If the entire decorated-apparel industry was charted along a hierarchy based solely on price point, jackets and fleece would appear somewhere near the top. And while the economy has, no doubt, taken its toll on items represented at every rung along the way, this category has not only survived, but succeeded, with some interesting adaptations and emerging niches Printwear explores here.
Against the (economic) elements
Tri-Mountain’s Danny Tsai says that even in our inclement economic climate over the last couple years, the jackets and fleece category is hanging in, as buyers are refusing to shed outer layers for more promotionally-priced items. “You would think that end users might downgrade from a jacket to shirt, but they still bought jackets and fleece, just lower price-point pieces,” Tsai remarks.
Terry Chen of Landway agrees that this segment has held up, but says that in 2009, the company actually saw an increase in its $25 wholesale jacket, with a decrease in its everyday $10 nylon jackets. “The ironic thing about it is that folks have been looking for higher-end wearables despite shrinking budgets,” Chen comments. “The thinking is, if we have limited budget, we better make sure we find a quality jacket that lasts.”
In the specialized leather sector, those reduced and sometimes completely dissipated budgets have translated to a smaller average order size, according to Doug Burkett, Nucom/Burk’s Bay. He reports that, while a demand for leather is still intact, quantities that previously numbered 36 are now more like 24 or 12. Similar to Tsai’s observation, what strikes Burkett is that within a good, better, best product assortment, budgetary pressures are driving good to do better than best in recent months.
Gary Holtzman of Excelled Leather similarly mentions offering faux leather options to capture that lower-to-moderate price point of fashion outerwear. “Customers seem to be looking for something that they can wear immediately and be current in terms of fashion, but don’t have the budget,” he explains.
Holtzman also cites success at the higher end of business: “What we believe is happening is the consumer who still has money and has been overly cautious in spending of late wants to buy something. When they do, they don’t want just another something,” he points out. “They are choosing items that have some style, but not too much, and are well made so they can have them for a long time.”
Whichever end of the spectrum customers reside, Holtzman says that just sticking to the basics is a thing of the past: “Selling generic, basic jackets in volume has come to an end, perhaps especially in the leather jacket end of the outerwear market.” He reasons that, over the last couple of years, the basic black leather jacket has largely been commoditized. “I strongly believe that all of us who make customized embellished products have finally come to a transitional point since our customers and our customers’ clients are no longer enamored by a piece of apparel with a logo on it like they once were.”
Volumes of value
Raising the bar from all-too-common left-chest logo drops on stock jackets, Holtzman brings up custom, from-scratch options such as pieced leather appliqué, custom-printed linings with step-and-repeat patterns, custom woven main labels, die-cast zipper pulls and snaps, and custom-knitted cuffs to coordinate with logo colors. “When we are able to pull out all the bells and whistles, the customer still gets excited by the level of detail and the products do well,” he reports.
Today’s niche market success story has much to do with providing a product outside run-of-the-mill outerwear pieces because consumers already have—and now tend to keep—said items. “They have a regular jacket, they might like their regular jacket and, being that folks might be holding onto things a bit longer than they were a couple of years ago, they are not attracted to another regular jacket,” Holtzman points out. “So, fashion is the king of the day even though people are more cautious with their expenses. If it’s different and has some style, it gets attention.”
Getting paid plenty of attention at retail, select stylized items of the moto, bomber and varsity variety are in increased demand. Burkett says those on the wholesale side can utilize this demand through a higher-perceived value and the variety available. He brings up one such unique application in which a lawnmower manufacturing company put together a promotional program for its latest high-performance model with a racing-style jacket similar to those seen on NASCAR drivers.
The transportation industry and organizational-membership upgrades, along with incentivized service- or safety-performance awards are all great markets for leather, according to Burkett, which he says has an intrinsic quality that supports a brand’s value. And, being an item that perhaps people don’t typically buy for themselves, he adds that leather-jacket recipients are excited because of the perceived value coupled with their proud affiliation and achievement. “Leather jackets resonate, they have that appeal that clients like to be able to offer to their customers,” Burkett comments.
Tri-Mountain’s Tsai agrees that these types of promotions are effective. “Since jackets and fleece are higher price-point items, awards and recognitions seem to be a good fit,” he says.
Fall into outerwear
When the leaves come down, jacket sales go up. In preparation for this selling season, our sources let us in on what’s hot for the cooler occasions ahead. Jackets with great warmth-to-weight ratios keep wearers comfortable without being too bulky or heavy, Tsai says of one aspect to look out for. “Bonded soft shell jackets continue to be the popular choice with outerwear,” he adds.
Landway’s Chen concurs: “Bonded materials have been the big thing these last couple of years. Now you can bond wool to polyester, rayon to nylon, knits to woven and just about anything else you can think of. The obvious advantage,” he goes on, “is that you get the best of both worlds. And by adding a laminated membrane insert in between two fabrics, you get additional breathability and wind- and water-resistance.”
In terms of selling strategy, Holtzman believes buyers will need to start thinking a bit more long term, as he says almost everyone in the manufacturing business is running leaner inventories. Tsai also notes a need to build some flexibility into jacket-selling promotions: “With longer lead times because of overseas production issues, it is very important to give your customers several options if their choice is out of stock. Once your customer expresses interest in a jacket, check inventory levels with your supplier.”
Ultimately, the extra efforts should be worth their weight, as, according to Chen, jackets and fleece can find a fit within any program. “Most people get compliments on a jacket or some kind mid-layer top they wear. If you are promoting a logo or some kind of decoration, what better way than someone wearing it?” he asks. “And if it’s one of their favorite jackets, they will wear it almost daily—no cap or T-shirt can offer that kind of exposure.”