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The Value of a Zipper

By Kevin Meyer

Great article in Slate of all places on YKK - you know, that zipper company you've never heard of.  Maybe some of you have seen the initials on your zipper but I bet most haven't.  I'll tell you why I was especially impressed, then we'll go through a bit more of the article.

A typical 14-inch “invisible” YKK nylon zipper (the kind that disappears behind fabric when you zip up the back of a dress) costs about 32 cents. For an apparel maker designing a garment that will cost $40-$65 to manufacture, and will retail for three times that much or more, it’s simply not worth it to skimp. “The last thing we want to do is go with a competitor to save eight or nine cents per zipper and then have those zippers pop,” says Steve Clima, Turk’s senior production manager. “The cost difference just isn’t enough given the overall margins.”

Now that's a zipper on some clothing, where a failure is a "wardrobe malfunction."  I run a company that makes components for medical devices - long term implantable devices no less.  Our $20 part must meet exacting standards otherwise a $30,000 device requiring a $100,000 surgery fails.  Failure can cause death.  So what is the value of that $20 part?  And why do some of our customers spend a lot of [wasted] effort each year to try to get us to cough up a 5% price decrease?  Should that be their focus?

End of minor diatribe - it's been something that has always bothered me.  It's also been interesting how different customers in the exact same market treat value radically differently.  Some do everything they can to support us and consider us a partner, some try to gouge us and treat us as a "costly" component supplier.  Guess which gets the best support and effort from us.  Well, actually both types do.  Sorta.  Maybe our sales folks needs to start carrying a YKK zipper, and tell the story.

So here's some more of the YKK story.  First, there's a believe in the importance of just doing the right thing, for humanity and otherwise.

Yoshida also preached a management principle he termed “The Cycle of Goodness.” It holds that “no one prospers unless he renders benefit to others.” In practice, this boiled down to Yoshida striving to produce ever-higher quality with ever-lower costs. It seems intuitive, but it’s far from easy to do.

That focus on doing good and always improving creates value.

And in the end, the secret to YKK’s success is equally uncomplicated but equally impressive: YKK makes incredibly dependable zippers, ships them on time without fail, offers a wide range of colors, materials, and styles, and never gets badly undercut on price. The feeling in the apparel industry is that you can’t go wrong with YKK.

Dependability sometimes means retaining complete vertical control.

One by one, Yoshida brought basically every stage of the zipper making process in house: A 1998 Los Angeles Times story reported that YKK “smelts its own brass, concocts its own polyester, spins and twists its own thread, weaves and color-dyes cloth for its zipper tapes, forges and molds its scooped zipper teeth …” and on and on. YKK even makes the boxes it ships its zippers in. And of course it still manufactures its own zipper-manufacturing machines—which it carefully hides from the eyes of competitors. With every tiny detail handled under YKK’s roof, outside variables get eliminated and the company can assure consistent quality and speed of production.

Which of course has another benefit...

When the Japanese earthquake hit last year many supply chains were shredded, but YKK kept rolling along.

Lessons from the lowly... but valuable... zipper.

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3 Responses to "The Value of a Zipper"

  • Dan Markovitz
    7 May 2012 - 1:42 pm

    I worked in the outdoors industry for awhile, and there was no question that all our zippers had to be YKK. Occasionally we had to send product back to the factories because they contained counterfeit YKK zippers. When you’re selling a $350 tent or a $250 sleeping bag that has to withstand serious weather, you can’t risk a busted zipper.

  • Tony
    8 May 2012 - 9:26 am

    My wife came back from China with a pretty pair of jeans — but the zipper was wimpy,and broke within a few months.

    So the next time she went back, she took the jeans and a nice, heavy duty, metal, made in USA zipper (yes, they do exist), and had a seamstress replace the zipper – voila! – she has a nice pair of jeans with a zipper that cost more than the pants!

  • Paul Todd
    8 May 2012 - 11:13 am

    Indeed Tony, YKK has been making zippers in Macon, Georgia since 1977. They also make fasteners in Kentucky.