There is an active thread on HeyLululemon about the speed shorts length issues, and today we got an update. Matt Corker, from the quality assurance team, writes: [emphasis mine]
“Great question. We always want to improve our styles – even the classics.
We altered the pattern tolerances slightly for our spring and summer Speed Shorts (which affected the measurements and fit). We heard right away that that this change did not work for guests like you, so we jumped on it and adjusted the pattern specifications back to what you know and love. You’ll see this change in stores and online come Fall.
Hope this helps folks!”
First of all, I’m pleased that we got an answer that actually gives us a concrete answer of what’s going on, instead of the vague, loosey-goosey responses we’re used to.
Here is my take on the issue:
When Corker mentions “pattern tolerance”, this likely means two things. First, in order to produce shorts with a very high accuracy, there is an upper limit on how fast this can happen. If you loosen the standards, say, from 1/8″ accuracy to 1/2″ accuracy, a machine can slap shorts together much faster and therefore produce more shorts since it doesn’t have to be as meticulous (this is true of just about any process–less accurate is always faster). Second, this means you accept a wider range of cuts that would pass quality control. In plain terms, he is saying that they simply loosened the fit quality standards for the shorts. An increased in acceptable range definitely explains why pairs of identical sizes would fit differently in terms of length and leg opening, and the “sacrifice a little accuracy for speed” part explains why entire batches were affected. (I didn’t see any variation in the waistband, which makes sense: that would be one area where pattern tolerance would have to be very strict. Length and leg opening are–theoretically–more flexible.)
At first glance, this might sound like a silly thing to do, but here is why I think it was an understandable, rational business decision–albeit a decision that was ultimately unsuccessful and somewhat short-sighted.
As many of us are aware, before the length issues arose, speeds would sell out in the most popular sizes (4 and 6, mostly) within hours of being uploaded, and all sizes would be gone within a day or two. Clearly, there weren’t enough to go around, customers were peeved, and this was a case of scarcity being taken a little too far. Now, unfortunately the solution is not as simple as “just make more speeds!” Eventually this needs to happen, yes, but major changes in supply chain can take many months or even years before the customer sees a difference. If they’re stuck with the amount of manufacturing plants they have (for now), and if they’ve already ordered a set amount of fabric in a given colorway, they had to find a solution that would get more shorts in our hands without having to wait for the entire supply chain to adapt.
So what is the answer? Accept 1/2″ of variability (or so) and let more shorts through quality control. This doesn’t necessarily require a higher volume of manufacturing in terms of manpower and it works with the fabric you already have, so it’s a way to change supply relatively quickly, easily, and cheaply compared to beefing up the entire manufacturing process. By loosening their standards, now both a higher number and higher percentage of manufactured shorts would make it through to the customer, which means more supply for the customer on the other end. Unfortunately for lulu, this means that their attempt to sell more shorts actually resulted in selling less shorts. Even though there are more shorts available for the customer, we don’t like them and aren’t buying, so they are taking ages to sell out–that is, if they sell out at all before hitting markdown racks. Whoops.
And, sadly, even these changes take a while for the ripple effect to reach the customer. The shorts that will be offered this summer have likely already been manufactured with the loosened pattern tolerance. When you’re producing for such a large customer base, these changes take an incredible amount of time. Much like trying to U-turn in a battleship, a large enterprise can’t respond as rapidly and nimbly as we would like. So, alas, we are stuck with our hit-or-miss speeds for a few more months.
Of course, all this can be happening alongside efforts to grow their manufacturing process in general–and indeed, these changes probably are happening, just very slowly. Lulu has been growing fast over the past couple years–faster than most apparel companies–so it has been a perennial challenge for them to keep up with demand and maintain quality (as fans have been poignantly aware), all while sticking to their rather unusual business model. Unfortunately, this is a case where what we love about the company (i.e., a small volume of constantly new products) also turns into what we hate.
Hang tight, kids! We’ll get our beloved shorts back soon enough.
…And for those who are a fan of the longer fit: your speeds days are numbered, so stock up! :)