The sheer numbers alone are impressive. Apparel accounted for 26.5% of all distributor revenues last year. Translated to dollar amounts, that means distributor companies generated $5.4 billion (with a B) in revenues last year solely from apparel.
That kind of dominant product category can only mean that the items are versatile enough to appeal to an extremely wide variety of buyers. From purchasers of all ages and promotional recipients of every demographic to practically every economic sector and type of company, apparel is appealing to just about everybody.
Why? Utility. The more a promotional product gets used by its intended audience, the greater impressions that advertisers get. For many buyers, they gravitate toward apparel because it gets worn repeatedly and stays in consumers’ closets for months and even years.
And the promotional applications for apparel are also varied. In the following case studies, you’ll find a program in five different markets that all used apparel. From a school, a restaurant and a nonprofit to a trucking company and even a live event, each of the following stories show off the versatility of the apparel category.
Looking for a profitable sector to pitch promotional apparel to? Think schools and the many organizations and programs that are managed through those schools. Heads Up Specialties (asi/222424), based in Barrington, IL, is one distributor that has certainly been able to capitalize on the spiritwear market in its area.
“Once we realized how significant and profitable this business was, we started spending on technology to make it more efficient and to be able to offer better customer service,” says Dan Paxton, president of Heads Up. “For the past three years, we’ve offered each school client its own website where parents can actually purchase (items) using credit cards.
“We invested heavily in building our own order management system because it was simply impossible to process this many clients without it. Before we had the system, it would take us hours just to be able to place the blank clothing orders for a single school. Now, with our system, this process takes about two seconds.”
Heads Up Specialties is averaging a 35% gross profit margin on its spiritwear orders, including a recent order for a 2,500-student high school.
“Because of our success and visibility in the community, the local high school boosters club came to us in the summer and asked if we wanted to sell them the items that they would in turn sell at the football games,” Paxton says. “At the same time they asked us if we would carry the same items in our retail store and on our website so that people wanting high school football spiritwear would have three options of how they can get this apparel.”
What started out as a modest $8,000 order turned into about a $20,000 sale, as the high school ordered jackets made by Holloway Sportswear (asi/61430) for booster club members, shirts from Bella that included screen-printed transfer logos for players, and fashion-forward apparel for players’ moms.
“The jackets themselves were all embroidered. There was a specific women’s shirt – one that had a vinyl sparkle decoration and another had a two-color vinyl decoration. So, one glitzy and one not,” Paxton says.
From there, word of mouth became the best marketing strategy that Heads Up could employ. “As other high-school sports boosters saw how well this was working, they approached us to set up the same type of programs for them,” Paxton says. “So far, baseball, soccer and basketball teams have asked for programs. And from this, we started a relationship with the cheerleading squad for their spiritwear.”
In their fourth year targeting the spiritwear market, Heads Up Specialties has earned about $250,000 in revenue while doing business with more than 70 schools.
“It seems to me that the important message to distributors here is something like: If you’re struggling to add or maintain revenue, consider adding spiritwear because with the right approach, there is a ton of it to be had, and at 35% gross margin, it is very profitable,” he says. “And these same school clients cross over to our original distributor business, as once we become the school’s spiritwear provider, lots of other orders come our way.”
Nonprofit Money Maker
Apparel can often be the vehicle that raises money for an important cause. In fact, nonprofits tend to be big buyers of apparel for their fundraising efforts. Such was the case when a young teacher tragically died in a boating accident in July. Working to help develop a nonprofit in the teacher’s name, a local construction company contacted its promotional products partner, Accent Promotional Products (asi/102804), to help them begin a scholarship fund.
“As other high-school sports boosters saw how well this was working, they approached us to set up the same type of programs for them.” Dan Paxton, Heads Up
Schnieder Construction wanted the memory of 33-year-old Melissa Protz, a junior high teacher and die-hard Green Bay Packers fan, to be commemorated in a T-shirt, as a relative of Protz’s was a Schnieder employee.
“They wanted to develop a charitable foundation and start it by selling T-shirts,” says Accent owner Mike Schiller. “I asked them if they could come up with a ballpark idea of what they wanted to print, so they sent me a rough drawing. I sent it to my graphic designer, and she fine-tuned it down to something they were fond of.”
For the shirt itself, Schiller decided on SanMar’s Sport-Tek 100% polyester tee in green and gold to honor Protz’s love for the Packers. T-shirt proceeds go to the Melissa Protz Scholarship Fund.
With help from Chris Dahle of Identity Designs and Dave Eijl of Elgin Print Shop, Accent created a three-color left chest and a three-color full back logo.
The shirts are helping spread the word about Protz’s foundation in an organic way.
“Someone along the way came up with the idea of a kind of ‘Show us your Melissa Adventure.’ Pictures of people wearing Melissa shirts doing any adventure were shared online,” Schiller says.
So far, about 350 shirts – including a handful of long-sleeve shirts, as well as navy-colored shirts for Chicago Bears fans who also wanted to honor Protz’s memory – have been created for a total of about $4,000.
Live Event Shines With Shirt
For the 2014 Halloween-themed Monster Dash run, founder and director Benjie Harmon decided to go with Hanes/Champion (asi/59528) for its October run in Bowling Green, KY.
“The choice of apparel, and specifically of a performance T-shirt, was a natural fit for the Monster Dash because our experience is that runners want shirts from races as a way to celebrate their accomplishments,” says Harmon on why he chose Hanes Cool DRI shirts for his most recent slate of races in Kentucky.
