Cutting Edge Apparel Business Guide logo Cutting Edge Apparel Business Guide logo
Previous/next page

Copyright 2006
Cornell University.
All rights reserved.


Product Development Stages

Understanding Customer Needs

The first thing to consider in product development is what your customer wants.

  • What are customers buying now?
  • What will they want in the future?
  • What would they buy if it were available?

It is important to identify NEEDS that potential customers may not even know they have. Who thought 20 years ago that we would be wearing sandals that can be worn in water or hiking up a mountain? Or that we would wear underwear that shows through our tops? Successful product development addresses customer needs.

Researching the market is the next step.

  • What's being offered in the market?
  • Who is offering it (i.e., the competitors)?
  • What are the current consumer trends in color, styles, and lifestyle?

A variety of methods make thorough research easy. This research can help you determine how your product fills a gap in the market. But research cannot assure 100% success to your product. Use it as one step in your product development process.

You can do the research to identify customer needs on your own or pay someone else to do it. You can also buy data from research that has already been conducted. The objective is to make certain that someone NEEDS your product and that it is different from other products being offered.

Each target group has specific design needs

Trend reports
There are a number of companies that sell trend reports-on consumer buying habits, fashionable colors, and predictions or forecasts of the next new styles and products. lists a number of organizations that sell their information on clothing and textile trends. The reports are generally expensive (i.e., hundreds of dollars) and are sold to many entrepreneurs, so others are using the same trend information. The information can be based on past sales or "educated" guesses by industry professionals. Be sure to identify the source of the information and what it represents.

Consumer studies
You can go directly to consumers and ask them what they are buying and what they would like to buy. You can also test out your product idea in this way.
You can ask your friends and family or potential customers to evaluate your product idea using written surveys, interviews, or focus groups.

Surveys and interviews should be short. Respect the time of your participants. A survey should usually be no longer than one side of one page, easy to read and understand, and quick to fill out. An interview should take no longer than a minute or two.

Focus groups have the added value of discussion among the participants. As the name suggests, the discussion should be focused by the leader with a few general questions. But the participants should be allowed to wander in their thoughts so that they reveal and describe their unmet needs. It is a good idea to audio record focus group sessions so that you can listen to them many times. Focus group discussions often uncover valuable information for product development through free-form discussions.

Observations are another method to evaluate consumer needs and buying habits. Watching customers interact with products similar to yours and listening to their comments can give you insights on what they value. Point-of-purchase interviews ask questions about the specific products customers are buying at that moment. Intercept studies in shopping malls can be set up to compare several products at once, often in a room off the main hallways. Shoppers are selected randomly or by their interest in similar products on their current shopping trip.

Mills photo
"We have a very small line that fits a wide range of people. The only thing they have in common is they like the style of the product. They like the colors. They like the silhouettes. They like the way it fits and, lastly, they’re will to spend some money on it.."

Malia Mills describes the target market for her swimwear line, contrasting the approach with other businesses that define a very narrow target market.


Market competition
Shopping the market is a tried and true method of identifying your competition. Buyers at the major department stores shop the market regularly, sometimes as often as once a week. First, decide where you would want to sell your product. Go to these stores, web sites, or catalogs and look at the available products. Make a chart for future use noting the materials, colors, styles, and costs of the products. Then, compare your product idea.

Relationship between customer needs and your product
Analyzing your research results is the last step in understanding customer needs. You are actually testing whether the market is ready for your product or service idea.

  • How is your product/service different from what's already available?
  • What makes you think the market is ready for your product or service idea?
  • Why do you think consumers will buy your product or service?
  • How much will they be willing to pay for it?





Top of pagetop arrow
Previous/next page