Wearables Business

Athleticwear can shape up your bottom line

Athleticwear can shape up your bottom line

Brian Anderson

Byline: Brian Anderson

The game is teamwear sales. In today’s matchup we have the underdog promotional products distributor vs. the established team dealer.

This is a contest the team dealer has won handily in the past, but the PPD is starting to become an opponent the team dealer needs to take seriously. Just as the PPD has made a sizable dent in the industrial uniform sales market recently, an increasing number of distributors are setting their sights on selling athletic apparel to schools, recreation districts, and other strongholds of the team dealer network.

“Due to the many hardships in the economy, corporate spending has decreased; hence, many promotional products distributors are looking to expand to other markets, such as the school uniforms, and the work uniforms markets,” says Christine Bordonaro, marketing coordinator at supplier Charles River Apparel.

David Stacks, marketing director at supplier Augusta Sportswear, warns that selling athletic uniforms to schools and recreation districts is a tough nut to crack for PPDs, explaining the market, in, er, a nutshell:

“Sports teamwear for local recreation leagues is sold mostly through team dealer buying networks. There are four main U.S. buying networks for team dealers and few, if any, promotional products distributors are members of any of the four. It’s a pretty tight-knit system. You can’t get into the networks unless your annual sales of sports teamwear is above a minimum threshhold that’s set by the networks. The threshhold is usually in the millions of dollars, so it’s not the kind of market that PPDs can break into quickly or easily.”

O.K., we never said it was going to be easy. But there are ways to break into the athletic uniform sales market, and enterprising distributors are finding more avenues into this market every day.

T.J. Ciaravino, vice president of athletic uniform supplier Southern Tier Athletics (STA), says that while most schools purchase uniforms from a team dealer, PPDs are becoming a realistic alternative to the team dealers.

“In the past seven years that we have been in the promotional industry, the PPDs have become much more educated on the product and they are finding the opportunities that are out there in the schools. They have been able to break into these schools and take some of the business away from the team dealers as well as build new business,” Ciaravino says.

“The schools need to buy uniforms from somebody, and it might as well be PPDs,” he continues. “The best way to get their foot in the door is to get to know the Athletic Director, or some of the coaches. They should walk right in and introduce themselves and let the school know what they now have to offer. Also, many of the PPDs already sell to bookstores in the schools, so they may want to have the buyer for the bookstore put in a good word for them with the athletic department.”

Small niches offer big opportunity

While public schools tend to have administrative channels to follow when it comes to purchasing uniforms, private schools that aren’t tied to school district policies may be easier to get a foot in the door.

“I would think that private schools might be an easier target for several reasons,” says Reed of PAW Distributors. “While they certainly shop around, they do not have to put things out for bid. Second, you are probably dealing with only one person who is in charge of purchasing gym clothes and uniforms for the entire school. And third, my guess is that payment is more timely from private schools.”

Another way to break into the school athletic uniform market is hitting some of the smaller niches for uniforms, perhaps targeting sports like lacrosse and hockey, which are often club sports not directly under the control of school athletic departments.

Keith Reed, president of supplier PAW Distributors, says lacrosse jerseys are actually his company’s top-selling uniform item.

“Club sports typically purchase a lower-priced uniform, and may require only relatively simple lettering, if any. They are less likely to want custom jerseys with multiple color lettering, for instance,” Reed says. “If the PPD can get started by supplying the low-end uniforms, they might be able to begin getting the ‘varsity’ type of caps and uniforms, too.”

You have the tools…

In spite of the tight-knit team dealer network, access to the right products is certainly no obstacle for PPDs. Industry suppliers such as STA, PAW Distributors, Augusta Sportswear, and many others carry just about any type of uniform you could possibly need to offer.

In its Sidelines catalog, STA carries uniforms for a variety of sports from brands like Wilson, Rawlings, Asics, Majestic Athletic, Athletic Knit, Brute, Cobblestones, and more. In addition to a huge collection of name-brand baseball caps, PAW Distributors has baseball, basketball, field hockey, football, hockey, and lacrosse uniforms. While Augusta carries lots of soccer and basketball styles, it covers all bases on baseball/softball uniforms by offering a wide variety of extras such as moisture-wicking Micro Tec tees and mock turtlenecks meant to be worn under jerseys.

