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It's a 24/7 World
By Betsy Cummings

We surveyed the top wearables suppliers to see how they’re serving distributors online. The good news is that they’re listening to you.

globeIn the past few years, to boost her presence online, Taeo Haas has cycled through 10 e-commerce companies, been turned off by $5,000 setup fees, had staff resources sucked dry by the time and resources it takes to post images online, and finally tossed up her hands and walked away from the whole thing. Today, Haas, who’s owner of distributorship Fairfax Screen Printing (asi/191445), says, “I don’t sell a thing via the Internet.”

More and more customers in the industry, whether distributors, suppliers or end-users, want to purchase products online – and Haas knows it. But operating smoothly online, she says, has been easier said than done.

Haas’s frustrations are understandable. But they’re steadily becoming an anomaly. Advertising specialty companies are quickly moving products, product catalogs, ordering capabilities and other services online, to make ordering easier for them and their customers. In a recent exclusive Wearables survey of the top 16 apparel suppliers in the industry, 15 of them said they include all of their products in an online catalog.

Until recently, many suppliers thought of Web sites as more of a Web place marker, announcing their existence but offering little else. In the past few years that notion has changed, and the market’s momentum is rapidly swinging toward offering robust online ordering options and product catalogs over the Internet.

Doing so allows companies to showcase product updates instantly, close deals faster, and avoid some of the hassles and costs paper catalogs can burden suppliers with. “We’ve been online for several years,” says David Lobel, director of technology for supplier Eva Tees Inc. (asi/52835), expressing the sense of urgency his company feels to become Internet savvy and competitive. “Most of the big players” do offer ordering capabilities and extensive product information online, he says.

CATALOGS GO VIRTUAL

Almost the moment distributor LogoDogz (asi/255216) put its catalog online, the staff realized one thing: its print catalog was now obsolete. With 25 different Web sites and a slew of corporate stores, the company has embraced an online model exclusively, says Rodney McDonald, the company’s president.

“Since 2002, we have not had a paper catalog,” he says. “We had to hand photograph every product,” McDonald says, which was no easy task. But having a Web presence exclusively allows the company to be ever changing (“you can’t have a Web site that’s static,” McDonald says) and gives them quicker feedback and order processing from customers.

Similarly, four years ago Cardinal Activewear began receiving requests from customers to offer online ordering capabilities. That’s when Cardinal, which sells products wholesale to embroiderers and other decorators, decided to make it’s business virtual. “It’s tremendously boosted our business 3,000%,” says Laura Elkins, the company’s IT manager. Online sales make up as much as 45% of the company’s annual $3 million in revenue.

In recent years suppliers have tried to beat competitors with compelling print catalogs strategically dropped at key times of the year that preceded heavy buying periods by their customers – fourth-quarter publications, for example, that would help jumpstart first-quarter purchasing in the new year.

While they may still do that, they’re making sure that catalogs sent through the mail coincide simultaneously with what’s on their Web site. “We’re a bi-channel company now,” says Lee Strom, senior manager of marketing at SanMar (asi/84863). “A significant portion of our sales come through online.” That’s supported, he says, by new online offerings that coincide with print catalogs that are now posted online through a multitude of Web sites that support the company’s lines – such as Port Authority, District Threads and Red House – in individual dynamic and evolving Web sites for many of these brands.

The idea, Strom says, is almost like creating virtual retail windows for each of these brands’ catalogs. Separating the brands with online catalogs and ordering sites (with no mention of SanMar on the sites) helps strengthen them by creating individual sites so visitors develop specific, individual experiences and brand impressions with each clothing line. Having separate sites, rather than one print catalog with all the company’s brands in them helps eliminate confusion for the end-user and gives them fewer items to focus on in greater detail.

ORDERING ON THE FLY

This spring, Broder Bros. (asi/42090) re-launched three of its company’s Web sites to become the “first true business-to-business Web site in the marketplace,” says Girisha Chandraraj, vice president of marketing for the supplier.

Doing so made ordering online exceptionally easy for customers. Broder has done this by adding such features as Express Order, a service that allows distributors who know exactly what they want to move quickly through the company’s Web site by entering specific product numbers, then easily ordering multiple variations of a product through drop-down menus.

When analyzing earlier site traffic, Chandraraj says, the company realized that clients didn’t enter “ambiguous search terms” on the site but knew exactly what they wanted. “They wanted to get to the style, look at the inventory and prices, add it to their cart and get back to running their business,” he says. Broder’s old site didn’t allow that, he says, but the new site does.

At Hartwell Apparel (asi/60135), which does $2 million a year in online orders, Jason Padgett, the company’s senior designer, says, reorders are that much easier online, particularly with blank reorders where “we’ve added a full order history so customers can see their orders through a member account.”

