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Outerwear: Get into It!

When it comes to the controversial global-warming discussion, it’s likely that every skeptic has an equal and opposite advocate with whom to argue. Regardless where the majority—and thermometer—lies, what’s not up for debate is industry-warming radiation from a promotional-outerwear market that’s never been hotter. And temperature, as it turns out, isn’t everything to jacket and fleece consumers, according to a panel of promotional-products distributors to which we put the question.

“I think higher-ticket outerwear sales will be more affected by the economy than by weather,” remarks Jeff Solomon of FreePromoTips.com. “If it’s cold, people will wear a jacket or a sweatshirt, and if they need them, they will buy them.”

But even now, when the relentless summer sun renders most regions far from cold, people prepare with outerwear.

“We sell to sports teams gearing up for fall as well as school bands and booster clubs,” Cathy Billing, Holloway Sportswear, says of who’s buying now.

With hotter temperatures on record each year, Billing forecasts an increase in performance-oriented outerwear instead of a decrease in sales. “I think we will see more moisture-management fabrics used in jacket styles,” she predicts.

Traditional to transitional

While weather status doesn’t seem to determine if the public purchases outerwear items, it does have a sway on what they’re buying. People in different regions make purchases indicative of their local weather and flavor.

Accordingly, Jetset Promotions’ Steven T. Chepokas sells Columbia polar fleece in Colorado, windshirts in California, three-piece jackets in Minnesota, and a little something new to his business down in Texas: “For markets out in Dallas,” he reports, “for some reason we’re selling a lot of khaki-type chino jackets. I’ve got an order right now for fifty-five hundred of them for a software company.”

Worn and seen over all other clothing, outerwear makes a great message medium. But beyond that, it’s a way to unify employees with out uniforming them.

In her business, Pam Franz of PJ Promotions finds clients increasingly looking to wearables to get their brand message out, while wanting to stand out at the same time.

“They want something different, something new, and no one is showing them anything new, anything different, innovative,” she says. “They don’t want the same old thing everybody else has.”

She sees her Century 21 Realty clients veering back to their trademark gold jackets and people in general going back to a corporate look and color scheme, which she defines as a higher-end quality product in particular colors.

“They’re wanting to match the corporate color scheme, kind of bringing everything into their corporate identity and branding programs,” she reports. “They want everything to work together so that anyone who comes into their office or sees one of their employees on the street knows, ‘Oh, that’s where they’re from, that’s their colors.’ It’s more people building a corporate identity and including clothing in it now, whereas before it was just giveaways with their logos and printed materials.” 

Because the price tag is steeper than that of most giveaway garments, Chepokas believes more companies buy jackets as internal items, but also sees a market for business affiliates who may be interested in donning the brand, too.

“In most cases a lot of these companies have not only their internal office staff and sales force, but they have a dealer and a distributor base as well,” Chepokas comments. “So we’ve been able to create websites, company stores with wearables.”

Being pricier in a receding economy, it might seem as though jackets are in jeopardy. But, says Chepokas, people are buying jackets more than ever before and, as part of the greater wearables category, outerwear is impermeable to more than just weather these days.

Everybody’s asking for jackets. If I have one more person tell me how bad the economy is, I’m going to knock ‘em out,” Chepokas laughs.

He tells us that, consistent with recent industry trend findings, 2007 was very profitable—the best his business has ever recorded—and he’s confidently on pace to beat those numbers this year.

“I believe we are in a recession-proof business, and here’s my twist on it: When all these businesses are laying-off employees, what else are they doing?”

Companies, he answers, head back to square one and buy a lot of product to perpetuate their brand and keep their name in front of consumers.

“And when the companies are doing great, making a ton of money, guess what? They’re still pumping that brand,” he adds. “They’re working more trade shows and giving away more stuff.”

Creativity thrilled the cat

Though outerwear is in demand, our sources encourage inventive thinking from embellishers offering jackets and fleece. They mention laser-etching—a process by which an immaculate image is almost magically burned into a garment—as a cutting-edge up-and-comer on the decoration front. The downside to this newer technology is that customers may not be able to get the colors they’re after. Even so, Chepokas and Franz keep their offerings fresh by continuing to introduce laser etching to their clients.

“I think it’s a fabulous way to decorate,” Franz asserts. “If you wanted to do something a little more subtle, it would draw attention just because it’s a different technology.”

While colors are compromised, laser etching compensates by taking images over seams and zippers, up legs, down arms, and more cost-effectively across larger areas than with embroidery, Franz reports: “The laser etching allows them more locations, a bigger imprint area, so you’ve got more advertising.”

As part of her sales strategy, Franz demonstrates this and other unique decorations because sometimes, she says, embellishment itself has the power to change a customer’s mind: “A lot of times it’s the decorating that sells the product.”

Because she values embellishment as a strong selling point, Franz hopes to forge a relationship with an imager willing to accompany her to sales presentations and work directly with clients creatively to better meet their embellishment needs.

Another mutually-beneficial means of exposure she suggests is that embellishers exhibit at regional promotional-products association shows because, in her experience, local embroiderers and screen printers are hard to find.

“If they would get a booth at a show to showcase their wears and the work that they do, it would make them more known to us, the distributors,” Franz suggests. “I’m a touchy feely kind of person. I want to look at it, and it’s hard to do when you’re just talking over the phone and they don’t have a showroom available for you to visit.”

However outwear styles make their way across shoppers’ eyes, through their fingers, and into their budgets, both Franz and Chepokas encourage salespeople to buy into their offering, literally.

“I’m a firm believer in investing in the products and buying them in all the different sizes and colors,” comments Chepokas. “It’s a little more expensive that way, but when you get the product in front of them and they can touch it and feel it and try it on, I can guarantee you that they’ll step outside their T-shirt box and start thinking, ‘Hey, it’s not always eighty degrees and sunny.’ ”

Similarly, Franz purchases and puts styles to the test, washing and wearing them before passing them along to her clients. “If I know from experience how things wash up, how they wear, how they feel, I push the qualities of those products and try to sell based on that,” she reveals. “And that works.”

Throwing in a loss leader such as a yoked, vented windbreaker, and arriving at your sales presentation with a few extras never hurts either, Chepokas adds. “You show up with a dozen cookies and a container of Starbucks coffee and you really get their interest,” he chuckles.

The ins of outerwear

With some sales strategies at hand, decorators offering outerwear can further bolster business with a few styles and considerations in tow.

According to Jeff Solomon, jackets are a natural fit for corporate clients and, while this market trends toward dressier styles, Franz finds conglomerates all over the map.

“I work for national corporations and the typical baseball jackets are a hit,” she states, still scratching her head as to why.

The construction world, however, is more specific, demanding durable and distinctive workwear, including fleece, Carhartt and baseball-type jackets, Franz points out.

What not to offer? She says jackets and fleece with elastic arms and/or hips are out, with buyers instead opting for open or adjustable products.

“I think with so many body types,” she reasons, “it’s just easier to fit people, and they’re not as constricting. I don’t even remember the last time I sold a jacket or fleece with elastic around the waist.”

Another tendency left behind: established embellishment placement. “Location on the garment has traditionally been left chest,” Chepokas states. “I try to break people out of that mold and get them to consider the sleeve or the cuff or the back because, after all, a lot of people don’t like wearing an obnoxious left-chest billboard, especially if it’s a gift from another company.”

Holloway’s Billing cites customer requests for small back logos slightly below the collar as another newer stitch locale.

With jackets for every season and buyers for every jacket, these all-around garments can be year-round successes. What better way is there than outerwear to help people represent their region, group, workplace or self in style?