Double Or Nothing

Resolve To Double Your Apparel Sales In 2014

Double or NothingWant a New Year’s resolution for your business, one that is sure to grow revenues and expand your local footprint? Resolve to double your apparel sales in 2014.

There are many customers, markets, and programs that are looking for just the right help with their apparel programs. Now is the time to focus on these customers, and ramp up your apparel sales. Here are several tips from suppliers, decorators and distributors to give you the edge you’ve been looking for.

1 - Understand What You’re Selling
If you really want to rev-up sales, you have to know the nitty-gritty details of the apparel you’re pitching. The greater your product knowledge, the more likely you are to ask clients better questions.

“Because over 35% of our garments today are what we’d call performance garments – garments that do a job rather than just convey a great brand image – you need to assess the customers’ needs before you can recommend the perfect solution,” says Mary Ellen Nichols, director of marketing communications for Top 40 supplier Bodek & Rhodes (asi/40788). “There are now nine categories of performance wear: Wicking shirts, stain-resistant, wrinkle-resistant, stretch, wind and water protection, UV protection, odor resistance and insect repellent.”

With so many category options available, Nichols recommends asking customers these four questions: What would you like the garment to do? What type of environment will the garment be worn in the most? Who will be wearing the garment? What special features are needed? “This helps you show your expertise, as well as up your sale by recommending higher-end solutions,” she says.

John Perez, a spokesperson for Top 40 firm Tri-Mountain (asi/92125), says distributors must be equally prepared to answer a customer’s questions – and talk about why their apparel is better than a competitor’s.

“Clients may be willing to pay a little more for products that are unique, but they need to understand why they’re paying more,” he says. “Explaining the science behind new fabric technologies is important to help close a sale.”

On higher-end or performance apparel, Nichols thinks an in-person demonstration will give you an advantage. “We recommend you actually show the garment from the inside out – show the professional finish of the seams, the reinforced collar, stability of sweat patches, the fused linings on cuffs. It all goes to your bottom line,” she says.

Buyers also love visuals, and the more true-to-life your demonstration is, the better, according to Nichols. “If the fabric does something special, like resists stains well or is water-repellent, pour water on it in your presentation,” she says. “Show-and-tell works in this experiential economy we’re in.”

Nichols also says distributors should read up on apparel facts listed on suppliers’ websites. Learning a few extra pointers can give distributors greater command of trends in front of clients. “Knowing answers to questions like, ‘Why does a woman’s shirt button on the opposite side than a man’s?’ or ‘What makes cotton truly organic?’ will position you as the authority and help you gain confidence from the buyer,” she says.

2 - Wear Your Stuff
After you master apparel styles and fabrics, you need to dress for success – but in a different way than you have before. Jeff Schmitt, an account executive for Cedric Spring & Associates (asi/332750), says distributors should never try to sell their clients a piece of clothing that they wouldn’t be willing to wear themselves. “When you’re selling apparel, you’ve got to be wearing it,” he says. “It drives my wife nuts, but she can’t buy me clothing at the store. It has to be out of one of our catalogs with my logo on it.”

In fact, Schmitt wears something that he sells every day. “That’s a mistake that distributors make – they don’t wear enough of what they sell,” Schmitt says. “They go to the store and buy retail.”

Schmitt has earned the trust of many customers by discouraging them from buying something that he knows isn’t high-quality. He serves as a product tester and is a walking testimonial for the best apparel items. “There are things I’ve worn myself that I’ll never show a customer,” he says. “If I don’t like it, why would I want to sell it to them? That just makes me look bad.”

Instead, Schmitt takes a different and more productive tact. “There are times when I own a certain brand T-shirt and someone will say, ‘I like this,’ and I’ll say to them, ‘I’ve worn it. It doesn’t hold up as well as this other shirt. With the extra 10 cents you’ll spend on this product, you’ll be much happier.’ And they’ll say, ‘We appreciate your candor, and we’ll go with that other one for the extra 10 cents.’”

Schmitt firmly believes that going into a meeting wearing a high-quality garment gives you a better chance of selling the item. “If you’re wearing a piece, it sells a lot easier than if it’s on a hanger,” he says. “They’ll see it in a real-life application and they’ll ask you questions about it.”

From a supplier’s point of view, Nichols says Schmitt has it exactly right. “Model what you want to sell. If you’re wearing it, you’re the ultimate poster child for your favorites,” she says. “Bring an extra in the buyer’s size to try on.”

