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Pitch Performance Fabrics

Wearables Sales Forecast 2013
By Betsy Cummings

No Unforeseen WrinklesStan Rudman didn't realize the commotion his company would stir when it introduced a new fabric to its product line three years ago. Products like the company's Solar System UV-40 Tee are certainly impressive, given that the shirts are antimicrobial, resist odors, dry in 15 minutes when wet, and offer UV protection at an SPF over 40.

But Rudman, principal and owner of Hook & Tackle (asi/88796), wouldn't have predicted a 70% rise in sales of the T-shirts when they first hit the market. "In the last couple of years that portion of our T-shirt business has blown up," he says.

The Miami-based supplier isn't alone. Cotton T-shirts once made up the majority of orders at Team Mates Inc. (asi/90674). But since the supplier started selling performance apparel five years ago, "it has to be at least 50/50, if not maybe 70/30" in favor of performance fabrics, says President Mike Little.

Why have performance shirts exploded on the apparel scene?

Exclusive Features: The capabilities of polyester fabrics, such as quick dry times and UV protection (factors that most cotton tees can't deliver on), heavily sway clients. As a result, end-users perceive it having a higher value.

Price Considerations: Market fluctuations in cotton prices, Little says, including a spike a couple of years ago, opened the door to clients considering performance materials over normally inexpensive cotton fabrics.

Increasing Budgets: Companies able to afford $2 more per shirt are starting to open their wallets now that the economy has stabilized. That, combined with in-person samples that surprise and impress customers, are helping distributors sell more performance shirts.

A Sportier Lifestyle: Corporate clients are responding to the lifestyle needs of end users, providing them with shirts that match their interests, and a sportier routine outside of the office. As active lifestyle and fitness trends permeate retail apparel markets, buyers in the corporate and promotional arena are aiming to capitalize on the shift.

Marketing Push: Harry Ein, owner of Perfection Promo (asi/466732), an iPROMOTEu affiliate in San Francisco, believes the ad specialty market is boosting corporate interest in performance apparel. Suppliers, he says, are reducing costs for some performance shirts, providing more samples, and promoting the items with greater verve when showing distributors their latest product lines. That, coupled with distributors providing samples to clients, has made all the difference.

Delightful PerformancePerformance T-shirt sales comprise 5% of Perfection Promo's overall business, but that number is on the rise, particularly in the area of athletics. This year, Ein sold 175 pieces of a performance shirt to a branch of a Bay Area health club chain, netting $3.99 per shirt. In the past, those types of orders might have been exclusively for cotton shirts, he says. Now a sister location in southern California is placing a similar order. "I feel like budgets are opening up more than last year," Ein says, explaining the increased orders for performance apparel. "It's definitely easier this year to sell something that's a better quality piece and that has a higher perceived value when the economy's doing better."

Stronger margins on performance fabrics embolden distributors to pitch them in other product categories. Cathy Cummings, supplier relations manager for AIA Corporation (asi/109480), has seen a sharp rise in sales of polo shirts made with performance fabrics; they now account for 10% to 15% of the company's business, Cummings says. "That would have been between 3% and 5% a few years ago," she says.

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