The Cool DRI shirts are a four-ounce, 100% polyester selection with moisture-wicking and drying features, along with a 50+ UPF rating and a tag-free neck label. Each of the nearly 1,000 shirts in unisex, women’s and youth styles that were ordered for the 2014 runs were screen-printed on the front and back.
“The challenge is that runners are very particular about their shirts,” Harmon says. “Quick-drying, lighter-weight shirts are what’s most popular with this audience. I’m a runner and I know how important it is to get a good, quality T-shirt from a race. It makes all the difference.”
The Monster Dash event is actually a set of four different events – a Monster Crawl for kids, a 1 Mile Fun Walk, a 5K and a 10K.
“With all of these different races, we get a mix of non-runners, first-time, recreational runners as well as more experienced, competitive participants,” Harmon says. “We have youth, families, college students and retirees all participating, so finding a shirt style that satisfies all of these age groups is key.”
Along with it being lightweight and having performance features, Harmon says another crucial aspect of a great shirt for a race event is participants’ desire to wear it when the race is done.
“As a race director, I want to make sure that everyone who participates in our event receives a shirt that they will wear again and again,” he says. “Not only is a great shirt the perfect race souvenir, it’s also a fantastic way to keep promoting my event in the months and even years to come. Recently, I was running in a race at Disney World and saw several other participants wearing their Monster Dash T-shirts from our event. Talk about awesome advertising.”
A combination of substandard service and ambiguous apparel from a competitor helped Steve Flaughers earn an order from Hino Trucks, a company whose business he had been coveting for some time.
“I’d actually tried to get my foot in the door with them three years ago,” says Flaughers, owner of Proforma Hyde Brothers Printing and Marketing, (asi/300094).
“The vendor they had must have gotten really relaxed with them. He’s maybe five minutes from this place and he ordered in roughly 100 blank T-shirts from SanMar (asi/84863), and not only did he mark up the cost of the t-shirts, but he charged the customer $1.50 per shirt to deliver the shirts. The owner wasn’t happy, so that’s always a good opportunity.”
Hino needed a new batch of fleece jackets for its employees by November. But, they didn’t just need a traditional kind of fleece. They needed a practically custom piece that Flaughers knew he’d have to do some digging to find.
“They needed to look good, they needed to make sure they weren’t walking off with someone else’s jacket, and the third part of the issue is the zipper pulls were scratching the new paint on these trucks,” Flaughers says. “Obviously they wanted the fleece jacket, but they needed to make sure the pull tabs were rubber and the actual zipper itself was protected by the fleece so it didn’t scratch the paint on the truck.
“We went in and explained who we are and what we do. The Hino contact said, ‘This is the kind of jacket we want to use and we need to have these as soon as possible because it’s getting cold.’”
Flaughers supplied Hino with 150 fleece jackets through Ash City, which was recently acquired by alphabroder (asi/34063). The jackets included plastic, scratch-free zipper pulls and each employee’s initials on the front right chest in a black-on-black tone. The total order cost was about $6,000.
“Up close, there’s no doubt who has whose jacket,” Flaughers says, adding Hino was so satisfied with the end result that they’re likely to order from him again.
Ultimately, Flaughers says, this trucking company uses promotional apparel in a variety of ways for uniforms throughout the year – something that his company will be able to capitalize on moving forward.
“The cool part about it is now that we have their logos and what they want down to a science – they do a spring order and that’s when we get into the polo shirts, and a little bit later in the summer they do T-shirts for the temp people on staff.”
The jacket order has also helped Flaughers earn some of Hino’s print business for an upcoming milestone celebration.
“For their 1,500th semi-truck that rolls off the assembly line, they’ll do full-color banners,” he says. “We’ll be able to provide that.”
Wearables on the Menu
According to Kathy Paganini, the key to penetrating the restaurant industry is to give employees something that makes sense when the kitchen temperature gets turned up.
“They want to have apparel that is on the rather cool side,” says Paganini, owner of KP Promotions (asi/244441). “For example, a cook would not wear a shirt that is 100% polyester because it does not breathe and it’s extremely hot in the kitchen over a grill.”
Paganini won the business of a café in Northern California that includes three locations and a corporate office. All it took was a cold call to the owner, along with an explanation of what her supplier partner, ChefWorks, (asi/44705), had to offer.
“I think the reason I do business with her is I give her options and she likes that, and she is very particular on what she orders,” Paganini says. “She knows what she wants and will not settle for anything less.”
The café’s most recent order from KP Promotions included 288 cook shirts, 190 aprons and 65 chef coats – all provided by ChefWorks – for a total of $24,427. Women’s chef coats were 100% cotton, while unisex coats and cook shirts were a 65%-35% poly-cotton blend. The aprons were 17% polyester and 83% cotton.
“The T-shirts and sweatshirts were screen-printed one color left chest. The chef coats were embroidered left chest with the logo and employee’s names,” Paganini says, adding that the aprons and cook shirts were blank.
Paganini says she has developed a good rapport with this café and others by taking the time to dine there and getting to know the owners. The key, she says, is finding out exactly what they’re looking for and then researching products to provide options. Ultimately, if you provide good-better-best options to restaurant clients in the type of apparel that they want, then you’ll be in a good position to win their business – and possibly upsell the order by showing the high quality nature of the “best” options. Let clients see and feel the apparel items, so they can make educated buying decisions.
– Shane Dale is an AZ-based freelance writer.