Top Performer

As Fabric Trends Go, Performance Features Are The Biggest Thing To Hit The Apparel Market In Decades

Performance T'sStan 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 seemed precedent-setting, sure. The fact that the company's shirts are antimicrobial, resist odors, dry in 15 minutes when wet, and offer UV protection at an SPF over 40 is impressive.

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. Suppliers and distributors these days say performance fabric T-shirts, while not a total replacement of the ubiquitous cotton tee, are finding a solid niche in the market and are gaining share fast. "The cotton tee is still king," says Mary Ellen Nichols, director of marketing for Philadelphia-based Bodek and Rhodes (asi/40788), "but the sale of performance tees has been a lollapalooza for the market."

Attractive Qualities Mike Little, president of supplier firm Team Mates Inc. (asi/90674), which started selling performance apparel five years ago, has witnessed the market for performance fabrics increase quickly over the past few years. A big reason for the shift toward performance fabrics?

Power of Performance Ts"They last longer and they're moisture-wicking," Little says, "and that makes a huge difference to customers."

The fabric's capabilities, such as quick dry times and UV protection – factors cotton tees can't deliver on – are a bonus for companies looking to offer a promotional item that end-users will perceive as having a higher value.

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. And, experience with it has sparked a continued interest in buying performance tees again.

Whereas once cotton T-shirts made up the majority of Team Mates' orders, now, Little says, "it has to be at least 50/50, if not maybe 70/30" in favor of performance fabrics. In fact, the shift in sales has been so great that Little thinks the recent increase of orders for performance tees could signal a permanent shift in the market.

Others agree. Performance T-shirt sales may represent less than 5% of overall company sales at Halo Branded Solutions (asi/356000), but they've been rising fast, says Terry McGuire, senior vice president of marketing for the Sterling, IL-based Top 40 distributor.

Similarly, Harry Ein, owner of Perfection Promo (asi/466732), an iPROMOTEu affiliate in San Francisco, says performance T-shirt sales, though less than 5% of his business today, are on the rise, particularly in the area of athletics. Ein says he recently sold 175 pieces of Bodek and Rhodes' 8420L 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, Ein 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."

Creating a New Market Ultimately, the shift toward apparel (mostly T-shirts) with performance qualities has helped ad specialty distributors penetrate new markets and open up new opportunities. As new sports-related apparel has become significantly more popular at retail – with fitness buffs and weekend workout warriors looking to emulate their professional counterparts – the trend of enhanced fitness and sports apparel has ramped up interest in new apparel categories for corporate buyers.

But Ein, for one, says the ad specialty market is also responsible for 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.

"With this kind of shirt, you say, ‘moisture-wicking,' and some get it and some don't," says Ein, referring to meetings with clients. "When you have the shirt there and they can touch it and feel the product, they can see the perceived value. Having it in person works better than promotional fliers."

And, while ad specialty distributors and suppliers are creating incentives to promote performance apparel, the buyer market seems ready for the shift. "We're trending about 10% ahead on performance tees," says Gary Biron, vice president of marketing and vendor relations at Geiger (asi/202900), a Top 40 distributor based in Lewiston, ME.

Biron and others say performance tees are gaining steam and a much larger share of the market these days because of a strengthening economy in which companies are expanding their ad specialty budgets. Performance apparel – whose costs swing with oil prices because they're a petroleum-based product category – can have a fluctuating price tag, but "as people are opening up their budgets, they're buying function over cost," Biron says.

Enduring Trend Have clients that want promotional recipients to wear branded shirts longer than ever? Some industry veterans would argue that giving them a T-shirt made of wicking material or one with UV protection will make that happen better than their 100% cotton counterparts.

But experts point to other performance fabric advantages as well. For starters, they say, performance tees have qualities that should be attractive to promotional buyers because of their longer-lasting nature. "Polyester holds its color and doesn't fade," says Mark Trotzuk, president of Boardroom Custom Clothing (asi/40705), a supplier based in Vancouver that sells only performance fabric apparel. "After 10 washes with a cotton T-shirt, it fades."

Performance tees also provide an environmental benefit to the market, Trotzuk says. Interest in cotton, he says, "is always going to be there." But performance fabrics are driving many buying decisions in the marketplace today, particularly for large corporations. Performance T-shirts, since they're made from petroleum, can be recycled and melted down to create other products when end-users are done with them.

Not to mention, performance fabrics wear better, last longer and have a higher durability factor for uniforms, industry experts insist. "If you're spending good money on a really nice piece, I'm going to sell you a durable polyester garment, because you're going to be happy after six months of use" when the item is still holding up well, Trotzuk says.

What's more, experts say, today's burgeoning youth market is increasingly interested in performance materials, particularly audiences with an active or athletic focus, reflecting a shift in cultural preferences. "Ten years ago nobody wanted any cotton/poly mixes," says Team Mates' Little. "They saw those as cheap. Nowadays they're going to polyester and nylon to a huge extent, getting away from cotton altogether. The value is that they last longer and are moisture-wicking, and that makes a huge difference to customers. It's a higher perceived value."

That increasing enthusiasm, along with a shift in price differential between cotton and performance fabrics, created what Little predicts will be a permanent, growing interest in performance gear. "A couple of years ago, cotton prices went up so much," Little says, spurring an interest in new options.

After buying and using performance fabrics as an alternative to the overly priced cotton shirt, companies began appreciating what those performance tees had to offer, he says. For suppliers and distributors re-selling the items, Little says, the appeal of performance shirts is that they provide higher margins – as much as double those of cotton tees. "There's a motivation there for distributors and suppliers to sell them," he says, adding that his company sells performance tees to cotton shirts at a three-to-one ratio.

– betsycummings23@gmail.com