Wearables Business

Accessories a way to heat up sales this winter

Accessories a way to heat up sales this winter

Byline: Brian Anderson

Window companies do a lot of advertising. There are probably at least 10 different replacement window companies with substantial advertising budgets in any major city in the country where winter temperatures regularly tend to dip below freezing.

This fall, window ads have been making a big deal about how dramatically rising natural gas prices will inflate home heating bills this winter, so homeowners need to make their houses more energy-efficient by installing new double- or triple-paned windows.

With the fierce competition in the replacement window business, I would venture to say that prospective customers might be swayed to spend a few thousand dollars on new windows from a company that gave them a logoed blanket, scarf, or hat along with a message saying something like, “If you don’t replace your windows, you’re going to need this to stay warm this winter.”

Just an idea from someone who is in the market for new windows, but that seems like a natural industry to target with useful, inexpensive products like winter accessories. This is a growing little seasonal niche, according to reports from the ever-growing number of suppliers who are offering winter accessories.

They make great holiday gifts for employees, vendors or clients, or are terrific as fund-raising items for extracurricular school activities. Sell them alone; sell them as add-ons. Whatever you do, don’t forget about all the little accessories that can help your clients keep the cold at bay while promoting a company or product in a slightly non-traditional way.

Sure, people are used to seeing corporate logos on the left chest of a jacket. But think of how it will be noticed when they see a catchy logo on a scarf, a headband, or even a pair of mittens or gloves.

These are the types of useful, low-cost wearables we are talking about as winter accessories. Typically made out of fleece or occasionally knit fabrics, they are also one-size-fits-all items, so you don’t have to worry about any sizing headaches.

A young but growing niche

This niche category really started showing up on the promotional products industry radar screen in the mid-1990s, according to Aqua Sheen Vice President Tracy Zobel, CAS. That’s when three suppliers – Sportsmaster, Aqua Sheen and Precision Line, Zobel says, first brought polarfleece hats, scarfs, gloves, headbands and more to the market.

While Aqua Sheen and Sportsmaster still feature a great deal of winter accessories, mousepad specialist Precision Line no longer offers its Northwest Angle fleece line, originally introduced as “Cold Barrier” fleece in 1995 before a 1998 name change.

Troy, N.Y.-based Sportsmaster first added accessories at the same time the company started offering Polartec fleece jackets years ago. “The accessories have really taken off since then and keeps growing,” says Marketing Manager Alison Arakelian. “They are great to give away to a small or large group and can be easily decorated make it a great winter product.”

While Miami-based Aqua Sheen is often thought of for its umbrellas and rain ponchos, Zobel says the company sells “a ton” of fleece products. The company has offered fleece for about 8 years, and the category has grown every year.

“The fleece business has been a fun business for us,” Zobel says. “We manufacture here ourself, so we can be attentive to our customers.”

Now, why does a supplier based out of a tropical location like Miami manufacture fleece winter accessories? “No one steals anything here. If we were in the Northeast, they’d be walking away with it every night,” Zobel says, tongue firmly in cheek.

Aqua Sheen actually decided to try winter accessories in the promotional market because other divisions of the company, which cater to the college bookstore and women’s catalog houses – manufactured outerwear that started with fleece linings and soon included fleece shells. “Why don’t we try some accessories?” Zobel says was the feeling at Aqua Sheen.

They tried blankets and scarfs, and each item they introduced did well in the promotional market, with blankets being “by far” the top seller.

Zobel says the TV blanket Aqua Sheen introduced in 2002 “has just been phenomenal for us.” The blanket features a pocket for a remote control that is also ideal for decorating, but he says the real selling point has been the blanket’s unique foot pocket which really makes it a cozy item for lounging in front of the television or while reading a book.

“The only problem,” Zobel says of blanket products, “is blankets have become so ridiculously competitive. They’ve really become more of a commodity. The prices seem to drop every week.

“We’re selling a lot of blankets, but you’ve got to sell twice as much to make the same amount of money,” Zobel adds.

That makes it tough on suppliers of blankets, but makes it that much easier for distributors to sell these useful items that are generally received by end users very enthusiastically.

At Sportsmaster, Arakelian says blankets are the company’s top-selling accessory.

“This year we added an inexpensive blanket to our mix of accessories. We found that there were a lot of bids out there for a less-expensive blanket and have been happy so far with the response we have received.”

End uses endless

Much of the appeal of winter accessories is that they offer a quick, easy way to get a company’s logo out there, and gives the end user a product that is really useful, Arakelian says, especially when cold weather is coming.

“We see all types of end users using accessories from banks, schools, to soft drink companies,” says Arakelian.

Lakeside Mills, a Duluth, Minn.-based supplier that saw an opportunity with fleece accessories for the promotional market in the latter half of the 1990s, sells a lot of them for uses such as product introductions.

“Especially with pharmaceutical companies,” says Lakeside’s Lori Anderson. She also mentions holiday gifts, giving them as thank-you gifts to clients from professions such as real estate agents, and hotels and casinos using them as incentives as other potential end uses for winter accessories. She adds that sometimes they are used as part of a package – for example, a hat, thermos, and some other totally unrelated product are packaged together in a promotion.

