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Greener Selling
By Conrad Franey
February 2009

Clients demand more now than just an "organic cotton T-shirt." Here’s how to give it to them. 

I remember the fall of 2006 fondly. Apparel sales were booming. My stock portfolio sparkled. I invested in a condominium (brilliant move, that), and the Wizards of Wall Street could do no wrong.

Well, at least I’m still selling apparel. Actually, we’re still selling quite a bit of decorated eco apparel here at GatewayCDI (asi/202815), and you might be interested in learning how and why. First, here’s some history.

Back in fall 2006 the client contact at our largest account, a Silicon Valley-based IT company, phoned and said, “Our new corporate initiative is to be eco-friendly. We need to get rid of everything we have in our online store program and start fresh. We want to be 100% eco-friendly – immediately.”

Candidly, that still hasn’t happened – I mean the 100% part. After all, what does eco-friendly mean? Further, this is a big customer with lots of volume. We routinely place orders for 576 pieces of apparel. Many suppliers have nice things to say about their eco-products, but when we tried to order 576 pieces, we’d learn that was their production for the entire year, and they had 48 pieces in stock.

The transition was painful. We ran into many dead ends. We spent lots of time and money. We were frustrated. And, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to us. This particular customer forced us to be ahead of the curve in a movement that’s here, strong and not going away any time soon. 

All of our customers, large or small, are interested in the eco-story we tell. It pries open doors and helps us land new accounts. It lets us focus on informing the customer as opposed to negotiating price. Whether you’re on board with the eco-movement or not, your customers are interested – and it’s a valid sales strategy.

Secrets to eco-success
Let me share with you a few things we’ve learned about selling eco apparel:
• Do your research. You have to know the definitions of organic cotton and soy-based inks. You can’t simply talk sizing, colors and decoration these days. Your customers want more information about the products you’re pitching.
• As we say here at GatewayCDI, “Explain the why.” Why does a supplier say this or that product is eco-friendly? Is a water bottle truly eco-friendly because it can be re-used? You may think so, but your customer may not. We find that our customers are more interested in the why than they are in the description of the product itself.
• Inventory will be a challenge. This is a relatively new movement within our industry. Many of our suppliers are doing a terrific job catching up with this particular trend, but they are indeed still playing catch up.
• Eco-friendly items generally aren’t available in vibrant colors. Again, suppliers are improving their product selection, but the very nature of recycling goods makes it extremely difficult to produce vibrant colors.
• Think about your packaging. Does it make sense to ship an organic cotton T-shirt in an oil-based plastic bag? The same question goes for any hang tags you may affix. Your customers want three things: low price, eco-friendly and immediate availability. Tell them they can pick any two. Hey, nobody said it was a perfect world.
• Two years ago, much of the eco-friendly apparel in our industry resembled a high-end gunny sack and felt about as nice. Today, things are significantly better, but don’t kid yourself – your customer won’t enjoy the full range of color, style and sizing that he or she enjoyed with, for lack of a better term, standard apparel.
• Use reputable suppliers. Oh, the stories we could tell you about finding these “really cool” suppliers that are dedicated to saving the planet and selling eco-friendly apparel. That’s all well and good until you discover they have been in business for less than two years and operate out of their basement. (For the record, most all of these suppliers were not registered with any official wearables agency – they just had a passion and one or two products and they thought they understood our industry. Wrong!)
• Read, read and read some more.

Our eco information Web site, www.gateway-green.com, contains a wealth of industry information and sources to educate yourself on the eco-movement within the wearables industry.

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