As Clarks announces plans for a factory to bring its shoe production back to the UK, we look at why and how other retailers and brands can follow suit
Shoemakers Clarks have announced that they will shortly be resuming the production of shoes in the UK by opening a brand new factory in Somerset. They last made shoes in the UK in 2006.
What has brought on the turnaround? And should others look at doing the same?
Since I first had the idea for Make it British in 2008 it was apparent to me that the British high street would not be able to continue sourcing everything from the Far East with the rate that prices were going up in China. Having been a buyer for some of the big store groups I had seen cost prices double in a decade. And I knew that once all undue overheads had been stripped out of the supply chain the only way for prices to go was up.
It knew that in the next ten or even twenty years, as the cost of overseas production continued to rise, that UK manufacturing would return. That’s why I set up Make it British in 2011, as a platform for supporting and promoting the manufacturing that we had left in the UK.
Since I launched Make it British I’ve had many conversations with big retailers right through to start-ups about their UK sourcing strategies. Everyone is looking for local factories so that they are no longer entirely reliant on overseas sourcing, especially since Brexit. Not only does making in the UK protect against the unpredictability of foreign currency rates, but it also helps to ensure that a business is not holding loads of stock, as orders can be place closer to when your customer wants the product.
Fashion retailers such as ASOS and BooHoo have gone from strength to strength by making more in Britain. In fact, BooHoo source 50% of their product from UK factories.
However, the problem is that big sewing factories with rows and rows of machinists, like those in China, just don’t exist in the UK. The largest sewing factory here has probably no more than 150 machinists, and they make furniture covers not clothes! When it comes to clothing factories, those with the most machinists are generally making exclusively for their own brand, such as David Nieper and Barbour. And even those that once made exclusively for others, are now creating their own in-house brands, such as Private White V.C. in Manchester.
So what is the solution?
There are three aspects to what Clarks are doing that other retailers and brands should take note of…
- Open your own factory. Don’t look for one that already exists, because it most probably doesn’t. That’s why what Clarks is doing is spot on. They’ve realised that if they are to resume any volume manufacturing in the UK they need to own their own factory. This cuts out the costs of intermediaries and means they can put what they want on the production line, when they (and their customer) want it. It does of course mean a larger investment at the beginning, but will pay reap rewards in the long run.
- Keep things simple. Clarks have announced that they will be concentrating on making their iconic desert boot in their new UK factory. They know that in order to set up a brand new factory and train up a whole team on the production line, it’s best to stick to one product at first. A variety of different styles would most likely require a host of different processes and machines. This would take a new team longer to learn and make production inefficient. Sticking to less styles that you know you can produce in high volumes simplifies production and makes a factory more efficient
- Use innovation to automate. As skilled labour is now in such short supply, one of the best ways that UK factories can set themselves up for the future is by investing in the latest technology. Automation has worked wonders for the UK car industry, where companies such as Toyota and Nissan use robots on the production line. Clarks will apparently use robot-assisted technology in their new factory in Somerset, and will employ technical managers to oversee production. This use of state-of-the-art technology to make production efficient is something that is already working for some of the UK knitwear factories, as well as enabling cotton spinning to return to the UK at English Fine Cottons.
Clarks have taken a brave move, and I hope that it will encourage others to follow suit. It takes courage to make such a big investment, but I think it will pay huge dividends in the end.
The growing Chinese middle class don’t want to buy product made in China anymore, and the customer is getting more savvy to ‘British brands’ that don’t actually make in Britain. That, together with an increasing interest in sustainable and transparent supply chains, and a demand for faster turnaround of product, makes UK manufacturing once more a very viable prospect.
Long may it continue!
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