Mart’s distribution network.

As part of this network of facilities, Levi’s also developed a scanning tool for its manufacturers to check the accuracy of cartons ready to ship. The company implemented AS2 technology to exchange with Wal-Mart EDI transactions that support collaborative forecasting. And a set of Manugistics applications allow the company to collaborate on demand forecasting, product modifications and orders planning with Wal-Mart. All of those changes mean Levi’s can plan, define and ship prepackaged orders to the retailer. Bergen says testing of the new system went well and the company was on schedule for a June delivery as of press time.

To support the Wal-Mart initiative, Bergen helped put together a cross-functional team of employees from IT, finance and sales who helped with planning. That included supporting everything from ordering to logistics to making improvements to the data warehouse. The company also upgraded its networks and its U.S.-based applications, and it is testing to see whether its systems will scale to handle orders from all of Wal-Mart’s 3,200 stores.

"The changes to support Wal-Mart are extensive," Bergen says. Eventually, about half of the upgrades required to do business with Wal-Mart in the United States will be replaced by the new SAP system the company will install during the next five years (see "Next Up: A Global ERP Rollout," Page 44).

Simon Spence, a senior consultant at Perot Systems who works with clients preparing to do business with Wal-Mart, says businesses benefit technologically from the demands Wal-Mart puts on them as their biggest customer. "Wal-Mart is a great catalyst for them to invest more money than they would previously to stay in business," he says. "That’s the way you grow. That’s the way you survive. It drives you to work toward becoming a global company."

The First Signs of Turnaround

It wasn’t until Levi’s had a better window into its business that it was confident enough to do business with Wal-Mart. In May 2002, Hammann and Bergen sat down with a 25-person team for a daylong meeting in San Francisco. "We asked, Is this something we can do?" says Hammann. The team, composed of managers from all parts of Levi’s business, had covered its bases on the project, Bergen says, considering all "people changes, process changes and technology changes."

By September 2002, the group decided to go forward. Hammann is confident. "We went from a company that couldn’t shoot straight to where we’re very capable of ready, aim, fire," he says.

Wal-Mart’s Mikita says she is impressed with the level of detail Levi’s "has dug into to make the execution of this new launch 100 percent."

And today, there are encouraging signs Levi’s is turning around. Sales for the company’s third and fourth quarters grew for the first time since 1996. During the spring and fall of 2002, Levi’s started popping up on NPD Fashionworld’s top 10 list of brands preferred by young women for the first time in recent memory. "It hadn’t been close to that for a while," says Cohen. "Teens hadn’t gravitated toward Levi’s in years. That was incredible. A lot of that has to do with having the right style in the right place at the right time." Cohen says Levi’s plans to upgrade its business processes, and its improved replenishment system has helped the company get the right sizes to the right stores. The question is, Will they be able to sustain it?

"The jury is still out as to whether this structure is going to work," says retail consultant Bernard. Levi’s might think it can fool customers into thinking the jeans on a Wal-Mart rack are "real" Levi’s, but he’s not so sure customers will understand the $24.99 versus $50 price difference between the pair at Wal-Mart and the pair at Macy’s. And if the jeans aren’t selling well at Macy’s, what makes Levi’s so sure it can sell jeans at Wal-Mart?

Others say it’s tough for any supplier to turn a Wal-Mart relationship into a gold mine. "Wal-Mart works with their vendors to make sure [Wal-Mart] succeeds," and that’s not a guarantee that the vendors make a lot of money, says Paula Rosenblum, a retail analyst at AMR Research. Indeed, a recent Bain survey of more than 20 Wal-Mart suppliers found that very few were doing everything right to gain on both the top and bottom lines (see "What Wal-Mart Wants," Page 42). "The place where companies do fail is when they aren’t bringing anything new to Wal-Mart," says Gib Carey, a supply chain analyst at Bain, who studies the company’s supplier relationships. "Wal-Mart is constantly looking at ’How can I get the same product I am selling today at a lower price somewhere else?’"

Nonetheless, Levi’s was due to start shipping the Signature line to Wal-Mart at the end of May, beginning with 40 stores. By June, Levi’s will be ferrying the new clothes to all U.S. Wal-Mart stores in preparation for the back-to-school rush. Bergen expects some bumps during the first three months. But if all goes well, the company plans to sign new deals with other discount retailers too.

"If I look overconfident, I’m not," he says. "I’m very nervous about this change." That’s understandable, considering the unchartered waters. "When we trip, we have to stand up real quick and get back on the horse, as they say."

Preferably wearing a pair of Levi’s.

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