3 - Make It Personal
Since apparel is the ultimate show-me category, you have to bring samples when you visit a potential customer. There are no exceptions. “Be able to put it into their hands and the customer will say, ‘Wow, I never thought of that,’” says Greg Kitson, president of decorating company Mind’s Eye Graphics. “It’s a great door opener. It gets you past a gatekeeper many times – even that receptionist whose job it is to say ‘no’ to salespeople.”

But remember, you can’t just bring random shirts and jackets. Instead, you have to connect with prospects by introducing apparel items that already have their logo on them.

“If you’ve got a sample in your hands that’s got their logo on it – not the distributor’s logo – you have a much better chance of talking to the person that has purchasing authority,” says Kitson.

The trick to generating samples, according to Kitson, is for distributors to agree on a budget with their decorating partners. This is a point many distributors gloss over, preventing them from consistently personalizing samples. “Sit down and establish a sample budget or arrangement because samples are something that decorators absolutely despise,” Kitson says. “We spend time – equipment time, staff time – and we don’t get adequately compensated for it. There’s no way that we get compensated for the actual time we spend on samples.”

But if a distributor can come up with a budget – say, 2% of a $10,000 order – for samples, or at the very least, present a concrete argument for the creation of samples, Kitson believes decorators will be more likely to produce them.

Schmitt understands the need on the decorator’s end to know that the production of samples will ultimately be profitable. “They have to shut down their machines to do that,” he says. “But I do a lot of business with my decorators, so for them to do a sample, they’re OK with it.”

There are times when pushing hard for samples are more important than others. “If you see an opening where there’s been shoddy workmanship from competitors, you can show how you’re better,” Schmitt says. “It’s not about price; it’s about delivering the best product to the customer. You can’t put a price on that, and customers are willing to work with you because of that.”

4 - Verify the Customer’s Logo
Distributors too often cost themselves additional business, according to Kitson, by botching a logo. Here’s a key point: Logo verification isn’t just about checking spelling and colors, it’s about making sure a logo is being reproduced as intended on the right types of garments.

“A lot of times, what we try to do is really reinforce the concept of what we call the art target,” Kitson says. “The art target doesn’t necessarily have to be apparel – what we’re looking for is how their company’s logo has been reproduced in the corporate world. Has this piece of artwork or a configuration of this artwork been reproduced in apparel or any other form prior to this use? It could be their business card. It could be their letterhead. It could be the header of a Facebook page. Without those art targets, we really don’t know what the expectation is.”

Kitson says he also tries to verify that art target on his end – and if what he finds doesn’t match up with what the distributor sends over, it’s a red flag. “If we go and we get a piece of artwork from a website and we see that this logo is treated differently – there’s a two-color vs. a three- or a four-color logo – we start asking questions at that point,” he says. “But we’re the backup. If the distributor has done this upfront, it shows them as being a professional with the best interest of the customer in mind.”

Kitson estimates that 75% of his distributor partners understand the importance of submitting the proper color callouts prior to the creation of the logo on the apparel. “The other 25% are just in it for the short-term, or they don’t care,” he says, “and then we have to make a value judgment on our part. Is the business that this customer’s bringing us worth the additional maintenance required? If the end-user is not happy, they’re going someplace else.”

5 - Finish Strong
Winning new clients is great, but if you can’t hold onto your current customers, doubling your annual apparel sales becomes a long shot. Nichols believes there are three things that distributors can do in closing a sale to generate repeat business with customers.

First, find out if there’s anything else your client needs. You can even pull out a calendar and reference events and dates. “Never leave an appointment without asking what other apparel needs they have – whether it’s for an upcoming anniversary program or trade show,” says Nichols. “You never know when there might be another project in the wings, or even a personal need for an apparel program, like for fundraising or a related school or club project the buyer is involved with. Keep digging, or ask for a referral to a friend who could use your services. It sure beats a cold call.”

Next, be sure to offer packaging and special delivery options. “Always ask how the customer would like you to deliver the garments,” Nichols says. “Do they need tote bags? Boxes? Poly bags? Other accessories? You can help with it all, and add to your sale, almost every time.”

Finally, tap into your generous side. “When you ship an order, include another type of garment also decorated in the size of the buyer as a gift,” Nichols says. “Before you know it, you’ll generate another new order, or an additional inquiry. It works over 40% of the time.”