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Zara’s Recipe for Success: More Data, Fewer Bosses

November 23, 2016

The biggest fashion retailer is thriving as rivals falter. Zara designers at work in Arteixo, Spain. Source: Inditex Deep inside a sprawling glass-and-cement edifice the size of an airplane hangar in the Spanish town of Arteixo, 10 designers swarm around a model dressed in cropped gray trousers and a double-breasted navy blazer. Sweaters, shirts, and suits are spread out on the white-tile floor, while seamstresses in white labcoats stitch prototypes nearby. “It’s classic, but it’s new at the same time,” says a woman from China. “I’m not sure about the bold patterns,” counters a British woman, dressed in white sneakers and a flowing skirt. Others nod their assent or express doubt. This international tribe of thirtysomethings is a big part of the success of Zara, the brand that over the past four decades has grown from a single store in the Spanish city of La Coruña into the biggest fashion retailer on earth. As the team debates whether the collection is too plain or too daring, it becomes clear no one is in charge. Juan Mendivil, a menswear buyer, fields opinions, but the decision doesn’t rest with him, and everyone has a say. They finally agree on solid colors and traditional cuts for Europe and bold patterns for China, where sales data indicate such styles are popular. Unlike rivals such as Gap, H&M, and Primark, Zara has no chief designer, and there’s little discernible hierarchy. Its 350 designers are given unparalleled independence in approving products and campaigns, shipping fresh styles to stores twice a week. Guided by daily data feeds showing what’s selling and what’s stalling, the teams develop fashions for the coming weeks. Every morning, staff in Arteixo divine what’s popular by monitoring sales figures and thousands of comments from customers, store managers, and country directors in cities as far-flung as Taipei, Moscow, and New York. Zara’s culture isn’t as easily copied as the latest fashion trends, and that partly explains why Inditex, its parent company, is a breakaway success while most global clothing retailers are struggling. American Apparel filed for bankruptcy in November for a second time, sales have fallen at Gap stores, and profit is down at H&M. In contrast, Inditex powered ahead with an 11 percent...

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