The holiday season, for obvious reasons, is prime selling season for winter accessories in the promotional market, and fleece sales stay strong through February, says Aqua Sheen’s Zobel.

Fleece equals warmth

As it has been since the mid-1990s, polarfleece remains the fabric of choice for winter accessories. As consumers equate fleece with warmth, it has been the perfect fabric for accessories. While some suppliers offer higher-end products made from Polartec 200 fleece by Malden Mills, many offer lower-priced versions of polarfleece that make accessories extremely affordable.

“We do use a lot of Polartec for our accessories, and that is still very popular,” says Sportsmaster’s Arakelian. “We have also added less-expensive fleece accessories to fit more budgets and this has pleased a lot of our customers. They are just able to offer more options to their customers.”

Augusta Sportswear’s accessories are made of what it calls “Chill Fleece,” a polyester fleece that Marketing Director David Stacks says “is one of those fabrics that can keep you comfortable and warm even in the coldest climates.”

The Augusta, Ga.-based supplier introduced its first Chill Fleece outerwear items several years ago. “By 2001, we had five basic pieces – mostly vests and jackets as well as our Chill Fleece Gaiter Cap. From there, we added youth styles and we began offering the accessories: caps, scarves and blankets. For 2004, we have 13 items including our new Chill Fleece Beanie,” Stacks says.

“Most of our Chill Fleece accessories have sprung from the basic gaiter and pull-on caps that we introduced in 2001. From there, we’ve added two other headwear pieces – the beanie and the Chill Fleece Headband/Earband, which we debuted in 2003,” Stacks says. “As you can see, these accessories are mostly to keep your head, neck and ears warm during cold weather. They’re suitable for skiwear and playing in the snow as well as for the kids waiting outdoors for the school bus on winter mornings.”

Chill Fleece is “competitively priced,” which Stacks says has helped make these items successful.

“An example is the headband/earband, which we sell in the range of $1.50 per piece. If you’re a distributor and your customer is buying 100 of Augusta Sportswear’s Chill Fleece Pullovers, try upselling him 100 matching headbands. Coordinating the colors is simple. And experienced decorators can handle these kinds of accessories pretty easily.”

Stacks says promotional products distributors have come to rely on Chill Fleece as a reliable fabric for “upsellable” products like caps, scarves, and headbands.

“We’re also adding lots of new colors like purple, maroon and gold. Having a range of colors in stock increases your chances of selling that add-on piece,” Stacks says. “When customers find out you have Chill Fleece basics and accessories in nine colors, it’ll be a lot easier for you to pitch your sales program.”

A recent alternative to polarfleece accessories is sweatshirt fleece, something Bay Shore, N.Y.-based supplier MV Sport has had a lot of success with in the last year or two.

MV Sport’s Sweatshirt Blanket, Sweatshirt Scarf, and Sweatshirt Pillow offer an ideal surface for screenprinting, something that is difficult as best for most decorators to accomplish on polarfleece.

The combination of this lower-cost decorating option and MV Sport’s innovative packaging solutions have combined to create successful accessory products for the supplier and distributors alike.

At Lakeside Mills, the entire line is centered on winter accessories, primarily made from polarfleece. Included are several blanket styles, scarfs, neck gaiters, headbands, and a large variety of headwear – from classic knit caps to fleece beanies and berets and even “wacky wear” – a selection of unusual, fun, attention-grabbing styles like jester hats and three point donkey tails.

Anderson says the most popular styles, however, tend to be the basics such as the classic beanie. “Beanies are still rather popular. They have been for a couple of years. They are the most traditional, most universal in style, and price is lower than some of the more complicated styles,” Anderson says.

Knits are cool

While no one would argue that fleece is the top dog as far as winter accessory fabrics are concerned, knits are making a comeback, and many suppliers have bulked up their offerings in knits in response to the trend.

Lakeside has added a variety of interlock knit and acrylic jersey knit headwear recently, including a twill beret and a knit beanie.

Aqua Sheen is getting into knits as well, bringing out its first knit hat and scarf in October. “If they do well, we’ll bring in more knit items,” Zobel says.

“Fleece will never go away. Knit hats did go away for 3 or 4 years, but there’s been a real resurgence of the knits because they’re tighter, and they’re able to do more designing in them,” Zobel adds.

The knit cap trend has been growing recently as an urban trend, with the young skateboard/snowboard crowd wearing them as have celebrities such as Eminem and Kid Rock.

While he admits it is more of a “young person’s cap,” Zobel says these hats have “absolutely and positively” found their way into corporate America as they are lightweight, promotional types of caps.

Whether its knits or fleece, distributors have never had more choices for winter accessories, and prices have never been better. That combination can make this little category a gold mine for the PPD who works it.

Brian Anderson is Senior Managing Editor of Wearables Business.

Suppliers mentioned in this article:

Augusta Sportswear: 800-237-6695 Aqua Sheen: 800-327-5134 Lakeside Mills: 888-723-1775 MV Sport: 800-367-7900 Sportsmaster: 800-227-1056

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