And most of them carry all the other accessories you need to offer, such as socks, belts, shorts, caps, etc. Failing to offer those accessories can kill a sale, as teams need these items, and would often rather buy a complete package than buying the socks or caps from a different source.

Reed recommends buying a sample for sizing purposes, as well as to show the actual material. There are so many different fabrics out there for uniforms that touching the fabric can set a prospect’s mind at ease.

“It’s much easier to let your customer see and touch it than it is to describe it,” Reed says.

All the suppliers featured in this article mentioned that schools are being very price-conscious in today’s economic climate, and the manufacturers have responded by coming out with new less-expensive fabrics to accommodate their needs. Reed says PAW Distributors has received virtually no calls from PPDs with clients looking for high-end performance fabrics.

“While they seem to make sense, the additional cost makes the uniform too costly, especially with the new anti-microbial fabrics,” Reed says.

While Ciaravino says moisture-wicking fabrics are “becoming very popular, especially in running/track & field jerseys,” he adds that the schools still tend to look for that inexpensive piece.

The no-brainer is to find out at the very beginning of the process what the client’s spending limit is, and tailor your proposal to match it or even come in below it, which might be an edge against a team dealer.

But STA’s Ciaravino says to keep in mind that there are so many schools out there and there is so much business to be done that there is plenty of it to go around.

“I always tell the PPDs that it doesn’t matter if there are two team dealers and three screenprinters in your area, if you can service the account better and offer them a good value, you will get the business,” Ciaravino says.

Looking past the schools

Remember to look further than the school itself when prospecting for uniform sales. Keith Reed mentions fraternities and sororities as ideal candidates to buy uniforms from PPDs for touch football, softball, basketball, and other intramural sports.

“Also, many schools have booster clubs that sell replicas of the school jerseys for street wear,” Reed says. “Larger corporations often have a basketball or softball team, too, or participate in charity events for which they need a ‘one-time-use’ uniform. Caps are a natural for all of these, too.”

Ciaravino agrees that focusing on the corporate market can earn a PPD plenty of athletic uniform sales opportunities.

“There are so many different ways to incorporate team apparel into the corporate world. For example, you may give out a corporate football jersey at your yearly sales meeting, or you may have a corporate night at a ballpark and you want to do baseball jerseys with the corporate logo on them. Or how about a night at a basketball game and all of your company has on referee jerseys with your promotion on them? How many golf shirts can a salesman possibly wear? Why not try something different? There are endless amounts of ideas that our customers have come up and they always surprise me with new ideas,” Ciaravino says.

“Another market that is rarely hit by the team dealers is the club/recreation teams. They range from volleyball, to basketball, to softball, to even runners (marathon and corporate race events). As I stated before, there are so many different avenues that are untapped or not serviced that the PPDs can be selling this all day long.”

Brands spark warmup sales growth

A huge category in athletic/teamwear is the warmup suit, a matching jacket (or pullover) and pant combo that is being worn for much more than pre-game drills or going to and from the gym.

Thanks in large part to the surge in popularity of warmup suits at retail from brands like Nike, Adidas and Reebok, warmup suits have become a big seller in the promotional products industry, as well.

“Big brands have helped the sales of warmup suits through the promotional channel because their advertising creates an awareness of what types of jackets and pants are available,” says Charles River Apparel’s Christine Bordonaro. “The other (promotional industry) brand names that offer similar styles at a more affordable price point have become more popular due to the new awareness.”

Ken Sorkin of Acadia agrees that the retail brands have done a good job bringing warm-ups into play, but says it is difficult for end users to use the brands for school, club or corporate needs because they are, A) too costly; and B) their names often appear on the left front chest, the preferred client logo location.

Augusta’s David Stacks says the under-30 crowd hasn’t made a secret of its love for comparatively expensive branded apparel.

