Buyer's View

Firsthand Buying Habits From Clients In 4 Popular Niche Markets

Firsthand buying habits from clients in four popular niche markets.

Fashion can be fleeting. The most popular styles of today can be gone tomorrow, and the most popular styles of yesterday can even make comebacks years down the line. But, buyers of promotional apparel have more definitive – and often, long-lasting – needs.

Of course, depending on the market these buyers are in, their desires can vary greatly. With that in mind, we asked specific clients from four different niche markets –education, health care, nonprofits and hospitality – exactly what they look for when they're purchasing apparel for their employees and customers.

Check out what they had to say.

Apparel Q and A

Market Snapshot: When it comes to promotional apparel, schools offer big business for the ad specialty industry. More than half (55%) of distributors say education is a top market for selling apparel, according to ASI's Wearables Sales Forecast survey for 2013. In 2011, schools and universities accounted for 11.1% ($2.05 billion) of total distributor revenue, which includes apparel and other products.

Industry Insider: Rebecca George

Position: Athletic Director, Palisades School District, Kintnersville, PA

How They Use Apparel: In her position, George is in charge of purchasing uniforms for the district's various school teams. She has no shortage of responsibility in that department. Palisades students participate in everything from football and field hockey, to basketball, baseball, track and cross country. The uniforms are purchased on a five-year rotating cycle, so one year it's football's turn, and the next it may be softball's. What do her students and coaches want? "They're looking for what's in, the latest uniform styles," says George, noting recently-purchased baseball uniforms featured sharp fitted caps and pants that stretch well below the knee, as is common among the pros.

With an interest in durable, quality-designed, lightweight items that allow for movement and breathability, Palisades routinely purchases name-brand gear like Russell and Nike. Performance features, such as moisture wicking, are a must. "It's about getting quality at the best possible price," says George.

In addition to team uniforms, Palisades' booster club buys T-shirts, hooded sweatshirts, caps and more. Typically embellished with the school's logo, the apparel and accessories may reflect collegiate casual wear styles, which appeal to student and parent end-users. Fashion trends have also influenced the types of apparel the booster club buys. Yoga and pajama pants, for example, have proved popular. George says pre-ordering is essential. "We don't want to have to carry inventory."

What Schools Want From Vendors: "I want them to be organized," says George. "To communicate well. To get the uniforms here on time. And, especially in this economic climate, I want the best deal. I'm always looking to stretch the dollar." George typically solicits bids from several vendors in an effort to secure the lowest price for uniforms.

While cost is clearly important, George also desires expert advice. Distributors should be able to offer insights about the latest trends in team wear. "I'll ask them what other schools are buying," George says. Additionally, she wants feedback on how to make the uniforms look as good as possible. Some vendors, for example, have impressed George by suggesting ways to present school colors in uniforms with the most eye-catching pop. "We've received good advice about color schemes," she says. "That's helpful."

Market Snapshot: Health care is a hot niche for distributors. In 2011, the health-care market accounted for nearly 12% of total distributor revenues – or, about $2.2 billion. And, given growth projections in the field, business could be good for years to come. Consider that between 2010 and 2020, the health care and social assistance sector is projected to add 5.6 million jobs, more than any other sector, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

Industry Insider: Sharon Fields

Position: Vice President of Marketing, Halpern Eye Care, Dover, DE

How They Use Apparel: Halpern buys logoed performance polo shirts for the company's 145 employees to wear as uniform pieces. Fields, who is in charge of purchasing apparel and other promotional products, says the moisture-wicking shirts help staffers maintain a professional look and keep employees happy because they are comfortable and easy to maintain. "They're basically wash-and-wear, and the material lasts longer," Fields says.

Buying shirts that run between $28 and $30, Halpern makes available different performance styles, including short sleeves, long sleeves and three-quarter sleeves. To adhere to the corporate color scheme in the Halpern logo, the shirts typically come in white, a light blue and a darker blue. Employees are provided with three shirts, but can order more.

Embroidered with Halpern's logo on the left chest, the employee shirts serve as a marketing tool. "It's great PR for us," Fields says. "When we're out and about and the employees are wearing their shirts, someone always stops and asks about Halpern because of the logo."

In addition to staff shirts, Halpern buys apparel for employees to wear to various events and outreach efforts in which it is involved. The eye-care company also purchases apparel for special internal functions, such as company parties. Says Fields: "We recently had a summer picnic and got team T-shirts for everyone."

What Health-Care Clients Want From Vendors: Distributors should provide services that make their clients' lives easier, says Fields. A distributor she currently works with comes through on that account by providing a website through which employees can order apparel and expertise on what to order. "It's an easy tool for us to administer," says Fields. "I'll say I'm looking for a certain material in certain colors, and he always finds something."

