Focus on Mills: The U.K. Mills of Yesteryear Look for New Strategies

September 5, 1999

The United Kingdom -- If one requests the Public Relations department at a mill in the United Kingdom, the operator remains silent. For years, mills in the UK created fabrics. They didn't market themselves, or try to put a creative flair to their work. Now, times have changed. The stagnant market has created a situation in which the mills find that if they don't take action soon, there will be no action to be had.
British interior furnishings exports continue to grow, according to Peter Ackroyd, director general of the British Wool Textile Export Corporation. The U.S. market is proving particularly receptive. The Corporation was founded in 1947 and has built up a considerable reputation as the definitive export-led trade body for the UK textile industry (apparel as well as furnishing fabrics). It researches new markets and helps manufacturers to penetrate those new markets. It also consolidates existing markets through trade missions, trade exhibitions and promotions, and is the active sponsor of overseas trade exhibitions and missions including Proposte and Decosit.
"The British presence at Proposte 1999 again doubled. From only one UK exhibitor two years ago, the British presence now makes up over 10 percent of the exhibitors at this prestigious show. The international market is recognizing the creative and innovative strengths of the British industry and the UK mills are becoming increasingly competitive in terms of color and design," said Ackroyd.
"The furnishings sector internationally is becoming more fashion-led, resulting in a far less traditional approach to British interior collections. With a major presence at three international furnishing sector trade shows (Heimtextil in Germany, Decosit in Belgium and Proposte in Italy), the UK mills are able to remain at the forefront and to continually develop their collections." Ackroyd pointed out the demands that a show like Proposte puts on its exhibitors. Companies must offer the best in design and color. "UK mills are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their production techniques to meet the stringent demands of customers for innovation, color and design combinations," said Ackroyd.
Mills in the UK are finding that customers want individuality. It has become apparent that to be successful, a mill must invest the time and resources in producing ever-different constructions, designs and collaboration. Mills have even begun to explore 'added value" as a way to make themselves more marketable by adding treatments such as Scotchguard'.
It seems that, paradoxically, those trying to sell on price alone are fighting a hard battle while those offering more expensive, bespoke fabrics for niche markets are successful in both the UK and export marketplace. It is innovation, creativity and the ability to marry today's technology with the endemic skills of the local workforce that has fueled the success of these specialists.
Judging by the increase in the number of UK mills taking part in exhibitions like Proposte and Decosit, and the profusion of brochures and Web sites emanating from this sector, it appears that this traditional industry, steeped in the history of its ancestors, has finally grasped the fact that to survive it must market itself. Most UK mills are family concerns and, it appears, have an inherent capacity to work together with customers, to develop constructions to exactly meet customers' unique requirements, and to cement long term partnerships.
Whether this trend continues and whether companies competing to create distinctive fabrics will strive to create just as distinctive literature and Web sites is to be seen. The road ahead is long and paved with much difficulty. Many mills are still wary of talking to the press, let alone adding a marketing department or the help of a Public Relations firm. There are some notable exceptions, like Bute Fabrics, that not only has very distinctive and sophisticated literature, but also employs a London
PR agency.
For the most part, progress is slow and the switch from the position of having customers beating a path to their door to the situation where the mills have to actively and strenuously market themselves has been a culture shock to many. F&FI

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