“That’s another reason why warmups are growing in popularity – because the big names are decorating warmups with the swoosh and other logos. But a lot of the Gen X’ers and Gen Y’ers haven’t discovered how it’s the logos that drive up the cost of branded apparel,” Stacks says. “As these two generations grow older, I’m confident they’ll learn what generations before them have learned – the virtue of shopping on a budget. As this happens, sales of warmup apparel that’s not branded will continue to grow.”

This means opportunity for PPDs, and not just for selling warmups to the school market.

“We have seen a tremendous increase in purchasing warmup suits in the corporate market,” says Bordonaro of Charles River Apparel. “Many companies are now buying warmup suits for corporate events, such as golf tournaments, team building activities, new product launches, and as a form of self-advertising for the company.”

Not just for working out

Warmup suits work very well as promotional apparel because so many people are wearing them as part of their everyday casual wardrobe.

“We have noticed several trends that support the urban crowd and the under-30 crowd wearing warmup suits more often,” says Bordonaro. “Once students leave college to enter the corporate world, ‘dressing up’ is not as important as it was in the past; corporations tend to be less formal than they were years ago. Students are carrying over these outerwear trends into the corporate marketplace.”

And while they are not necessarily wearing warmup suits to work, they are wearing them after work and on weekends because, as Acadia’s Sorkin says, “people enjoy wearing warmups for the comfort and the look.”

Augusta’s Stacks says it’s true that warmup suits are more common than they used to be, and he attributes the growth as a trickle-down from the fact that more young people are involved in organized team sports than ever before. He cites a spiked growth in the number of young people who play baseball, soccer, basketball and other team sports.

“With the growth in organized sports, naturally more young people are wearing their warmups while they’re en route to the game or the gym. And they’re still wearing them when they stop off at the supermarket or the discount store. And they’re wearing them to the park and the riverfront,” Stacks says. “So you see more of them today than ever before.”

You can thank the fashion and function of warmup pants for helping this trend along. The warmup pant style has essentially replaced the plain old sweatpant, which most people wouldn’t feel as comfortable wearing to the mall or the store as they would a warmup pant that has some style, not to mention pockets. Sorkin notes Acadia’s line includes a warmup pant style that converts into shorts by way of snaps, and another style features cargo pockets.

While a traditional sweatshirt looks fine when worn with warmup pants, it doesn’t work the other way around. Warmup jackets are fine with shorts or jeans, and obviously with coordinating warmup pants, but wearing sweatpants with a warmup jacket is a fashion faux pas.

Spiritwear something to cheer about

Another good niche for PPDs is cheerleading apparel, say Augusta’s David Stacks and Acadia’s Ken Sorkin.

“Usually every school has cheerleaders and this area is growing in leaps and bounds,” Sorkin says.

Pom squads, dance teams or cheerleaders are all candidates for a variety of uniform needs, from items like warmup suits or mock turtlenecks right down to socks, and of course bags to carry all these things.

“Spiritwear is arguably the fastest-growing sports apparel niche in the United States,” Stacks says. “Sometimes it’s called spiritwear because it also encompasses dancewear for ballet practices, dance studios, dance teams and the like.

“There are literally hundreds of cheer competitions, dozens of summer cheerleading camps, and thousands of cheerleaders from age 5 through the teen years. Every one of them needs cheer shorts, practice shirts, warmup and workout wear, anklet and megaphone socks as well as spiritwear accessories,” Stacks says.

Cheerleading is growing extremely fast in Texas, Florida, Southern California, and in large suburban areas all over the country, Stacks says, and the cheerleaders and their parents buy the apparel from a variety of sources, including PPDs.

“For PPDs, the best thing about cheer is the sports buying networks don’t have a lock on it,” Stacks says.

Brian Anderson is Senior Managing Editor of Wearables Business.

Suppliers mentioned in this article:

Acadia: 800-209-7246 Augusta Sportswear: 800-237-6695 Charles River Apparel: 800-225-0550 PAW Distributors: 800-524-0664 Southern Tier Athletics: 800-718-7222

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