Arteixo is a small town in northwestern Spain near the Atlantic, surrounded by fishing villages. In its center, a glass building sits amid acres of green lawn. It’s the headquarters of Zara, the company that introduced the idea of fast fashion some two decades ago, then developed a highly centralized and often studied—but rarely duplicated—design, manufacturing, and distribution system. The building is officially known as the Cube. Those who work there think of it as the brain.
The Cube is central command for a fashion empire built on an unconventional idea: speed and responsiveness are more important than cost. Zara is renowned for its ability to deliver new clothes to stores quickly and in small batches. Twice a week, at precise times, store managers order clothes, and twice a week, on schedule, new garments arrive. To achieve this, Zara controls more of its manufacturing than do most retailers: About half its clothes are made in Spain or nearby countries. For Zara, its supply chain is its competitive advantage.
Zara’s expanding global reach could finally put its Iberian Peninsula-based ecosystem to the test. Spain has always been its biggest market. But in 2013, China surpassed France to become its second-largest in terms of the number of stores (142). Expansion in China offers challenges for every retailer. And it could put the Spanish clothier in a singular predicament, because Zara is a global company that doesn’t act locally. “The secret to their success has been centralization,” says Felipe Caro, an associate professor at the University of California at Los Angeles’s Anderson School of Management and a business adviser to the company. “They can make decisions in a very coordinated manner.” Zara’s ability to control its inventory from Arteixo is a key piece of its business model. “As soon as they decide to localize, to have two brains, one in Spain and one in China, it will be a different Zara,” Caro says.
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