Market Snapshot: The number of registered nonprofits increased 19% between 1999 and 2009, and there are currently about 1.6 million such organizations in the country, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics. In 2010, public charities, which comprise more than 1 million of all nonprofits, had revenues of $1.51 trillion and expenses of $1.45 trillion. Accounting for 6.5% of total distributor revenues last year, nonprofits spent $1.2 billion on advertising specialties, including apparel.

Industry Insider: Heather Morgan

Position: Communications Manager, Children's Home Society of Florida, Winter Park, FL

How They Use Apparel: The Children's Home Society of Florida is on a noble mission: Protect and heal abused children, build and strengthen families and rescue and embrace teens struggling to survive on their own. To be successful, the nonprofit must raise awareness with the public and keep more than 1,800 employees energized and motivated. Decorated apparel helps on both fronts.

As part of an annual employee appreciation week, CHSFL gives T-shirts to employees. Typically printed with the organization's logo on the front, the T-shirts are a well-received reward that helps keep morale high. "Getting the shirts is a nice gift for everyone," says Morgan, noting CHSFL last year designed a shirt for its 109th anniversary that employees bought in droves. "Everyone is proud of the work we do. They often wear the shirts out, so that gives us great exposure in the community. The shirts are a great way to help us educate people about what we do."

CHSFL also uses apparel as an incentive in its "Champions for Children" program, which seeks to enlist people who'll raise funds and educate the public about abused and neglected children. If, for example, a participant raises $1,000, he gets a "Champions" T-shirt. Should he raise $5,000, then a Clique golf shirt from Cutter & Buck (asi/47965) featuring fine embroidery is the reward. Not only do the apparel awards motivate participants, but they also propel the cycle of awareness. "People are proud to wear the shirts and that leads to more exposure," says Morgan.

What Nonprofits Want From Vendors: Since obtaining quality apparel at a cost-effective price is essential, CHSFL may solicit bids from several vendors when it comes time to make a purchase. "Because we're a nonprofit," says Morgan, "it's important that we make every dollar count." Nonetheless, service matters, too, she says. Andrew Seferlis, a senior promotions specialist at LogoGram (asi/255247), does an excellent job by finding apparel that meets CHSFL's tastes and price points – and by going the extra mile with service and advice. Says Morgan: "He'll come before and after business hours. He shows us different types of shirts so we can see and feel the material. He'll make recommendations on screen printing or embroidery. If we send him a logo and he doesn't think it will embroider well, he'll give us professional feedback on what will work."

Market Snapshot: Moody's Analytics predicted 2013 hotel income would grow at a 4.4% pace by year's end, something not seen since 2006. Plus, by the end of 2014, the hospitality sector is predicted to complete a 17% increase in wage and salary employment, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

Industry Insider: Patti Kiesendahl

Position: Decorator at Woodloch Pines Resort, Hawley, PA

How They Use Apparel: Logoed apparel is an essential component of Woodloch's business. From its gift shops, the nationally-recognized lakeside resort sells an array of branded clothing for everyone from babies to senior citizens. During the height of the summer tourist season, Woodloch may sell $10,000 to $15,000 worth of apparel in a week, says Kiesendahl, who spearheads apparel purchasing.

T-shirts, polo shirts, caps, sweatshirts, sweatpants, backpacks, beachcomber bags and winter beanies are some of the items Woodloch retails to guests. Creating the right designs and using appropriate decoration methods are crucial to appealing to the different age groups, says Kiesendahl. She notes that polo shirts with embroidered left-chest logos are attractive to more senior guests, while the younger crowd looks for funkier on-trend designs, such as vertical imprints on the legs of sweatpants.

"We try to put our personality into our designs and make that appeal to all of our guests," says Kiesendahl, who notes typical T-shirts retail for $18.95 while the average sweatshirt sells for $42.95 to nearly $50. Caps range from $19.95 to $29.95.

Beyond procuring clothing to sell to customers, Woodloch also buys staff apparel. This includes left-chest embroidered Nike polo shirts worn by wait staff and gift shop employees. "They wear well and they last," Kiesendahl says of the shirts.

For Woodloch, the investment in apparel is about more than generating a profit through retail sales and projecting a positive image through staff clad in name-brand gear. It's also about attracting new visitors. "We feel very strongly that quality apparel that represents us well is great for marketing," says Kiesendahl. "If someone who stayed here is back home and walking down the street wearing one of our shirts, someone is going to ask them, ‘What's Woodloch?' That spreads the word."

What Resorts Want From Vendors: Attention to detail and follow-up. Kiesendahl routinely works with two vendors who are efficient and responsive from the initial order discussions through artwork approval to final fulfillment. Critically, the orders arrive on time. "From start to finish it takes a month on average," Kiesendahl says. Contrast that with another vendor with which Kiesendahl has struggled. That company has lost orders and failed to follow up, sometimes compelling Woodloch to call to find out what's going on with its apparel. "You reach a point where you're ready to weed them out," Kiesendahl says.

E-Mail:; Twitter: @ChrisR_ASI