Other aspects of ordering, such as returns, are also made more easily online, suppliers and distributors say. Those who order products from Broder and others have learned that returns done online are not only simple but free. Broder offers free UPS label printing options and no restocking fees for orders that are returned via online processes. The new program, called Web Returns, mimics online giants like Amazon, Chandraraj says, in an effort to make ordering and returning easy.

And clients who order online at companies such as Blake & Hollister (asi/40631) are often given incentives to do so, through offers for free shipping, for example. With these industry changes, nearly 50% of the suppliers Wearables surveyed said they expect more industry changes in the next 18 months that will help distributors and end-users place more orders online.

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ANALYZING ORDERS
Suppliers who take orders by phone, fax and e-mail can certainly compile those orders into an Excel file and analyze ordering patterns among their client base. But online ordering offers instant analysis and a quicker picture of what customers are looking for.

Since launching its new sites this spring, the buying habits of Broder’s customers have become blatantly obvious, Chandraraj says – patterns that weren’t apparent to company executives before. For example, clients who order one T-shirt are more likely to order additional shirts in different colors than they are to order varying styles of shirts. Placing those orders just got easier thanks to new drop-down menus on the company’s new Web site that more closely mimic typical distributor interests.

Buying patterns also help company executives predict which products to group together in ordering menus, Chandraraj says. Customers, for example, who “order Gildan are most likely to also order Hanes” apparel, he says, helping the company tweak the site to the most popular ordering interfaces.

At Eva Tees, a similar analysis of its online product catalog is making order patterns, and therefore future orders, easier as the company tracks how and what clients purchase, Lobel says. Where previously customers had to wade through drop-down boxes of different colors for each apparel item they ordered, now they can also shop by colors, and “order different quantities of apparel items across different colors on one screen,” Lobel says.

By tracking clicks and page views through online catalogs, suppliers are starting to realize buying preferences (via colors instead of shirt types, for example) to make purchasing easier and faster. “We have to make the process as easy as possible,” Lobel says, so that customers accustomed to thumbing through paper catalogs will remember an easier, faster experience online and make it their ordering method of choice.

REAL-TIME INVENTORY

Distributors who do business with Eva Tees have two Web sites at their disposal: one for them, which offers product, pricing and ordering information, and one for their customers, sans prices. Logging into their own account gives distributors access to extensive information, Lobel says.

“Our users need to log in to access their account to see pricing and inventory, which helps them determine if something will be shipped out that day or the next or put on back order,” Lobel says.

Such online tracking gives distributors greater control and peace of mind over their orders, knowing exactly when they’ll ship and when their customers can expect them. “Orders are directly tied to the system so customers can see real-time inventory,” Lobel says.

For companies with multiple locations, viewing inventory online can help distributors place orders with the right office or help suppliers ship materials out of the closest location to make orders move faster. “For example, if a customer is ordering Gildan 2000s and they typically pick orders up in our Atlanta warehouse, they can choose to show all colors and inventory that is in stock there,” through the company’s online catalog and inventory management system, says Marty Ostendorf, vice president of TSC Apparel (asi/90518). “If they’re more interested in the inventory level of a particular color, customers simply click on the color and it shows the inventory available at each of our locations.”

SITES AS SALES TOOL

Besides offering separate Web sites for distributors (one for themselves, the other for their clients, sans prices), suppliers are realizing that online catalogs and other tools are a great way to gain customer loyalty by offering them sales tools that can be customized to each distributor. Wearables found that 69% (11 of the 16) suppliers surveyed said their Web sites offer distributors a way to create sell sheets that they can forward to end-users.

At SanMar, for example, a distributor can customize product catalog Web videos generated by SanMar and send them to end-users as if they came directly from the distributor. “Customers can personalize the video with their logo on it and send it on to their e-mail list,” Strom says. In addition, the company offers high- and low-resolution images of all its apparel items for distributors to use individually for e-mail flyers, newsletters or other pitches.

Other suppliers are offering similar online catalog perks. At Hartwell Apparel, Padgett says it offers an online tool so that distributors can make their own flyers promoting Hartwell products. The tool allows customers to feature three products of their choice, customize it with their own headline and subhead, include product descriptions, then either e-mail the flyer as a PDF file, or download and print it out as a hard copy to distribute on sales calls and in their offices.

In an industry that’s built on relationships figuring out ways to encourage online ordering without losing the personal touch can be tough. “With an online landscape a lot of things become more matter of fact,” Strom says.

While business conducted online can save suppliers thousands of dollars in operating costs, it’s key to build client rapport, even if phone conversations are lessened. Using strategies such as Web sites and customer-specific videos, suppliers say they’re slowly but steadily transitioning the industry toward e-commerce without losing customer loyalty. “We’re looking at ways to build relationships online, and ways to make that online relationship more sticky,” Strom says.

That will be key as the industry continues to move catalogs and ecommerce to the Web. “The business is 24 hours a day now and it’s becoming more global,” Padgett says. “The online element’s going to get stronger and stronger.

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