By Melissa Fares and Sonya Dowsett
NEW YORK/MADRID (Reuters) - The holy grail for apparel brands facing rising uncertainty and cost in their global supply chains is to make their merchandise closer to the point of the sale.
Entertainment companies from Walt Disney Co to Dr. Seuss are increasingly turning to Amazon.com Inc's t-shirt printing service to help it get there. The trend is up-ending the traditional licensing model where brands worked with apparel wholesalers to produce garments and get them into stores.
The 'Merch by Amazon' on-demand printing service, in its third full year of operation, works by printing t-shirts once an order comes in, meaning content creators like video game makers and pay TV channels do not have to commit to a large merchandise inventory upfront.
This allows companies to offer t-shirts featuring niche characters that would not warrant a wide distribution.
"You can list overnight on Amazon all the merchandise that's for sale and then as you book sales you just make it and ship it," said intellectual property lawyer Gaston Kroub. "It completely cuts out that whole traditional supply chain."
The expanding service is another way in which Amazon is becoming a major player in the clothing industry. The company had a group of patents granted in recent years outlining a process to integrate fabric printing, cutting, sewing and dispatch to a customer in one computer-controlled process.
For a graphic, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2YTBJ1C
Bringing apparel manufacture back to the United States and Europe would eliminate the long production times and commitment to big orders inherent for Western apparel brands sourcing from countries like China, Vietnam and Indonesia.
When fabric cutting is delayed to the last possible moment and garments are produced on-demand, it can also prevent the pile-up of unsold inventory, allowing brands to sell more stock at full price.
Amazon told Reuters the 'Merch by Amazon' format allowed it to offer designs across 21 colors and 15 sizes without brands and content creators having to manage inventory.
It said it was interested in all brand types from major entertainment brands to musicians, consumer products and social media influencers with a minimum of 100,000 followers.
Following an upheaval of consumer habits, which has led to the shuttering of thousands of small apparel stores, Amazon has overtaken Walmart Inc as the most-shopped clothing retailer in the United States and outpaced Marks and Spencer Group PLC in Britain, according to surveys.
Amazon has a try-before-you-buy service as well as many of its own private label clothing brands.
Royalty revenue from sales of licensed merchandise and services globally amounted to $14.5 billion last year, up 2.6% from 2017, according to professional licensing association LIMA, with more than half of that coming from the U.S. and Canada.
Entertainment and character licensing was the biggest industry category, while apparel, toys and fashion was the biggest product category, a LIMA survey found.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises has increased sales through 'Merch by Amazon' by 40 percent since opening its store on the site around 18 months ago, selling t-shirts and hoodies emblazoned with characters like The Grinch and The Cat the Hat, president Susan Brandt told Reuters.
Dr. Seuss helps Amazon with design, but Amazon sources the clothing and handles the sales and distribution, a Dr. Seuss Enterprises spokeswoman said. Dr. Seuss also sells licensed products through stores like Target Corp and Walmart, she said.
Disney, which started printing t-shirts on-demand through Amazon in December 2016, has increased orders and expanded offerings from all its franchises since then, including Disney, Star Wars, Pixar and Marvel, a company spokeswoman said.
Disney also uses traditional licensing models to manufacture and sell products, the spokeswoman said.
Pay TV channel Cartoon Network, which started working with 'Merch by Amazon' in 2016, has added designs and increased profits via the service since then, a company spokeswoman said.
The brand prints with other vendors, but the on-demand service allows it to give frequent design updates and offer secondary characters that may not be available in traditional stores, she said.
"The profit-sharing on-demand model existed before Amazon started their effort, but the size that they are, they have created a tidal wave," said Gabi Seligsohn, former CEO and current board member of Kornit Digital Ltd, the Israeli company that provides textile printers for 'Merch by Amazon’.
The business is growing. Environmental authorities in Philadelphia have approved an expansion at Amazon's Pennsylvania printing facility, allowing nearly 50% more printers, the Philadelphia Department of Environment told Reuters.
Amazon also runs a second printing facility in Dallas, which was also recently granted preliminary permission to install more printers, a spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said.
Beyond the United States, Amazon has launched a 'Merch by Amazon' printing facility in Poland in mid-2018 that serves the British and German markets.
Amazon said it had not made any announcements regarding expansion.
Showing further interest in on-demand apparel manufacture, Amazon has been actively seeking patents in the space. Intellectual property lawyers say this shows where companies think the technology is going.
"There is no doubt that patenting activity is indicative of some kind of market trend," said John Lanza, Boston-based intellectual property lawyer at Foley & Lardner LLP. "On-demand apparel manufacture is very hot."
In 2017, Amazon Technologies was granted a U.S. patent for on-demand apparel manufacturing whereby a textile printer, textile cutter and computing device are linked up to cut out garment patterns and align them for sewing in response to electronic orders.
Amazon Technologies has been granted other patents linked to on-demand apparel manufacture since then, including continuous feed fabric cutting using lasers and a robotic system that uses fluorescent ink as a guide for cutting fabric.
Amazon, a prolific patent generator and one of the United States' top patent holders, declined to say whether it had put any of the patents into production. Amazon said it filed a number of forward-looking patent applications to explore new technologies and said they did not necessarily reflect current developments to products and services.
"The trend for things becoming on-demand is only going to grow," said Lanza.
(Writing By Sonya Dowsett; editing by Vanessa O'Connell and Edward Tobin)